In China, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about a cute, 20-year-old girl posting photos of herself on Weibo (China’s answer to Twitter), even when they feature her jet-setting around the country toting designer handbags, or sitting in the front seat of her luxury car. In her posts she called the orange Lamborghini she drives while in the southern part of the country her “little bull,” and the white Maserati she has in Beijing her “little horse.” China’s nouveau-riche are loud and proud, and have no qualms about displaying their wealth, social networking included.
But what was unusual about this particular Weibzer, called “Baby Guo Meimei” (郭美美Baby), was that she listed herself as Business General Manager of the Red Cross Society of China, the nation’s biggest charity organization. It was a detail noticed by one sharp-eyed netizen, as Chinese Internet users are called, and in pointing this out, was reposted over a thousand times in just two hours. It was one thing to be just another spoilt, materialistic rich-kid, quite another if the circumstances of your wealth came about from redirected charity funds.
Chinese netizens are swift and ruthless. Within hours they began a “human flesh search,” which utilizes the power of thousands of Internet users who scour the inevitable identity trails we all leave behind on the Internet, as well as spreading the word through their own social network, in order to search for clues that might uncover the details behind a story. It is a highly organized manhunt — think crowd-sourced detective work — and inevitably nobody can hide.
Using information Guo Meimei had registered on an automotive sales website as well as a photo album she had posted on Netease, a Chinese portal site, netizens discovered that she had previously lived in Shenzhen and Beijing where she rented, dressed and decorated her room modestly, and was using a domestic brand cell phone. And yet in less than two years she had suddenly moved into a large villa and was driving a luxury sports car. In short, she had become very, very rich, far too fast.
While Guo Meimei was quick to pull down the references to the Red Cross, claiming she’d “made it up,” unrepentant statements like “I and my family members are taxpayers. How can people attack us about how we spend our money?” only further enraged the netizens. Soon they were following her every move, snapping her photos at Beijing Airport and calling the Australian Embassy to protest any approved visa applications when rumor had it Guo Meimei would try to escape the heat by heading Down Under.
Guo Meimei’s story hit a raw nerve in China, where the gap between rich and poor seems to grow by the day. For a long stretch of time in China, poverty was the norm. You were poor, but then so was everyone else you knew. It was only in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping put in place the economic reforms that began to open the country up to the global economy, that things started to change. Migrants from the countryside were pouring into the cities and the manufacturing industries of the east coast, with the most enterprising of them playing their cards correctly, and quickly finding themselves filthy, filthy rich. Be it fact or fiction, Deng was attributed to as saying, “To get rich is glorious” (致富光荣).
But these days the rags-to-riches stories are becoming less and less common. Many netizens are preoccupied with the issue of “second generation rich” (富二代) and “second generation poor” (窮二代), in which a relatively short period of meritocratic enterprise has resettled back into Chinese nepotism. As of ancient times, it is guanxi – a word that is difficult to translate into English, but roughly means connections created through a large and highly personal social network – that rules. The Party’s oft-repeated line that the country is running on “socialism with Chinese characteristics” appears to be leaning heavily on the latter part. With the advantage sitting squarely in the hands of the powerful (party members) and the wealthy (rich businessmen) – and the two forming an alliance that is so close knit they have become impossible to distinguish from one another.
Last year the China Labour Bulletin reported that “China’s Gini Coefficient, which is an index that measures inequality, clocks in at 0.47 – very close to the 0.5 marker, which often signals risk of instability.” With society seemingly fracturing into two distinct camps – the haves, and the have-nots – many young women are disinclined to find themselves on the wrong side of the line. It has created a new culture of cynical materialism that manifests itself most clearly in the rules of romance. A couple of years ago Ma Nuo, a contestant of an extremely popular Chinese dating show caused a mini-scandal on air. In rebuffing an unemployed suitor who had invited her for a bicycle ride, she responded with the killer line: “I’d rather sit and cry in the back of a BMW.” Ma Nuo came to personify the modern Chinese woman, or at least the worst of her qualities: obsessed with wealth, and cunningly ready to do what it takes to marry into it.
Desperate bachelors unable to land a woman because they don’t own a car and house regularly pop up in news on China. As do stories and comments widely condemning another despised group of women: Er Nai (二 奶) or second wives. Second wives resemble modern-day concubines. In exchange for being a “kept woman,” they expect to be lavished with thousands of dollars in cash, designer clothes, fancy meals, overseas trips, and, in some cases, their own apartment. These secret girlfriends may be young university students from modest backgrounds who struggle to pay for their tuition fees, or girls who simply feel that in dog-eat-dog China a girl has to utilize every advantage she has.
As it turned out, Guo Meimei is not, in fact, an employee of the Red Cross Society, but rather the girlfriend of a businessman called Wang Jun. He previously worked for China Red Cross Bo’ai Asset Management Ltd. Corp., a for-profit company that does work with the Red Cross. The businessman was the source of Guo Meimei’s lavish gifts, but since handing in his resignation on June 26th, he may be forced to be a little tighter on the purse strings.
Guo Meimei’s foolish behavior seems that of someone too young and too high on the smell of new money. But what is astounding is the chain reaction her narcissistic micro-blogging has triggered. Netizens are hot on the case of uncovering corruption within the Red Cross. A recent report shows that donations to the Red Cross have dropped dramatically, with many donors giving less than 1RMB (0.15US) as a kind of “fuck you.” And as China’s most prominent humanitarian NGO, doing significant work in the areas of disaster relief, this may very well have a devastating ripple effect on philanthropy in China, which is still in its infancy.