A bizarre tale may have acted as a catalyst for destroying a great deal of goodwill towards charities, says Paul French
In most countries the undertaking of charitable endeavours or voluntary work is the hallmark of a good person, a concerned citizen, a role model. As charity work and volunteering have emerged in China in recent years, here too this has been the general impression. Examples include charity workers dashing to help victims of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, or students taking part in environmental clean-up campaigns. A sort of trust had been built in a rapidly evolving society where trust is often hard to achieve.
Sure there had been a few scandals, but this usually involved corrupt politicians and grasping local officials siphoning off donations – nothing unusual there. But the apparently selfless charity workers and the hard working volunteers were largely considered honest. Not any more it seems – and when things go wrong they go really wrong in China.
Take the case of Guo Meimei – if you can make any sense of it. Ms Guo’s lifestyle and actions have become the subject of an internet frenzy in China.
Guo, who likes to be known as Guo Meimei Baby and claims to be 20, launched a Weibo microblog feed (a sort of Chinese Twitter) flaunting her conspicuous consumption. She claimed that she was a “commercial general manager” with the Chinese Red Cross, the country’s largest official charity, with strong ties to the Communist party.
Sina, the portal that hosts her microblog, confirmed that was indeed her job. Guo appeared to have both a Maserati and a Lamborghini; she posted pictures of her collection of Hermes bags and photos of herself sipping champagne in business class while purportedly flying to her holiday villa.
Needless to say netizens thought this was not the lifestyle a “commercial general manager” of the Chinese Red Cross should be enjoying, and went ballistic. Many were already mad with the Red Cross after it surfaced recently that officials of the Shanghai branch had managed to spend $1,500 on a dinner for themselves.
Guo Meimei Baby subsequently tried to backtrack on her Red Cross credentials while clever internet searchers discovered that she appeared to be the mistress of Red Cross official, 42-year-old Wang Jun.
Red Cross cash
Things then got weirder. It was rumoured that Guo was fleeing the country to Australia with Red Cross cash. The Australian embassy in Beijing was besieged with calls demanding she be denied a visa – 600,000 people a day were posting on Weibo attacking her.
Then, yet more weird. Guo, very publicly driving around in a brand new imported Mini Cooper (which didn’t really help her case), reported to the Beijing police that she had received death threats via text messages.
The police told her she was a celebrity and that sort of thing is just part of the deal. The next day Guo released a pop song, prompting 36,000 people to immediately post that her police station visit was merely a stunt to promote her record.
Odd, funny and sometimes surreal, the Guo Meimei Baby story has certainly captivated the public. But where does it leave charity and voluntary work in China? Nowhere very good it seems.
In Communist China volunteerism goes back to Lei Feng, a soldier, communist and exemplar of socialist selflessness. He may or may not have existed; his deeds have certainly been exaggerated over the decades, rather like the Stakhanov mining legend in the old USSR.
The new generation of volunteers have not been particularly communist but usually middle class folk with heightened awareness, as well as the time and money to do a little charitable work in their new-found leisure time. The Communist party’s worry will now be that people like Guo will turn a generation off charity and volunteering and onto other forms of activity.
The first signs of this change of heart are already emerging.
There was an outpouring of middle class anger at the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash in July (it is only the middle class who can afford tickets on those trains). And, according to Yiyi Lu, an expert on Chinese civil society based at London’s Chatham House think-tank, “the scale of that protest was unprecedented. Within five days of the accident, Chinese microbloggers posted close to 10m messages about the crash.”
This was followed by the large protests in Dalian in August about the construction of a chemical plant near middle class homes.
Beijing may soon learn what every town councillor in the US and Europe knows only too well, that an angry middle class is something to be truly feared. Guo Meimei Baby may just have done more damage to the edifice of the Party-State in China with her luxury handbags and public taste for champagne than she could have ever imagined.
Paul French has been based in China for more than 20 years and is a partner in the research publishers Access Asia.