Society

Web of deceit

‘Red Cross Girl’ in the headlines

A controversial week: Red Cross

Try as they might, China’s leaders continue to struggle with the country’s endemic corruption. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have called for cadres to be more ‘self-disciplined’. But as WiC reported in last week’s issue many officials are not paying much attention: a central bank report estimates that at least 18,000 of them may have fled the country over the past two decades, taking over $120 billion in unauthorised cash with them.

“Corruption poses our biggest danger,” Wen acknowledged to the National People’s Congress earlier this year, “we must create conditions for people to criticise and supervise the government.”

But moves to instill greater transparency continue to founder. “The top anti-graft body of the Communist Party said on Wednesday that it has no timetable to implement the much-anticipated asset declaration system for officials due to technical reasons,” admitted the China Daily. This long-mooted initiative was viewed as a central plank in the fight against graft, as it is designed to force office-holders to disclose their private assets to the public.

Some members of the public have run out of patience. At least 10 websites have sprung up in recent weeks encouraging people to report the bribes they’ve had to pay.

The idea originally came from an Indian website set up last year called ‘ipaidabribe.com’, which encourages people to describe their experiences in paying off officials. The Chinese version of similar sites have the difficult task of protecting their contributors, avoiding defamation lawsuits and operating on shoestring budgets. But in spite of those challenges, they have proved wildly popular. One of the first, ibribery.com, managed to attract 200,000 visitors in just two weeks. And more than 5,000 contributors posted their stories about buying off officials with cash, villas and cars, according to the 21CN Business Herald.

Most of the new sites have now been shut down – at least temporarily. Qian Qiusui, the founder of ibribery.com, says he won’t give up: “I’m sure they’re worried that the site will get out of control,” he told The Guardian. “I understand their concerns, but I will look into restarting the site even if it’s blocked.”

This isn’t the first time the web has been deployed by ‘online vigilantes’ against officialdom. Campaigns have been waged on message boards and weibo to expose bureaucrats with lavish lifestyles. WiC first wrote about the phenomenon of ‘human flesh search’ back in 2009 (see WiC5), and the popularity of ‘crowd-sourced’ investigations hasn’t let up.

The latest target: a 20 year-old woman.

Last weekend she became an internet sensation after posting photos of herself flying first class (with Hermes bag positioned prominently on her lap). In another she posed next to a Maserati. The woman claimed to work with the Red Cross Society of China, which is a state-controlled charity with a boss ranking as a government vice-minister (it is not related to the better-known Geneva-based charity).

How, netizens asked, could ‘Red Cross Girl’ (as she became known) afford to live such a life? Speculation quickly mounted that she was the mistress of a senior official with the Red Cross; and in a rapid online investigation she was tracked down to a home in Shenzhen. Then it was revealed that she was using a fake name (Guo Meimei) on her weibo and frenzied netizens soon had her flight details as she flew first to Beijing and then abroad last Sunday evening. She knew she was being pursued by netizens: her final web posting featured a photograph in which she made a rude gesture to the internet community.

The Red Cross Society denied that Guo Meimei had any link to the organisation, but was still caught in the crossfire. As China Daily reports the “scandal shattered public trust” and only “added fuel to the public’s anger at the organisation”. It is not the first time the Red Cross has sparked controversy, with the National Audit Office previously reporting on spending irregularities at the charity. Unfortunately for the Red Cross, the audit report has come out at the same time as the Guo scandal.

But Professor Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told China Daily that it all pointed to an organisation with “murky bureaucracy and questionable governance”. The public appears to share that view. In an online poll on 21cn.com, less than 1% of respondents still considered the Red Cross a ‘trustworthy channel for donations’.

On Tuesday the Red Cross belatedly went on the offensive, insisting the general public continued to have confidence in the charity, with individuals giving 90% of donations. As to the audit irregularities it admitted to not taking enough care of the details, but said the monies in question were not sourced from public donations. However, it also conceded that the public distrust reflected in the rumours surrounding Ms Guo showed it still “had a lot of work to do to win over society”.

Keeping Track: In last week’s issue we reported on the controversy surrounding ‘Red Cross Girl’ – who claimed to work for the state-backed charity and posted photos online showing her luxurious lifestyle (Hermes bags, a Maserati). She provoked concerns about corruption at the Chinese Red Cross (nothing to do with the Geneva-based entity). The girl in question – known as Guo Meimei – was alleged to be dating Wang Jun. As a result of the scandal, the businessman has resigned from China Red Cross Bo’ai Asset Management, a for-profit firm commercially linked to the charity. Red Cross denies Ms Guo was ever in its employ. But in an odder twist, Guo is now denying (on her weibo) that Wang was her boyfriend. (Jul 8, 2011)

In last week’s issue we reported on the controversy surrounding ‘Red
Cross Girl’ – who claimed to work for the state-backed charity and posted photos online showing her luxurious lifestyle (Hermes bags, a Maserati). She provoked concerns about corruption at the Chinese Red Cross (nothing to do with the Geneva-based entity). The girl in question – known as Guo Meimei – was alleged to be dating Wang Jun. As a result of the scandal, the businessman has resigned from China Red Cross Bo’ai Asset Management, a for-profit firm commercially linked to the charity. Red Cross denies Ms Guo was ever in its employ. But in an odder twist, Guo is now denying (on her weibo) that Wang was her boyfriend.

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