China’s netizens are on the trail of a 22-year-old self-proclaimed actress turned general manager in a bizarre story that threatens to engulf the Chinese Red Cross Society and has now spread to Australia.

Guo Mei Mei obviously wanted to attract attention when she started showing off her designer stuff on her Sina Weibo microblog. You clearly don’t want to be ignored when you drape yourself over your Maserati. But when she claimed to be general manager of the “Red Cross Chamber of Commerce” and claimed to be involved commercially with the Red Cross Society, she attracted a lot more attention than she bargained for.

China’s netizens have become one of the most effective corruption watchdogs in a country long on corruption and short on watchdogs. They were on to it in a flash.

They hacked into Guo’s account, Guo Meimei Baby, and rummaged through her pictures. From this and other online sources emerged claims she was 20-year-old Guo Meiling, from Changsha in Hunan Province and variously the daughter or the mistress of RCSC vice-president Guo Changjiang. Weibo, the popular Twitter-like service that hosted her microblog now says it can’t verify her identity despite her microblog previously carrying the verification symbol.

The RCSC responded with statements claiming it had never heard of the chamber of commerce or Ms Guo. It said Mr Guo did not have a daughter, only a son.

This has failed to quell the speculation, however. Microblogs,  private and media, claimed there was a commercial operation involving the RSCS involving the Shenzhen Tianlue Group, which aimed to persuade people to contribute to fundraising, with some of the proceeds being shared between the two. One netizen claims Tianlue president Qiu Zhenliang met a “C class” model called Guo Mei Mei in Shenzhen and has an intimate relationship with her. This prompted further denials from the RCSC and Tianlue.

The respected Southern Metropolis Daily carried out its own investigation and found a “RCSC Business System” was established about a decade ago but had never been officially registered.

It hasn’t helped RCSC’s cause that it was just recovering from the internet posting in April of what was claimed to be an invoice showing the society’s Luwan branch in Shanghai had spent 9859rmb ($1524) on a meal, or 500rmb a head, according to local media reports.

As the latest issue spiralled out of control, with the topic now among the most popular on Weibo and even a TV celebrity reportedly weighing in with a staunch defence of Mr Guo at the RCSC, Ms Guo popped up again last Wednesday to issue a “sorry chaps, only joking” apology for all the fuss she had caused and to admit she had no link with the Red Cross.

But back on the internet, people weren’t having any of it. One claimed to be leading a posse of 40 on the hunt. By Monday, there were more claims: the son of the RCSC’s Mr Guo also owned a Mazerati. Coincidence? They thought not. And it was claimed that tents RCSC bought for a recent disaster, which should have sold for less than 1000rmb, were invoiced at 10 times that.

Meanwhile, another netizen revealed Baby and her mum were doing a runner and posted flight details. A pack of media descended on Beijing’s Capital Airport and the claim proved correct. Baby arrived on schedule and boarded a flight to … Australia. Already, there are claims the Australian embassy in Beijing has been inundated with “thousands” of calls urging the Australian authorities not to issue Ms Guo a visa. One microblogger even suggested accessing the details of Australian MPs and emailing them with similar pleas.

Meanwhile, the RCSC’s reputation is now in tatters, with thousands pledging to never give to China’s biggest charity again. Rhymes have even been written lampooning the society.

Sorting fact from fantasy is proving extremely difficult. About the only thing for certain so far is that China’s netizens’ lack of access to Twitter or Facebook isn’t stopping them having a lot of fun with domestic issues.

Peter Fray

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