On Aug. 3, the ground shook in southwestern China, crumbling homes and killing around 400 residents of a remote, mountainous part of Yunnan province.
Six years earlier, when a much greater earthquake ravaged neighboring Sichuan province, extinguishing some 90,000 lives, the state-run Red Cross Society of China was flooded with generous donations from Chinese nationwide. This time, however, there are fears that the public won't be as generous — and that's all because of a certain 23-year-old maiden named Guo Meimei, who once claimed to be a “commercial general manager” of an entity related to the Chinese Red Cross.
Guo almost single-handedly ruined the organization's reputation in 2011, when she posted pictures of herself jet-setting in business class, and cavorting in a Maserati and Lamborghini. Today, the Red Cross, the nation's biggest charity, is having to plead with the public to focus on the devastation in Yunnan and forget about the scandal.
Showy displays from China’s nouveau riche aren’t anything new, but Guo shattered confidence in the Chinese charity at a time when the public had already begun to question just how aid organizations spend their money. In the wake of the Guo affair, donations to the Chinese Red Cross dipped. (Her notoriety was such that someone designed a fake TIME cover with her pretty, pouting image on it.)
On Sunday, the same day as when the temblor of at least 6.1 magnitude struck Yunnan, China’s state-run media released highlights from a confession Guo made in which she owned up to various misdeeds, such as helping to run an illegal gambling ring in Beijing and offering sexual services, including a $60,000-evening tryst. (Official news agency Xinhua noted that most of Guo's sexual partners were foreigners.)
Arrested last month, Guo — whose name means “beautiful, beautiful” — now languishes in a Beijing detention center. CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster, aired images of her stripped of makeup and clad in a prison-orange vest. Another alleged gambling-ring member was quoted by Xinhua describing Guo as “particularly evil, unscrupulous.” The lengthy Xinhua exposé described what it said was Guo’s unsavory family background: a father with a fraud conviction, a mother who ran a sauna, an aunt once suspected of harboring prostitutes and an uncle jailed for drug trafficking.
Then, there was her purported “godfather,” the man who may have linked her to the Red Cross, through an organization bearing the unlikely name of the Red Cross Chamber of Commerce. According to Xinhua, Guo met a wealthy southern Chinese real estate investor surnamed Wang when she was just 19-years-old. Soon, she was surrounded by luxury cars and other baubles. On social media, she changed her stated profession from “actor singer” to the Red Cross Chamber of Commerce’s “commercial general manager.”
Wang, married with kids, is now in jail. The CCTV segment meanwhile captures Guo in tears, disavowing any relationship with the Red Cross. "I made a huge mistake because of my vanity," Guo is quoted as saying in the Xinhua report. "My mistake brought severe damage to the Red Cross's reputation ... I want to say sorry to the Red Cross and sorry to the masses, especially to those vulnerable people who do not get relief."
Seeking to further distance itself from the Guo affair, the Chinese Red Cross released a statement on Monday morning reiterating that the disgraced young lady was not a staff member and that her fortune had no connection to the charity or its funds:
Such slanders [linking Guo to the Red Cross] not only affect social justice, mislead the public and disturb public order, but they also do serious damage to humanity, public welfare and philanthropy. As a time-honored charitable organization, the Red Cross of China has been dedicated to providing humanitarian relief to the vulnerable. We sincerely hope the public will continue to support and participate in our undertaking.
Nonetheless, the salacious details about Guo and her sugar daddy have kept Chinese social media buzzing. “How can a prostitute be so rich?” asked one person on the Sina Weibo microblogging service. Another expressed enduring skepticism in the charity she once claimed to have represented: “No matter what the Red Cross says, I will never donate money to them.” So far, the Chinese Red Cross says it has donated 2,000 quilts, 2,000 jackets and 200 tents to the victims of the Aug. 3 Yunnan earthquake. The charity refused to speak to TIME about Guo.
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing