Vanity unfair for China's wealthy show-offs

China's public shaming of young internet phenomenon Guo Meimei illustrates that displays of wealth will only be celebrated so long as they are tasteful.

In 2011, a young Chinese woman named Guo Meimei became an internet sensation when she posted pictures of herself to social media, ostentatiously showing off luxury cars, high-end cosmetics and designer handbags while also claiming a connection to the Red Cross.

That affiliation to the state-backed charity was later proven to be false, but not after it first seriously hampered the organisation’s ability to raise funds and collect blood from a jaded citizenry.

Guo, now 23, became a lightning rod for public discussion about the misuse of funds, corruption and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in the world’s second largest economy.

And now Guo is back in the spotlight after when she appeared in orange prison garb on TV screens on Sunday in to admit to gambling and prostitution allegations against her and to formally deny any connection to the Red Cross.

Since shooting to prominence three years ago, Guo has leveraged her notoriety to earned large sums of money as a mistress and operating an illegal gambling venue in Beijing.

“To be honest, after the China Red Cross scandal, many people knew me” Guo told CCTV.

“Many men wanted to pay to sleep with me and be their mistress.”

In one incident last year, Guo was accused online of prostituting herself at bacchanalian sex and drug parties at a Hainan yacht show. Guo’s response was to post photos of casino chips worth 5 million yuan to her almost 1.9 million Weibo followers arguing she was “too rich to need to sell sex.”

Guo’s TV confession has been widely criticized online as an attempt to divert public attention away from a string of bad news including yet another earthquake -- this time in Yunnan province -- a factory explosion and increasingly violent unrest in the western province of Xinjiang.

Indeed, censorship instructions issued to the media by the Chinese government yesterday and subsequently leaked to the internet indicate the level of prominence the government intends for the story. News websites have been ‘kindly asked’ to prominently display Xinhua and CCTV coverage of the story, and to "actively organize and direct commentary".

In many ways, Guo’s televised confession is like a throwback to the self-criticism sessions of the Mao era. It’s just the latest in a string of such televised confessions that serve as a warning to others but which take place before the accused is granted a trial or access to a lawyer but make a mockery of due process.

In September last year, American-Chinese investor Charles Xue made a similar confession on CCTV that he had posted regularly to his 12 million Weibo followers to “gratify my vanity”.  While Guo has been arrested for prostituting herself, Xue was arrested for allegedly soliciting prostitutes.

Since coming to power almost two years ago, President Xi Jinping has revived many tenets of Chinese communist orthodoxy including the use of such “criticism and self-criticism” sessions.

People can now be sent to gaol for three years if their social media posts that contain rumours or lies are visited by more than 5000 internet users or reposted more than 500 times.

Around the time of the Bo Xilai trial last year, the campaign saw many muckraking websites and blogs shutdown for “spreading lies” and “disturbing stability”.

In April, the first person to be put to trial in public for spreading online rumours pleaded guilty to charges of defaming the railway ministry. Qin Zhihui had used his Weibo account to accuse the railway ministry of making a huge payout to the family of a foreign victim of the Wenzhou train crash without making similar payouts to Chinese families.

As well as concocting erroneous reports about government officials, Qin’s marketing firm made hay with Guo Meimei’s exploits and drove huge amounts of traffic to the websites of clients (Cash for comment in China's murky media world, July 22).

The campaign against influential liberal voices both online and offline has had a chilling effect in public discussion about politics. Scores of lawyers and activists have been arrested and warned off examining corruption.

Not so long ago, public criticism and exposure and official misdeeds took place on Weibo; now it’s unfolding on the pages of the People’s Daily. Civil society has been sidelined as the anti-corruption campaign continues to claim scores of scalps each week.

But whereas the public shaming of Xue was a warning to other influential critics of the government, in the case of Guo, the warning is a more general admonition against vulgar displays of wealth.

As Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign continues to  gather steam, it’s likely many wealthy Chinese will be quietly deleting their own boastful pictures their social media accounts.

The new message seems to be that being rich is still glorious, but do it discreetly please.