HONG KONG - On Wednesday, Chinese authorities reported the death toll from Sunday’s earthquake in Yunnan province jumped to 589. As the government and other groups collect donations to help relief, China's largest charity organization - the China Red Cross - continues battling a three-year-old public relations crisis involving a one-time internet celebrity.
Reversal of fortune
The image of Guo Meimei in handcuffs is a far cry from the way she used to advertise herself on social media: a young, rich celebrity with a taste for expensive cars and designer clothes.
The 23-year-old has now confessed on national TV to charges of gambling and prostitution - crimes she was accused of in mid July.
During her confession, Guo also apologized for a three year old “mistake,” that triggered her notoriety but also plunged the Red Cross Society of China into a huge credibility crisis.
"I made a huge mistake to gratify my vanity. I want to say sorry to the Red Cross, all of society, and especially to all the people who cannot get aid from the Red Cross,” she said.
In 2011, Guo posed online as a senior manager at the China Red Cross hinting her lavish lifestyle was in fact a product of people's donation to the charity.
Guo was at the time rumored to have been the mistress of a high ranking Red Cross official named Wang Jun. Another Wang Jun, a businessman from Shenzhen, has since come forward saying he was her benefactor, providing Guo with living expenses and a Maserati.
What has surprised many in China was the timing of her televised confession, broadcast on the same day a strong earthquake hit Yunnan province killing hundreds, and just as charity groups around the country started calling for donations.
“Through condemning Guo Meimei as a bad girl, as a criminal, maybe the Red Cross is innocent. The government hopes the people will change their attitude towards the Red Cross,” said Xu Jianhua, professor of sociology at the University of Macau..
This week, the Red Cross Society of China announced it had collected about $5 million in donations to help fund relief efforts in quake-hit areas of Yunnan province.
“This is a relatively small amount, and it shows that people in China still have a distrustful attitude towards the Red Cross, and the effects of the Guo Meimei's scandal have not cleared up yet,” said economics professor Hu Xingdou.
In a message of frustration issued through the China Red Cross official microblog earlier this week, the charity called for people in China to “forget Guo Meimei,” and focus on humanitarian relief instead.
But Hu Xingdou said scandals like that with Guo Meimei were the least of problems for big charity groups in China.
“More than 99 percent of charity contributions in China are given to local governments as extra budget income," he said. "How do these governments spend that money is unknown? How can people trust to give money in a system like that?”
He added that national charities in China lack transparency and operate in a black box. It was inevitable, he said, that there would be corruption and with it, mistrust.