For China’s Kardashian-like rich, the era of bling may be ending — in prison

BEIJING, China — In the Xi Jinping era, some of the gaudier icons of contemporary China’s wealth boom — the heirs, the mistresses, the newly minted millionaires who delight and infuriate the public by showing off with gold cars, fairy-tale castles, and pictures of their vast bank balances — may be passé.

The jailing and shaming of ambitious socialite Guo Meimei last week hints that the lifestyle she epitomized — lurid, lascivious and proudly swimming in money — is finally losing some luster.

It took just a few hours on Sept. 10 for a Beijing court to find 24-year-old Guo guilty of “running an illegal casino,” in a decision viewed by many as a deliberate rebuke to her shameless, high-flying lifestyle.

The case began when Guo was arrested during World Cup celebrations in 2014 and accused of heading an online gaming ring. “The more beautiful one looks, the more fortunate one will be,” she wrote next to a photograph of a lottery ticket, apparently unaware (or indifferent) that gambling is illegal in China. Guo was detained shortly after, amid reports suggesting she had lost vast sums for her wealthy backers.

If it was over-sharing on the internet that led police to her door, that was a fitting conceit for the former Beijing Film Academy student, whose stardom was bequeathed literally overnight: Guo became a trending topic in 2011 simply by broadcasting her wealth and assets on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, boasting of an affiliation with the Red Cross Society of China.

At the time, Guo’s antics echoed a prevailing trend among China’s “second generation rich” to flaunt their wealth with acts of disdainful extravagance, such as lighting cigarettes with cash and racing Lamborghinis on public streets. But Guo’s added claims to work for a government-controlled charity made her a particularly newsworthy example and brought her added opprobrium, a reputation she seemed to welcome. The same could not be said for the Red Cross: Despite denying any association with Guo and vowing to clear its name, the Chinese offshoot of the international charity saw both cash and blood donations plummet by as much as 90 percent (not to mention a similar loss of public trust).

Despite denying any association with Guo, the Chinese offshoot of the Red Cross saw both cash and blood donations plummet by as much as 90 percent.

If ever there was a reason to investigate Guo, it was surely the allegation that she was a beneficiary of a corrupt charity claiming to aid the poor. Yet few of the authorities involved seemed inclined to delve into the real story, fueling rumors that Guo had influential men protecting her, including Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan (his and Guo’s names together were blocked last year on China’s internet).

While her name continued to be embroiled in petty scandals — a purported sex tape, an online spat with bratty millionaires’ clique Super Car Club over who could display the most wealth — Guo remained oddly beyond the scrutiny of Beijing’s prudish law enforcement. (This was hardly because she kept a low profile: She even claimed to be making a biopic in which she would write, direct and star). But despite skillfully parlaying her enormous fame into vague if lucrative glamour work, Guo seemed to lack the political antennae to detect the looming threats against her.

Trends among China’s savvier newly rich or "bao fa hu" have been shifting toward a less conspicuous approach since 2012, when rising princeling Bo Xilai was ousted and jailed for corruption in the months leading up to President Xi Jinping’s inauguration. Xi’s new administration made anti-corruption one of its leading priorities, though the scale of the purge that followed surprised even seasoned observers.

The ensuing fallout scared many senior officials and connected businessmen into exercising more caution about displaying the more obvious evidence of their wealth, such as luxury watches or sumptuously clothed young companions. But it also coincided with a growing fashion among the more discerning scions of China’s "bao fu ha" for a less overstated form of spending, favoring philanthropy and discreetly tasteful British suits over magnums of gold-flake champagne and Versace sportswear.

Guo claimed she had met her South African boyfriend Kang, a professional poker player, at a casino bar in Macau in 2012, where Kang introduced her to the game. They returned to the mainland shortly before Xi’s corruption squad arrived. (Profits in the semi-autonomous gambling hub, whose casinos had enjoyed a decade of luxury mainland junkets, quickly nosedived). 

As Beijing police began a high-profile purge of public excess in the entertainment industry, Guo found herself among the misbehaving actors, directors, pop singers and reality stars caught up in the dragnet. Her subsequent shaming followed a now-predictable pattern, beginning with a televised confession on state TV — Guo wearing an orange jumpsuit and admitting to “the vain mindset of a little girl” — and ending with her in glasses, white shirt and shackles between two hefty guards, pictured on the official blog of the Dongcheng District People’s Court.

Despite her TV confession, Guo seemed as defiant in court as she’d been online, admitting to “mistakes” but adding: “I don’t think my actions constituted [a] crime.” She suggested that, if organized gambling had taken place in the course of any "bao fu ha" poker tournaments, her assistant was responsible (Kang, meanwhile, was reported to have fled China). The prosecution offered written statements to suggest otherwise. Although her case had dragged out for a year, due to lack of evidence, it took the court just seven hours to sentence Guo to five years in prison, plus a fine of 50,000 yuan ($7,830).

“50,000? That’s not even enough to buy one night with her,” sneered one Weibo commenter. Others dismissed the jail time: “They could have given her a heavier sentence,” wrote one unimpressed columnist. Yet the long investigation, and the six years she is expected to serve in total, suggest authorities are keen for others to take note of the wages of Guo’s sin — “killing a monkey to scare the chickens,” as the expression goes. Whether the target audience is paying attention remains to be seen — Guo certainly ignored the signs — but at least one organization will surely pay heed, and hope the scandal she wrought can finally be forgotten. “She’s in jail now, so no one else will dare reveal the Red Cross’s dirty secrets,” observed "Alice ZQ" on Weibo. “Some people must be relieved.”

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