A Beijing court on Thursday handed down a five-year jail term to an Internet celebrity on illegal gambling charges after she tweeted photos showcasing her extravagant lifestyle online while claiming to work for the Chinese Red Cross.
Guo Meimei was sentenced to five years' imprisonment and a 50,000 yuan fine for illegal gambling and illegally running casinos by the Beijing Dongcheng District People's Court.
At the start of a one-day trial, Guo admitted taking part in running a high-stakes poker game in Beijing, amounting to "illegal gambling," but denied a second charge of "running an illegal casino."
Her associate Zhao Xiaolai was given a two-year sentence and fined 20,000 yuan after pleading guilty to the same charges.
Guo was pictured in court, flanked by police officers, simply dressed in black and white casual clothes and bespectacled, with her hair pulled back, in a sharp contrast to the designer outfits in her earlier photos.
Guo's plea of "not guilty" was in marked contrast to a televised confession last year, in which she appeared on Beijing TV clad in orange prison attire, remorseful and in tears over her behavior.
Drop in donations
Guo was arrested in July 2014 after gaining online notoriety in 2011 with photos of herself posing with a white Maserati sports car, while claiming to be a manager affiliated with the Red Cross Society of China.
The photos sparked a sharp fall in donations to the aid group, although Guo later denied any connection to the Red Cross.
Anhui-based rights activist Shen Liangqing said Guo's case had highlighted a number of problems at the state-backed Chinese Red Cross.
"The Guo Meimei affair came just in time to do them a lot of damage," Shen said.
"The Red Cross has long had a monopoly in charity work, to the extent that you can't donate blood, even to your own relatives, by going to a hospital. You have to give the blood to them first, and then they give it to the hospital," Shen said.
"They are a middle-man," Shen said.
Hubei-based online writer Liu Yiming, who has followed the Guo affair since it began, said the case had sparked a public outcry because it shone a light into the murky backdrop of corruption behind state-backed aid,
Many in China have been forced to rely on such aid in the wake of massive natural disasters like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
"A lot of people have been eagerly awaiting this trial, hoping that Guo would spill the beans, in particular about shady goings-on at the highest levels of management in the Red Cross," Liu said.
"I think the authorities were hoping that they would be able to expunge the sins of the Red Cross by trying Guo Meimei and allowing the media to report on it freely," he said.
Liu said the strategy was unlikely to work, however.
"What's happened has happened, and regardless of how hard the government tries, the name of the Chinese Red Cross has been forever blackened in the public eye," he said.
'I like to show off'
Guo had previously told Beijing TV that she rushed to publicize her affiliation with the Red Cross on the basis of a tentative, verbal business plan with her boyfriend.
"I like to show off," she said, tearful and bowing in apology. "I have the vain mindset of a little girl."
"I would like to tell the Red Cross that I’m sorry," Guo said.
"I want to apologize even more to those people who are unable to get help [because a lack of donations]," she added.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.