TIME’s Pretty Young Cover Girl Who Wasn’t

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The TIME cover showed a lissome young woman in a red cocktail dress—and it generated a firestorm. Twenty-year-old Guo Meimei became a lightning rod in China after she posted pictures of her white Maserati and orange Lamborghini online, along with images of her flying in business class and riding a horse. What, wondered China’s Internet community, was the self-described commercial manager of the Red Cross doing living such a luxurious lifestyle? Guo became an unwitting poster girl for the murky world of Chinese philanthropy, in which donations have long been suspected of funding more than just charitable causes. And, apparently, Guo’s excesses earned her a spot on the cover of TIME.

Except they didn’t. Some enterprising anonymous designer slapped together the cover and posted it online, where it went viral in China. The cover language “I Am Not the Hero, I Am the Fool!” was hardly the best TIME editors could come up with. The picture was poorly photoshopped. Nevertheless, TIME was excoriated by some Chinese Netizens for promoting a spoiled Chinese brat. Of course, putting someone on the cover of TIME doesn’t mean the magazine actually approves of these people: Hitler and bin Laden have both made such appearances. But the Guo TIME cover was a fake.

And, it turned out, the Red Cross Society of China, which is state-run and the country’s biggest charity, denied that Guo was one of its employees; she later backtracked on her purported job title. Still, the Chinese Red Cross recently went through an audit that uncovered financial irregularities. After the Guo scandal broke last month, Chinese investigators launched another investigation. The upshot? Guo appeared to be the girlfriend of a man who was on the board of a for-profit company connected to the Red Cross. He has since resigned from that position.

But indignant Chinese are far from appeased. One of the journalists who covered the case for the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper that tends to promote a patriotic line, gave a personal take on July 11:

A Chinese scholar who lived in the US for a long time told me that the scandal would not have been a big deal in the US, as the citizens there believe that the legal system would offer them the truth even if government departments abused their power. In China, however, people believe that one “hidden rule” is that officials always shield one another… Under the current situation where the centralization of power and the operation of “hidden rules” and off-book operations prevail, strengthening transparency should be a priority in rebuilding social credibility. Only clean public power can guarantee a clean society.