The woman who drove a Mercedes-Benz in the Forbidden City is not sorry

Society & Culture

The Palace Museum, the official name of the Forbidden City in Beijing, has apologized for its “poor management” after photos of two affluent women posing next to a Mercedes vehicle in the centuries-old palace complex made a big splash on the internet. Home to China’s Ming and Qing dynasty emperors from 1764 to 1911, the museum is one of China’s leading tourist attractions.

While the museum suspended two senior-level employees pending an investigation into the matter, the apology didn’t sit well with many people on Chinese social media, who believe that the women were allowed to ignore the museum’s ban on cars because of their family backgrounds and wealth.

The controversy began with a since-deleted post on January 17, in which Gāo Lù 高露, one of the young women, whose handle is @露小宝LL (in Chinese) on the Weibo microblogging platform, shared multiple photos of her and a friend posing beside a Mercedes-Benz SUV parked inside the iconic site. “The museum is closed today, so I’m taking advantage of this opportunity to avoid tourists and run wild,” the woman wrote in the caption accompanying the photos.

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The not-so-subtle flex quickly set the internet ablaze with speculation over Gao’s background, as well as intense criticism of the museum’s policies. In 2013, the Forbidden City implemented a ban that prohibits vehicles from entering the complex, but the braggy post revealed that unlike average tourists, Gao was not subject to the restrictions. “Before reading the post, I didn’t know you could drive across the palace. This is truly eye-opening,” a Weibo user wrote.

Gao initially defended her behavior, saying that she was at the site for an invite-only exhibit. But her rebuttal only further angered the critics, who made an array of relevant hashtags that trended on Weibo. The uncontrollable outrage prompted Gao to delete all of her Weibo posts, but that didn’t stop many people from demanding an official explanation from the Palace Museum.

In response to the mounting turmoil, Wáng Xùdōng 王旭东, the museum’s director, issued a statement (in Chinese) on January 21. “On behalf of the palace, I sincerely apologize for any concern caused in regard to the protection of cultural relics in the complex,” he wrote. According to Wang, the incident happened on January 13, when about 200 people were invited to the museum for a private event. Citing poor planning and “internal management” as a reason, Wang said that the parking lot was over its maximum capacity and they decided to make an exception to let a small cluster of guests drive into the complex. Wang also noted that the museum had suspended its deputy director and the head of its security team while an investigation was under way.

The apology, however, was received skeptically by internet users, who kept pressing the museum to elaborate on details regarding the event, such as its attendees and the theme. “It’s clear that the Palace Museum, which is supposed to be a public asset owned by all citizens, has become a platform for a certain group of people to flaunt their wealth and privilege,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).

Meanwhile, as the public is still fuming over the scandal, Gao has moved on (in Chinese) from the dispute. On January 19, Gao posted a selfie and a video of the luxury car on Instagram, tagging Las Vegas as her recent location. Gao captioned her selfie with three lemon emojis, implying that her haters bashed her because they felt “sour” being jealous of her luxury lifestyle.

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