Shi Runlong was fast becoming a notable commenter in Chinese media—until three days ago. A Harvard Business graduate, his social media profile is littered with pictures taken with the likes of Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and French president Emmanuel Macron. Proudly posing with his Rolls Royce, the boyish entrepreneur with 100,000 followers on the China’s largest social media site Weibo, was recently given an honoree Ph.D. in finance from Northeastern University in Boston for his achievements as a high-flying venture capitalist. A regular commentator, Runlong was director of the Shandong Internet Economic Research Center and board member of the Japanese Red Cross Society, his ideas on China’s poverty alleviation effort had recently sparked wide debate on social media.
But last Monday, a police sting in the city of Jinan revealed that Runlong didn’t exist. The Shandong Internet Economic Research Center didn’t exist. Even his numerous comment pieces had been written by someone else. It turns out the wealthy thought leader who spent his spare time rubbing shoulders with heads of state was, in fact, a 17-year-old middle school student, paying writers to publish the fake articles about him to “satisfy his own vanity.” In a statement, police said they had arrested a male, called Shi Molong, born in August of 2001 and currently enrolled at Jinan Shandong junior high school. Released via the Jinan’s Public Security Bureau Weibo account, the police went on to outline how the array of fake articles and doctored images had caused “adverse social impact.”
It’s hard to imagine the collective power of a few Photoshopped images, ghostwritten articles, and false claims could have, but it was enough the fool major media organizations and hundreds of thousands of social media followers. Cutting an Elon Musk-like figure, Runlong was powerful and connected; using his accumulated wealth to solve some of society’s biggest problems. Traveling to Lizuo Village, he advocated for new eco-agricultural practices, using new grafting techniques to help tea growers in remote villagers. His papers had lofty littles, like “Social Thinking and Getting rid of poverty: Deeply Understanding Comrade Shi Runlongs Thought of Joint and Several Assistance” and were published by the likes of China News Network, and other websites.
Since the revelation about Runlong’s identity, The Xinhua News Agency released a statement saying Runlong has “seriously damaged the image of our network.” Fake accounts or personalities are rarely innocent; at best they leave people feeling burned, at worse they can spur social beliefs based on lies. Two decades ago Shi might have been concocting stories through pranks phone calls but now he’s conjuring up new ideas to help forward society; not for any greater good, but because being a globe-trotting venture capitalist is the new rockstar and any taste of fame is worth it.