The palatial halls and imperial pantheons inside Beijing’s Forbidden City are no strangers to foreign dignities. Chinese leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping have hosted tours and banquets inside the sprawling royal residence, dazzling guests with the cachet of Chinese architecture and culture.

When Xi has taken his Western counterparts – from Donald Trump to Emmanuel Macron – on outings to the Forbidden City, they have had to get out of their limos and trudge slowly up the sometimes uneven flights of granite steps to pedestals and plinths. They would all agree that the ladders and flagstones there that have weathered hundreds of years of rains, flux and dynasty changes would be too fragile to bear the weight of their motorcades.

Thus when photos of young, natty women striking poses in front of a chunky Mercedes-Benz SUV in the central piazza in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony – where Ming and Qing emperors hosted enthronement and wedding ceremonies – found their way onto other social media platforms after they were initially posted on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, there was an immediate commotion among netizens wondering exactly how the pair could flout the strict vehicle ban and drive their big SUV into core areas of the Forbidden City off-limits even to Xi’s motorcade.

Photos of a Benz in Forbidden City, where all vehicles are banned to preserve the centuries-old steps and flagstones.
Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
A file photo shows Xi and Trump touring the Forbidden City, on foot. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

A caption that read “a fun trip to the palace, when it’s closed to the public and free of the usual crowds milling about the place” also smacked of the prerogatives of the rich and powerful of the capital city.

Indignant netizens rushed to heap insults on the Weibo account of Luxiaobao LL, believed to be one of the women in the photos, with trolls pouncing on her in a doxxing war that soon exposed her identity and high-flying lifestyle.

The name of the “Benz intruder” is Gao Lu, according to various posts on Weibo and WeChat, said to be the wife of the grandson of He Changgong, one of the Communist Party’s late patriarchs and a deputy chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the nation’s top political advisory body. Gao’s father-in-law is also the former director of the State Tourism Administration.

The Mercedes-Benz SUV she flaunted is of the German marque’s G-Class, a four-wheel-drive luxury series that carries a price tag of 2.4 million yuan (US$350,000) in the Chinese market, yet, perhaps what is even more prestigious is its car plate number that starts with “京A8,” said to be reserved for public and private vehicles used by senior cadres of the secretariats of the State Council and Communist Party’s Central Committee.

Gao, at the outset of the ruckus, shot back at those who took to her account to cry foul at the abuse of power and jeered that they were all “lemons” – meaning the hoi polloi envious of the rich in Beijing’s local parlance – yet she soon beat a retreat and deleted all of her posts when state media outlets weighed in.

Xinhua and the People’s Daily have questioned why gates to the Forbidden City were opened for a small group of powerful individuals on closed days meant for maintenance, and prodded the Palace Museum, operator of the imperial court complex, to explain. The museum scrambled to issue an apology on its Weibo account Sunday evening.

Expensive SUVs and Swiss watches are just a small part of Gao’s life in the lap of luxury. Photo: Douyin

Yet that has not placated netizens or quenched their curiosity about Gao’s connections and depth of her pocket, especially after she was found parading her wardrobe collections as well as Swiss watches such as a Ulysse Nardin that cost 5.8 million yuan a pop on her Douyin account, the Chinese version of Tiktok.

Gao’s penchant for seaside villas in the United States and how she amassed a staggering amount of wealth to blow on luxury goods have also become a talking point after netizens made more revelations about the life of the spendthrift.

She owns at least one property in Los Angeles, as seen in photos of her new home in Newport Beach, an affluent suburban community, uploaded onto her Instagram account in March 2018 with the line “really love my new home.”

With four bedrooms as well as an infinity pool overlooking the Pacific, her new home is indeed a manor house. It last changed hands for a cool US$11.81 million, according to transaction information available on Redfin, a US real estate brokerage website and other data gleaned from local realty agencies.

Photo of Gao’s new home in Los Angeles on her Instrgram account.
Information about the villa on Redfin, a US realty brokerage platform.
A spacious living room with a colonnade veranda commanding a sweeping sea view. Photo: Redfin

Meanwhile, China Zhongwang Holdings Limited, a leading industrial aluminum manufacturer, has denied any connection with Gao following online chatter suggesting that the trophy seaside estate was owned by its founder, who gifted it to Gao.

It is reported that the Communist Party’s discipline watchdog has launched a probe into the alleged misconduct of the Forbidden City management as well as Gao’s business dealings and source of income, but the latter, having stirred up a storm back home, is believed to be in Las Vegas, likely trying her luck at the tables and placing a wager on the outcome of the whole affair, according to her new Instagram post circulating online.