How a huge Chinese 'Ponzi scheme' lured investors

Beijing:  Kang Weiwei considers herself cautious. When China's stock market took off, she stood on the sidelines. She steered clear of financial products that she couldn't really understand.

Chinese police watch as depositors from Ezubao gather outside the State Bureau for Letters and Calls Reception Division ...
Chinese police watch as depositors from Ezubao gather outside the State Bureau for Letters and Calls Reception Division office in Beijing in early January.  Photo: AP

But the 32-year-old Beijinger needed somewhere to park the $US76,000 ($107,000) that her family received from selling an apartment they got as part of a government relocation program. What, she wondered, could beat inflation but keep them safe?

The answer came on the 7 o'clock news. An ad running moments before Chinese state television's flagship CCTV news broadcast touted a peer-to-peer online lending company called Ezubao that said it matched borrowers and lenders online, potentially making credit available to more people and businesses.

Ding Ning, owner of Ezubao, is escorted by policemen in an unknown location in this image taken from CCTV footage.
Ding Ning, owner of Ezubao, is escorted by policemen in an unknown location in this image taken from CCTV footage.  Photo: AP

The firm advertised on China's government-built bullet trains, and its executives schmoozed with state media big shots and Communist Party cadres. But it was the spot on CCTV's sober nightly newscast that sold her. "The government is behind it," she thought.

Ms Kang is now one of 900,000 investors caught up in what's being billed as China's largest-ever online scam, a scandal that has robbed them of $US7.6 billion and renewed questions about the role the state plays in the country's markets.

After shuttering the firm in December, Chinese authorities this week went public with the results of their rapid-fire investigation. In televised "confessions" broadcast on CCTV, the company's top executives said that up to 95 per cent of what they sold was fake. "Ezubao was nothing but a Ponzi scheme," said Zhang Min, a top executive.

State media reports zoomed in on the greed and guts of Ezubao's executives, noting their over-the-top salaries, love for luxury goods and their bold attempt to bury evidence, stashing "1200 documents and other pieces of evidence" in a pit  seven metres underground.

Ding Ning, owner of Ezubao, speaks during an interrogation in an unknown location in an image taken from CCTV footage.
Ding Ning, owner of Ezubao, speaks during an interrogation in an unknown location in an image taken from CCTV footage.  Photo: AP

Not mentioned: how the state that seemed eager to promote companies such as Ezubao could fail so completely at regulating it, despite a high-profile push to root out corruption.

"I feel duped by the government," Ms Kang said.

China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing last year.
China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing last year.  Photo: Getty Images

Companies such as Ezubao are supposed to be at the vanguard of China's "new normal", what the government has dubbed an era of slower, more sustainable growth as China shifts from a focus on manufacturing and investment to a service economy where innovation is key.

Launched in Anhui province in 2014, Ezubao emerged at a time when people needed places to put their money. Real estate looked shaky. The stock market was wild. And it is tough, and mostly illegal, to move money overseas.

The company looked well positioned because it was squarely at the centre of two sectors that the state sought to promote: financial technology and the Internet.

It also appeared to have the blessing of the government, investors said. Though the nature of the ties between Ezubao and Chinese authorities are not clear, company executives certainly cultivated the impression they were "in" -- and officials didn't suggest otherwise.

In February 2015, Ezubao hosted its annual meeting at the Great Hall of the People, a government building in Tiananmen Square. The theme: "Financial leasing under a new normal economy". The host: CCTV star Zhou Tao.

The CCTV link helped convince investors that Ezubao was a good bet. Several said they were swayed in part by favourable coverage and ads on the network. "CCTV is the party's media," said a 32-year-old investor who would give only his family name, Lin.

Ezubao was something of a state-media darling. In September, the company participated in the 12th China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations expo, a gathering focused on President Xi Jinping's "one road, one belt" initiative, an effort by Beijing to build strong economic and political ties with its Asian neighbours. Coverage of the event put Ezubao's parent company, Yucheng, front and centre: "Yucheng model facilitates 'one road, one belt' strategy," read one headline in state media.

Events that linked government strategy to Ezubao's products boosted investor confidence, said Vicky Wu, a 29-year-old who both worked at and invested with the firm. "I was raised to believe it's easier to do business if the authorities have got your back. That's just the way it is," he said.

Ezubao was soon doing business across China and even in neighbouring Burma, where it reportedly founded the "Yucheng Southeast Asia Free Trade Zone." It also formed a militia, inaugurating the force at an event attended by People's Liberation Army officials, according to reports in the state-controlled media.

Investors who lost money in the scheme now point to cross-border activities as proof of the state's involvement. "The company had its own militia. How could they do that without government approval?" Ms Kang asked.

Now that Ezubao's erstwhile friends at CCTV have revealed the firm as a fake, investors want to know who is responsible.

The CCTV footage showing the "extremely difficult" excavation of Ezubao's buried records did not address the question of how the 21 people in custody managed to either dupe or pay off the legions of local, provincial and national investigators who were supposed to be keeping them in check.

Those who lost money in the scheme say the government owes them answers. Victims are trying to organise online, but they are being thwarted by censors.

The awkward truth is that Chinese regulators either knew about the scam and did nothing, or they completely missed the massive fraud, said Victor Shih, an associate professor at the University of California at San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy.

"Did provincial regulators know? They had to know," he said.

"And it will happen again".

Washington Post