How a huge Chinese 'Ponzi scheme' pulled in investors

By Emily Rauhala

The office of Ezubao is locked after a police raid in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province. Photo / AP
The office of Ezubao is locked after a police raid in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province. Photo / AP

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.

But the 32-year-old Beijinger needed somewhere to park the US$76,000 ($115,000) her family received from selling an apartment they got as part of a government relocation programme. 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 Ezubo that said it matched borrowers and lenders online, potentially making credit available to more people and businesses.

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 nightly newscast that sold her.

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 US$7.6 billion and renewed questions about the role the state plays in the country's markets.

After exposing 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.

"Ezubo was nothing but a Ponzi scheme," said Zhang Min, a top executive.

State media reports zoomed in on the greed and guts of Ezubo'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. Companies such as Ezubo 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.

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.

Launched in Anhui province in 2014, Ezubo 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.

Though the nature of the ties between Ezubo and Chinese authorities are not clear, company executives certainly cultivated the impression they were "in" - and officials didn't suggest otherwise.

In February 2015, Ezubo hosted its annual meeting at the Great Hall of the People, a government building in Tiananmen Square. Ezubo 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.

Events that linked government strategy to Ezubo's products boosted investor confidence.

Now Ezubo's has been exposed, investors want to know who is responsible.

The CCTV footage showing the "extremely difficult" excavation of Ezubo'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.

- Washington Post

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 27 Apr 2017 13:03:34 Processing Time: 858ms