Everyone wants to be rich, but not all are ready to put in the work to achieve prosperity. To help the less ambitious fill their wallets, pyramid, multi-level marketing and other schemes were created. Just be warned: take them too far and you might pay with your life.
I’ve always been a down-to-earth doer. There’s no such thing as a free lunch and everything comes with a fair price. I’m also cautious about scams and traps from strangers and even my own circle of friends. However, this August, for the first time in my life, I was deceived by the least sophisticated plot, which before wouldn’t have even caught my attention.
As I look into their business model and similar scandals online. When people are desperate to find a job, make some money, pursue a healthy life or cure a deadly or persistent disease, we are most vulnerable to all kinds of beautiful lies and promises. Some lucky ones, like me, only pay a small price. Others like Li Wenxing lose their lives.
Li’s tragic story once again raised national anger and concern to the widespread pyramid schemes operating throughout the country. Assisted by WeChat and modern IT technologies, these thieves only become more unstoppable and convincing when attracting victims from all walks of life, old or young, poor or wealthy, fresh or experienced, male or female.
As I became officially unemployed last August, I frequently browsed opportunities online. One job post entitled “part-time working from home, easily earn 5000+ a month” caught my attention. It was irresistible for a home-stay job seeker, and it at least deserved checking out.
I added the QQ contact and prayed for a big fish falling from the sky.
Basically, all I needed to do was click a link they sent me—usually an online product purchasing page—and proceed to paying. They then would send me a QR code, which I was to scan and pay through Alipay. After confirmation, they would send me back the money, along with a small commission, which depended on how much was initially paid. If the payment was more than 5,000 RMB, the commission could go up to 10 percent.
They gave me back 103 RMB, meaning that I had earned five RMB with just a few clicks. My guard dropped a little.
They claimed that these so-called shua dan—printing the numbers—people are hired to purchase products and even give positive comments to increase traffic and sales. This fabrication of sales is an open secret widely practiced among all online shopping platforms like Taobao, JD, Tmall and Amazon. I’ve heard about it and believed it was a real job, but never really looked into it.
I was given my first task—to buy a 98 RMB watch on Taobao. Without thinking, I ordered it, waited for them to send me the QR code and paid through Alipay. When the bill information showed up, I glanced over it—some game company. I was merely buying virtual credits for online games?
They gave me back 103 RMB, meaning that I had earned five RMB with just a few clicks. My guard dropped a little. They then issued a second task.
Only before entering my password did I notice that I was going to pay 3,706 RMB to buy game credits. This was a lot of money for me, so I paused and thought about it. My alertness finally arose. Could I afford to lose so much money? I quickly calculated how much I would earn—370 RMB. I struggled and weighed it out, finally deciding to go for safer tasks before I could totally trust them.
I told them I didn’t want to risk so much right now. They seemed understanding and suggested that I could do it another way. Instead of buying seven watches and paying in one shot, they agreed that I could buy them one at a time.
Meanwhile, I quickly searched online to find more information about them. Right after I entered my password and paid one watch—598 RMB—I spotted comments online claiming that these kinds of jobs were 100 percent scams. I panicked and asked for the money back.
Shockingly, they said I needed to finish paying the entire task before they could send me back the money. Why would I want to split the payment if I had known at the end that I would have to pay them all anyway? It was about their “policy.” At this point, I realized they were liars.
Anger surged and I kept arguing with them through QQ, while searching for what I could do. Sadly, the only thing was to complain to the job website where I found their ad. I checked the job website, their ad was removed. I tried to report to Alipay, but they didn’t accept my case.
Still, they kept asking me to pay the rest of the task, so that they could pay the commission, completely ignoring my threats to report them to police. They seemed fearless and very confident about their legitimacy and security. They harassed me for days until I read some news about police busting a massive shua dan scam network, arresting 124 suspects nationwide. The girl never again appeared on QQ.
When I look back on this experience, I understand that on one hand I was scammed and lost 600 RMB, but on the other hand, I escaped losing 3,706 RMB. I also see it as a punishment for trying to make money dishonestly. I felt helpless about how little power ordinary civilians like me have.
On July 14, the body of 23-year-old university graduate Li Wenxing was found floating in a pond in the Jinhai District of Tianjin. After a preliminary investigation, it was confirmed that Li was lured to a chuanxiao (multi-level marketing) organization on May 20 through an online job website. During this period, he cut off all the connection with his friends and family, except for borrowing money from his roommate in Beijing. His death is still under further investigation.
For his defiance, he was punished: they burned his leg hair with a lighter, scorched the tip of his nose with burning cigarette and hit him in the face. Without proper treatment for his wounds, his condition grew worse. They considered Li a burden and let him go for 800 RMB.
As the news went viral, more details were revealed. Job seekers experiencing similar recruitment scams and victims once controlled by the same organization spoke out. Deceivers used a real IT company’s name and posted jobs in a recruitment website called Boss. Li applied for it, and after a phone interview, they offered him a job in Tianjin. He had been job hunting for two months and badly needed this opportunity. Allegedly, his roommate warned him about the reliability of the company.
Living in the same house with Li in Tianjin, Li Chao considered himself much luckier. He was also hooked through the same job site, but resisted at the beginning. For his defiance, he was punished: they burned his leg hair with a lighter, scorched the tip of his nose with burning cigarette and hit him in the face. Without proper treatment for his wounds, his condition grew worse. They considered Li a burden and let him go for 800 RMB.
This illegal scheme has been around in China for decades. Since the 1990s, people have been driven by money-making. Everyone without limitation, old and young, city-dweller and farmers, can be recruited to chuanxiao. They arrange brainwashing classes to educate members on how to develop by recruiting people and selling health products.
Students and recent graduates are one of the easiest penetrated groups and many still deeply believe in their “cause” even when they are arrested. Instead of using their desire to become rich, scammers like to employ their eagerness to learn, grow and improve themselves.
There are also two kinds of chuanxiao. The Southern style is more skillful, disguising themselves as international companies or state-approved projects to draw people into their complicated marketing network on their own free will. When the victim wants to go, they usually won’t stop them. The Northern style—the one Li came across—is more violent and low-level. Their tactics force victims to obey by using imprisonment and violence.
It’s hard to estimate how many chuanxiao organizations are in China. From 2005 to 2015, commerce and industry departments detected over 21,900 chuanxiao cases throughout the country. Only one week before Li’s body was found, Tianjin police bragged to have uprooted the same chuanxiao organization that defrauded Li.
Even more terrifying, another dead body was discovered in the same area and on the same date as Li’s.
It was later confirmed that he was 25-year-old Zhang Chao who mistakenly participated in chuanxiao. On the third day after joining the gang, he was found feverish. The next day, they tried to send him home because he was too sick. However, on the way to the railway station, they discovered him seriously weak and abandoned him by the roadside. Three suspects were detained by police.
On August 6, Tianjing police launched a 20-day campaign to eliminate all chuanxiao locations in Jinghai District. During the first crackdown, over 300 chuanxiao dens were raided, taking away 63 suspects.
Are foreigners vulnerable?
Why does this old-fashioned fraud keep coming back stronger after so many decades? Are Chinese so tolerant to this kind of crime? Scams are everywhere, regardless of the victim’s intelligence, only needing a person to desperately long for something. It could be money, health, a product or happiness. With WeChat taking over our lives, the chances to get into scandals are increasing and are indiscriminate to everyone—foreign or native.
Recently, there have been reports about a foreign job seeker’s identity and credit card information being leaked to a job agency in Beijing and the victim was charged a bill of over 7,000 USD on the stolen credit card. Although local Chinese police investigated and found the scammers, the victim still ended up spending 5,000 USD in legal fees to unfreeze his account and restore his once positive credit rating. The risks are everywhere. Keep your eyes open.