Star Appeal Gave Failed Ponzi Scheme Extra Sparkle
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2016-12-21 12:19:37

Chinese celebrity Wang Baoqiang is once again in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Earlier this year, the 32-year-old found himself at the center of one of China’s highest-profile divorce cases in recent memory.

Now, Wang has been linked to a peer-to-peer (P2P) lending scheme that began to collapse over the summer, wiping out investments from tens of thousands of people and landing one of the company’s founders in detention.

P2P platforms have mushroomed in China in recent years, mainly because individuals and small enterprises find it easier to secure loans through these arrangements than to borrow from banks. Investors, meanwhile, are lured by the promise of higher returns.

This latest scandal involves Jingjinlian, a company based in Wuhan, the capital of central China’s Hubei province. The company had the added appeal to investors of being backed by the Agriculture Fund of China (AFC), a foundation under the national agricultural research institution Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS).

The website for the AFC is no longer accessible, and calls to the CAAS went unanswered Wednesday evening.

But another draw of Jingjinlian was its ability to tap Wang’s star appeal — in particular, his upcoming comedy film “Buddies in India,” which the lending platform featured in its marketing material as one of the projects that it would fund.

It was the tacit understanding that a film project directed by Wang was part of Jingjinlian’s investment portfolio that led some customers to sign up.

A statement posted Friday on the film’s official account on microblogging platform Weibo denied any involvement with Jingjinlian, saying the film’s producers never raised funds from any financial platform.

Some net users sprung to Wang’s defense: “He’s unlucky. I hope his career won’t be destroyed.” Others were not so convinced, with one user saying Wang was not without fault. “If someone used his name to organize such a big scheme,” the person wrote, “why didn’t he notice?”

One investor’s son, a 24-year-old surnamed Li, told Sixth Tone that his mother had invested a total of 110,000 yuan (around $15,800) in the company in March after she saw marketing materials from one of Jingjinlian’s branches in Wuhan that contained references to Wang’s upcoming movie.

Li said his mother had also trusted Jingjinlian because it was backed by a government-affiliated organization and had furnished investors with appropriate certificates and contracts. He added that the company had pledged to begin paying out interest beginning in September but failed to do so.

Another investor, surnamed Zhu, told Sixth Tone that she invested 50,000 yuan in May but heard in July that the company was restructuring and would not return her money.

A copy of a Jingjinlian contract shared with Sixth Tone by victims of the scheme — but whose authenticity could not be immediately verified — shows Jingjinlian listing “Buddies in India” as part of its investment portfolio.

Calls to Jingjinlian’s customer service hotline by Sixth Tone on Wednesday went unanswered, and the company’s website is currently out of service.

A report by Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, cited Wuhan police as saying that around 20,000 people were involved in the scheme.

The same report quoted a former employee from Jingjinlian as saying that the company had raised about 2.2 billion yuan online and 500 million yuan from its offline stores. The company has since failed to pay back a total of around 2 billion yuan, the report added.

Wang Can, co-founder of Jingjinlian, was detained by Wuhan police in November, according to a media report.

A screenshot shows an image of Wang Can, co-founder of Jingjinlian, who was detained by Wuhan police. IC

A screenshot shows an image of Wang Can, co-founder of Jingjinlian, who was detained by Wuhan police. IC

The movie was co-produced by eight companies, one of which — Shanghai Mengmi Entertainment — is mentioned on the supposed Jingjinlian contract seen by Sixth Tone. Shanghai Mengmi Entertainment could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. An employee at another of the film’s production companies, Beijing Wanhe Tianyi Media Co. Ltd., told Sixth Tone that she was unable to comment on the case.

“Buddies in India” is Wang’s directorial debut. Inspired by the Chinese classic “Journey to the West,” the kung fu-themed film recounts one man’s quest to track down his father’s will, a journey that takes him to India. Wang also plays a leading role in the movie.

Actor-turned-director Wang last sparked widespread internet debate over his recent divorce after he posted a shocking message on social media in August saying that his wife, Ma Rong, was involved in an affair with Wang’s agent, Song Zhe.

Wang’s movie is due to hit cinema screens next January on the first day of the lunar year, a holiday period in China. The film is a part of the hugely successful series of movies that includes the 2012 production “Lost in Thailand” and its 2015 sequel, “Lost in Hong Kong,” both produced and directed by actor Xu Zheng.

“I’ve been watching Wang Baoqiang’s movies since I was in junior middle school and had a good impression of the characters he portrayed in those films,” said Li, the son of the investor burnt by Jingjinlian. “But if he did have any connection to this case, I would think twice about watching his movies again.”

(Header image: Wang Baoqiang during a press conference for ‘Buddies in India’ in Shenyang, Liaoning province, Dec. 6, 2016. VCG)