Editor’s note: Zhang Qiang joined the police force of a city in the eastern Jiangxi province at the age of 23. In his spare time, he’s written about the cases and the people he has dealt with in his 10 years of service.
I used to think my father wasn’t that fond of being a police officer, since he’d tried so hard to put me off becoming one myself.
In 2016, just a few days after I was transferred to the city police’s newly established economic crime team, my father put to rest his rank insignia in the yard of the county public security bureau. A red ribbon had been pinned on the uniform he’d worn for more than 30 years with the words “honorable retirement” set in gold font.
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He had worked in police stations in various cities and towns, participated in major cases, and occasionally appeared in the news. Although he never talked about his work with me, I’d always hear lots of wonderful tales from his co-workers.
The more impressive my father looked, the more I yearned to be a police officer. But he did not want me to experience the same kind of potential danger. Nor did he want my future home life to be constantly interrupted by emergency phone calls.
After university, I followed my father’s wish and worked as a physical education teacher at a middle school for a year. As I got worn down by the boredom, it just so happened that there was a province-wide drive to recruit 10,000 police officers. Nearly half of the positions didn’t have restrictions on university majors, which gave me the chance to realize my dream.
I didn’t tell my father at first. However, after the written test, I needed documents from my immediate family members for the background check. The whole family took turns trying to persuade my father to hand over his documents before he finally obliged.
Those in my cohort envied me for having a father to learn from. In reality, whenever I asked him for guidance, his response was always the same: “When I was 23, I didn’t have a dad who was a policeman to show me the ropes, and neither do your co-workers.”
After my inexperience nearly cost me my life in several assignments, my father realized that refusing to help would only put me in danger. He continued to complain about my career choice, but now he started casually recounting some of his own experiences which just so happened to be helpful for the problems I was having at work. A few years later, I heard some of my bosses say that my father had often asked them in private about my work.
On the way home after the retirement ceremony, my father said to me: “You’ll have to use your own brain in the future. You really don’t have a dad who’s a policeman anymore.”
Health supplement hawkers
At a traditional crime scene, the presence of blood, fingerprints, and drugs can provide a clear direction for the investigation. Yet, when it comes to economic crimes, there’s nothing inherently illegal about a computer, transaction record, or contract. Only close examination of these materials can unveil hidden crimes.
I felt completely lost after my transfer. An experienced colleague gave me a lead for a simple case: Recently, a group had been preying on middle-aged and elderly people in the city to hawk health supplements containing the cyanobacteria called spirulina.
I attended several of the group’s presentations and got a general idea of their business model. If you introduced five new users and purchased no fewer than five products, then they’d refund your original payment. Introduce 10 new users and buy no fewer than 10 products, and you’d receive a bonus payment. Introduce more than 30 new users or make 30 sales and you’d also become “regional manager,” receiving at least 1,000 yuan ($155) per month as a promotional allowance.
The model was entirely consistent with the definition of a pyramid scheme. When we learned that the group planned to hold a large event at a hotel downtown, we decided to close the net there.
More than 500 people showed up. We split up into two groups, with the larger one responsible for keeping as many of those in the audience under control as possible. I was in the smaller group, which was tasked with keeping an eye on the speakers and not letting them get away.
I slowly made my way closer to the stage, pretending to listen and swapping seats with others. When I moved from the third to the second row, I patted the shoulder of the man in front of me. When he turned around, I called out in shock.
My father scanned the room, got a rough idea of what I was going to do, stood up, and made his way out. To avoid chaos, we had decided not to prevent anyone in the audience from walking out before the operation began. As such, my father left without anyone stopping him.
In the end, we brought over 200 people back to the bureau. Two days later, we still hadn’t established how everyone was connected, and so the bureau gave us a half-day break. Not feeling sleepy at all, I went straight home to confront my father.
“You were a policeman for 30-plus years, and you were taken in by that scam?” I scolded him.
“You know I have diabetes, and they said it can help control your blood sugar, so I decided to give it a try. I took a few and it seemed all right,” my father tried to explain.
I continued: “One of my colleagues recognized you. Think about how it looks — a retired police officer slinking away from the scene of an arrest. You’re toying with my prospects.”
That touched a nerve with him: “Which is more important — your prospects or your dad’s health? What’s more, I never wanted you to become a police officer. You’re the one who just had to go and do it.”
Arguments settling old scores could go on forever, so I changed tack: “Stop it. Take whatever medicine you want to take — I’m not going to stand in your way. There’s just one thing: All those sitting in the front rows recruited a lot of people. How many did you bring in?”
My father is normally careful with money. For example, the tank top he wears every summer was given to him by the bureau in 2003 to commemorate the unit’s fight against SARS. When the doctor recommended him a drug costing more than 60 yuan a box to control his blood sugar, he insisted on getting a cheaper one costing 25 yuan. In this health supplement scam, as long as you brought people in to make orders, you could avoid paying thousands of yuan and could even earn money if you introduced more people. I guessed my father would be drawn to that.
“I didn’t bring in any,” my father said, looking me straight in the eyes. He said he sat in the front because he couldn’t hear properly in the back.
He also denied having been recruited by anyone, saying that he had bought the supplements on the street. He didn’t remember who he had paid, and he had no money transfer record because he had used cash.
Before going home, I’d written out a list of questions about how this scheme worked, hoping my father would help me sort them out. Now defeated, all I could say was: “If you don’t want to help me, then fine. This is over. I don’t want to be part of some cheesy ‘policeman son pursues father’ narrative.”
The ringleaders had adopted a complex recruitment model. The law stipulates that finding “30 people from three levels” is required to file a case involving a pyramid scheme. But it’s not a matter of just rounding up enough people at random: You need a total of 30 people across three levels directly connected with each other on the same line — known as an “upline” and “downline.” This particular gang required that the upline and downline not be located in the same city, thereby ensuring that police in any one location wouldn’t be able to bring a case against them.
We managed to detain five of the people sitting onstage for “organizing pyramid scheme activities.” In the trial six months later, one person got exempted from prosecution on a minor technicality, while the rest received just six- to 11-month sentences, which they served in a detention center rather than prison.
I didn’t arrest all suspects, didn’t fully identify their criminal methods, didn’t make consumers realize the dangers of such schemes, and was even accused of “arresting good people.” My commander didn’t blame me to my face, but he confessed to the bureau’s leaders that the case “wasn’t handled well.”
Fortunately, my father seemed to listen to me and took his medicine according to the doctor’s advice. Occasionally, he’d ask if there’d been any progress in the “health supplements case,” but I told him to mind his own business.
A year later, I was assigned to the finance team of our unit, where one of my tasks was to liaise with the banks. One day, a bank called to say that an account dormant for a year had a number of recent transactions of the same amount. Looking through the files, I found that the account belonged to the person from the pyramid scheme case who had been sentenced to 11 months. He should have been released two months ago.
In just 50 days, there had been more than 1,000 deposits and transfers; nearly every transaction was either 3,800 yuan or a multiple thereof. The price of each set of that health supplement was exactly 3,800 yuan.
I pulled up the account’s most frequent contacts and dug a little deeper. To my astonishment, the name on one account with 17 deposits and 21 transactions totaling 79,800 yuan was my father’s.
This time I decided not to alert my father and instead mulled over the case for a week. The other accounts were all in other cities, which indicated that the gang must have resumed activity and moved on to other markets. I reported the case to the economic investigators in those cities. Hardly any took it seriously.
As I struggled with my next steps, my father suddenly called. He said he felt bored at home and wanted to take a trip alone. When I asked him where he was going and for how long, he just replied, “I’ll see.”
I checked the system and found out that my father had bought a train ticket to a neighboring city. From there, I was able to find which hotel he was staying at. I called him to ask where he was, but he named some other coastal city. When I suggested a video chat, he said he was tired and was going to bed.
I couldn’t be sure if my father was deliberately covering his tracks, but all the money he’d deposited had been done over the counter. He must have only accepted cash from those he’d signed up, and so I wasn’t able to find out anything about who they were.
Over two weeks, my father traveled to four cities, returning home once for a short rest before heading out again. I checked his account and saw three new transfers of 3,800 yuan. According to the organization’s previous reward system, my father would soon be promoted to “regional manager.” If those he recruited were as diligent as him, his line alone could be huge. Having more than 120 people on a single line was enough to be considered a flagrant offense. The thought made me restless.
Tracing his steps
I applied for some days off, took the files, and went to the cities where my father had been. All the hotels where he’d stayed had held health supplement presentation events.
In the fourth city, I saw several uniformed officers talking with the hotel receptionist. It seemed that the economic investigation team there had received my phone call and passed on the task to the local police station. A few days earlier, they had started their investigations.
The receptionist explained that an event had been planned but was called off. I stepped in, showing the officers my papers. They questioned why I’d come on my own. My excuse was that there were too many leads, and so my colleagues and I had split up to cover more ground. They didn’t suspect anything.
Thanks to the officers, the receptionist gave me my father’s check-in details. He hadn’t checked out yet. I went upstairs and knocked on the door. No answer. Security footage from a camera in the hallway showed that he’d gone out the previous afternoon and hadn’t returned.
I quickly called his cellphone but it was switched off. A shiver ran down my spine. Perhaps the local police had spooked the gang into finally revealing their hand, using the father of the lead investigator as a pawn to gain the upper hand.
The first thing I had to do was locate my father. The surveillance cameras outside the hotel captured him leaving in a taxi, and an HD camera two intersections later revealed its license plate. After that, the trail ran cold as the cameras farther down the road were under repair.
I found the taxi driver and asked him if he remembered a man around 60 years old who had paid in cash. The driver recalled immediately: A passenger insisted on paying part of his fare in loose change. As soon as the passenger left, the driver went into a nearby store and exchanged the coins, so he clearly remembered the address.
My father had gotten out of the taxi on the outskirts of the city. After running all around the area, I couldn’t find any clues. I squatted down and leaned against a fire hydrant, breathing heavily. I wished that I’d stopped my father when he’d first lied about his trip. I was on the verge of tears when my phone started to ring. It was my father.
“You called?” he asked.
“Where are you? Why was your phone turned off?”
“I’m at my hotel. I just charged it.”
I hurried back to my father’s room to see his suitcase filled with documents. He took out a large piece of paper that had been carefully folded several times. “I still have a lot of work to do. But since you’re here, I might as well tell you.”
It turned out that, after retirement, my father had trouble sleeping and his blood sugar levels had shot up. One day when out walking, he came across some people selling supplements which were supposed to help lower blood sugar and so he bought a few boxes. After taking a few and feeling no different, he went to one of their presentations to demand a refund. He moved seats to the front so as to confront the person in charge. The result, however, was that he found himself in the middle of his son’s unit carrying out an operation. Embarrassed by it all, he quietly slipped away.
After the trial, my father heard that I was depressed due to my poor handling of the case and wanted to help me out. He learned from an old colleague when the guy who had been sentenced to 11 months was to be released and intercepted him outside the detention center, hoping to get a lead. Yet, the guy had no intentions of going straight and was planning to restart the scheme.
The gang had learned their lesson — those in the higher levels only met with those who either recruited more than 20 people or made more than 20 sales. My father adopted the identity of a friend and bought more than 20 items. In order to keep going to the gang’s meetings, he later put in a few more orders.
I listened to my father as I sifted through the contents of his suitcase. On the bed, he spread out a large paper pieced together from several sheets. The joints were neatly pasted with scotch tape on both sides, over which he’d attached a layer of paper so that it could be written on.
The paper was crisscrossed with dense lines showing how the different people were connected, spreading out from the center. In the bottom right corner were notes on different kinds of arrows. Many of the lines still hadn’t been given a direction, since my father hadn’t yet determined the exact relationship between certain people.
Diagrams like these require extreme patience and careful logic, which is why economic crime investigators around China have developed various analysis software for intelligent modeling. The drawing my father had made by hand — involving seven levels in several cities, more than 60 key players, and over 300 downlines — was flawless. It played a crucial role as we eventually broke up the gang which was spread out across five provinces.
As I put my father’s diagram away that day, I don’t recall if I thanked him or not. But I do remember that I gave him a hug.
He never mentioned the money he’d paid out for the supplements. I knew, however, that the cost must have distressed him. Before the bureau could settle the bill, I gave him the money, claiming that it was reimbursed. He told me to cut the crap, “I know better than you how tight the safe is in the public security bureau.”
Finally, he added, “If there is any money coming back, then keep it for yourself.”
The bureau wanted to give my father an honor. After all, a retired police officer serving as an informant for his son is the kind of publicity money can’t buy, but he declined. During lunch one day in the canteen, my leader told me how my father refused. He had said that every dad in the world spends their life as “informants” for their children, providing tips and guidance about growing up, building a family, and finding a career — it’s just their job and nothing special.
A version of this article was originally published by Quanmingushi. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Yongle and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image and icons: People Visual)