Exposing the false promise of easy riches

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2007, 12:00am

Would you pay 3,800 yuan for a set of poor-quality bath lotions? Probably not. But would you buy them if you were promised that doing so would make you rich? Li Xu did, and that is how he entered a nightmare.

Born in Sichuan in 1971, Mr Li had been operating a tofu workshop in Anshan , Liaoning province, for 10 years before he fell for the false promise in 2004.

Life was hard, and when his brother-in-law called to invite him to Xuzhou , Jiangsu province, he accepted. When his train arrived in Xuzhou, three beaming, well-dressed young people greeted him. On the way to the home they shared, they told him they had a project that was making them all wealthy.

But on arrival, Mr Li's sceptical eye saw only a small, shabby room devoid of furniture except for a table. No signs of the good life were apparent. Before he could ask any questions, the three blasted him with ideas about wealth management and sang the praises of thriftiness.

Over the following few days, Mr Li found he was often being asked strange questions. 'Once I saw a man drop several hundred yuan in front of me,' one person said. 'I didn't pick the money up. Later I regretted it. It could have been mine. Would you have taken it?' Mr Li replied that he would not have taken it because it did not belong to him.

He did not realise they were testing him until days later, when his new friends invited him to a gathering. It turned out to be a group of 100 migrants attending a lecture in a suburban classroom. The lecturer told tales of good fortune and impressed upon his ever-more-excited crowd that hard work in 'direct sales' was guaranteed to find quick success. His words were frequently greeted with applause, interjections and cheers from the rapt audience.

'The air was so heated, it was as if they were insane,' Mr Li said.

He decided to leave, but his brother-in-law stopped him, saying: 'Don't make me lose face. I'm a relative, I wouldn't trick you into a bad deal. It's a very lucrative project. Otherwise, I wouldn't have asked you to come.'

The next day his brother-in-law's two friends, who ranked higher in the organisation than him, began to introduce Mr Li to the 'direct sales' business. 'We are not doing anything illegal,' they told him. 'We create value by diminishing distribution layers. Pyramid sales make only those at the top of the hierarchy rich, but our scheme is ladder-shaped. It benefits the majority of participants.'

They said the type and quality of products were not important. It was the method of selling that ensured success. They insisted anyone could achieve success through the scheme, whatever their age, education level or work experience.

Salespeople on B-level, the second highest, could afford to live in hotels, eat in restaurants and dress in name brands, they said. Monthly income could be more than 10,000 yuan. On A-level, monthly incomes could be in the six figures, they said.

'We are in a world where everything is changing rapidly. Opportunities belong only to the daring,' Mr Li was told, and the organisation did not have the shortcomings of ordinary jobs like poor pay, bad bosses, rigid working hours and limited prospects.

Soon his new friends' persistent talk had planted dreams of quick success in Mr Li's mind. Questions like 'Why can corrupt officials get whatever they want?' and 'Why can't I lie to people to help them get rich?' ran through his mind. It was only a small trick, he told himself. His first victims were his two sisters, chosen because Mr Li genuinely believed he could help them out of poverty.

He devoted himself entirely to his new career, voraciously reading as many books as possible on salesmanship and creating success. In 18 months, he introduced 33 new members, an above-average result.

But the harder he worked, the more frustrated he became. While in theory salespeople on his level, C, could earn several thousand yuan a month, Mr Li's income was nowhere near that. He asked a cousin at B-level whether he was earning as much as the scheme said he would. The cousin admitted his life was no better than before and the advertised lifestyle was impossible to achieve.

Mr Li was shocked. He went to an internet bar, telling his team leader he was going to try to lure chat-room friends into the scheme. Instead, he researched pyramid sales and found they were illegal. He was devastated, told his cousin and sub-members, and convinced them to quit.

Mr Li returned home, but neighbours were unfriendly and whispered behind his back. Friends he had unsuccessfully tried to get to join the scheme had spread the story he was making his living as a liar.

Mr Li could not pick up the pieces of his former life, so he opened a small shop for his wife and left home again last year to wander the country, devoting himself to fighting the monster that had stolen his life.