Dreams of quick riches are luring many into secretive illegal sales schemes
To the casual observer, there is nothing strange about the groups of three or four people who gather in the street or sit in circles in parks, chatting in low voices.
Dressed simply and speaking a variety of dialects, they are clearly not residents of Beihai , a city in the south of Guangxi , or holidaymakers, but migrants.
If you could edge close to them without being noticed, you would overhear such snatches of conversation as 'quick money', 'better than any other job', 'success' and 'boldness'. But as soon as they noticed your presence, they would move on.
Li Xu has come to recognise these furtive groups as participants in pyramid-sales schemes. Their members are passionate about their business, carefully cultivate networks of like-minded individuals among their acquaintances and are wary of outsiders. And any member who becomes disillusioned with the close-knit networks has a very difficult time trying to quit them.
Mr Li, once a member of a pyramid scheme in Jiangsu but now committed to fight what Beijing has described as 'evil economic cults', often receives pleas from families for help in extricating a relative from the clutches of such schemes.
He is on such a mission in Beihai and first has to discover exactly where the members of the pyramid scheme operate.
Locals have told him migrants usually gather in the suburbs at Wanan Garden, in the city centre's Changqin Park and in a business district at Jinwan Mansion. From experience, Mr Li can quickly spot the migrants among the small groups when out investigating.
His experience also means he can describe their daily lives in detail. They live in dormitories in the suburbs, rising every day at 4.30am. They have a one-hour class at 6.30am in the neighbourhood and then walk several streets to visit a team leader in another dormitory, to receive advice and share their thoughts.
In the afternoon they gather in small groups in parks to read, discuss their work and compare notes on the secrets of success. In the evening they write drafts of lies to lure relatives and friends into their network.
'They are living on a daily budget of 70 fen,' Mr Li says, as he watches a pair working on a potential recruit nearby. 'They eat only cabbage and steamed bread, and commute on foot every day. They are told to be frugal. No pain, no gain. If you want to be the best, you have to suffer the bitterest of the bitterness.'
Beihai is just one of the places in which Mr Li is rescuing people this year, with many cases.
As we watch the early morning activities of the pyramid salespeople on Friday of last week, Mr Li's phone rings. It is a Sichuan man named Xiao, who had called Mr Li some time ago for help extricating his 21-year-old girlfriend, Mei Mei, from a pyramid scheme in Guilin .
Mr Li has already done his investigatory groundwork in Guilin and formulated a plan: Xiao will invite Mei Mei to meet him at the Guilin railway station, where he will try to talk her into returning home. As a backup, Mei Mei's father will be brought to Guilin so that, if she refuses to leave with Mr Li and Xiao, he can take her home forcibly and there will be no trouble with the police.
The phone call from Xiao is to tell Mr Li that Mei Mei's father will arrive in Guilin from Chengdu that evening, and that Xiao has arranged to meet Mei Mei at the station at 8.30pm.
We head straight to Beihai station and set off on the eight-hour train journey to Guilin, arriving at 7.30pm, before the train from Chengdu arrives. Mr Li checks into a small hotel near the station, and we go back to the station exit.
'Mei Mei has been in the organisation for three months,' he says as we wait for Xiao and Mei Mei's father. 'One day she called the boyfriend and told him of some mysterious opportunity she had discovered for making money.
'A week later, she called again and said in an exaggerated tone she missed Xiao so much and wanted him to meet her. Xiao thought it suspicious and contacted me to confirm whether this was the typical talk of a pyramid-sales member.'
When Mei Mei's father arrives, Mr Li tells him to stay nearby but out of sight for fear Mei Mei, who they correctly expect will be accompanied by another member of the pyramid scheme, will be scared off if she sees him. Mr Li also hides out of sight of the spot where Xiao has arranged to meet Mei Mei.
Ten minutes later, Xiao appears, tall and dark, as in the picture he sent Mr Li, but looking worried. He looks around nervously. Soon Mei Mei and another woman arrive and greet him.
Mr Li suddenly sprints over and grabs Mei Mei's hand, shouting out to the hiding father 'She's here!'
The father runs to the scene and grabs his daughter's other hand, drags her away and shoves her into a taxi, while Xiao fights off the screaming other woman, a scheme member.
When the rescuers finally get their screaming and struggling charge, who has been kicking anything within reach, back to the hotel room, the father forces Mei Mei to sit down and gives her a drink.
'What are you doing? You are standing in the way of my becoming rich, you foolish eggs,' the angry 21-year-old says.
'Becoming rich? You know pyramid sales are illegal, just read these newspaper reports, and you will know I'm telling the truth,' Mr Li says.
'Newspapers always have negative reports,' replies Mei Mei, throwing the newspapers on the floor. 'They don't want too many people to be so successful, otherwise no one would take any other jobs. Those are their tactics.'
'Do you know the industry and commerce bureaus and police can arrest you any time for doing this illegal business?' Mr Li asks.
'I've been caught before. They asked questions and let us go in hours. It proves it's not illegal,' Mei Mei says defiantly.
'Use your mind,' says Mr Li. 'How can a business depending on cheating others be legal? Do you believe the scheme can make you rich? They are liars. I was a salesman before. No one like us can become rich through pyramid sales.'
'I've seen people become rich,' replies Mei Mei. 'They used to live with me in the dormitory. Then they were promoted and moved to hotels. They wear Bao Xi Niao (a domestic brand of suit) and own cars. They give speeches to teach us to be successful. Why did you leave the industry? Isn't it because your performance was bad? Oh, I know. You are a loser,' and she laughs.
The father gives her a stern look. 'You must stop. You go home with me tomorrow,' he says.
'I won't. Everyone cares about me in my organisation. Everyone teaches me things. It's warm. Have you ever shown me any concern? Never.'
Mei Mei spits at her father, whose face turns dark. Then her eyes meet Xiao's and she laughs loudly: 'And you are definitely a coward.'
The father draws Mr Li aside to ask his opinion. He is tempted to give up after trying unsuccessfully for an hour to persuade his daughter to leave the group willingly. But Mr Li advises him to take her home, saying time and separation from her team will do her good. At last report, she is still at home.
Mr Li explains that pyramid salespeople have been brainwashed so thoroughly that they are unable to think for themselves. It is even harder to persuade new members to quit, he says, because they have not been members long enough to realise the deceitful nature of the schemes and how they have been duped.
He offers the father hope, saying most people he has rescued have not returned to pyramid schemes. The patience and love of their families, Mr Li says, enables them to recover gradually from the brainwashing.