The chairman of what was once the mainland's biggest forest plantation company was jailed for 11 years in Inner Mongolia yesterday for operating a Ponzi scheme that illegally raised 1.28 billion yuan (HK$1.45 billion) from 30,000 people between 2002 and 2006. The Baotou Intermediate People's Court also jailed nine other defendants for up to nine years for their roles in the scam, including convictions for 'destabilising social order' and 'dishonest advertising'. In such a scheme, money from new investors is used to pay seemingly high returns to existing investors. The scheme collapses when redemptions exceed new investments. The defendants were part of the Inner Mongolia Wanli Forestation Company and its subsidiaries, which promoted a plan to improve the deteriorating environment by planting trees, an effort that state media once lauded as a 'most noble business'. Company chairman and television actor Chen Xianggui established the firm in 2002, and set up 100 subsidiaries in 12 provinces and autonomous regions with general manager Liu Yanying. They said it would 'benefit the country and the people' and hired 9,000 salespeople to bring in investors. Investors were persuaded to buy land from the firm in the country's north and west for at least 90 times the original price. Although the land and the business existed, the investors were not told of the high risks involved in the scheme, while the company exaggerated the returns. The plan became a big success because it was launched after the central government embarked on an unprecedented campaign to plant massive green belts in those regions. Public trust in the company was high because of Chen's profile as a star of China Central Television rural dramas and the advertisements he ran featuring other top actors. The scheme collapsed after the company's Beijing bureau chief, Chen Jinggang, one of the defendants, turned himself in to police in April. Chen Xianggui and Liu said they would appeal.