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Ants lead to a trail of risky investments

Up to 1 million Chinese lost money buying bugs; critics say it was one of many pyramid schemes.

January 12, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

YAOZHAIZI, CHINA — The illiterate farmer has hardly slept for weeks, and when he does he has nightmares. His breathing is irregular; his brow heavy.

The source of his anxiety? A tower of cardboard boxes in the next room.

Filled with ants.

After more than four decades of backbreaking work tilling the soil, Li Fanghai, 62, and his wife had managed to save $11,000, which they invested in ant farming.

These ants were far more than uninvited picnic guests, the couple were told. When ground into a powder, they become an aphrodisiac, a kidney purifier and general cure-all, the Yilishen Tianxi Group declared. The ants would earn them a 30% annual return.

In reality, critics say, the ants apparently were little more than the bait for a vast pyramid scheme. Over an eight-year period, the company recruited as many as 1 million would-be ant farmers, collecting about $1.2 billion. In mid-December, it filed for bankruptcy.

The story of Yilishen illustrates the get-rich-now mentality here, the constant search for a new angle by those struggling to make a go of it with the communist economy having all but given way to private enterprise, and the frequent collusion of government officials in shady dealings.

Old rules of caution don't carry much weight in a society that has seen some become absurdly wealthy, seemingly overnight. And government officials often are first in line to fleece the laobaixing, or common folk.

Instead of siding with Yilishen's victims -- mostly poor farmers, construction workers and the unemployed -- the government has blocked Internet postings and ordered reporters off the story, ant farmers say. Attorneys in the nation's capital have been discouraged from representing any of them, according to the website of the Beijing Municipal Lawyers Assn.

Most of the victims say they invested with Yilishen because of its close ties with the government and endorsements by prominent officials. Company officials frequently appeared with senior government officials. The company advertised extensively on state television and received a hard-to-get marketing permit.

But it apparently was only one in a spate of risky investment schemes.

In most cases, authorities only moved in to clean up the wreckage. On Dec. 21, the official New China News Agency reported that authorities cracked down on 3,747 pyramid schemes in the first 11 months of 2007. Chinese officials often issue such impressive-sounding statistics when under political pressure.

"This is one more case of organized cheating, hardly uncommon in China these days, that leave ordinary people at a distinct disadvantage," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of sociology at People's University in Beijing.

Some analysts add that since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which put an end to political reform, an obsession with money has supplanted a sense of solidarity and idealism.

Before his fall from grace, Yilishen Chief Executive Wang Fengyou, 45, was something of a folk hero. Born poor, he sold potatoes and made bean curd to support his family before moving on to bottling, a slaughterhouse and a taxi business. He founded Yilishen in 1999 and started recruiting ant farmers two years later.

The New China News Agency, the People's Daily and the CCTV broadcasting network ran glowing reports on Wang's business acumen. In 2006 he received the government's prestigious "model entrepreneur" award.

The company hired as its spokesman Zhao Benshan, a famous comedian and actor who specializes in playing a hick. He has since dropped out of sight.

The boxes at the heart of the ant farming business are made of cardboard with a 2-inch-square plastic window and a small feeding hole framed so badly with duct tape that they look like the work of a careless teenager with a box cutter.

In return for their money, ant farmers were given the boxes, ants and a list of strict instructions: The ants need a spritz of water mixed with white sugar or honey at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day. They should be fed cake and egg yolks every three to five days. And they should be kept indoors.

In return, the company would come and pick up dead dried ants every 74 days. Under no circumstances were the ant farmers to open their boxes and look inside, they were told, to ensure that the special Yilishen ants weren't mixed with inferior ants.

So far, few details have emerged to illustrate how Yilishen stayed in business so long, or how much Wang profited personally. Most such schemes implode within a year or so.

But an unidentified former manager wrote on the website that "the media keeping the ball rolling along with ignorant people thinking a pie had just fallen from the sky."

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