Death of university graduate sparks anger at Chinese pyramid scam gangs

BEIJING (Reuters) - The death of a young Chinese university graduate who fell victim to a pyramid scheme on a job-seeking website has made national headlines and sparked an outpouring of sympathy and anger online.

Al illustration photo shows a person holding a phone with Boss Zhipin application in Beijing, China August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/Illustration

Li Wenxing, 23, was found dead on July 14, his body floating in a small pond along a highway on the secluded outskirts of Tianjin, a major port city neighboring Beijing.

Police said autopsy results showed the cause of death was drowning, and there were no signs of injuries.

The circumstances surrounding Li’s death have resonated widely in part due to his youth and his embodiment of a familiar tale of young Chinese graduates leaving home to find work in bigger cities.

It also shines a spotlight on the aggressive tactics of pyramid scheme gangs which have long blighted Chinese cities, while much online criticism has been directed at the recruitment site Boss Zhipin for not ensuring the veracity of its ads.

Chinese media reports said Li, an engineering graduate from a rural family in northern Shandong province, had traveled to Tianjin after receiving a job offer from a company advertising on Boss, a popular recruitment website.

But soon after arriving in Tianjin on May 20, the reports said, he became distant, hard to reach by telephone, and began asking friends for loans.

On July 8, in what would be his final phone call home, he told his family: “No matter who calls for money, don’t give it to them.”

Tianjin police said late on Thursday that Li had become involved with a gang of pyramid scam artists and that it had detained two suspects as part of its investigations.

Typical pyramid scheme organizations in China prey on vulnerable or poorly-educated victims by luring them with the promise of well-paid jobs.

Victims are followed around the clock and are instructed, often under duress, to recruit friends and family or borrow money from them. Their mobile phones, identification documents, cash and bank cards are often confiscated.

Boss, a fast-growing start-up, markets itself as a platform where job seekers can chat directly with employers.

It has more than 10 million users and has attracted investment from Shunwei Capital, backed by Xiaomi founder Lei Jun, as well as from prominent venture capitalist Kathy Xu’s Capital Today.

In a statement, Boss chief executive Zhao Peng issued an apology and said the company was strengthening its ad verification procedures. He said Boss was cooperating fully with police investigations.

“This is a very painful lesson,” he said. “As for Li Wenxing’s passing, we feel extremely deep grief and regret.”

Reporting by Philip Wen and Liangping Gao; Editing by Kim COghill