All over China, a country where the bureaucracy fills almost every available space with myriad organizations and where unimaginable sums of money can be made if you just know the right people, growing ranks of swindlers are peddling the ultimate currency — influence with the political elite.
Some demand bribes in return for favors that are never granted; others pose as central government officials and are treated like kings by sycophantic local officials. A Chinese credit-rating group recently identified more than 100 phony organizations linked to such impostors.
But Li was a cut above your average con man, establishing an official-sounding organization in Beijing and then franchising out the use of that name for large sums of money to hustlers or social climbers around the country, according to interviews with those he dealt with. He was undone only when his relationship with his young mistress was exposed on the Internet and the party disowned him.
“Li Guangnian was a Chinese-style swindler, who survives within Chinese tradition and in Chinese soil,” said Yi Shenghua, a lawyer who met Li in 2011. “In Chinese traditional culture, people have a sense of blind faith, worship and mystery about power and officials.
“It is very difficult for ordinary people to identify swindlers, because officials are estranged from people. The sense of distance between officials and the public is what swindlers live on.”
‘I give you status’
Li set up an office under the name of the China Dynamic Investigation Committee that pretended to help the Communist Party better understand the concerns of ordinary citizens. Normally, only organizations connected to the central government are allowed to use “China” in their titles.
Li displayed the party logo in his office and boasted about his group’s “special” position, a term understood to imply official privilege. Yet his organization is registered with neither the government nor the party, authorities said.
“China has too big a government, with too much power, and everything relies on the government,” said Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University. “Those who can, rely on officials; those who can’t, swindle. ”
Dang Jinguo started working with Li in 2010, desperate for the credibility that membership in an “official organization” would give him as he worked on behalf of farmers in central China. But he said he eventually realized Li had only one purpose: to make money.