When it comes to white collar criminals, few were as outrageous as China's Zhang Jian. He was the Bernie Madoff of Asia, a flamboyant pitchman with Liberace's love of gold and a cult of followers so loyal they would do almost anything for the self-declared "future richest man in the world."
Women shaved their heads to promote his own worthless currency, a gold coin emblazoned with his face. Men showed up at his "charity" events in dresses with their hair dyed a golden shade of blonde. He was known to hand out luxury cars like candy, mostly bought with the more than $140 billion he reportedly stole from investors in three countries before his eventual arrest in Indonesia this week.
Zhang, real name Song Miqiu, was on the run from Chinese authorities for years after scamming nearly 200,000 people out of $88.2 million in a massive multi-level marketing Ponzi scheme. He washed up in Southeast Asia in 2013, where he started to expand his crooked get rich quick scheme to Malaysia and Thailand. He bought a billboard in George Town back in 2014, appearing in a tuxedo and flashing dual thumbs up beneath some text declaring himself the "future richest man in the world."
He promised investors outrageous returns if they invested a small sum in an investment vehicle he called Yun Shu Mao, or YSLM. That initial investment could bring in as much as $1,600 a month, Zhang claimed. But the whole this was reportedly a giant money funnel that required a constantly expanding base to show any returns. Authorities say that Zhang was at the top, collecting most of the money in his quest to reach the mounting like peak of other people's investments.
Within a year, Zhang was under investigation again, this time by Malaysian authorities who started to receive reports from angry YSLM investors after their promised wealth failed to materialize. So he vanished again, only to show up in Phuket, Thailand, where he claimed to be in the process of becoming a Buddhist monk. He allegedly donated $115,000 to the temple once YSLM's revenues hit the $11.7 billion mark. He was arrested by Thai authorities in less than two months' time.
He then reappeared earlier this year with his own currency, a gold-plated coin that he said would increase its value five-fold in a matter of months. Each Wu Xin Bi, or "Five Element Coin," was sold for $735 by a team of "assistants"—hundreds of bald Chinese women promised as much as $4,415 in bonuses a month if they promoted the coin over social media. He launched the coin at a "charity" event that looked downright bizarre.
Then last month, Zhang threw another "charity" event, this one a $200 a person affair for blonde men. Others wore dresses or showed off tattoos of Zhang's face. More than 1,000 people showed up for the dinner, but Zhang was nowhere to be seen. His supporters told reporters Zhang was somewhere in the Maldives.
Turns out he was hiding out a lot closer. Zhang was arrested by Indonesian police and extradited back to China this week, where he faces a litany of charges. But he was still able to raise another 17.5 million Malaysian Ringgit ($2.5 million USD) in his Wu Xin Bi coin scam. Let's hope those handcuffs are made of stronger stuff than his coins.