This article originally appeared on VICE Australia
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 USD 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 duping nearly 200,000 people out of 600 million yuan, or $88.2 million USD, 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—300 Malaysian Ringgit ($70 USD)—in an investment vehicle he called Yun Shu Mao, or YSLM. That initial investment could bring in as much as 6,8000 Malaysian Ringgit ($1,595 USD) a month, Zhang claimed. But the whole this was reportedly a ponzi scheme, a giant money funnel that required a constantly expanding base to show any returns. Zhang was at the top, so he hoovered up most of the money in his quest to reach the peak of a mountain of other people's money, according to authorities.
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 3.9 million Thai Baht ($114,739 USD) to the temple once YSLM's revenues hit the 50 billion Malaysian Ringgit ($11.7 billion USD) 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 5,000 yuan ($735 USD) by a team of "assistants"—hundreds of bald Chinese women promised as much as 30,000 yuan ($4,415 USD) 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 Malaysian Ringgit-a-head ($29 USD) 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 no where 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.