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Dead young men and pyramid schemes

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Three months after the death of Li Wenxing 李文星, a 23-year-old college graduate who fell victim to a pyramid scheme company, the cause of his death was finally confirmed (in Chinese) as accidental drowning by police in Tianjin, the city that neighbors Beijing. But the news provoked suspicion and mistrust from Chinese internet users and members of Li’s family. On July 14, Li was found dead in a small pond near a highway on the outskirts of Tianjin. Notes found with Li’s body suggested that he had been under the influence of a company operating a pyramid scheme since May.

Li was a recent university graduate dreaming of becoming a programmer, and had accepted a job offer from a software company on the recruitment site Boss Zhipin. The job required Li to go to Tianjin, but after he set off for the city on May 20, Li was completely cut off from the outside world while being brainwashed by the scam company.

On the same morning that Li’s body was discovered, Zhang Chao 张超, another college graduate who was involved in a similar pyramid scam, was found dead about 20 kilometers away from the pond where Li drowned. The body of another young man from Shanxi Province was discovered on July 13 in a pond close to where Li died. These deaths have sparked an uproar over pyramid scheme gangs in China, and prompted a nationwide crackdown in August.

According to the Beijing Youth Daily, local police were investigating pyramid scheme scams before Li’s death. But on October 25, the Tianjin police announced the cause of his death as “accidental drowning,” and there will be no criminal investigation about it.

In an interview (in Chinese) with Wangyi News, Li’s sister Li Wenyue 李文月 said that she did not accept the police judgement and vowed to hire a lawyer to pursue the case. “I just can’t wrap my mind around ‘accidental drowning,’” she stated. “The police couldn’t give me a compelling answer because there was no surveillance camera nearby or any witnesses.”


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Jiayun Feng

Jiayun was born in Shanghai, where she spent her first 20 years and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Fudan University. Interested in writing for a global audience, she attended the NYU Graduate School of Journalism for its Global & Joint Program Studies, which allowed her to pursue a journalism career along with her interest in international relations. She has previously interned for Sixth Tone and Shanghai Daily.