China Shuts Down Notorious Army Song-And-Dance Troupe

China's First Lady Peng Liyuan singing in 2009
China's First Lady Peng Liyuan singing in 2009

Chinese President Xi Jinping's glamorous singer wife Peng Liyuan used to perform with them. But so too did less reputable women, including several who became the center of public scandals. Now, after more than six decades of service, the Chinese People's Liberation Song and Dance Troupe has been disbanded, reports Taiwanese newspaper China Times.

Founded in 1953, the troupe’s main mission was to boost PRC army morale and entertain the Chinese public with propaganda songs touting the Communist Party. But it was revealed in recent years that some of its top stars lived in villas and drove luxurious cars, which contrasted with the lifestyle and salaries of ordinary military officials.

One singer in particular achieved notoriety. Tang Can, a singer from the central province of Hubei, joined the troupe only to help it gain a reputation as a breeding ground for corruption and debauchery. Her name was linked with Zhou Yongkang, the former head of the Chinese security apparatus, who became the first Politburo Standing Committee member since the founding of the People's Republic of China to be tried and convicted on corruption-related charges. Known as the “military enchantress”, Tang has since disappeared from view.

According to New York-based Chinese-language NTDTV channel, the troupe's dissolution is partly due to Xi's plan to downsize the army, but is also meant as a response to some female members' involvement in “improper relationships” or dealings with corrupt officials and businessmen. Some referred to the song-and-dance outfit as a “harem” for high officials that supplied party bigwigs with “warm beds.”

NTDTV said that it was not at all surprising that this very public stage of the People’s Liberation Army became the first target of President Xi’s military reform, which is said to include the reduction of some 300,000 non-combat military personnel.

China's current First Lady Peng Liyuan has long been a popular national singer, and once a member of the troupe early in her career. She later served as the commander of the troupe before her husband became the Communist Party chairman.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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