GLOBAL TIMES, SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST (China)
BEIJING – “My fellow Chinese citizens, it brings me no pleasure to report to you this terrible news. A great calamity has befallen our nation. Our pride, our dignity, nay, the very integrity of our national soul is at stake,” writes the South China Morning Post in an editorial.
No, this is not about geopolitics or some disputed islands in the South China Seas. It's much worse than that.
Last week, French players took home the three top prizes at the Mahjong Open French Championship held in Toulouse, southwestern France, reports the Global Times. Worse yet, the first Chinese player ranked seventh place.
Mahjong. France beat China at mahjong – a game that is said to have been invented by Confucius in 500 BC. Shock. Disbelief. Humiliation. How could this happen?
News of the national humiliation went viral on China’s micro-blogging site Weibo. Mostly facetious comments on the humbling defeat were shared tens of thousands of times, reports the South China Morning Post. “We cannot let foreign devils beat us," one person commented.
A total of 108 players from nine countries, including Russia, Austria, Spain, Germany, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands participated in the tournament. Thirteen were Chinese citizens.
The eldest player was an 80-year-old Frenchman and the youngest one was a 14 year-old French secondary school student, according to the Global Times.
Playing mahjong. Photo Romain Guy
Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of sociology at the Renmin University of China, said he finds the criticism illogical. "Just because you invented the game doesn't mean you have to be the best. Besides, there is winning and losing in any sport."
Mahjong has always had a controversial image in Chinese society. Amateurs of this ancient game call it fondly the “quintessence of Chinese culture,” whereas others regard it as a pastime for idle people. The game is very often associated with gambling by society matrons.
Indeed, this might actually be the reason why the Chinese players lost, according to Zhao Jisheng, an associate professor at the College of Sports at Beijing Normal University: "Anyone trying to excel at mahjong will be regarded as an idler in China, which makes it difficult to organize a professional mahjong team.”
Yao Xiaolei, assistant to the secretary general of the World Mahjong Organization, said that many top Chinese players could not make it to France and that jet lag could also be a factor in the defeat.
“This is a national disgrace,” writes the SCMP. “How did we end up with these losers who are clearly not fit to play this glorious national game of ours?”
“Any Chinese should be able to win even when half asleep against foreigners. A phalanx of Hong Kong housewives ought to have cleaned out the top prizes with their eyes half-closed.”
The newspaper concludes that it time for the Chinese government to “restore the national glory of this game,” and that it should be mandatory in Chinese schools.
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.
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.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
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".
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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