BEIJING - First you have to get through the police cordons, four or five of them. Tourists on their way to the Forbidden City are asked to remove their hats and open their coats for inspection. On the steps of the Great Hall of the People, a Tibetan woman in traditional dress and other delegates wearing vibrantly colored headgear and sashes -- representatives of the quota minorities -- pose for pictures.
Then it is time for the members of the Politburo, led by former party leader Jiang Zemin, to go into the hall. As they do, the music of a military marching band imparts the vague feel of an itinerant circus parade.
The speech by Hu Jintao, the leader of China’s 1.3 billion people, follows. The title: "Firmly March on the Path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive to Complete the Building of a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects."
The "18th Big," as the 18th National Communist Party Congress is referred to locally, has begun.
Four minutes later, Jiang Zemin, sitting up front, closes his eyes for the first time. Thirty-three minutes after that, long-legged hostesses troop in from both sides of the stage bearing thermoses and go on to wend their way through the rows of seated delegates executing a kind of choreographed tea-serving dance. Every few minutes, the speaker punctuates the reading of his 64-page speech in hypnotic singsong with a sudden sharp bark – a crescendo at the end of a sentence. After he does this a few times, you know he’ll do it again but not exactly when, so there’s a constant surprise element. The bark is the order to applaud.
Example: “Together with Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development is the theoretical guidance the Party must adhere to for a long time." Bang, jolt, and the delegates applaud.
Reactions to the speech from users of Sina Weibo, China’s micro-blogging service, included: "What? Can somebody translate?” and "Could they just once stop taking us for idiots?"
In its way, China’s Communist Party has led the country into modern times -- and in so doing has itself fallen behind the times. The perfectly synchronized tea-serving show with the hostesses at the Great Hall is a repeat of the sort of spectacles that have been staged for decades and that fewer and fewer Chinese comprehend. It was like the High Mass of a party that has led its people into the age of Internet and Twitter but is still stuck in the era of old revolutionary rituals.
The dictatorship has changed
The deepening chasm between the Party and the people is due to the fact that both have changed, particularly urban people -- and of course the Party has become a pit of corruption. "The government’s credibility is crumbling," says Yu Guoming, an opinion researcher at People’s University in Beijing. “People don’t trust it anymore.”
That’s bad news for the Party. Why? Do rulers in an authoritarian system need the acceptance of their people? They didn’t use to. True, but once again – times have changed. The nature of the dictatorship is different, not because the Communists now espouse capitalism and profit-greediness – repression, censorship and propaganda are still the hallmarks of their power – but because they’ve made an unspoken deal with the people: we’ll see to it that things improve economically, and you do what you have to, to get along with us.
The Communist Party catered to that role, projecting an image of selfless, hard-working leaders working day and night for the well being of the people and the good standing of China in the world. But even people who bought into that image were unsettled at the latest this year by the most recent batch of scandals. People have become too aware of the great wealth of the leading families, while 150 million Chinese live on less than a dollar a day and the new so-called “middle class” can barely afford an apartment in the country’s hyper-expensive cities.
There is a great deal of cynicism, not only as regards functionaries but also toward the Party. China’s leaders have always been almighty, accepting no responsibility and never held accountable. And now they are suddenly facing a nation – including people in their own ranks -- who expect exactly that from them.
The new attitudes owe a great deal to new media. China has over 530 million Internet users, and more then 300 million Weibo users. Only three years old, the micro-blogging site Weibo was created because Beijing’s censors couldn’t control Facebook and Twitter traffic. However, although both the state and Weibo itself censor the service, they can’t keep up.
The result is a new social conversation in China. It is chaotic, sometimes idiotic, and mostly irrelevant. But it’s led to what Party officials always feared: the Chinese people are talking to each other. On Weibo, strangers who live thousands of kilometers apart are pillorying everybody from dog-meat eaters to corrupt Party officials.
"The net is incredibly important in China," says writer Dai Qing. "It’s a school, a library, and mainly a stage where you hear voices you never could have heard before. For the first time we have a little bit of free space in this country,” she says.
Among the 2,300 delegates at the Congress there was also an "Internet guru," as the Chinese news agency Xinhua proudly reported on Friday: Shu Bin, who heads a local network portal in the city of Changsha. Shu micro-blogs on Weibo. For example, he uploaded the photo of a costumed delegate. "She is Party boss in a minority village," he wrote. The photograph was much appreciated by users, Xinhua reports, one of who wrote: "What a lively picture! Much better than the TV coverage!” The Xinhua report ends: "Shu knows how to capture peoples’ attention.”
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 for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
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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