HONG KONG—Hundreds of Tibetans claiming they were cheated in a pyramid scheme run by a purported health-products company are demanding their money back and staging protests in several Chinese cities, spokesmen for the group say.
The group’s representatives, who want restitution from TIENS at its company headquarters in northeastern Tianjin municipality, said Tibetan investors were promised large returns on initial investments but have received nothing.
Those who brought in additional investors as instructed by the company also saw their friends and family cheated out of funds, they said.
Authorities in Tianjin and TIENS company officials have refused to comment.
Tsering Dhargyal, 54, from the Chamdo district of Kham in China’s western Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), is leading the appeal in Tianjin.
“We want to sue the company and its boss, Li Jinyuan, in accordance with Chinese law. We have a group of 26 people representing the 1,500 Tibetans lodging protests and preparing a suit against the company,” he said.
Dhargyal said the 26 Tibetans had been in Tianjin for more than a month and were initially told that the issue of compensation would be settled.
During that time, he said, a 28-year-old male in the group from Nangchen, in the Kham region, died of flu without adequate health care, while three others have been hospitalized with serious illnesses.
In Tianjin, a Tibetan man who identified himself as Dhondup said Wednesday that 82 people, aged 12 to 60, were sitting in protest outside company headquarters.
"No one has objected, but between 30 and 40 police are watching us," he said.
In Beijing, another Tibetan man who identified himself as Tsedo said authorities from the Tibetan Consular office had directed his group of 23 to the United Front office, who then directed them to the Central Police Office, which had already closed.
A Tibetan woman in Chamdo who asked not to be identified said local television was reporting that those who orchestrated the alleged scam had been arrested.
Young Tibetans have few opportunities to study and work, she said, and are therefore easily preyed upon.
"They cannot get government jobs in Chamdo city, and they make very little income by working as construction laborers, and they aren't willing to work in the field. So when someone says they can earn more money, they're drawn to it, with little knowledge of what's in store."
“[The company] said they felt sympathy for the Tibetan people, and admitted to cheating us by lying to us. So we stayed…and trusted that they would honor their promise. We demanded about 80,000 yuan (U.S. $11,700) in compensation, as we incurred lots of expenses,” Dhargyal said.
The group’s representatives told company officials that if they were reimbursed they would return home, but when a settlement was proposed, the company would only agree to pay their return fare.
“They said that whether we accepted it or not, their decision was based on Chinese law. Whatever expenses we had incurred are not their responsibility. So now we feel great sadness and grief,” Dhargyal said.
“Again, they treated us like children. We are villagers, and uneducated, so [they think] we are afraid and gullible,” he said.
Dhargyal said the group will continue protesting in front of the company headquarters and return to Beijing to protest to the central government with a hunger strike if the issue remains unresolved.
‘Pushed’ to invest
Tsering Dhargyal said members of the group first reported being contacted by company officials on July 2, 2007, and said they had been “pushed” to accept an offer to invest.
He said the members who became investors in the company come from all over Tibet, including Lhasa, Kham, and Amdo.
“For an initial investment of 2,800 yuan (U.S. $410) from each individual, we were promised great prosperity in return. They called it a big family business, which is not only good for Tibetan people, but for the nation as a whole. In that way we collected money and joined the business,” Dhargyal said.
“We Tibetans believed and trusted in them, hoping to make big money, and we listened to everything they said,” he continued.
Dhargyal said TIENS explained to investors that it had no products to sell and instead generated business “through people.”
“For example, I went alone and they said that my responsibility was to bring two people. The next two people must bring two more, and this would continue until it reached the thousands,” he said.
Dhargyal said that investors were paid according to the number of people the recruited, but they soon learned that it was impossible to reach the quotas TIENS had set for them.
“After getting the 2,800 yuan from each new recruit, we had nothing else to do. They promised that when we reached a certain [recruiting] stage, we would get a salary of 9,000 yuan (U.S. $1,300) monthly, but some of us even managed to reach the highest level and they didn’t pay … It was a complete scam,” he said.
According to group representatives, the investors were told by company officials to attend training classes in Xi'an, in China’s central Shaanxi province, but upon arrival the Tibetans received no instruction and had their identification cards taken away from them.
Members of the group in Xi'an say that local Chinese have threatened them and told them to leave, saying they do not belong there, but they refuse to return home without compensation.
One of the Tibetans in Xi'an, 33-year-old Lobsang Choephel, said that after his initial investment and work recruiting new investors, he had originally received 370 yuan (U.S. $54) from TIENS and that a few had received as much as 1,000 yuan (U.S. $146).
“Those who have spent three years in this business have earned a maximum of 20,000 yuan (U.S. $3,000) from the company. They were the first batch to be recruited and they were responsible for the all the subsequent recruiting,” Choephel said.
Choephel said the group could not return home empty-handed because their embarrassment would be too great.
A resident in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, who asked to remain anonymous, said he knows “lots of Tibetans” who went to China with the hope of becoming successful businessmen, but few who have been able to return.
“I met one who returned to Lhasa recently and said he had spent about 28,000 yuan (U.S. $4,100) and only managed to get back about 500 yuan (U.S. $73). He is grief-stricken,” the Lhasa resident said.
“It was a complete mass fraud and only those few who were initially recruited might have gained a little bit. The majority who have heavily invested in this are completely broke now," he said.
Basic training only
He said Tibetans who had traveled to the TIENS facility in Xi'an and to similar facilities run by other companies were often put up in a compound, given dance lessons or some other kind of basic educational training, and then forgotten about.
“They had nothing else to do. All those thousands of Tibetans went to China on the recommendations of close family members and friends, because you can enroll only those who trust you,” the Tibetan said.
“But they have to pay for accommodations. Many want to leave, but they cannot, as their Chinese IDs have been taken away … The Chinese government is not involved in this, but they also do not interfere in this business,” he said.
Tsering Dhargyal said he had sold all of his possessions to invest in the company and attend the training sessions.
“We sold our land and animals to cover the expense to come [to mainland China] for the hope of becoming rich, but only now realize it was a scam.”
Original reporting by Lobsang Choephel for RFA’s Tibetan service. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Translated by Dorjee Damdul. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.