Zhang Xiaolei, founder of Qbao.com, the online finance platform also known as Qianbao, on a website page. Photo: AFP

It had a cult-like following with investors known as Baofen or fans of Qbao. At the height of its business operations, the online investment company, Qbao.com, had around 200 million registered users.

Tantalizing tales of up 80% returns had potential clients clamoring to sign up for the financial firm’s “get rich quick” scheme. Even the full name of the company, Qianbao, had the veneer of success, as it translates into “money treasure.”

But now the founder of the site, Zhang Xiaolei, is in police custody after turning himself in just before the start of the new year.

He has been accused of illegally raising 70 billion yuan (US$11 billion), according to sources close to the Chinese authorities and reported in the mainland media.

If those allegations are true, this would be the largest online investment fraud in China’s history.

“This shows the reality that many Chinese people are still short of money and are crazy for high-returning investment channels,” Li Chao, an analyst at market consultancy iResearch in Beijing, told the state-owned Global Times.

So “crazy” that they risk losing it all. Indeed, that looks nearly certain after Zhang walked into a police station on Dec. 26 in Nanjing, the capital of East China’s Jiangsu province, where Qbao.com was wheeled out in a blaze of publicity nearly eight years ago.

The authorities believe investors may have become the victims of a giant Ponzi-type scam, where new clients ended up paying inflated returns to established customers without their knowledge.

Before the internet investment company was closed down, it was attracting nearly two million users every day in late 2017 from its headquarters in Shanghai.

“Police are calling on Qbao investors in all regions to report to local public security authorities and cooperate in investigations after the company owner, Zhang Xiaolei, was [held] in custody for suspicion of an illegal fundraising crime,” the company said in a statement.

Still, many clients are convinced this is all a massive mistake, even though the online finance industry has been plagued by scandals, as Chinese regulators struggle to get grips with the problem.

Last year, a leading online peer-to-peer lending service, Ezubao, was accused of swindling more than 900,000 investors out of more than 50 billion yuan in less than two years.

A court in Beijing later sentenced Ding Ning, the architect of the $9 billion Ezubao online financial fraud, to life imprisonment, which finally closed the chapter on one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in modern mainland history.

But if the allegations concerning Qbao.com and Zhang are true, this could dwarf that case.

“I became very tired of comforting other investors, some of whom were so anxious that they nearly killed themselves,” Mu Qing, who became a Baofen investor, told Global Times. “But we all trusted Qbao, and we will wait [to see what happens].”

On Dec. 27, along with millions of other clients, Mu had his account on Qao.com frozen.

What happens next depends on the Chinese police investigation and the decision by the central bank to launch an injury. It has ordered all commercial banks in Jiangsu province to roll out internal inspections for potential loans linked to Qbao.com or its affiliated companies.

“Qbao investors put all their trust in Zhang,” one former executive of the company told Caixin’s media website. “It was like a cult.” 

But that “trust” has slowly turned to disdain and anger as the details of Zhang’s online world trickles into the public domain. In the end, the fall out could leave them broke in more ways than one.

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