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A Cautionary Tale of the Year of the Snake

January 24, 2001

by T.K. Chang*

SHENZHEN, CHINA: Wednesday is the first day of the Chinese Year of the Snake. So here is a cautionary tale about snakes in China and, more broadly, about the serpents lurking in China for the unwary foreign investor, trader or lender.

As a lawyer I have seen my share of shysters, but recently I experienced an elaborate scam in China that had me totally convinced. It was carried out by two men pretending to be students from a neighboring university's institute for the study of snakes.

As I walked by, the pair "caught" a writhing snake about a meter long. I asked what they were doing. They explained that they were catching poisonous snakes to extract venom for making antidotes and medicines.

The men seemed to have a vast knowledge of the behavior and habitats of snakes, and were persuasively earnest in their eagerness to share the information. They explained that they had just caught the male snake, and so the female must be nearby.

As one kept talking to me, the other sprayed what they claimed was a snake repellent in the crevices of a nearby stone wall to drive out the female. Suddenly, a snake slithered out and the two jumped to grab hold of it. But, as I could clearly see, the snake bit the finger of one of them before they succeeded in capturing it.

With his companion in evident pain, the other man asked me to hold my hands tightly around the "victim's" arm in a sort of tourniquet. He then opened his anti venom kit. As I held onto the man's arm for dear life, I thought I could see the dark shadow of the venom traveling up his arm.

The "victim" quickly swallowed several anti-venom pills, while his companion poured cold water on his arm to slow his blood circulation and the progress of the venom toward his heart. Even so, the bitten man collapsed to the ground, apparently in great pain and suffering from nausea. But I was assured by his companion that since he had taken the anti venom pills, and with the help of my makeshift tourniquet, he should recover soon.

After more than half an hour of elaborate acting, the "sting" was put into motion. The men gave me several anti-venom pills as a gesture, they said, of their gratitude for saving the bitten man's life. They explained that the pills were also effective for reducing the effects of hangovers, food poisoning and other medical problems, though they added that one or two pills might not be enough.

For all its implausible details, I confess that I was absolutely convinced I had helped save the man's life. My euphoric self-congratulation was interrupted when, five minutes after leaving the men, I encountered another team working on an elderly couple with an identical story of having caught one snake and being bitten by another. The elderly couple, both doctors, bought an entire bottle of the anti-venom medicine.

This is just one of many scams I have heard about in China. When my brother visited Beijing not long ago, three men working as a tag team spent more than an hour trying to persuade him to put down a deposit for an antique vase.

In his classic 1940 book "The Big Con," David Maurer described in detail the Golden Age of the confidence game in the United States around the turn of the last century. It was a period of unprecedented prosperity for the newly industrializing nation, similar in many ways to China today.

Many foreign executives and traders have described doing business today in China, especially in places like Guangdong and Fujian provinces, as being like the "Wild West." There is the same sense of unrestrained capitalism, caveat emptor and "grab all while you can."

Yet the same lust for money, creative energy and salesman's chutzpah animate both the Chinese con artist and the entrepreneur. Among the hucksters and snake oil salesmen roaming the country today may be the future Vanderbilts and robber barons of China - and the builders of the economic powerhouse of the 21st century.

*Mr. Chang is a partner in the New York office of Zhong Lun Law Firm, a global law firm based in China, with over 700 lawyers located in 10 offices worldwide, including London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York.  For more information concerning Mr. Chang, please go to: