Crime

The Life of a Child Con Artist

Shi Yangkun and Ding Yining/Sixth Tone

His parents made him jump out of moving taxis and defraud the drivers. Now, he’s trying to piece his life back together.

Ni Dandan

Luo doesn’t look like a reformed con man. For one thing, he’s only 16 years old. For another, he sticks out — he’s tall and mature-looking for his age. When you talk to him, he comes across as quiet, thoughtful, even shy.

But for just over a year between summer 2016 and fall 2017, Luo — whose full name is being withheld because he’s a minor — was part of a family of swindlers who scammed innocent people out of at least 10,000 yuan ($1,500) in that time. The trick was simple yet effective: Luo’s parents would hail a taxi, intentionally cause a traffic incident in which Luo feigned serious injury, and then loudly and hysterically accuse the driver of dangerous driving. The goal: Force the driver to pay the family “compensation,” ostensibly to cover Luo’s medical bills.

In Chinese, there’s a name for the Luo family’s antics: pengci, or “broken porcelain.” The term has centuries-old origins, with some saying it harkens back to Qing dynasty porcelain sellers who deliberately broke their wares and blamed passersby for the damage. Since the 1990s, though, pengci has come to refer to the practice of blaming innocent people for fake “injuries” in order to extort money from them.

Such cases are relatively common. In April last year, police arrested nine people who caused at least 430 traffic incidents in eastern China’s Zhejiang province between 2013 and 2018, extorting 4 million yuan in the process. And in October the same year, police in the eastern province of Shandong arrested another gang who purchased secondhand luxury cars, crashed them, and blamed the other drivers, raking in over 6 million yuan over a two-year period.

The road to Luo family’s home in a village in Yibin, Sichuan province, January 2019. Ming Que for Sixth Tone

Luo grew up in a remote village near Yibin in southwestern China’s Sichuan province. The region is poor and rural, and most locals farm vegetables or raise pigs. Like many families in the Chinese countryside, Luo’s parents left their hometown for work, leaving the young Luo in the care of his grandparents. Even during the Lunar New Year — the most important festival in the traditional Chinese calendar — his parents rarely returned home. “At first, I occasionally missed them. But over time, I gradually forgot them,” Luo recalls. “They seldom called home or sent back any money.”

Luo spent his early years swimming in the local river, play-fighting with other kids in his village, and picking fruit from the nearby orange trees. In 2010, when he reached the age of 7, his parents decided that Luo should come live with them in Linhai, the city of 1 million people in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, where they worked a string of jobs at a brick kiln and a factory that made metal tools. Luo’s parents told him they wanted to ease his grandparents’ burden and hoped he’d help look after his then 2-year-old sister. After Luo turned 8, they enrolled him at a local school for migrant children.

In many ways, the family traded rural poverty for urban want. All four family members lived in a single 10-square-meter apartment that cost 300 yuan a month. Luo’s parents had notoriously unstable jobs: In a good month, the family might have earned 5,000 yuan, but in a bad month, that sum could be 3,000 yuan or lower. Luo says his father — with whom he shares a surname — often quit jobs he found too hard and gambled away much of his earnings playing mahjong. Luo says his father often asserted his authority through physical violence. “When he was in bad mood — like after losing money at mahjong — he threw chairs, bowls, or chopsticks at me,” he says.

“I was dreaming of a beautiful life after reuniting with my parents. But it was just a dream,” Luo says. At home, his parents demanded he wash the clothes and prepare meals for the family. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, his parents would drag him out of bed to haul bricks at the kiln.

According to police reports, in 2016 Luo’s mother — surnamed Liu — saw a TV drama in which a child fell down next to a car, feigned injury, and the driver paid the family a sum of money. She suggested to her husband that they try the same thing with the then 13-year-old Luo. Liu later told police she had no idea the practice was illegal.

Luo shows a scar from his time doing “pengci.” Courtesy of Fuming Police Station in Ningbo

Starting that summer, Luo’s career as a con artist began in earnest. Although the best-known examples of pengci involve people positioning themselves on the ground beside vehicles to give the impression they’ve been knocked down, Luo’s parents took a slightly different approach. Noting that taxis in Linhai were often electric three-wheeled carts with open sides, they began hailing them, sitting Luo on the seat closest to the road, and instructing him to fall out of the vehicle when the road became bumpy. Luo would sprawl on the ground and wail, and his angry parents would demand compensation from the seemingly careless driver.

Luo vividly remembers how nervous he felt the first time he threw himself out of a taxi. The vehicle was speeding along a bumpy road; beside him, his father hissed at him to jump. Luo closed his eyes and rolled out of the vehicle. “When I hit the ground and started to feel the pain,” he recalls, “I felt relief more than anything.”

Luo’s father relieved the driver of 1,000 yuan that day, pocketed after threatening to sue him over his son’s injuries. Luo recalls looking down at his bleeding hands, then back up at the face of his cash-counting father. “Dad just said: ‘The harder you fall, the more money we’ll make,’” he remembers.

A field near the house Luo’s parents rent in Linhai, Zhejiang province, January 2019. Ming Que for Sixth Tone

Between then and October 2017, Luo’s family extorted money through pengci 11 more times. Most of the time, Luo says, his parents claimed compensation of a few hundred or thousand yuan. “Dad seemed addicted to pengci, because it earned the family a quick buck,” says Luo. “He took me out almost every weekend, looking for chances (to scam people).”

But the job took a toll on Luo’s health. Each time he fell, he sustained cuts and bruises. A fall in August 2017 even fractured his skull, causing him headaches and nausea. His parents waited until they received 4,000 yuan from the driver before taking their son to a medical clinic. Later, Liu told police she and her husband were “heartbroken” by their son’s injuries. Luo remembers it differently. “My Dad said that now I’d cracked my head open, we should take the opportunity to scam a few more people,” he says. “I felt like their tool to cheat people out of money.”

Eventually, drivers in Linhai began to steer clear of Luo and his parents, knowing that they were frequently involved in “accidents.” So, the family traveled to cities farther afield, where they wouldn’t be recognized — or so they thought.

In October 2017, Luo’s grandmother back in Yibin sustained a broken arm. With no money for treatment, she asked the family to help out. Upon hearing the news, Luo volunteered to travel with his parents to the nearby city of Ningbo and scam a driver there. But as passersby gathered around to watch the “accident,” one of the onlookers proclaimed loudly that, less than three weeks ago, the same thing had happened to him. The driver called the police, and the family was detained.

At the Ningbo police station, Luo told officers how his parents had staged traffic accidents and coerced him into faking injuries in traffic accidents for money. His parents estimated that they had taken around 10,000 yuan from drivers, but the true amount may be higher. In March last year, a court convicted both parents of fraud. Luo’s father was sentenced to one year in jail and lost his right of guardianship over his children. Liu also received a one-year jail sentence, but was released around one month later and given a probation sentence, so that she could look after Luo and his sister — who was not involved in pengci for being “too young,” according to her mother. Neither parent was prosecuted for child abuse. Luo himself was adjudged a victim of coercion and spared punishment.

When Sixth Tone contacted Liu for comment, she hung up the phone without speaking. The senior Luo did not answer his phone.

Luo’s homework for Chinese class in Linhai, Zhejiang province, January 2019. Ming Que for Sixth Tone

Following the convictions, the police in Ningbo crowdfunded more than 6,000 yuan and paid for Luo to see a psychotherapist. Teachers at Luo’s school found living space for the two children in the dormitory, exempted them from tuition fees, gave them remedial classes, and helped them with daily tasks like cleaning their clothes and preparing food. “All my life, I’d never received that sort of care from my own parents,” Luo says.

In late October, Luo’s father was released from jail. (His sentence ran for one year from the day he was detained in October 2017). Today, he and Liu live with their daughter in a shabby apartment in Linhai. Luo, however, lives in an even smaller apartment near his parents’ residence that costs 140 yuan a month and is sponsored by a sympathetic person from Yibin who had read about Luo’s plight. Luo occasionally goes over for dinner, but lives largely independently from the rest of his family.

Luo seems to have mixed feelings toward his parents. On the one hand, family bonds are hard to break. On the other, he understands that his parents coerced him into pursuing a life of criminality — something Luo often just calls the “painful times” — and now blame him for turning them into convicts, Luo says, adding that his grandmother also blames him for confessing the nature of his parents’ crimes to the police.

Luo’s grandmother in her kitchen in Yibin, Sichuan province, Jan. 6, 2019. Ming Que for Sixth Tone

Luo’s physical health has recovered from his repeated falls. He is no longer receiving psychotherapy, and his teachers no longer worry about his emotional state. At Linhai Zhenhua School, where Luo is now an eighth grader, teachers describe him as a pensive, sensitive boy who has difficulty opening up to others and struggles academically. “Even if he’s processing something, he rarely seeks me out to ask for help,” says Xiao Benlong, Luo’s homeroom teacher. “But in the past couple months, he’s been getting along better with his parents.”

For his part, Luo is reticent to dwell too much on the past, despite the pain it’s caused. Instead, he’s eager to return to some semblance of normality. “Life is finally peaceful again. Things are going well,” he says.

Additional reporting: Ming Que; editor: Matthew Walsh.

Originally published at www.sixthtone.com on April.12, 2019.

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