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Five on trial linked to US$7.6b China 'Ponzi scheme'

[SHANGHAI] Five people linked to a collapsed Chinese peer-to-peer lender have gone on trial for gold smuggling, state media said Friday, the first court case in a scandal that allegedly bilked investors of US$7.6 billion.

The five smuggled a total of 1,239 gold bars weighing 125 kilograms from China's southwestern province of Yunnan to neighbouring Myanmar, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

The five acted at the behest of the chairman of Yucheng Group, the parent firm of P2P lender Ezubao, it said, and organised Yucheng employees to cross the border illegally many times last year.

At current world market prices the gold is worth around US$4.8 million, a tiny fraction of the US$7.6 billion Ezubao is said to have defrauded from 900,000 investors.

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Police previously told state media that Ezubao concocted fake projects to attract investment and pocketed funds instead of passing them to borrowers to generate returns.

As part of Yucheng's overseas expansion, the firm set up a bank in Myanmar's Wa State, the Beijing News previously reported.

In a televised confession shown in February after suspects were arrested, the group's president Zhang Min said Ezubao was "a typical Ponzi scheme".

The case, said to be China's biggest-ever Ponzi scheme, has sparked protests from investors and is one among several dubious investment projects which have come to light this year.

Police charged 26 people, including Yucheng's chairman Ding Ning and president Zhang Min, with fraud and illegal fundraising in August.

Authorities have frozen more than 10 billion yuan of funds and seized 300 million yuan worth of cash, as well as assets from properties to helicopters, the official Xinhua news agency said on Wednesday.