China seizes $1.5 billion in online lending crackdown

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Chinese policemen watch as depositors from Ezubao gather outside the State Bureau for Letters and Calls Reception Division office in Beijing. China's policy ministry says it investigated 380 online lenders and froze $1.5 billion in assets in a crackdown following an avalanche of scandals in the huge but lightly regulated industry. The ministry said Monday, Jan. 18, 2019, it launched the investigation in June because the industry was increasingly risky and rife with complaints about fraud, mismanagement and waste. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)
Women walk by a bank window panel displaying the security markers on the latest 100 Yuan notes in Beijing, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. China's policy ministry says it investigated 380 online lenders and froze $1.5 billion in assets in a crackdown following an avalanche of scandals in the huge but lightly regulated industry. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

BEIJING — Chinese police have investigated 380 online lenders and frozen $1.5 billion in assets following an avalanche of scandals in the huge but lightly regulated industry, the government announced Monday.

Beijing allowed a private finance industry to flourish in order to supply credit to entrepreneurs and households that aren't served by the state-run banking system. But that threatens to become a liability for the ruling Communist Party after bankruptcies and fraud cases prompted protests and complaints of official indifference to small investors.

The police ministry said it launched the investigation because person-to-person, or P2P, lending was increasingly risky and rife with complaints about fraud, mismanagement and waste.

The ministry gave no details of arrests but said more than 100 executives were being sought by investigators and some had fled abroad. It said authorities seized or froze 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) but gave no indication how much might be returned to depositors.

Police say some lenders and investment vehicles were brazenly fraudulent, while others collapsed after inexperienced founders failed to manage risk.

Monday's statement said P2P lenders were investigated for complaints including wasting money, reporting phony investment plans and using illegal tactics to raise money.

Lending through online platforms grew by triple digits annually until 2017 when regulators tightened controls.

Depositors lent 1.9 trillion yuan ($280 billion) last year, but that was down by 50 percent from 2017, according to the Shenzhen Qiancheng Internet Finance Research Institute.

The outstanding loan balance stood at 1.2 trillion yuan ($177 billion) at the end of 2018, down 25 percent from a year earlier, according to Diyi Wangdai, a web site that reports on the industry.

P2P lenders are part of a privately run Chinese finance industry the national bank regulator estimated in 2015 had grown to $1.5 trillion.

The internet has helped financial platforms attract money from financial novices with little knowledge of the risks involved.

Many lend to factories and retailers or invest in restaurants, car washes and other businesses. But inexperience and poor risk control means a downturn in business conditions can bankrupt them.

Finance as a whole has come under tougher scrutiny after a 2015 plunge in stock prices led to accusations of insider trading and other offenses.

In one of China's biggest financial scams, authorities say depositors lost 50 billion yuan ($7.7 billion) in online lender Ezubo before it was seized by regulators in 2015.

The founder and his brother were sentenced to life in prison in 2017.

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