Chinese retiree leads crusade against fake products

Rob Schmitz Feb 20, 2012

Sarah Gardner: Fake Prada handbags and knock-off Guess jeans are a well-known part of China’s economy. But China is also home to an increasing number of fake products like special tonics that claim to cure cancer or fight back wrinkles. Sometimes they can be downright dangerous. Two years ago, hundreds of thousands of children got sick from infant formula tainted with melamine. And since then, there’ve been more scandals.

The country’s leadership admits it’s having a hard time keeping up with all of the fake products. Our China correspondent Rob Schmitz reports on one man who’s devoted his life to bringing those responsible to justice.

Rob Schmitz: You don’t just walk through Sun Anmin’s bedroom — you delicately feel your way through it. The room’s crammed, floor-to-ceiling, with boxes of medicine, cookies, tea and a crate of something called “tortoise deer wine.” There’s barely enough room for the tiny bed where he and his wife sleep.

 Sun suspects there’s something fake about each of these products. He vows to investigate every last one of them.

Sun Anmin: Here’s a bottle of walnut oil. The label says it fights against aging, it will help you lose weight, it will protect you against radiation and it will cure cancer. Bulls**t. Ordinary people think all this is true and they pay more than a hundred dollars for it.

Here in the northwestern Chinese city of Xi’an, Sun’s grumpy-old-man approach to exposing fraudulent products have earned him the nickname ‘Old Sun.’ The 65-year-old became a local celebrity seven years ago. That’s when he bought apartments for his two daughters. After he paid for them, he realized the developer had sold one of his apartments to four other people.

Sun: You can’t sell the same apartment to four people! I didn’t have any legal grounds to prove it, though. I was so angry. I found a bookstore and started reading books about real estate law.

Old Sun spent the following year at that shop, taking notes. He later sent a legal complaint to the government. He painted a four-character wooden sign — “Old Sun Fights Fakes” — and put it above his camera shop. Then the developer hired thugs to beat him up.

China’s largest television network, CCTV, devoted a half-hour segment to Old Sun’s story on its premier national news program. In the end, the government forced the developer to tear down 10 apartment buildings and return all the money.

Sun: After that, I set up a hotline to help others who’d been swindled. We had four lines ringing night and day. I had volunteers sitting in my shop helping me answer phones all day long.

 Old Sun had tapped into something.

As China developed rapidly, so too did the number of companies hoping to con people out of all this new money — from big developers all the way down to companies selling bad pistachios. A $6 bag of expired pistachios was the reason customer Zhong Changchun went to Old Sun last year.

Zhong Changchun: Old Sun helps all consumers, whatever the problem. That’s why I called him. Six dollars is a lot to me, so bringing this shop to justice was very important. Now Old Sun is showing me how to file a lawsuit.

For consumers like Zhong, the government bureaus in charge of fielding complaints aren’t any help.

Business reporter Li Weiwei says this meant Old Sun, a man who knew the law well enough to take down a fraudulent company, was suddenly in demand.

Li Weiwei: Local officials are actually grateful for Old Sun. He’s helped them correct all of these complaints and he’s improved their work.

Li says he first met Old Sun at a local supermarket. When he asked the old man what he was doing, Old Sun showed him a melatonin supplement on sale that claimed to have a gold bar inside each box. Old Sun bought three of them.

No gold bars. He later got the company in trouble for false advertising.

These days, Old Sun spends a lot of time at grocery stores. He’s targeting unsafe food, a growing problem in China. In the last two years, he’s filed 700 lawsuits against food companies — and won nearly all of them.

Today at the store, it takes Old Sun just minutes to find problems: Honey laced with an illegal food additive, a pillow that promises to treat a range of diseases, and some suspicious chicken. Old Sun argues with the clerk; the seasoning for the chicken has been approved by the proper health authorities, he says, but the chicken hasn’t. Old Sun waits for the clerk to get her manager, and then he sneaks a photo of the product label.

Lawsuit number 701 will be filed tomorrow.

In Xi’an, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

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