November 4, 2015
The ranks of China’s wealthy continue to surge. As their economy shows signs of weakness at home, they’re sending money overseas at unprecedented levels to seek safer investments — often in violation of currency controls meant to keep money inside China. ... The methods include China’s underground banks, transfers using Hong Kong money changers, carrying cash over borders and pooling the quotas of family and friends — a practice known as “smurfing.” The transfers exist in a gray area of cross-border legality: What’s perfectly legitimate in another country can contravene the law in China. ... In Hong Kong, more than 1,200 currency-exchange shops have seemingly little daily activity. These brightly lit storefronts specialize in helping wealthy Chinese transfer their money overseas. The premium isn’t high — only about 1,000 yuan ($160) per HK$1 million ($130,000) more than bank exchange rates would be if they could do the transaction. ... It works like this: Chinese come to Hong Kong and open a bank account. Then they go to a money-change shop, which provides a mainland bank account number for the customer to make a domestic transfer from his or her account inside China. As soon as that transaction is confirmed, typically in just two hours, the Hong Kong money changer then transfers the equivalent in Hong Kong or U.S. dollars or any other foreign currency into the client’s Hong Kong account. Technically, no money crosses the border -- both transactions are completed by domestic transfers. ... While the first exchange has to be set up face-to-face, customers can place future orders via instant-messaging services such as WhatsApp or WeChat, and money changers set no limit on how much money they can move.
A charismatic showman with a penchant for provocative bombast, the motorcycle club's leader is perhaps Russia's most recognizable nationalist star. Over the past decade, he has transformed a once-underground biker gang into a self-styled vanguard of patriotic holy warriors, reportedly 5,000 strong, with close ties to the Kremlin. In the Russian media, he can regularly be heard trumpeting the country's greatness while warning that its enemies — America, Europe, homosexuals, liberals, traitorous "fifth columnists" — intend to undermine Mother Russia. He and the other Night Wolves often hold motorcycle rallies to promote Russian patriotism and Orthodox Christianity, making rumbling pilgrimages to churches and holy sites. He has vowed to defend the Kremlin from Maidan-inspired protesters and has pledged to die for Vladimir Putin, the country's president. He has famously declared that "wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia." Recently, the club held a three-day anti-NATO rally in Slovakia. Lately, the Surgeon has taken to praising Stalin. ... The Surgeon and his Night Wolves have flourished in this nationalist ecosystem. The club has reportedly received more than $1 million in grants from the Kremlin to support patriotic performances like the Sevastopol bike show. On several occasions, Putin himself has famously mounted a three-wheel Harley and ridden alongside the Surgeon. In 2013, Putin awarded the Night Wolves' leader an Order of Honor for his "patriotic education of youth." In June, the Russian press announced a cosmonaut would carry the club's flag into space. ... the Surgeon tells me the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. had left him deeply embittered. "All the values were lost, everybody started kicking their history, spitting on their own granddads," he says. "All these pretenders I always hated — they painted themselves so quickly from Communists to capitalists." His disillusionment, he explains, led to a time of desert wandering, a search for answers. Eventually he identified those responsible: proponents of democracy, liberalism, Wall Street.
When I met al-Khal in late September, he was organizing two to three trips a day to the Greek island of Lesbos, about eight miles from the Turkish coastline. He fits 30 to 50 people a raft and charges $1,000 to $1,500 per person. Each crossing costs him between $10,000 and $15,000. In the past two years, he claims to have made more than $2 million. ... With nearly 400,000 people arriving illegally in Greece this year, the refugee crisis has been good to him. And he is not alone: the underground economy of human smuggling is thriving. According to some calculations, there are up to 2,000 fellow smugglers in Izmir, while the trade on European territory is thought to employ up to 30,000 people.
“I’ve bought a lot of pot in my life,” Willie Nelson tells me, “and now I’m selling it back.” ... Willie Nelson has this kind of answer—stock, pithy—for all kinds of questions, and he’s been using them for decades. Bring up his brief abortive stint at college studying business administration? Invariably he’ll soon say, “I majored in dominoes.” Mention the massive sum he owed the IRS in the early ’90s—somewhere between $17 million and $32 million—and you’ll get the one about how it isn’t so much “if you say it real fast.” ... As time passes, the world offers up new questions, and so sometimes new answers are required. Once he reached the age when people began asking about retirement, Nelson would reply that he doesn’t do anything but play music and golf: “I wouldn’t know what to quit.” And now that one of America’s stoner icons is going into the pot business and planning to launch his own proprietary brand called Willie’s Reserve, this bought-a-lot-of-pot-in-my-life line is already on instant replay and you can confidently expect to hear Nelson use it for the next few years, anytime the subject is raised in his vicinity. In fact when we first meet, on the tour bus where he likes to do interviews and live much of his life, less than ninety seconds pass before he deploys it.
The discs came like a swarm of locusts, burrowing into post boxes and sliding through mail slots. They popped out of cereal boxes and appeared on meal trays during airline flights. They fell out of magazines and Happy Meals. They were stocked at the checkout counters of Best Buy, near the popcorn at Blockbuster, on bookshelves at Barnes & Noble. The ubiquity of AOL discs—those free marketing materials sent by America Online in the 90s to entice people to sign up for internet service—could be likened to world domination. ... But they were also annoying. If you didn't end up using your "50 Hours Free!," the discs would likely end up in the trash. A satirical newspaper in California, The Larely Beagle, once published a faux report about how there were so many unused AOL trials in landfills that it was contaminating the nation's drinking water. ... There's no record of how many different styles of AOL discs were distributed, but Jan Brant, AOL's former chief marketing officer, estimates that the number is in the thousands.