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.
In December 2014, Presnell became the first person in North Carolina to be convicted of felony ginseng larceny on private property. He joined other thieves across Appalachia — the mountainous strip of territory extending from southern New York through the Carolinas down into Mississippi — who’ve been arrested, fined, even imprisoned for various ginseng-related crimes, including poaching, illegal possession, and unlawful trade across state lines. ... Cornett went into business for the same reason poachers are keen to rob him. The global market for ginseng root, popularly used as an herbal supplement, is estimated at more than $2 billion. Long a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng products are also ubiquitous in Korea and increasingly popular in Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries with large ethnic Chinese populations. These days, most ginseng is mass-produced on large, pesticide-sprayed farms under the artificial shade of wood and fabric canopies. Wild ginseng, which tends to grow in temperate forests, is considered more potent and fetches a higher price. Plants like Cornett’s, cultivated in the woods, are closer to wild than to conventionally farmed ginseng. ... Dwindling supply and robust demand have inflated wild American ginseng’s value. In 2014, according to public and academic data, the 81,500 pounds that were legally exported commanded an average wholesale price of $800 per dried pound. That was almost 15 times more than the going rate for farmed roots. Nearly all exports go to China, where a burgeoning middle class is willing to pay marked-up retail prices — sometimes even thousands of dollars per pound. ... Scientists believe ginseng is native to both East Asia and North America because some 70 million years ago, the two land masses were part of a single megacontinent known as Laurasia