BEIJING — He had the swagger and the trappings of a senior party cadre, and a natural authority that made him hard to contradict. The walls of his office in the heart of the Chinese capital were adorned with photographs of him next to retired generals and government officials. He drove a top-of-the-range Audi and a Mercedes-Benz, and, in his 50s, had an 18-year-old mistress.
But Li Guangnian was not quite as he seemed. In a country that has perfected the art of imitation, from fake iPhones to a faux Manhattan financial district to a museum filled with fake exhibits, Li was just another copy: a fake official with a fake organization peddling a false promise — of credibility and contacts, according to people who worked with and encountered him.
All over China, a country where the bureaucracy fills almost every available space with myriad organizations, and where unimaginable sums of money can be made if you just know the right people, growing ranks of swindlers are peddling the ultimate currency — influence with the political elite.
Some demand bribes in return for favors that are never granted; others pose as central government officials and are treated like kings by sycophantic local officials. A Chinese credit-rating group recently identified more than 100 phony organizations linked to such impostors.
But Li was a cut above your average con man, establishing an official-sounding organization in Beijing and then franchising out the use of that name for large sums to hustlers or social climbers around the country, according to interviews with those he dealt with. He was undone when his relationship with his young mistress was exposed on the Internet and the party disowned him.
‘‘Li Guangnian was a Chinese-style swindler, who survives within Chinese tradition and in Chinese soil,’’ said lawyer Yi Shenghua, who met Li in 2011. ‘‘In Chinese traditional culture, people have a sense of blind faith, worship, and mystery about power and officials.
‘‘It is very difficult for ordinary people to identify swindlers, because officials are estranged from people. The sense of distance between officials and the public is what swindlers live on.’’
Li set up an office under the name of the China Dynamic Investigation Committee that pretended to help the Communist Party better understand the concerns of ordinary citizens. Normally, only organizations connected to the central government are allowed to use ‘‘China’’ in their titles.
Li displayed the party logo in his office and boasted about his group’s ‘‘special’’ position, a term understood to imply official privilege. Yet his organization is registered with neither the government nor the party, authorities said.
At its peak, the China Dynamic Investigation Committee boasted of 34 branches. It claimed to have the patronage of former president Jiang Zemin — with an example of what was supposed to be the ex-leader’s own calligraphy adorning a wall at the company’s headquarters.
Like a growing number of dishonest officials — or would-be officials — Li was exposed because of his relationship with a young woman.
When photographs were posted on an Internet forum in June showing a shirtless Li on a bed beside the doe-eyed teenager, netizens thought they had caught another corrupt and creepy cadre. Soon, though, the party disowned him and his organization. Disgraced, Li dropped out of sight, his website closed down and his office was shuttered.