Success Brings Scrutiny to Chinese Mystic

Over the past week and amid a state campaign discouraging superstition among the political elite, “ master” has attracted much attention in the Chinese media due to his relationships with high-profile officials and celebrities. Last week, the Global Times reported:

Qigong, the ancient Chinese healing practice, has seen a revival in popularity of late, becoming one of the latest fads for celebrities. Although a number of pseudo-qigong masters have been revealed as frauds, losing much of their appeal with the public, their celebrity fan base appears to be more loyal than most.

The devotion of prominent personalities to their masters came to light recently when photos surfaced of Ma Yun (Jack Ma), the billionaire founder and ex-CEO of the Alibaba Group, visiting Wang Lin, a self-proclaimed qigong master from Pingxiang in Jiangxi Province. The reaction online was one of shock that such a successful entrepreneur could fall prey to a charlatan like Wang.

There was further consternation when other celebrities such as actor Jet Li and actress Zhao Wei also became guests of Wang Lin.

Quickly delving into the life of Wang, more alarming pictures were found in which Wang seemed to be hobnobbing with top officials including , the disgraced minister of railways, and former ministers. In one picture, former health minister Chen Minzhang was shown receiving treatment by Wang. [Source]

A report from Sina English has more on the probe into Wang and press coverage of it:

In what appears to be a latest case of scam busting, the flamboyant ‘Qigong’ master Wang Lin will soon see his self-vaunted supernatural power grilled as an investigation into his suspected illegal medical practice is well underway, according to a report by Beijing News on July 29.

Head of the publicity department of the county Party committee of Luxi, Wang’s hometown in eastern Jiangxi Province, told the journalist in a telephone interview last night that further probe is still in process as there is now no sufficient evidence to make an immediate arrest.

Wang’s self-claimed paranormal abilities and high-profile friends roster have hit the headlines over the past week, although most of the coverages treat him as a pompous, money-worshiping swindler.

The official China Central Television put on a feature program last night to muckrake Wang, describing him as a “bragger and liar” whose only aim is to “accumulate wealth”. [Source]

The self-proclaimed Qigong master has allegedly “cursed” the journalist who broke the Beijing News story cited above.

Media coverage has also focused on a legal battle between Wang and a former “apprentice” that is being re-tried in a provincial level court after a local ruling in Wang’s favor. A report from the Global Times explains the circumstances of the court battle, and displays how coverage of the trial emphasizes his charlatan status and not his success in the intermediate court:

A court in Jiangxi Province held the second trial in a 30 million yuan ($4.8 million) dispute between the self-proclaimed qigong master Wang Lin and his former apprentice on Tuesday Morning.

Zou Yong, a businessman and once Wang’s apprentice, appealed to the Higher People’s Court in Jiangxi Province after an intermediate court ruled that he must pay back the 30 million yuan he was loaned by Wang.

Zou told the Global Times in a phone interview on Tuesday that he borrowed money from Wang but had already paid some of it back through his “tuition.”

Zou had allegedly paid Wang over 5 million yuan and bought Wang a Rolls Royce as “tuition” to learn qigong.

“I used to truly believe in Wang’s tricks, but I later found that he has moral issues,” Zou said. “Now I realize that all of his self-professed power is fake and I feel ashamed that I was once his apprentice.”

[…]Recent media reports exposed Wang as a charlatan. He claimed that he has supernatural powers and one of his most famous tricks is to conjure snakes from an empty basin. He explained that the snakes were freshly caught in the field by his spirit, which could leave his body and travel thousands of miles in the blink of an eye. [Source]

Amid the barrage of media criticism and while waiting for the verdict from Jiangxi, Wang has fled to Hong Kong where he is allegedly seeking refuge. From the semi-autonomous SAR, Wang offered the New York Times his side of the story:

Hiding in Hong Kong, where he fled to avoid possible arrest, Mr. Wang said Tuesday in an interview that he was the innocent victim of a political vendetta that has rippled outward from a business dispute in his hometown in Jiangxi Province in southern China. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China with considerable legal autonomy.

Mr. Wang said he hoped that discussing his case would show he was the target, rather than the perpetrator, of corrupt political dealings.

“It’s as if the whole country has turned against me, turning black into white and white into black,” Mr. Wang said from a chic hotel room where he has been hiding out from reporters and, his associates said, Chinese officials. “It’s truly beyond my comprehension.”

[…]“If I go back, I’ll certainly be arrested,” said Mr. Wang, wearing the glittery style of ring and watch favored by many newly wealthy Chinese people. He said he had made his money honestly, and never took money from officials or from ill people who sought his help. “I’ve always kept to myself, never promoted myself, but now it seems the media can treat me as a criminal, say anything about me.”

[…]Mr. Wang said he had a permanent residence permit to stay in Hong Kong and for now had no intention of returning to mainland China.

He likened himself to Edward J. Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who briefly hid in a Hong Kong hotel after disclosing information about the United States’ intelligence-gathering efforts. [Source]

Wang began his career towards the end of a larger Qigong revival between the 1970s and 1990s—the same wave of popularity that allowed founder Li Hongzhi to gather his following until the movement was banned. Unlike Li, Wang didn’t codify his teachings into a system that the ruling party deemed a threat, and instead remained under the radar, relying on a small group of followers. Among the officials and celebrities whose meetings with Wang sparked the current investigation into his character was Liu Zhijun, the former railways minister who was recently given a suspended death sentence for corruption. The above linked article from the New York Times notes that Wang has become “an example of the excesses and ideological rot threatening the Communist Party,” and as such an ideal target in the ongoing party campaign against corruption. In a Caixin article asking how someone like Wang manages to attract followers from within the party, an expert describes the attraction as a example of their lost faith:

Lei Yi, a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says that this is due to a sense of insecurity troubling China’s political and business elite. They hope to receive some sort of blessing and turn to these “experts” for career advice and luck.

[…]A lot of these well-known “masters” are skilled in manipulating people, Lei said. Unlike religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, which have doctrines, what these qigong “masters” promote is just magic and witchcraft, he said.

Lei said that superstition is common in all walks of life, but this “man of God” phenomenon among senior officials and businessmen is worth special attention. While the worship by entertainers can be written off as a hobby with little public influence, in the case of officials it reflects a paradox because they are the ones openly preaching and advocating materialism and atheism. These words diverge radically from their thinking, Lei said.

Ultimately, Lei said, this phenomenon showed that “this is an era of lost faith.” [Source]

Also see “The Chinese Professor X: Money, Power, and Absurdity,” Off Beat China’s profile of Wang.

July 31, 2013 9:53 PM
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Categories: Hong Kong, Law, Politics, Society