Wang Lin, a well-connected mystic who made a career out of convincing China’s elite of his supernatural powers, recently fled to Hong Kong to avoid investigation. How did he fool so many people for so long?
In its comparatively humble surroundings, the gaudy 7,000 square-meter mansion looks incongruous. It boasts a six-floor main wing guarded by two gilded stone lions who flank the high front gate, which is observed by a battery of surveillance cameras. A golden plaque above the gate proclaims the building “Wang’s Mansion.” Its owner is Wang Lin, a self-proclaimed master of qigong, a traditional Chinese breathing practice traditionally considered to be a form of exercise, alternative medicine, and meditation. The house, in Luxi County, Jiangxi Province, is not Wang’s only property – he owns similar eyesores in various other parts of the country.
Over the decades, the esoteric Wang has cultivated a reputation as a qigong master, whose supernatural powers enable him to conjure snakes out of thin air and treat terminal illness with what appear to be little more than hand gestures. His miracles have attracted thousands of visitors, among them disgraced senior officials like former railways minister Liu Zhijun and captains of enterprises like Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma, as well as stars of the entertainment world including Jet Li, Faye Wong and Zhao Wei.
In mid-July, the Chinese Internet was awash with photos of Wang and his numerous celebrity clients and admirers, including the late Indonesian President Haji Mohammad Suharto. Wang’s guru status in elite circles, combined with his supposed abilities, were more than enough to arouse the curiosity of China’s cynical netizens. After the photos of his high-profile meetings with celebrities dragged Wang into the limelight, Sima Nan, a Beijing-based media commentator noted for his exposure of pseudo-science and fraud, accused Wang of being a swindler, and challenged the authenticity of his feats. Sima sent an invitation to Wang, asking him to come to Beijing to demonstrate his qigong.
In response, Wang Lin cursed Sima Nan, and threatened to use his telekinetic powers to “impale” him.
More and more public figures, particularly government officials, were found to have close links with Wang. The media began to probe into the secrets behind Wang’s qigong.
Zou Yong, a former qigong student of Wang Lin’s, revealed to the media that since 2008, being Wang’s disciple had cost him tens of millions of yuan (millions of US dollars) in cash, presents and property.
For many years, using his unverifiable “powers” as bait, Wang Lin set about weaving a complex net of connections, and succeeded in attracting a large following of famous, rich and powerful Chinese people.
In mid-July, the Beijing News newspaper accused Wang of being a fraud and a usurer, among other allegations. The paper also revealed how he had acted as a matchmaker between rich business people and officials with the power to grant government resources and contracts. After the publication of her expose, the Beijing News reporter received a phone call from Wang, who said that she and her family would “die miserably” as a result of her accusations.
Fearing arrest and a potential investigation, Wang fled from the mainland to Hong Kong in late July.
“If I go back, I’ll certainly be arrested. I made my money honestly, and never took money from officials or from my patients who came to me for help,” Wang told the New York Times in Hong Kong.
July 30, Xue Xiaolin, an official from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said that the commission would ensure that the relevant government department in Jiangxi Province verified the facts concerning Wang’s alleged “illegal practice of medicine.” Xue said that if wrongdoing was proven, Wang would be dealt with accordingly.
According to Zou Yong, the former disciple, Wang Lin’s bank savings could be as high as two to three billion yuan (US$327-490m).
“Wang’s income comes from various sources, including treating the illnesses of the wealthy, teaching his disciples qigong, and loan sharking. Besides, he also makes money by helping businesspeople win government contracts,” Zou Yong told the media. Zou also added that Wang Lin would never treat patients who had no powerful background or social standing. Normally, patients came to seek treatment on the introduction of a mutual friend, and treatment fees were known to exceed tens of thousands of yuan.
A couple of years ago, Wang placed an order for a Rolls-Royce with a price tag of 7.6 million yuan (US$1.2m). Zou claims Wang made a deposit of 200,000 yuan (US$33,000) and asked Zou to pay the remainder, insisting this was “a kind of tuition.” When Zou did as he was told, Wang rewarded him with a book on meditation, and a “meditation cushion”. The master gave the disciple some simple instructions, and told him he would gain supernatural powers with 49 days of hard practice. Zou saw the practice through, but claims that “nothing happened.” It was at this point that Zou began to sense that something was not right – his suspicions were compounded when he discovered, to his dismay, that Wang’s “qigong manual” was a Taoist meditation brochure that sold for 11 yuan (US$1.80).
Zou Yong has told the media that Wang Lin was adept at manipulating people’s expectations. “Wang often told his visitors that he could help them to make money, or get promoted up the ladder of officialdom, so they resorted to every means possible to please and accommodate him,” Zou Yong said. “But gradually, I realized he was cheating them. He made use of common people’s awe and respect of gods and supernatural forces. Wang himself therefore became the incarnation of an omnipotent god.”
Qigong clubs boomed across China in the 1990s. Most focused on the health benefits of qigong, but some had superstitious overtones. In the past few decades, blind belief in self-styled “masters of supernatural powers” has never disappeared. The most recent example was Li Yi, a Taoist abbot in Chongqing who claimed his impressive displays of “magical powers” warranted a sainthood. He was exposed as a fraud by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) in 2010, and was ordered to stop recruiting disciples.
“Wang Lin is just one more in a long line of charlatans,” Gu Jun, a professor from the sociology department of Shanghai University, told the State-owned Global Times newspaper.
Liu Xiangdong, a senior lecturer at the Shanghai Municipal Party School, claimed that the phenomenon that Wang’s close association with government officials has tarnished the image of the government.
“We cannot ignore the possibility that they worshipped Wang to serve their own interests,” Liu said. Zou Yong has admitted that he himself won a contract for coal supply from China’s Ministry of Railways in 2006 when the now-disgraced Liu Zhijun was in charge.
Another major factor contributing to the “Wang Lin phenomenon,” in the opinion of some scholars, is the lack of genuine religious beliefs among average Chinese people.
Yu Shicun, a writer in Beijing who has been studying traditional beliefs for many years, told the New York Times that due to the rigidity of Chinese education, many people crave a reliable belief system, and often place their faith in almost any religion. “China has many traditions that appeal to people, but those traditions have become distorted or ruptured by the environment they must survive in,” said Yu.
Despite China’s staunchly secular education system, according to a poll on spirituality conducted in 2007 by Horizon Research Consultancy, 85 percent of Chinese adults claimed that they held some form of “religious belief,” or kept to some kind of religious practice, including the pursuit of “supernatural powers” like Wang Lin’s.
In Sima Nan’s opinion, the Wang Lin phenomenon reflects the mentality of ordinary Chinese people. “Through Wang Lin, we can see a reflection of ourselves. If we didn’t long for easy gains, immediate success and cherish the illusions to win the whole world without doing anything, how could Wang Lin become such a popular ‘master?’”
Sima also believes that a major reason for this is the anxiety that China’s rapid development has caused among its people. “There are many disrupting factors faced by society today, including people’s lack of a feeling of security, soaring prices and difficulty in finding affordable, reliable medical treatment. All these were exploited by Wang Lin, and fed into his carefully designed craft.”
Sign-Up for the News China Email Update
Every month you"ll receive the latest stories from the most recent issue of News China.
Badeling Pass | Beijing
Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
Or send photos to email@example.com
Please include your name, location and date of photo