Wang Lin concentrating before one of his famous tricks
Song Shinan

BEIJING â€" Wang Lin is one of China's best-known (and self-proclaimed) qigong masters, drawing in the rich and famous with his spiritual healing methods and such proclaimed feats as chopping off snakes' heads and bringing them back to life. This figure who many believe to be a simple charlatan has attracted senior public officials, movie stars like Jet Li and Jackie Chan and businessmen like Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of the Alibaba group.

Now, Wang been arrested on suspicion of being involved in the kidnapping and murder of one of his disciples.

His is not a unique case: There are many contemporary variations on the figure of the traditional Chinese alchemist. The only difference is that Wang claims to be neither a Buddhist nor Taoist, relying instead on little more than a few weeks of acrobatic troupe training from his youth.

The Ming Dynasty alchemists are Wang Lin’s true precursors. Most Ming emperors believed in diabolism and other nonsense coming from crooked monks. As a result, those monks interfered in the ruler’s affairs, jeopardized people’s livelihoods, and brought endless damage to the empire.

Over the decades, through his skills in fooling people, Wang made acquaintances with a mix of VIPs and wove a powerful personal secret network.

His various outlandish declarations are indispensable gimmicks for attracting clients. Some came to him asking to have a baby. Some wanted to enjoy the company of ten lovers at the same time. Others came with incurable illnesses. Public officials, meanwhile, typically came in search of a promotion or hoping that their wrongdoings would never be found out.

In brief, whether they are entertainment stars, successful businessmen or public officials with great power, these believers aspire to access a mysterious, supernatural force delivered to them directly from Wang.

Not all of his followers, however, are fools. It is very clear in their minds that by visiting the “Wang Palace” â€" the pompous name the guru gave his five-story home â€" they’d be ushered into the wealthy club of aristocrats and tycoons. Through Wang’s alchemy, the troika of officials, entrepreneurs, and entertainers respectively contribute their power, money, beauty and fame and thus have access to what they desire in return.

Wang is like a spider, crawling across his web, keeping the three categories together. He often held private gatherings in his mansion, with the “big men” of Chinese society rushing to attend.

Solidarity of status

From the point of view of social psychology, such a phenomenon brings physical and material proximity that can create the sense of solidarity within the group, reinforced by the “high status” characteristic shared by the different members.

Wang accepted followers only via recommendation from other high-profile clients. Coupled with his persuasion skills and supposed magical powers, many were thus convinced that Wang was a "superman," and to that being around him would bring blessings and material resources.

To a certain extent, Wang Lin’s circle is a pre-modern phenomenon, where no distinction existed between the private and public. As long as one is admitted to this club, official business can be conducted in secret, while private affairs can be solved with public power. Wang Lin had no power himself, but was instead a parasite â€" using his fame and bogus authority to act like a broker of the power of others.

Alas, Wang’s arena can never be exposed to the sunlight. Once a shady circle’s words and deeds are before the public eye, it’s doomed to collapse. The reason is simple: There is too much entanglement of rights and interests. To protect themselves from public scrutiny, the involved parties would never admit their close relations with the self-proclaimed master, lest they face the uproar of public opinion.

Since Wang's arrest, the authorities remain unclear about his involvement in the murder case. Some suspect a powerful elder in his circle may have tried to eliminate both Wang and his disciple; others wonder if an even more powerful political strongman outside his circle may have wanted to crack down on the power hiding behind Wang. What's certain is that the web of influence that gave Wang Lin his power has unraveled forever.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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