BEIJING — Economists rack their brains studying the nature of business. In the simplest terms, the essence of business is to make money. But in today’s China, as elsewhere, particular political, economic and social factors make a difference — and a wide range of uniquely Chinese money-making mechanisms have been developed.
What Wang Lin, the renowned qigong master now suspected of fraud, has long operated is essentially a peculiar corporate enterprise whose greatest asset is mystery.
Qigong — the integration of physical postures and breathing techniques that comes in forms as varying as tai chi and kung fu — has a very long history in China. Archaeological evidence suggests that qigong is related to ancient shamanic meditation and spiritual practices.
As a branch of Chinese medicine, qigong is documented in Huang Di Nei Jing, also known as the Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon, an ancient Chinese medical text that dates back more than 2,000 years. Though qigong persisted in Communist China, the government stamped out its religious significance and positioned it as a medical practice.
Belief and business models
Whether the practice of qigong leads to extrasensory perception and mystical willpower is, and always has been, a controversial topic. Because the knowledge and skills of qigong are difficult to verify, most people pretty well accept the idea that “if one believes it, then it has value. If one doesn’t believe, then it has no value.”
But “seeing is believing.” And yet witnessing something doesn’t necessarily prove its authenticity. Wang Lin had previously revived a dead snake and transformed ashes back into paper. Though people witnesses these tricks, they were but a magician’s sleight of hand.
But even more important is how much incentive there is to make people believe. As a qigong charlatan accumulates intangible assets, he creates demand in the growing market of gurus for corporate culture.
Qigong has a broad social basis in China. In the 1980s, China went through a bona fide qigong craze. Even Qian Xuesen, a famous scientist, declared that “Qigong is a new science about consciousness.”
Today, both the qigong temperament and market have changed radically. The market requires that its gurus possess extrasensory perception and the ability to divine and tell fortunes. This caters in particular to the needs of many Chinese officials. They live in fear of their destiny, are anxious of being punished for their corruption, or are worried about the uncertain brutal political struggle. They entrust their sense of emptiness to the worship of miraculous power.
For instance, Wang Lin told the now-imprisoned former railway czar Liu Zhijun that he should place a special stone in his office to help “ensure a lifetime without failure.” This not only reflects Liu’s lack of confidence regarding his future but a certain doomsday mentality in politics.
Meanwhile, superstitions about the qigong master are also as strong as ever among the middle class, creating a bigger mass market for qigong masters.
All of this begs a question that goes beyond business: Why is superstition so prevalent in China?
“Chinese people’s superstition for the so-called extrasensory perception and mystery willpower of qigong originates from the unrest and fury of the entire society,” writes John Gittings, an English expert on modern China, in his book The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market. That is, politics lacks transparency. And without free access to information, superstition deepens and leads to the rampant popularity of fake officials, fake doctors, fake gurus.
There is also, of course, the qigong gurus’ tricky business model.
Extorting money from fans of qigong is a conventional method. Wang also used it. And this is the major reason why he has been exposed. But Wang’s trick went beyond simple fraud — he bundled together various resources and offered himself as an intermediary for officials. In other words, he became a power broker.
His social connections and reputation were a built-in advertising platform. His marquee name provided a shield for officials, while his ability to predict fortunes simultaneously offered the involved parties psychological protection. In the guise of a qigong master, Wang essentially became a hub for a range of social and political resources. This is the real secret of the success of his enterprise.
In English scholar Henry Whitehead’s book The Village Gods of South India, Zhou Zuoren, a Chinese literati in the beginning of last century, said he doubted “that a nation which mixes raw blood with rice to feed evil spirits will be able to build a rational society.” He concluded that, by contast, China was a lot better off.
But as a matter of fact, the superstitious Indians today are building a democracy and a nation with the rule of law. Meanwhile, the Wang Lin phenomenon is telling us that in contemporary China a deep sense of uncertainty reigns across every stratum of society. Uncertainty, as we've seen, turns people to the cult of the gurus. A perfect business model, indeed