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
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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