As the founder of China’s largest e-commerce company, how would you choose an auspicious date for your listing?
Consult bankers, lawyers and investors, perhaps? Or go and visit a spiritual advisor? That’s one explanation for why Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group, was spotted chatting to Wang Lin, a qigong master.
But if the meeting was meant to generate good fortune, it hasn’t turned out that way for either of them.
Wang, having courted the media carefully earlier in his career, has tried to avoid their attentions for much of the last decade in order to protect the identities of his famous clients. But the leak about Ma’s visit lifted the cloak of celebrity secrecy and triggered a series of events that made the 61 year-old adviser look less than sage.
It was similar for Ma. Already fighting a PR battle after alleged comments about the need for a brutal leadership style, he too was forced to confront the news. He came out fighting, saying that people had no right to criticise him for “exploring the unknown and indulging his curiosity”.
But the question remains as to why anyone with any standing would want to be associated with Wang, who includes making snakes appear from thin air and curing terminal illness with his bare hands on a long list of self-professed skills.
Some of these claims put Wang in violation of laws on superstitious practices. Sima Nan, a prominent academic, says that people like Wang are using qigong – an ability to master and channel energy or chi – to defraud their clients of money and property.
“It’s all marketing,” the Beijing News quoted Sima Nan as saying. “First masters use their magic to attract followers and to accumulate prestige, which in turn allows them to attract the attention of the rich and famous.” Xinhua added that the celebrities were as much to blame for spreading superstitious beliefs, with actors such as Jet Li and Li Bingbing also said to have dropped in to visit the qigong master at his mansion. Certainly, Wang seems to have a Svengali-like appeal.
Photos circulating online show that he has drawn in a wide circle of admirers over the years, including visits from the relatives of Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, as well as by the former railways minister, Liu Zhijun. In Liu’s case, the Beijing News says Wang gave him a ‘patron stone’ that would ensure “an infallible political career”. If so, Liu should be asking for his money back: last month he was given a suspended death sentence for corruption and abuse of power.
You might have expected Wang to go radio-silent during the controversy about Ma’s visit. Instead he gave an interview to the Beijing News as part of a feature disputing his magical powers. An enraged Wang then called up the journalist responsible and told her that she and her family would “die in an unnatural way”.
Since then Chinese state television has run an hour-long documentary pointing to the wealth Wang is said to have accrued, including three Hummers, a Rolls-Royce and a huge villa in his home province of Jiangxi. Police have begun investigating him for fraud and the illegal practice of medicine (the local health bureau has said he is unlicenced).
Wang has since fled to Hong Kong, where he has residency, and this week told the New York Times that he was the victim of a “political vendetta”. But former clients such as Li Bingbing seem to be distancing themselves. She put out a statement last week saying that she had only gone to see him because her mother was sick.
Wang may have overplayed his hand and few seem to think that he will be able to make a comeback. But Guangming Daily lamented that similar figures were likely to thrive if people continue to believe in
“The Wang Lin myth was debunked, but if the power of scientific rationality is not strong enough, if people still put their faith and their desire for success in the hands of some unknown force then the environment that qigong masters thrive in will still exist,” the newspaper concluded.
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