Success brings scrutiny to Chinese mystic
Wang Lin, an exponent of the ancient Chinese practice of qigong, claims he has used his powers to cure cancer and has performed other mysterious feats, like conjuring snakes out of thin air. But none of his abilities were enough to ward off the fury of the Communist Party, which has accused him of using superstition to draw in gullible citizens and officials.
For weeks, Chinese Web sites, newspapers and television have presented a swelling pile of accusations against Mr. Wang: bewitching and swindling patients, dodging taxes and associating with criminal gang members and corrupt officials. On Tuesday, The People's Daily, the main newspaper of the Communist Party, raised the pitch of the official condemnations and accused Mr. Wang of doling out "spiritual opium" to credulous cadres.
Hiding in Hong Kong, where he fled to avoid possible arrest, Mr. Wang said Tuesday in an interview that he was the innocent victim of a political vendetta that has rippled outward from a business dispute in his hometown in Jiangxi Province in southern China. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China with considerable legal autonomy.
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Mr. Wang said he hoped that discussing his case would show he was the target, rather than the perpetrator, of corrupt political dealings.
"It's as if the whole country has turned against me, turning black into white and white into black," Mr. Wang said from a chic hotel room where he has been hiding out from reporters and, his associates said, Chinese officials. "It's truly beyond my comprehension."
While China's leaders present their country as a model of resolute modernization, Mr. Wang and his sudden celebrity are flamboyant testament to the attractions and dangers of traditional, mystical beliefs that the government has often sought to suppress. After years of tolerating Mr. Wang, the government has turned against him as an example of the lurid excesses and ideological rot threatening the Communist Party, a theme that Xi Jinping, the party leader appointed in November, has emphasized.
"The likes of Wang Lin are spiritual opium for some officials," The People's Daily said. "He is also a mirror that has exposed the unchecked avarice and ugly souls of certain officials."
The newspaper called on officials to renew their faith in Marxism-Leninism, a theme repeated several times by Mr. Xi. "The brilliant performances and string of swindles of Wang Lin and his ilk will not become chicken soup for certain officials' souls," the paper said.
Separately, an official from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, Xue Xiaolin, said on the agency's Web site that Mr. Wang was under investigation for illegal medical work, and warned "there will be no soft handling" if he is found culpable.
"If I go back, I'll certainly be arrested," said Mr. Wang, wearing the glittery style of ring and watch favored by many newly wealthy Chinese people. He said he had made his money honestly, and never took money from officials or from ill people who sought his help. "I've always kept to myself, never promoted myself, but now it seems the media can treat me as a criminal, say anything about me."
Qigong is the ancient Chinese belief that the body's energies can be channeled using breathing, massage and meditation techniques, and turned into a force for healing, health and — some followers maintain — uncanny supernatural abilities.
Under Mao Zedong, qigong survived and adapted to Communist control, but along with other traditional beliefs it came under official suspicion. From the 1980s, though, qigong enjoyed a revival, becoming one of a number of traditional beliefs that found ardent followers and official patronage under Deng Xiaoping.
After 1999, qigong again encountered official suspicion after the party suppressed Falun Gong, a spiritual movement whose beliefs included elements of qigong.
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A diminutive 61-year-old whose sculptured eyebrows and slicked-back hair are reminiscent of Liberace's, Mr. Wang has attracted a following among businessmen, officials and others, according to Chinese news reports. His recent downfall started with a burst of publicity about his meeting Jack Ma, one of China's richest entrepreneurs, and Liu Zhijun, the former railways minister recently jailed for graft.
"The pictures of those meetings dragged Wang Lin into the limelight, and then the publicity became fatal when it attracted official attention," said Sima Nan, a media commentator in Beijing who has denounced Mr. Wang. "Wang Lin has attracted a following among officials, and not just the ones who have been exposed on the Internet. We should make an example of him and those who abetted him."
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Mr. Wang said his dealings with officials were entirely innocent. He said he met the former railways minister to discuss a business deal involving a friend. But he denied reports that he had assured Mr. Liu that he would not fall from power.
Successful Chinese people can feel drawn to mystical beliefs that promise guidance in a giddily materialistic society, said Yu Shicun, a writer in Beijing who has studied traditional beliefs. Officials have also embraced feng shui, the ancient practice of arranging rocks, waterways and other physical features to fend off ill fortune and attract positive forces.
"The education is so rigid that people then feel they lack a solid system of their own beliefs, and then they can easily fall into believing most anything," Mr. Yu said. "China has these many traditions that appeal to people, but those traditions have become distorted or ruptured by the environment they must survive in these days."
Mr. Wang was coy about discussing reports that he has claimed to use psychic power to move heavy objects, and he said his performances involving conjuring snakes from thin air were "tricks" to amuse friends.
"You can put the qigong label on many things," he said. "I never promoted myself as a qigong master; others called me that."
But a friend accompanying him in Hong Kong was more enthusiastic about Mr. Wang's powers.
"I've known him for 20 years, and you wouldn't believe the things he's capable of unless you were actually there," said the friend, Peng Taifeng, a coal trader from Shenzhen, the Chinese city next to Hong Kong.
Mr. Wang said he had a permanent residence permit to stay in Hong Kong and for now had no intention of returning to mainland China.
He likened himself to Edward J. Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who briefly hid in a Hong Kong hotel after disclosing information about the United States' intelligence-gathering efforts.