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China’s Senior Officials Find Comfort in Mythical Masters

TheSan Luis Obispo Tribune

Didi Tan

Associated Press June 14, 2015

BEIJING — The former Chinese security czar recentlyconvicted of leaking state secrets did not pass classified documents to a foreignspy or a political rival.

Rather, Zhou Yongkang, a former member of theall-powerful Standing Committee of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo,shared the documents with his qigong master, who claims supernatural abilities,according to a verdict made public last week and which also convicted Zhou ofmassive corruption.

It’s the latest example of a twisted relationshipbetween the leadership of the party, which nominally espouses atheism, andspirituality.

Before Zhou, many senior party cadres and governmentofficials were reported to have sought help and blessings from qigong masters,feng shui experts, and Buddhist and Taoist monks. Golden Buddha statues arecoveted gifts for those in power. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin is anavid temple-goer.

“The reason is clear – communism is dead,” said WillyLam, an expert on China’s elite politics at the Chinese University of HongKong. “It’s natural for cadres to turn to superstitious beliefs to ward offevil and to help them avoid the pitfalls in the cunning corridors of (politics).”

It’s no secret that many Communist leaders believe inBuddhism or Christianity, said Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton ChinaCenter at Washington-based think tank Brookings Institute.

“They go to temples, and some are closet Christians,”Li said. “It’s not surprising in a country with a spiritual vacuum.”

Qigong, a traditional practice of breathing, gentlebody movements and meditation, has legitimate health benefits, Li added. “Whenyou have money and power, what else do you want? Longevity and health. That’shuman nature,” he said.

Superstition also is common among Chinese officials,with examples including hanging a sword to keep disciplinary inspectors away,erecting a basin in front of a government building in hope of amassing wealth,and tearing up a road to ward off bad luck.

The practice of Communist Party members taking interestin supernatural powers has drawn stern criticism from China’s politicalconservatives.

“Corruption is only a matter of course when officialsabandon Marxism and Leninism for ghosts and spirits,” Sima Nan, a politicalconservative, wrote on his microblog account. “Now the party has distanceditself from atheism for so long as to allow (qigong masters) to have a goodlife.”

Sima has long been trying to expose qigong masters withuncanny abilities as conmen. In another post, he said corrupt officials and themasters have a symbiotic relationship.

“The masters provide psychological massages to corruptofficials, who in turn provide protection for the masters,” he wrote.

In the latest revelation, the confidante for Zhou – aonce-feared security czar who oversaw China’s vast police and securityapparatus – has been identified as Cao Yongzheng, a middle-aged man who gaineda reputation as a semi-immortal for his supernatural powers in the late 1980s.

Cao even got the endorsement from a reporter at theparty-run People’s Daily, who wrote that Cao could tell one’s past, present andfuture by merely looking at that person’s photo, and that he possessed powerssuch as the ability to cure infertility.

At the time, China was swept into a national frenzyover qigong, which promised healthier bodies and calmer minds as the countrywas embarking on the dizzying road of economic reforms that would drasticallyreshape the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

To win followers, qigong masters boasted uncanny powerssuch as curing stubborn illnesses without medical treatment, and they soonbuilt large bases of fans who attended massive gatherings, signed up forpractice groups, and purchased pamphlets by the masters as they sought answersto life’s problems.

The frenzy subsided when Beijing found the fad wassliding into superstitious and cultish cultures, and it came to an end in 1999,when authorities started to crack down on one of the popular qigong schoolsknown as Falun Gong. More than 10,000 of its practitioners showed up in frontof the central government to demand fair treatment, making authorities uneasyabout the spiritual group’s ability to mobilize the masses.

Yet, the demand for spiritual guidance andpsychological counseling has risen in China as more people grappled with rapidand profound social and economic changes. The traditional values have beendismantled by the party’s earlier campaigns to eradicate the old world, but theparty also had seen its own communist beliefs go bankrupt among the public.

“The Cultural Revolution has rooted out China’straditional value system, and the introduction of Western values was disruptedto some extent in 1989,” said Beijing-based independent commentator Shi Shusi,referring to the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracydemonstrations.

“But human souls need to have a home, so the Chinesehave found the home for their souls in those qigong masters,” Shi said.

State-sanctioned religions such as Christianity andBuddhism also have seen a rapid and strong resurgence, while gurus such asqigong masters and feng shui experts – who specialize in harmonizing elementsin one’s environment – have built small but lucrative circles of clients amongChina’s richest and most powerful and most influential.

Cao, Zhou’s confidante, was highly sought after byofficials seeking favors from Cao’s powerful friends, according to a 2013article by the Southern Weekly, which used to be famous for its investigativejournalism.

Cao was listed in the court statement as part of asmall group of relatives and close friends of Zhou who pocketed 2 billion yuan($340 million) in illegal income through Zhou’s help, and media reports describedCao as one of the richest people in China, with business interests in oil, realestate, film and agriculture.

As Zhou came under investigation in 2013, Cao’s officein Beijing was raided by police, and the man himself had fled the country,state media reported. Now, the media have suggested that Cao eventually will bebrought to justice now that Zhou has been imprisoned for life over corruptioncharges following his May 22 trial.

Another qigong master, Wang Lin, who has been recentlydisgraced as a fraud by state media, once had the trust of a Chinese railwaysminister and found a fan in Alibaba founder Jack Ma. State media said Wang hadlived lavishly.

Wang once gave former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun arock as a blessing that Liu would always stand solid and never fall. Theanecdote now serves as a joke after Liu fell to corruption charges.

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University ofChicago, said the rich and powerful are turning to divine powers to help,including relationships with qigong masters who not only can provide soothingbody massages, but also psychological support to help them avoid trouble.

“It’s psychologically comforting,” Yang said. “They canplay the role of a psychological adviser.”


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