How the Rise and Fall of a Snake Conjurer Explains Today's China

Wang Lin prospered nicely from promoting superstition -- but political problems, not religion, forced him to flee the country.


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Wang Lin, a 61 year-old from Jiangxi Province, is a man of many talents. A master of the martial art qigong, he can conjure snakes from thin air and cure foreign heads of state of disease, a feat he supposedly managed with former Indonesian President Suharto. At least, that's what he says. But what can't be denied is this: Wang has profited nicely from his trade. He owns a five-story villa and four luxury cars, including a Hummer.

To his critics, though, Wang greatest gift is separating a fool from his money. Doubts about his snake conjuring arose, for instance, when Wang was spotted purchasing the poor reptiles at a store. His talent in curing cancer has yet return positive evidence. And a former disciple has accused Wang of cheating him out of 7 million RMB (about $1.2 million), a case still awaiting resolution.

Nonetheless, Wang's success is impressive when you consider that his trade is illegal in China. Chairman Mao believed that superstition -- and religious belief more broadly -- were threats to the primacy of Communist ideology, and banned these ancient practices during the 1960s. In the years since his death, superstition has largely returned, but laws prohibiting are still on the books -- creating a gray area in which people like Wang could capitalize.

Alas, Wang Lin has suffered a sudden reversal of fortune. After reports surfaced that Jack Ma -- an Internet entrepreneur and one of China's richest men -- visited Wang Lin's home, authorities began scrutinizing the snake charmer more closely. Soon, photographs revealed that Wang had also met Liu Zhijun, the former Railways Minister convicted for corruption. Photos of Wang's opulence surfaced online, and, never one to miss an opportunity, the Chinese media piled on. 

First, when a Beijing News reporter expressed skepticism of some of Wang's claims (including that he has been offered "70 green cards" from the United States, but couldn't bear to leave his beloved Jiangxi Province) during an interview, the mystic cursed and threatened her. Then, the national CCTV Evening News dismissed him as a charlatan and accused him of practicing medicine without a license, a criminal offense in China. 

Necromancer or not, Wang at least has this skill: He can see the writing on the wall. Facing possible arrest and/or financial ruin, he fled to Hong Kong, where, in an interview with the New York Times' Chris Buckley, the snake conjurer compared himself to Edward Snowden.

In a country teeming with major political, economic, and diplomatic challenges, the rise and fall of a single charlatan isn't usually a story that raises eyebrows. But Wang Lin's experience provides a fascinating lens into how Chinese politics -- and society -- operates in 2013.

Superstition is everywhere in China. Affluent city-dwellers consult astrologists before choosing a wedding date or other important occasion. People willingly pay extra for phone numbers featuring the number 8, as it rhymes with "prosperity" (and consequently avoid the number 4, which rhymes with "death"). It isn't an accident that the officially atheist Communist Party chose August 8, 2008 -- at 8 pm -- as the launch date of the Beijing Summer Olympics.

Superstitious beliefs have accompanied a general rise of spirituality in China, which has struggled to define its identity during the fat years of economic growth. While the government generally tolerates religion, exceptions remain: A surge of interest in the Falun Gong, a religion based around breathing exercises, led to its sudden and complete prohibition in 1999. Nevertheless, enthusiasm for spirituality hasn't waned in the years since. Religious beliefs -- both traditional and otherwise -- have grown throughout the country, both in the urbanized upper class and among the rural poor. The very fact that like Wang Lin prospered through (literal) sleight-of-hand, in fact, indicates just how attractive spirituality remains in China.

Superstition and spirituality are hardly a unique Chinese phenomenon, of course, and that leads us to the main cause for Wang Lin's downfall: politics. Wang didn't get into trouble because he made a lot of money, or deceived a few people, or revived frowned-upon superstitions. He got into trouble because he adopted a public profile, thereby forcing the government to pay attention to him. And once word spread that he met Liu Zhijun, a disgraced official, the target on Wang's back became impossible to ignore. The media went in for the kill, and his fate was sealed.

Wang Lin's misfortune won't make much of a difference, one way or the other, in reducing superstition in China. But it does serve as a timely reminder that in China, incorrect religion may be tolerated -- but incorrect politics never are.