Qigong master Wang Lin's last trick in the magic act
After finding fame and riches as self-proclaimed qigong master, Wang Lin has fled the mainland for Hong Kong. Have his powers finally run out?
Self-proclaimed qigong master Wang Lin poses proudly with celebrities in online photos.
In an internet video, he shows off mystical skills - conjuring live snakes out of an empty pot; filling an empty glass with wine that seems to have come from nowhere; and breaking a stick by simply breathing on it.
Now, after accusations that he swindled believers with false claims about his supernatural healing powers and pocketed a fortune through suspicious deals with government officials, Wang has pulled off a new trick - vanishing from his hometown in Jiangxi province and materialising in Hong Kong.
His disappearing act comes barely four months after he won a court case granting him 33 million yuan (HK$41 million) in a dispute over a loan.
Wang, 61, is said to be the richest man in Pingxiang, a city of 1.8 million people in western Jiangxi. He often opened up his five-floor villa and garden to visiting celebrities and journalists.
Above the golden gate to his compound, a big red board with gilded characters bears the words Wang Fu, or "The Wang Mansion". The words could also mean the "mansion of a prince".
Despite a barrage of investigative media coverage of the qigong "master" in recent weeks, no one knows exactly the size of Wang's fortune.
He says he is a billionaire and enjoys showing off his fleet of luxury cars, including at least three Hummers and one Rolls Royce.
Wang claims he was jailed during the Cultural Revolution for fraud and "sabotaging" the Communist Party's agricultural policies. He had his jail terms extended after several unsuccessful escape attempts.
The Beijing News, an influential newspaper which has done a series of investigative stories on Wang, quoted a former fellow prison inmate as saying he appeared to possess no special powers back then.
He was often roughed up by other prisoners, leaving him "with bruises all over his face".
In a follow-up story, the paper said Wang called the reporter and placed a curse on her that he said would bring "terrible deaths to her whole family".
But since the 1980s, Wang has turned his life around and become a successful businessman.
He has also emerged as a "master" of qigong, the ancient art of manipulating qi - the basic particle of matter in nature described by the philosopher Zhuangzi almost 2,000 years ago.
Wang appears to have gained his wealth and reputation primarily from his qigong practice and networks of believers, "students" and esteemed guests.
He gained permanent residency in Hong Kong after doing business in Shenzhen for years. He returned to his hometown of Luxi, Pingxiang, as a powerful, mysterious man with both an enormous fortune and alleged supernatural powers.
A video on youku.com with 121,000 page views to date, purportedly shows Wang performing some of his most fabled tricks.
Rumours have been spreading for years that Wang could treat and even cure cancer with his qigong powers.
The same video showed patients whose faces had been distorted by physical pain walking away with big smiles after their treatment.
In early May, Wang appeared set to add tens of millions of yuan to his vast fortune after he won a court case over a series of large loans involved in a property dispute with a former disciple.
A court in Luxi ordered Zou Yong, a wealthy local businessman who had studied qigong with Wang for years, to pay him more than 33 million yuan that Wang claimed Zou had borrowed from him.
Zou is appealing against the ruling and has made various accusations against Wang.
He claimed he paid millions of yuan to learn qigong from the "master" yet had gained no special powers. Zou also claimed that Wang sold him a large stash of fake mao-tai liquor, for which he also paid millions of yuan."I used to think Wang was holy as well," Zou told the South China Morning Post. "But I lost a few million yuan learning qigong from him."
Zou said Wang took him to meet railways minister Liu Zhijun - then a high-flier, now jailed for corruption - in 2006.
He said Wang told him Liu was a friend who could help secure government approval for one of Zou's projects. After that, he decided to learn from Wang and paid him several million yuan for "tuition" in 2008.
"All I was given was a book, a small table and a mattress," he said. "I practised as hard as he asked for two years. In the end, I did not learn any magic."
Liu was sentenced death with a two-year reprieve early last month for taking bribes and abuse of power.
Besides the legal dispute, Wang's flamboyant and boastful ways have also contributed to his problems. He is fond of showing journalists and visitors pictures of himself posing with various showbusiness celebrities, business leaders and even senior government officials.
The Beijing News reported that Wang has two floors in his villa with wall-to-wall photos of his eminent guests.
In early July, photos of Wang playing host to Alibaba founder Jack Ma, actress Zhao Wei and action film star Jet Li went viral online. They quickly elevated him into the A-list of celebrities on the mainland and he became the subject of national headlines.
It wasn't clear who leaked these photos, but many more have appeared online since then, some of them reproductions from journalists who visited Wang's home before his flight to Hong Kong.
Other stars pictured with Wang include Jackie Chan, actresses Fan Bingbing and Li Bingbing and singer Faye Wong.
But it was older-looking, unverified photos of now-retired Communist Party leaders meeting Wang that stirred the most controversy.
They included prominent officials such as Li Ruihuan , Wu Guanzheng and Jia Qinglin , as well as government ministers such as the now disgraced Liu.
In one undated photo, a young Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the former chief executive of Hong Kong, is pictured standing next to Wang, both with folded arms and broad smiles.
Zou Yong, Wang's former pupil and now his biggest detractor, is 44 and runs a big fuel company, Jiangxi Tianyu Fuel Group.
He told the Post that he and Wang became close in 2006, when Wang invited him to see his magic tricks. He later asked him to attend dinners at his mansion and meet his celebrity friends.
"I was fascinated by his performance, and the celebrities too," Zou said.
According to Zou, the locals in Pingxiang have a long tradition of superstition. He and many others believed in myths and supernatural powers.
Zou was also impressed by the many statues of Buddha that Wang placed throughout his mansion. "I believed in his good spirit," Zou said.
Then there was Wang's luxurious lifestyle - the flashy clothing and regular feasts of shark fin and bear claws at his mansion.
"When he approached me to teach me qigong, I was tempted," Zou said. "He said that we were meant to be teacher and student. Once I learned his skills, money would come."
Zou lost his parents to disease when he was young. "I thought if I had Wang's skills maybe I could have changed their fate," he said.
Sima Nan, 57, a writer and television host famous for his crusades to expose fraudulent qigong masters and other practitioners of "supernatural powers", said: "Celebrities are common people, too.
"They tend to believe what they can't explain to be a super power. That's why Wang could easily fool them with his tricks."
He said that when people lose faith in the human ability to cure diseases and save lives, they start to believe in the supernatural.
After Sima aired his criticism of Wang online two weeks ago, the "master" told journalists he could kill Sima with his qi powers "from many feet away, without even touching him".
Sima added: "The halos of these masters are fading, perhaps in different ways, given the complexity of Chinese society.
"I think the state should take Wang as an example and track down his crimes related to business fraud, political bribery and illegal medical practice."
Officials in Pingxiang and Jiangxi have repeatedly refused to investigate him.
But newspapers started publishing negative stories about him and online sentiments turned increasingly hostile to the once-celebrated Wang.
He disappeared from his gated compound in late July.
Then on Wednesday, The New York Times published an interview with Wang, apparently from a chic Hong Kong hotel room, in which he claimed he was the victim of political persecution on the mainland.
He even compared his situation to that of fugitive US whistle-blower Edward Snowden.