China Officials Seek Career Shortcut With Feng Shui
By Dan Levin, NY Times, May 10, 2013
ZOUMAJIE, China—Outraged peasants protesting land grabs. Jilted mistresses plotting revenge. Provincial investigators seeking out graft.
For top officials at the local land resources bureau beleaguered by these and other headaches, there could only be one explanation for the miasma of misfortune they believed was threatening their careers last year: the pair of ferocious stone lions that guarded the state-owned China Tobacco building across the street from their offices.
An official confided that the secret weapon the land bureau used was feng shui, the ancient practice of arranging objects and designing architecture to improve one’s health, prosperity and luck. For proof, he nodded toward a stone wall in the parking lot that was built to block the feline statues’ harmful qi, or energy.
"Our bureau wasn’t doing so well until we erected the barrier last year," said the official, who gave only his last name, Chen. "Now things are a lot better."
As Marxist ideology has faded in China, ancient mystical beliefs once banned by the Communist Party are gaining ground. Guides to geomancy now fill bookshelves, fortunetellers are busily offering costly sessions in astrology and numerology, and tycoons consult feng shui masters for financial guidance.
This mystical revival is attracting devoted followers in that most forbidden of realms: the marbled, atheistic halls of Chinese officialdom. Besieged by a meddlesome public at the gates and political rivals amid their ranks, the country’s ambitious civil servants are increasingly—if discreetly—seeking supernatural shortcuts to wealth and power, much to the dismay of party ideologues and campaigners against corruption.
From rural township party chiefs to the nation’s disgraced former rail minister, Chinese government officials are increasingly making budgetary decisions to fulfill their own personal prophecies, according to experts, state news media reports and seasoned soothsayers.
In all this mysticism ordinary Chinese see little but corruption in drag. “Officials aren’t interested in helping the people when they practice feng shui,” said Duan Xiaowen, an anticorruption activist here in Hunan Province. “All they can think of is getting a higher position.”
Such was the case with Liu Zhijun, the former railway minister. While building the world’s largest high-speed rail network, Mr. Liu reportedly consulted a feng shui master who chose auspicious dates for breaking ground on major construction projects.
But fate is a fickle comrade.
Fired in 2011, Mr. Liu was charged last month with corruption and abuse of power. In addition to the charges of taking $157 million in bribes and maintaining a harem of 18 mistresses, he is accused of an especially profane crime: “belief in feudal superstitions.”
Last November, the state-run Xinhua news service reported on the fall of Yang Hong, a county chief in Shanxi Province. According to feng shui beliefs, changing the name of a person or place can ameliorate one’s destiny, so Mr. Yang, eager for a promotion, rechristened the scenic local Plaster Mountain as High Official Mountain. He was ousted a month later for corruption.
In 2009, county officials in the western province of Gansu spent $732,000 transporting a 369-ton boulder six miles to the county seat, a move feng shui masters said would ward off bad luck. As part of the consecration ceremony, the county magistrate walked 325 feet toward the “spirit rock,” kowtowing every three steps, according to the Guangzhou Daily newspaper.
Citizens furious over officials dabbling in publicly financed mysticism have found an unlikely ally in the Communist Party, which commands its 82 million members to worship only the hammer and sickle. Though the government has taken a more laissez-faire approach to spirituality since the bloody persecutions of the Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, the authorities remain suspicious of competing dogma.
Last month, Wang Zuoan, the head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, condemned superstition in a newspaper published by the Central Party School, the premier ideological training ground for government officials.
"For a ruling party which follows Marxism, we need to help people establish a correct world view and to scientifically deal with birth, aging, sickness and death, as well as fortune and misfortune," he said.
How many of his fellow bureaucrats agree is unclear. According to a 2007 report by the Chinese Academy of Governance, 52 percent of the nation’s county-level civil servants admitted to believing in divination, face reading, astrology or dream interpretation.
Cheng Ping, a professor at the academy who oversaw the survey of more than 900 officials, said that such beliefs were the result of millennia-old traditions melded with the pressures of careers in which promotions are earned through mastering the dark arts of factions and favors, rather than hard work. Not surprisingly, she said, many practitioners are often shamelessly crooked, since they feel little accountability to the public. “Find a corrupt official and he’ll probably be superstitious,” she said.
Feng shui, in fact, provides useful opportunities for businesspeople to curry favor with influential bureaucrats. To avoid exposure, officials often use business contacts to introduce them to a clairvoyant and pay for the consultation, which can be pricey. Mak Ling-Ling, 46, a Hong Kong feng shui consultant who frequently travels to the mainland, charges $16,000 for an hourlong presentation on auspicious real estate investing.
While companies want big profits, officials are looking for guidance on professional advancement. “Their biggest worry is petitioners,” she said, referring to citizens who seek redress for local grievances by appealing to higher departments, which can damage the career prospects for local officials. To prevent such misfortune, Ms. Mak is usually asked for feng shui tips on arranging government office furniture. Sometimes officials will give her the birth dates of their entire staff, which she analyzes for astrological compatibility.
Occasionally, just the suspicion of feng shui is enough to jinx a career.
In February 2010, People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece, reported that Cui Xinyuan, the party chief of Gaoyi County in Hebei Province, had installed a decommissioned fighter jet in the middle of a boulevard opposite the government headquarters so he could soar to the empyrean of Chinese power. The jet was intended to block the flow of bad luck, according to local residents, but it ultimately just blocked traffic. Despite Mr. Cui’s public denials, his career crashed and burned a few months later, when he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery and selling official titles.
According to neighborhood shopkeepers, the jet was quietly moved last year to a park on the outskirts of town, where it is conveniently shrouded by foliage. Today, the only remnant of the feng shui boondoggle is a large boulder, set on the grounds of the government headquarters, bearing the exhortation “Serve the people.”