Wei Minzhou, the Communist Party Secretary of Xi’an, a city in western China, knew he was in trouble when he was invited for a “chat” with his superiors. He immediately consulted a seer who told him to plant bamboo in front of his house. The Chinese phrase for “bamboo” and “to stop” are homonyms—Wei’s plea for the authorities’ anti-corruption investigation to stop. It didn’t work. In August 2017, Wei was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for bribery, pending prosecution in the judicial system.
The Chinese Communist Party is an atheist organization and rules China by tightly controlling what citizens can and cannot believe in, yet Wei is just one of a cohort of officials who have resorted to premodern practices of divination, fortune telling, and superstition in an attempt to get out of a bind.
The Party prohibits members from believing in so-called “superstition.” The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s sought to eradicate people’s beliefs in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and folk customs by launching a campaign to rid the country of “four olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Buddhist temples, statues, Taoist monasteries, and historical sites of cultural significance were destroyed.
Despite this traumatic and violent upheaval of spiritual beliefs, they are still deeply ingrained in the Chinese people’s psyche: evidenced by the Party officials who turn to Buddhas, gods, and spirits during times of need—despite Party rules.
In a recent announcement of Liaoning deputy governor Liu Qiang’s purge from Party membership and his position, the CCP’s anti-corruption agency called out his “superstitious activities” among a list of crimes that got him in trouble.
In fact, state-run newspaper Beijing Daily’s WeChat social media account once published a story about officials who have been disciplined for “believing in superstition” since the 18th National Congress in 2012—when current Party leader Xi Jinping came to power and launched his campaign to purge the Party of misbehaving officials.
There were unexpected details of desperate officials who believe that a greater force is in control of their fates—and so sought out ways to foretell or change their lives.
During the 1990s, the disgraced former security czar, Zhou Yongkang, was general manager of the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation. He once invited a senior monk to conduct for him face reading, a form of physiognomy to predict one’s future. The monk’s assessment was that his prospects were good, but to go even further in his career, he had to fix his ancestral tomb.
Zhou listened to the monk’s advice and asked his brother to fix it right away. The family hired a monk from Wuxi City, where the tombs were located, to perform Buddhist rites.
Within a decade, Zhou had made it to the CCP’s most powerful decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee. In fall 2009, his family suddenly discovered that someone had dug a hole in his ancestral tomb—an act of desecration. Zhou mobilized the Wuxi, Shanghai, and Jiangsu Province police—eventually going all the way to the Ministry of Public Security—to find the culprit, to no avail.
Meanwhile, Zhou’s ally, Sichuan deputy party secretary Li Chuncheng, was punished for using public funds to move his ancestral tomb from its location in northeast China to Dujiangyan near the city of Chengdu in southwestern China—at the suggestion of a Taoist feng shui master. He used up 10 million yuan for that project (about $1.6 million).
Zhou and Li were both officials in former Party leader Jiang Zemin’s circle, making up a faction within the Party opposed to Xi Jinping. And Jiang frequently sought the advice of Wang Lin, a qigong master said to possess supernatural powers.
Wang counseled many Jiang faction officials on how to improve their fortunes. Wang once told former railway minister Liu Zhijun that if he puts a mountain rock in his office, he would never fall down in life prospects. Alas, in 2013, he was charged with bribery and sentenced to death with reprieve.
Protection from Sins
Since the anti-corruption crackdown began five years ago, officials are wary of the day they may fall. If they catch wind of a coming purge, they seek protection from higher beings.
When deputy director of the People’s Liberation Army General Logistics Department Gu Junshan was arrested and interrogated for corruption, Party staff found a peach wood sword in one of his pockets: a weapon used to exorcise demons according to Taoist religious beliefs. The sword didn’t protect him from his wrongdoing though: Gu was sentenced to death with reprieve in 2015.
Former Party leader Jiang himself was said to be fearful of retribution; among his many crimes was launching the persecution of the spiritual practice Falun Gong in 1999. Hong Kong’s Open Magazine reported in 2001 that Jiang prayed to the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva in hopes of salvation. He sought out a nun in Beijing for a copy of the “Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra” and endeavored to copy out the sutra by hand, considered an act of merit and devotion in Buddhism.
But Jiang has so far been unable to escape political demise. Xi’s campaign has eliminated Jiang’s allies one by one, leaving Jiang with limited clout.
Zhang Dun contributed to this report.