China Officials Seek Career Shortcut with Feng Shui

Dan Levin, New York Times, May 10, 2013

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.


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.


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.”


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.


{snip} 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.


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.


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