Top Chinese Officials Defy Rules and Secretly Consult Fortune Tellers

Government officials get businessmen to pay for their consultants.

BEIJING June 17, 2013— -- When China's former railway minister tearfully confessed to corruption last week, his crimes included raking in $10.5 million in bribes -- and believing in superstition.

The initial indictment against Liu Zhijun, who was overseeing construction of the world's largest high-speed rail network, included the accusation that he consulted a fengshui master to choose auspicious dates for breaking ground on construction projects.

It is a crime that has survived the harshest crackdown of the Cultural Revolution when Chinese superstitions were listed among "The Four Olds" -- old customs, culture, habits and ideas -- that were to be wiped out.

The Chinese government is making a renewed push to tamp down the old superstitions, but they are thriving among the general population as well among top level government officials.

That those beliefs -- fortune telling, geomancy, numerology, fengshui -- are still flourishing is obvious.

In Chinese, the number eight sounds similar to the character which means to strike it rich. In 2004 the telephone number 88888888 was sold to Sichuan Airlines for the price of 2.3 million RMB, or about $375,000.

License plates with numbers ending in 666 or 999 all belong to high-ranking officials because the number six sounds like the word meaning "smooth," and nine sounds like the word for "everlasting."

On a Friday morning, hundreds of stores around the Lama Temple in central Beijing display signs that promise help in "guiding your future, changing your fate," or similar slogans. Fortune tellers with yin-yang symbols sit on stools awaiting customers. Monks claiming to have come down from their sacred mountain retreats wander around offering private ceremonies which can cost thousands of dollars.

One fortune teller, Master Liu Yixin, plays card games on his laptop computer while waiting for customers in the one square meter stall he rents. His rotund belly and bright red Chinese traditional shirt seem to take up most of the room.

Master Liu has been a fortune teller for more than three decades, since right after the Cultural Revolution.

"After the Cultural Revolution, business was difficult, and fortune telling was not allowed by the government," he told ABC News. "I was an underground fortune teller and had to sneak around until the 1990s. My business got much better as China's economy prospered," Liu said.

Chinese Officials Defy Government and Secretly Consult Fortune Tellers

Master Liu's clients are regular folks and companies, but he tends to stay away from high-ranking officials because he thinks the risk of getting in trouble is too high.

But others find advising communist government officials to a lucrative business, with certain precautions.

One of China's most famous fengshui masters, Zheng Jianwei, selects his clients from among high-ranking officials and CEOs of state-owned enterprises. The Ministry of Finance invites him to lecture CEOs every year. When ABC reached out to Dr. Zheng, he was speaking to an MBA course for CEOs of state owned enterprises in Shenzhen, a southern city near Hong Kong.

"When doing business with Chinese, if you don't understand about fengshui or have a fengshui consultant, you are lost from the get-go," Dr. Zheng, as he is known, told ABC News.

He advises officials on matters ranging from the arrangement of office furniture, architecture, employees' birthdays, and warns that the date and location of business negotiations, even seating arrangement can make or break a business deal.

"The most common issues officials like to consult about are job promotion, marriage and health. They still tend to be very discreet about consulting fengshui masters," Zheng said.

While Dr. Zheng may be open about his services, many of his clients are not. Rising bureaucrats like to hire a fengshui master as political consultant, but are frequently covert about it.

To avoid notice, officials often use business contacts to introduce them to fengshui masters and pay for the pricy consultation. This provides useful opportunities for business people to carry favor with influential bureaucrats.

The advice from big fengshui masters doesn't come cheap. For Dr. Zheng, the fee for state-own companies starts at one million RMB, about $163,000. For officials, Zheng says, the price will be "decided by fate."

The booming fengshui business in mainland China has begun to attract masters from Hong Kong. Mak Ling-ling, a 46-year-old Hong Kong fengshui consultant has been expanding her business into mainland China for the past decade. Master Mak charges $13,000 to $30,000 for an hour-long speech on how to make auspicious real estate investments. Mac is introduced to a steady stream of Chinese government officials seeking her guidance.

"Officials biggest concerns are their political futures, especially when there is a decision to make," says Mak. "When someone is trying to make friends with them, or they have to choose a subordinate to promote, they consult me about whether a person will help or hurt her political career."

It is hard to estimate just how many Chinese officials believe in fengshui. According to a survey by the Chinese Academy of Governance in 2007, 52 percent of the nation's county-level civil servants admitted to believing in divination, face reading and astrology or dream interpretation.

"My business is like a doctor's during the flu season," Dr. Zheng says. "During leadership transitions and political campaigns, a lot more government officials come to see me. And if the economy booms or busts, more corporate CEOs will visit me."