Self-Help Company Decried as Pyramid Scheme
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2016-10-28 12:37:05

For Liu Mei, the first sign that something was amiss was when audience members around her started behaving strangely. “The teacher on stage made everyone close their eyes and think about the things in life they weren’t happy with,” she said. “Some started openly weeping, while others screamed, ‘I’m going to kill you!’”

Having once bought into the immense excitement and euphoria of Create Abundance’s seminars, Liu now sees the China-based spiritual guidance organization as a mere moneymaking scam. Liu agreed to speak to The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, under a pseudonym because she fears reprisals from a company with a truly global reach, with centers in London, Paris, and Los Angeles, as well as major cities in China.

Liu is representative of a large number of people who have been affected by Create Abundance’s practices. The company appears to target middle- and upper-class people with disposable income, but who nevertheless suffer from either psychological issues or some other spiritual vacuum that leaves them feeling unfulfilled. It is a combination which frequently makes them overly trusting of strangers and suspicious of their own families.

Liu said Create Abundance is a pyramid scheme that masquerades as a self-help organization in order to extract huge sums of money from its members. Alongside several other former “students,” she has reported the company’s activities to police in Nanjing, capital of eastern China’s Jiangsu province.

Liu’s first brush with the organization came in 2013, soon after she had a baby. “Back then, I was suffering from postnatal depression, and I felt that my life was a mess,” she told The Paper. “I had too much on my plate and just felt physically and mentally drained.”

Liu started to devour self-help books with the hope of addressing her condition. Before long, she came across the book “Create Abundance” by Zhang Xiyue. “After reading it, I just felt that what [Zhang] said really rang true,” she said.

The title page of “Create Abundance” describes itself as a collection of Zhang’s recorded teachings. The book itself purports to offer a form of “spiritual abundance” by harnessing the power of so-called energy flows. Readers are told that “an abundance of energy can nourish us,” and that it is therefore essential to “connect with the energy flow of the universe.”

However, much of the language in the book displays its distinctly commercial undertones. Readers are told that we “must attend spiritual courses, and surround ourselves with high-energy people.” Energy is described as “the most basic commodity in our lives.” At one point, Zhang claims that money is a kind of energy flow. “What stops us from spending money freely? The trick to wealth lies in how it flows,” he writes. “You must master how to spend money gratefully. If the flow of wealth is not great, what you retain will also not be great.”

A screenshot from a Create Abundance promotional video shows women clapping while listening to a speech given by a ‘mentor.’

A screenshot from a Create Abundance promotional video shows women clapping while listening to a speech given by a ‘mentor.’

After following Zhang’s Weibo microblog account, Liu discovered that he also held regular seminars under a company bearing the same name as his book. Her experience underlines the significant role money plays in Zhang’s philosophy: At the first class she attended, Liu was charged an entrance fee of 10,000 yuan ($1,500). In the days and weeks that followed, she received phone calls from self-proclaimed “mentors” from Create Abundance who recommended she purchase a student membership card to the tune of a further 50,000 yuan. Liu duly obliged.

Liu described a typical scene at a seminar. “In the mouths of the mentors, spending money becomes a way of spreading love to others, so they use the concept of love to attract new students.” She said that mentors would make attendees close their eyes and meditate, then encourage them to “break through their fear” and let their true selves burst forth. Later, they would coax those wanting to “spread love” up onto the stage, where one by one they would swipe their bank or credit cards for all to see.

Later, Liu was told that for 1 million yuan, she could attain the rank of “supervisor” within the organization. Eight million would see her become a “head teacher,” while 30 million yuan would be enough to become a “mentor.”

According to a recent report, supervisors were permitted to bring new recruits into the fold, while head teachers ran spiritual workshops and study centers. Mentors, meanwhile, held positions secondary only to Zhang himself. According to Liu, no receipts were issued by Create Abundance once monetary transactions had been made. Supervisors would explain that payment represented a “spiritual contract” between the two parties, demanding “unconditional trust and love.”

For Wang Weiwei — the pseudonym of another former member — this so-called love also came at a huge cost. Wang first attended one of Zhang’s classes in 2009, and she later forked out 200,000 yuan to become one of his “lifelong students.” In 2014, she gave up her public-sector job in Shenzhen to devote herself to Create Abundance. Back then, it only cost 3 million yuan to become a mentor.

To raise the money, Wang took out a second mortgage on her home and filed for divorce in order to split the family assets. She estimates that she has invested 14 million yuan in Create Abundance. None of that money was invoiced, and she was never given a contract by the company. She eventually realized she was being duped, but it was too late. “Once I woke up from the delusion and tried to get my money back, I discovered I was completely powerless,” she said. “My son has walked out on me — he can’t forgive me for not listening to others’ advice.”

It is precisely these anxieties that Create Abundance was seemingly so adept at manipulating once acolytes decided to extricate themselves from the scheme. While involved with the organization, both Wang and Liu were told that if they withdrew, they and their families would no longer benefit from Zhang’s “powers.”

To Liu and Wang, the case is clear: Create Abundance systematically drew them in with promises of spiritual salvation, extracted huge sums of their personal wealth in good faith, and acted threateningly toward them when they withdrew themselves from its operation. The case now rests with the police in Nanjing, where an inquiry is underway. Liu told Sixth Tone in a text message that she is still waiting to hear back from the police department regarding her claim.

(Header image: A video screenshot shows audience members clapping as a ‘mentor’ walks down the aisle at a Create Abundance event.)