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    Cult-Like Restaurant Exposes China’s Appetite for Ponzi Schemes

    Filmmaker Zhou Mingying discusses his surreal encounter with an authoritarian restaurateur while making his documentary ‘The Land of Peach Blossoms.’

    BEIJING — Something strange happened at the end of Zhou Mingying’s first day working as an in-house videographer at a high-end restaurant in Chongqing City, Southwest China. At 10 p.m., he was asked to join a group meeting to “share his opinions” about his new company.

    As the meeting progressed, Zhou started to feel intense pressure to join his co-workers in lavishing praise on his boss and the business. A creeping realization dawned on him: His new employer was trying to brainwash them.

    The 30-year-old filmmaker had unwittingly landed himself unbelievable access to a truly surreal business, the Feast of Flowers. It occupied the top floors of a high-rise office building overlooking a sprawling 59,000-seat stadium. Inside, diners were treated to a range of odd blossom-based dishes, accompanied by immersive stage shows featuring traditional Chinese dances, martial arts demonstrations, and even patriotic skits — all backed by lasers and a dense fog of dry ice.

    But what fascinated Zhou most was the authoritarian leadership style of the restaurant’s owner, Zhang Derong, whom the staff always referred to as “The President.” Having seen a college friend get involved in a Ponzi scheme years ago, Zhou immediately recognized the cult-like, collectivist culture The President had fostered inside his organization.

    Ponzi schemes have emerged as a serious social issue in China in recent decades, with an estimated 40 million people reportedly involved in such ventures. Many of the more extreme Chinese Ponzi schemes combine a pyramid-like organizational structure with brainwashing techniques, targeting impressionable social groups like recent college graduates eager to find employment. Chinese authorities often refer to these schemes as “business cults.”

    Sensing an opportunity to expose the reality of life inside just such an organization, Zhou decided to take the videography job, as well as a secret one of his own: creating a film documenting his experience as an employee of the Feast of Flowers.

    Over the next four years, Zhou recorded the rise and fall of The President and his followers. At the peak of its fame, the restaurant received coverage on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV and appeared on a promotional video for Chongqing, attracting an array of celebrity guests including pop star Jay Chou. Despite being on call 24 hours a day in a tightly controlled environment, the employees at the restaurant expressed genuine belief in the restaurant’s business model and The President’s extravagant vision for the future. “Our target is to make society warmer, with no more apathy,” says one former employee, then recently graduated, at the beginning of the film.

    But as the restaurant’s fortunes began to fade, The President’s promises of wealth and success were gradually exposed as empty. With his followers’ faith shaken, the leader’s authoritarian rule became evermore intense, which only hastened the business’ eventual collapse. By the end, only a small group of devotees remained at the Feast of Flowers, still living in perpetual fear of The President, even after he had fled Chongqing.

    The 99-minute documentary “The Land of Peach Blossoms” — directed, filmed, and edited by Zhou Mingying — premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) last year. The film’s title refers to a 1,500-year-old fable by the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming, which depicted a utopian society leading an ideal existence cut off from the outside world. It went on to win the best documentary award at the 2019 FIRST International Film Festival in Xining, Northwest China.

    Sixth Tone sat down with Zhou, as well as Zhang Yi, an advisor on the production, in Beijing to discuss what “The Land of Peach Blossoms” tells us about the nature of collectivism. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Sixth Tone: What was it like documenting the restaurant from within? Did you have difficulty resisting the brainwashing?

    Zhou: The employees slept on the first floor. The second floor was the karaoke club. I didn’t want to sleep in the shared room, so I put a sofa mat in the karaoke room and slept there.

    The President recruited people to record all his activities. At one point, he had five videographers, plus an entire editing team.

    It wasn’t until postproduction that I found myself falling for the brainwashing. I would sit there trying to organize my footage, yet buying into everything he was saying and not making a single cut. His business style works in our society — whether it is ethical or not is another question.

    Sixth Tone: How would you describe the culture inside the restaurant? Is it a Ponzi scheme, a cult, an authoritarian micro society, or something else?

    Zhou: It’s a distorted utopia. The President would talk about his ideals nonstop. The chefs there were used to just focusing on cooking, not thinking about innovation or creating “favorable situations.” So, they developed a worshipful respect for him — his authority lived on even after he had fled.

    His system was impenetrable. For example, the menu prices were high — a dish that should be worth less than 100 yuan ($14) was priced at 998 yuan. But when customers complained, the government body in charge was unable to judge whether it was overpriced or not — nothing else like it existed in the world.

    Sixth Tone: How would you describe the character of The President, Zhang Derong?

    Zhou: As far as I know, he was from a humble background. He was a believer because he grew up during the Mao era — these formative years defined his life and values. He also liked to study ancient Chinese philosophy, such as Taoism and Legalism, and he combined these different schools of thought to create his own.

    He came up with the concept of eating flowers while he was writing a piece for a literary contest. He lost the contest, but he swore to make his idea a reality. Unable to find a chef that knew how to cook with flowers, he taught himself. He amassed a huge collection of recipes and spent every day updating them.

    Sixth Tone: Is his brainwashing-style approach to management common in today’s China?

    Zhang: Growing up in the post-Mao era, his generation (of entrepreneurs) was influenced by Mao’s ideology, as well as Confucianism. They managed companies in a military style and used similar language. But they also partly modeled themselves on bandits, presenting a violent demeanor and belittling their employees. They often had connections in both the government and the underworld. But it was also The President who envisioned the utopia of this “land of peach blossoms.” So, it is very paradoxical.

    Sixth Tone: What did the young people who followed The President have in common?

    Zhou: The true followers really believed in his system and supported him fanatically. New employees, however, were mostly attracted by the promises he made. He said he was scouting nationwide for “1,000 direct apprentices,” promising a base salary of 3,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan per month, plus dividends from running a connected retail franchise. Then, he would find ways to cover up delays in payment: He had a review system where he would use a big chart tracking over a dozen factors to re-evaluate salaries and bonuses.

    My four main characters all had a bachelor’s degree or above, though others didn’t finish elementary school. Some had done military service and found solace in the restaurant’s “simple” environment.

    Sixth Tone: How are you adjusting to life now that you’ve left the company? Has making the documentary helped you move on from this strange experience?

    Zhou: I am still suffering slightly from persecution delusions. Before I went to the restaurant, I had a lot of positive feelings toward society. But after I left, my trust in people had almost collapsed — I doubted everything.

    When I was editing the film, I often dreamed The President was standing right there in front of me, because he had given veiled threats to me before. One time when I was filming in the kitchen, he suddenly called me over. His assistants and mistress were all sitting there opposite me. “What are you shooting?” he asked. It was pretty scary, because I was conscious that I was hiding something, and in that moment, I thought he saw through me.

    In the universe of the restaurant, The President was the highest, and his staff was treated like cannon fodder. But maybe in the grand scheme of things, The President himself is also a small fry, as he couldn’t dictate his own fate. With this film, I hope to inspire people to think more independently, instead of trusting any sole value system.

    Editors: Qi Ya and Dominic Morgan.

    (Header image: A still from “The Land of Peach Blossoms” shows Zhang Derong (middle) and his employees taking a group photo. Courtesy of Zhou Mingying)