Listen to this article
What’s the difference between rich people and poor people?” shouts Ji Jianjing as he struts back and forth on stage, spotlights glinting off his gelled-down side-parting. “It’s the way they think! Is that right or not?”
“Right!” comes the thunderous reply from 1,500 people packed into the auditorium. A blast of techno music rips through the room, 1,500 right arms pump the air in unison and Ji emits his trademark cry: “Oh-ooo-oh, yes!” A wispy man with big glasses, Ji stops his strutting and pauses for dramatic effect before delivering a message he knows will whip his listeners into an even bigger frenzy. “With your hard work, we are going to make China the world’s strongest economy in the 21st century. Yes or no?” There is of course only one answer, and it comes in a full-throated cheer.
So begins the motivational speaking conference in Suzhou, eastern China. Over three days in late August, eight other speakers follow Ji on stage, imparting bullet points of wisdom about how to get promoted, how to be a leader, how to build up your contact list, how to raise children and, most of all, how to make money. Audience members, who have paid as much as Rmb3,000 (£310) for tickets, furiously take notes. During breaks they rush to stalls to buy self-help books by the dozen. And at the end of each speech, they run up to the stage with bank cards in hand to sign up for more courses taught by Ji and his fellow gurus.
Life coaching is big business the world over, perhaps nowhere more so than in the US. China is still a newcomer, with self-help books and motivational talks beginning to gain traction just 15 years ago. But as in so many other areas of the Chinese economy, the gap is closing quickly. The “success studies” industry, as it is known in China, is dominating bestseller lists, filling conference halls and generating phenomenal wealth for star speakers. In its occasionally crass messages and its surging popularity, it is a reflection of the get-rich-quick mentality that has underpinned so much of China’s development since the Maoist era ended in the late 1970s.
The person who is more responsible than any other for the growth of success studies in China is Chen Anzhi, a native of Fujian province who moved to the US in the early 1980s, when he was 14. He experienced far more failure than success in California. He tried to make his fortune selling everything from kitchen knives to cars, but got nowhere. Then a friend took him to a lecture by Tony Robbins, an American self-help coach with a huge following. Chen studied Robbins’s method, with its emphasis on positive thinking, and then began to teach it himself, with a twist: he translated it into Chinese. “I felt the message could inspire people but I didn’t know it was going to be so successful – I had no clue,” he says. “There are just so many Chinese people to help.”
At the Suzhou conference, he is the headline speaker. Extra chairs are pulled into the already-brimming auditorium and pulsating techno music, a staple of the three-day event, builds to a fortissimo. Before some speeches, Chen deploys his bodyguard, Langzi, to warm up the audience. A heavy-set man in his twenties, Langzi looks a little like Psy, the South Korean singing sensation, and his rendition of the “Gangnam Style” dance is always a crowd-pleaser.
On this occasion, though, Chen needs no extra help. The audience is raring to go. Bursting on to the stage, he asks: “Who wants to be number one?” All 1,500 hands fly up in the air. Then a dose of realism: “You’re dreaming. Only 3 per cent of you will succeed. And to get there, you need the right coach. You need to be in a circle of winners.” A slideshow follows, pictures of Chen posing next to or somehow squeezing himself into the frame with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher, basketball star Michael Jordan and more. He replays a phone message from Huang Xiaoming, a Chinese actor, thanking Chen for his coaching.
The message – that Chen is a winner and that his tutelage is a prerequisite to success – proves startlingly effective. At the end of his speech, he gives the audience a two-minute countdown to sign up for a special deal to join his circle of winners: Rmb29,800 for a year’s access to his Shanghai club and more self-improvement courses. About 150 people seize the opportunity, dashing up to the front of the room. Chen’s assistants form a ring around them with handheld bank card swiping machines, ready to collect their money on the spot.
As the payments are processed – the total intake is about Rmb4.5m – Chen chats over the microphone with some of his new disciples on stage. There is a factory owner, a lawyer and the head of a waste management company. “Even if your job is handling garbage, you still have to be the best,” Chen intones.
In the front row, off to the side, Chen Guowei is sitting with rapt attention. A maker of customised welcome mats for companies and hotels, he has travelled from the south of China to attend the conference. Carrying a leather manbag – a favourite accoutrement of Chinese entrepreneurs – and a glossy pamphlet of his wares, he fills a notebook with the contents of the lecture. It is his first time hearing Chen Anzhi speak, but he has been a regular attendee of other success studies courses.
“I’ve learnt sales techniques and management techniques. But the most important thing is that I used to feel like my status in society was very low since I had so little education. Now, via this platform, things are more level. I can speak to the bosses of big companies with confidence,” he says.
The desire to climb China’s social ladder is a strong one. The country’s wealth gap has exploded alongside its fast-paced growth. Its Gini coefficient – the most widely used gauge of income disparity – has reached 0.61, putting China almost on a par with the world’s most unequal countries, according to researchers at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Sichuan. But rather than protesting against the inequality, many of China’s entrepreneurs simply want to do whatever it takes to end up on the right side of the chasm.
Zhang Bing, another of the speakers, taps into this striving spirit. “You want your children to think like a rich person. A poor person’s mentality is frightening,” he tells the audience, a statement repeated in various forms by others on stage. “So when you travel, put your child in business class and stay in the best hotels. Get them to think of this as normal.”
In his well-oiled presentation, Zhang covers everything from how to design the right dormitories for workers to the qualities of the ideal spouse. He shows a video of the training technique he used to foster a culture of accountability among his staff. He challenged them to raise Rmb1,000 in one hour by soliciting donations on the street, or face the humiliation of having their heads shaved (men) or their hair cropped short (women). One team came up Rmb9 short. Zhang followed through on his vow to cut their hair.
Many in the audience are moved to tears by the video. “I want you to turn to the people next to you, shake their hands and say that you’re a person who upholds your promises,” Zhang says. Hands come flying at me from all directions.
Xiang Yuanping, a construction material salesman from Hunan province, is one of the dozens who run up at the end to pay Rmb20,000 for more courses taught by Zhang. “It’s an investment,” he says. “China has developed too quickly. In the west, you had 200 years to get used to the modern era. Here, we have only had 30 years. We need to adjust our thinking and this gives us a shortcut.”
It is not only about money. As the Chinese economy matures, people are moving beyond purely material concerns, especially in the wealthiest cities. The self-help industry is beginning to reflect this evolution. When Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, a book about creating inner happiness, became a hit in the US in 2008, it struggled to gain a readership in China. It wasn’t until last year that it began to sell well, prompting a second printing.
Jo Lusby, Penguin Books’ managing director for north Asia, believes that the Chinese audience for this kind of “spiritual” book will grow, but that for the time being there is still more demand for – and more money in – practical advice. “There is a vast number for whom success is measured by better education, more money, a better car and a bigger house than their parents had at the same point in their lives,” she says.
For Chen, the pioneer of China’s success studies industry, the demand for his services is as robust as ever. His 2,000-strong sales force has taken to publicising his talks on WeChat, a popular smartphone messaging service, and he is booked solid with speaking engagements for months to come. During a lunch break in Suzhou, Chen offers attendees the chance to have their photos taken with him. A queue of hundreds instantly forms and he smiles patiently for an hour as each person comes forward. At the end he slumps into his chair backstage and closes his eyes for a short nap.
In two days’ time, Chen will be travelling to the southwestern city of Chengdu for another success studies conference, and then to Xiamen in the southeast for yet another. “It’s like this every few days,” he says. “They don’t come for me. They come because they want motivation.”
Simon Rabinovitch is a Shanghai correspondent for the FT. Additional reporting by Emma Dong.
To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Get alerts on China when a new story is published