Once a teenager without a home wandering the streets of rural China, the self-help guru Yang Taoming’s fortune changed after what he called a fateful encounter with a life coach. By the age of 28, he became the youngest person in the country to own a Rolls-Royce and is now willing to share his secret to success—at a price, of course.
That is the rags-to-riches story Yang, a 41-year-old motivational speaker, tells his followers. Describing himself as the Tony Robbins of China, Yang has written books on wisdom and destiny, hosted classes on the power of persuasion, and attracted tens of thousands of fans across the country by convincing them that they, too, could transform their lives.
But that inspiring narrative he created for himself could be falling apart. Local authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo detained Yang and thirty of his employees last month and are investigating them for fraud, Chinese outlets reported last week.
“He never actually talked about how to become successful, but only repeatedly stressed how people became wealthy after learning from him,” a former student of Yang, speaking anonymously, told the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper last week. The woman was among nearly seven hundred others who joined a three-day seminar on success hosted by the self-help guru at a five-star hotel in Ningbo in February.
Yang was known in China as a prominent figure in “Success Studies,” part of a thriving self-help industry that sprang up after China reformed its state-led communist economy and introduced private business in the late 1970s and early 1980s, around the time Yang was born. Initially, these supposed lessons were taught in translated self-improvement books by American writers such as Dale Carnegie, but a new generation of Chinese self-help entrepreneurs has emerged, and now their books outnumber those by their Western counterparts.
Yang, for his part, may have outdone his peers in creativity. He was known to auction off his personal items to his followers, claiming he could pass on his “energy.” A student once bought a strand of his hair for more than 60,000 yuan ($8,700), local media reported.
But Yang’s ability to persuade is now put to the test, with dozens of customers demanding refunds and some accusing him of running a pyramid scheme and selling, as the anonymous former student put it, nothing more than “very basic knowledge about marketing and etiquette.”
During the seminar in February, people claiming to be entrepreneurs and salespersons took to the stage and shared testimonies on how their lives miraculously turned around after taking lessons from Yang. Students were then ushered on to the stage and pressured to sign up for further seminars, which cost from 5,800 yuan to 140,000 yuan ($840 to $20,300). The most expensive was a one-on-one session with the guru himself, which was priced at 600,000 yuan ($87,000).
Alarmed by the experience, the woman and several other students reported Yang to the authorities for fraud.
They were aided by Li Xu, founder of an anti-fraud group based in Tianjin, another Chinese coastal city. Over the years, he has received requests for help from people whose family members have poured their savings into Yang’s seminars.
The arrest amounted to a breakthrough in Li’s campaign against Yang after a previous attempt to call him out faltered. Last April, Li’s group accused Yang of “brainwashing” his followers, but it lost in a defamation suit brought by Yang. Li is appealing the decision.
While waiting for the appeal trial, Li’s group actively collected evidence of Yang’s activities, including by sending people to his events undercover. They shared their findings with authorities, which eventually led to the arrest of Yang and his staff members, the group wrote in a recent social media post, describing it as “justice served.”
It is unclear when Yang began his operation, but his company’s public social media account dates back to 2016. Besides offering lessons on marketing and public speaking, Yang also taught people how to walk over a bed of hot coal, a process that would supposedly help them overcome their fear, according to his company’s account. He might well have taken a page out of the book of American self-help guru Tony Robbins, who in 2016 famously left 30 seminar attendees seeking treatment after they attempted to walk on hot coals barefoot, supposedly to “turn fear into power.”
But unlike their American counterparts, who mostly focus on personal success and improvement, Chinese self-help gurus like Yang sometimes give their teachings a nationalist flavor.
“My mission is to help you unleash your potential and unparalleled talent and thus make our country richer and stronger,” Yang said in a promotional video posted on the social media platform WeChat in February. He appealed to people by convincing them that they have it in them to make it big in China’s highly competitive society and can lead better lives. Many were recruited by his students or staff members and were then encouraged to invite others.
Since the arrest of Yang and his staff members, more than 400 former students have formed a group on WeChat and are hoping to get their money back, the Chengdu outlet Hongxing Xinwen reported.
But a former employee who spent three years at the company said they are only “the tip of the iceberg.” The company hosted three to four activities per month, each attended by 600 to 700 people. According to his estimate, more than 100,000 people have attended Yang’s events and nearly 10,000 became loyal followers.
And even after Yang’s arrest, some former students still had faith in him, or at the very least, in his methods. One woman told the outlet her husband spent 200,000 yuan ($29,000) from their joint accounts on the classes and remained adamant that he can find his way to success. She has filed for a divorce and is dividing their assets.
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