Good Will Hunting

An institution claiming its aim is to sooth psychological problems has raked in huge sums of money through an alleged pyramid scheme

By Jianpeng Xiong Updated Jul.15

Before media exposés, Create Abundance, an institution advertising itself as promoting spiritual and material prosperity, had gained a highly loyal following among its many thousands of members since it started in 2013, yet remained largely unknown to the outside world. Over the years, its founder Zhang Xinyue has been veiled in mystery and only her quotations were disseminated within the circle.  

Beginning in 2015, however, members nationwide began to report the organization to the police, suing Zhang for deception and fraud. Since its inception, Create Abundance has opened at least 53 study centers and studios nationwide with upwards of 10,000 members, raking in over 1 billion yuan (US$145m) in membership and franchise fees.  

In late 2013, Zhang traveled to Shenzhen to discus the details of opening Create Abundance with Wang Wei, a previous business partner and victim. Zhang recommended Wang invest 3 million yuan (US$436,000) and pledged to buy an island in Canada for Wang and the other main investors. “[Zhang] told me that the Chinese market for psychological counseling is huge and it’s easy to make a quick fortune,” Wang told NewsChina.  

Wang was an old member of Zhang’s studio, Impression of Women, a forerunner to Create Abundance, which was established in 2006 in Changchun, in northeast China’s Jilin Province. The studio’s main services were image planning for women, wealth accumulation and providing psychological advice to help women become more confident and attain personal and family happiness.  

“She knew very well what was on your mind and would give you advice that sounded very comforting and made you feel greatly relieved,” Wang recalled of the first day she sought advice from Zhang as a client at Impression of Women.  

There were then very few psychological institutions in the city and some clients were keen to learn counseling skills from Zhang. Seeing the market potential, Zhang began to adopt a new training scheme. Zhang charged 5,000 yuan (US$726) for psychological counseling, but the price would increase several fold if a client wanted to study with her. Clients had to pay 150,000 yuan (US$21,780) to become lifelong members.  

Zhang then gradually put her business under the management of others and began to systematically learn psychology, hypnosis, Buddhism and public speaking skills. In a few years, Zhang put her main efforts into recruiting students and the tuition fees for a lifelong member rose to 1 million yuan (US$145,000) until the establishment of Create Abundance.  

Born in 1974, Zhang took an interest in business and trade when she was young and was admitted to Changchun University of Technology in 1992, majoring in international economy. When at school, she made a buck by trading stocks and selling clothes. In 1996, she became a teacher at Changchun University but was dismissed several years later for long-time absence. She later tried her hand at tea bars, nightclubs and clothes companies before setting her goal of providing psychological counseling and spiritual guidance.  

On Christmas Day, 2013, Create Abundance opened its first experience class at a five-star hotel in Shenyang, capital of northeastern Liaoning Province. During the promotional event, several tutors shared their stories of success – how they had become better versions of themselves, had happier families and more promising prospects after following in the footsteps of Zhang.  

Zhang told tutors of Create Abundance that they should become social butterflies and lead luxurious lives in order to attract more students. Zhang disclosed to others that she was the owner of several gold mines and villas overseas. It was Zhang’s aim to make Create Abundance one of the most famous women’s clubs in China and her motto was: “you must live in the dreams of others.”  

Most members of Create Abundance initially joined via introductions from their friends and relatives. They came to seek help when they faced difficulties in life including poor marital relationships, business collapse or psychological problems. The majority of its members were female office workers, bosses of private companies, leaders in overseas companies and even government officials.

Create Abundance promoted itself through public lectures and taster classes. These events were presented by the heads of each study center and most were free. The lectures centered on activities including tea ceremonies, image planning, parent-child relations, corporation management and wealth accumulation.  

During experience classes, all participants were required to follow the tutors in loud chanting of slogans to shake off their bad moods. If a participant hesitated, the other students offered a helping hand through hugs and invitations to dinner to help change their minds.  

According to Ni Huan, associate professor at the Communication University of China, it is easy to foster a unanimous crowd mood when a lecture is held in a closed and exciting environment. She said that when alone, a person will have sound judgment, but when being placed within a lively crowd, a person is likely to get lost and be easily influenced and misguided by others. “When tutors said something, students were induced to give a positive reply, which is a kind of brainwashing,” she said.  

Wang Fengyao (pseudonym) joined Create Abundance with the hope of improving the health of her family and self. Both her father and child were in poor health and she paid 500,000 yuan (US$72,600) to become a senior member which entitled her opportunities of direct communication with Zhang. Wang’s father, however, did not get better even after receiving the special long-distance treatment from Zhang.  

“We were told that as long as we could change ourselves, everything will get better,” Wang said. “If not, it is because we failed to transform ourselves first.”  

At Create Abundance, members are required to regularly exchange their “life miracles,” the good things that happened to them and stories of their spiritual enrichment. They are discouraged from raising any questions because at the institution, doubt is considered negative energy. A senior member of Create Abundance told our reporter on condition of anonymity that her level in the company was degraded when she raised a question after finding the promises made by Zhang went unmet.  

Zhang has a clear classification structure for her members. First of all, she selected 30 rich members to be tutors, the highest level in the organization. These people had to pay a membership fee of 30 million yuan (US$4.36m) and each was in charge of the business for an entire province. In addition, a principal would be recruited to run each of the 53 study centers, at the cost of 8 million yuan (US$1.2m) on average. Below that, 500,000 to 1 million yuan (US$72,600 to 145,000) is the basic threshold to become a supervisor and 50,000 yuan (US$7,260) is the minimum charge for each ordinary member.  

“Zhang Xinyue told us that the more we paid, the more energy we will get and the higher the rank we attain will be,” Wang Wei told NewsChina. She said that a tutor is actually a provincial agent who could hire new members by themselves. Zhang pledged that each tutor will get compensation of 3 million yuan (US$436,000) when they open a new study center. On average, each study center sells 100 membership cards and each tutor will get a kickback of 10,000 yuan (US$1,450) from each. Zhang said that it is not a commercial venture and the money involved is called the “gratitude fund.”  

But not all the senior-ranking employees get any money back on time. “If you pay 500,000 yuan (US$72,600) to become a supervisor, Zhang will not give the refund instantly and will promise instead to buy investment funds with the money and pay you back with double the return,” said Yang Li, head of a study center in Wuhan, Hubei Province.  

In May 2015, Zhao Xia (pseudonym) paid over 3 million yuan (US$436,000) in total to become head of a study center in a mediumsized city and recruited a number of students, but the scant refund from Zhang failed even to meet the daily running fees of the rented office, according to a report in People’s Daily. In 2016 Zhao embarked on a quest to claim her rights.  

Wang Fengyao told NewsChina that the shiny faces of senior members have a tarnished flip side as many people were trapped in excessive consumption trying to maintain their exemplary lifestyles. She said that some tutors even sold their apartments to become senior members and the overseas study trips organized by Create Abundance were much more expensive than those of tour companies.  

Some senior members had to drop out thanks to the heavy debts incurred. Zhang, however, offered no helping hand and instead pushed the members to expand their way of making money including borrowing money from their parents and friends, and even getting loans from banks.  

The study centers nationwide are mostly registered as cultural companies which lack the credentials to offer training. To date, the total amount of training fees has reached 1 billion yuan (US$145m) but not a single official receipt was given to members. Our reporter tried to contact the company for interview but found all the contact lists on its official website had been deleted. All eight core members of the organization have emigrated to other countries.  

In August 2016, the Industrial and Commercial Bureau of Chaoyang District, Beijing, began to investigate three offices of Create Abundance within the district for alleged illegal operations and spiritual pyramid selling and more than 20 study centers nationwide have since suspended their operations.  

The official Weibo account of Create Abundance has not been updated since its last post on July 29, 2016. The silence has generated public outcry with dozens of frustrated commentators using the account as a place to publicly vent their anger, leave complaints and other examples of “negative energy.”