Snake-oil salemen and charlatans are making a fortune in the mainland. Is the pendulum of religion and belief swinging the other way now? Or is there something less mystical afoot?

In the three decades since China’s “opening up and reform”, religious traditions and spiritual thought, once declared taboo during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, have made a strong comeback. This spiritual revival has been evident in the spreading patronage of Buddhist traditions, the remarkable rise of Christianity in China, particularly in underground and informal “house churches”, and in the continuing practice of Islam by more than 20 million Chinese, often in an hostile environment.

Less evident has been the accompanying proliferation of a lucrative industry built around this rising interest in the religious. Occasionally, the Chinese media carries stories of fake monks and other self-declared men of god who have made large fortunes preying on new beliefs. No one symbolised more the rise of this industry than Wang Lin, a “Qigong master” who has, over the past decade, won following among some of China’s most rich and famous. Qigong is an ancient Chinese discipline which includes breathing exercises and healing techniques. Its practitioners believe that through Qigong, the body's latent energies can be channeled in effective – and, according to Wang and others – even supernatural ways.

Wang’s abilities were most renowned for a rather bizarre talent – he claimed he could, through his Qigong skills, conjure snakes out of thin air. (You can find a subtitled video of his curious Chinese snake trick here.) He has also claimed that he has cured cancer through his Qigong healing techniques. Besides his penchant for demonstrating strange tricks, Wang had generally kept a low profile, choosing to reside in southern Jiangxi province rather than in Beijing or Shanghai, and rarely venturing beyond the four walls of his sprawling mansion (which, according to media reports, housed a fleet of luxury cars).

Last month, however, reports began appearing in the Chinese media asking difficult questions about the reclusive mystic. (Knowing how the Chinese State media usually works, the appearance of a series of reports was no supernatural coincidence.) One Beijing newspaper scoffed at Wang’s claims that “17 Japanese scientists” had “for seven days and nights” studied his skills. The mystic reportedly even claimed that the CIA had offered him 70 green cards. But of course, being a patriot, he turned them down. When a reporter of the “Beijing News” was brave enough to write a piece questioning his tall claims, Wang cursed her, saying she would “die miserably” and her “family will follow”.

The photographs that have emerged in the past few weeks have been remarkable in shedding the spotlight on how widespread and deeply entrenched men like Wang have become among the elite in post-reforms China. Most embarrassingly for the still officially-atheist Communist Party of China (CPC), some of their top cadres count themselves among Wang’s faithful. Among those photographed with Wang were Jack Ma, the head of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, actors Jackie Chan and Jet Li, one of China’s most famous singers Wang Fei, and the movie star Li Bingbing.

Perhaps the most interesting photograph showed Wang with the former Railways Minister and CPC Central Committee member “Great Leap” Liu Zhijun, who presided over a rapid expansion of China’s high-speed industry (and pocketed millions in the process). It is likely no coincidence that the outing of Wang Lin in the press took place only days after Liu was sentenced to death – with a two-year reprieve, likely to be commuted to a life term – in a high-profile trial last month.

Wang, who fled to Hong Kong earlier this week fearing possible arrest, maintains that he is being targeted in a financial dispute. He did not appear in court when a trial over a case involving a former disciple opened on Tuesday. The disciple Zou Yong, a businessman, is fighting with his old master over a $4.8 million housing agreement. There is, however, probably far more to Wang Lin’s case than a property dispute. In recent days, State media outlets have used strong language denouncing the likes of Wang as “dispensers of spiritual opium”, invoking a tone perhaps last seen during the crackdown of the now banned Falun Gong, (which, like Qigong, involves a similar set of breathing exercises).

The wider issue is the murky world inhabited by China’s political and business elite – hardly news to Chinese citizens, but an increasing source of annoyance. The Party’s media has railed against the nexus between officials and men like Wang. The Global Times acknowledged “it’s not new that many officials would rather worship the supernatural than care about the public”. “They are prone to trust those masters,” the newspaper said. “Isn’t that why these masters are so popular?” That officials across the country are spending millions to garner favour with astrologers and mystics is also testament to the opacity that continues to envelope Chinese officialdom, even as the demands of a slowly growing civil soceity - aided by the power of social media - are growing louder for transparency. Yet, just this week, even as the Party has made a public case against Wang and renewed its commitment to fight corruption, it has also quietly continued to silence anti-corruption activists campaigning for greater transparency, leaving some to wonder the Party, too, is merely attempting to pull off a feat of illusion of a different kind.