Tianjin has been known since imperial days for health-care research and manufacturing. Tong Ren Tang, a 350-year-old herbal-medicine business, is based in the nearby capital. It is the best-known maker of traditional Chinese medicine, a system of often unproven remedies that goes back 2,500 years. Zhu Yonghong, co-founder of Tasly, a big traditional-medicine firm in Tianjin, says Quanjian and firms like it set up in Tianjin to profit from Tong Ren Tang’s aura. According to Mr Zhu, they “blurred the line” between regulated traditional medicine and outright quackery.
Quanjian’s founder, Mr Shu, first came to the port to work for Tianshi (known abroad as Tiens), a large seller of health products. The company’s name means “heavenly lion”. Two such beasts with gigantic wings flank the entrance to Tianshi’s headquarters. The firm says it has more than 10,000 staff in 110 countries. It also owns hotels, a college and a hot-spring resort. Its chairman, Li Jinyuan, a former oilfield worker, is Tianjin’s richest man. In 2015 he took 6,000 staff to France on a splashy holiday. Sustaining this are Tianshi’s machines offering diagnoses based on palm-readings. They claim to detect ailments ranging from HIV to hepatitis, for which the firm offers pricey treatments.
According to his biography, Mr Shu later set up Quanjian with 600 secret traditional recipes (he is said to come from a family of herbal doctors). A board in the entrance to his shuttered hospital reads: “To say something is real that isn’t, is deception; to make something real that isn’t, is skill.” A user on Weibo, a Twitter-like site, sums up the appeal: “Quanjian tells patients they will live when hospitals tell them they will die.”
To boost demand for its products, Quanjian devised an alluring scheme. Buying seven pairs of the magic insoles would earn a member the right to become a distributor. To innocent consumers, that seemed above-board: Quanjian has all the trappings of a legal direct-sales firm, including licences from the Ministry of Commerce (in February the ministry said it had suspended the issuing of permits for direct selling). But Quanjian’s pyramid-type recruitment method is banned. Companies that use it are commonly described in China as “business cults”. That is because gangs often ensnare jobseekers into joining. Ecstatic rallies keep alive participants’ illusory dreams of enrichment.