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Meet China's Tony Robbins

The predatory gospel of China's most popular motivational speaker

Sky News

After the dancing on chairs, the group massages, and “The Final Countdown” techno-remix warm-up music, I barely noticed when Chen Anzhi, China’s top motivational speaker, finally came onstage. For what felt like the first time since his “success studies” conference began two days earlier, the massive ballroom of Beijing’s Fengda Hotel went quiet. “Does anyone here want to live an ordinary life?” Chen asked as he prowled the stage, hair perfectly gelled and blue suit shining. (It might have been the gold threads woven into it.) Only a couple of hands went up. “You can leave now,” Chen said. What he was offering was not a stable life, or even a modest improvement in circumstances, but “explosive” success. Normally, he said, it might take as many as 20 years to become a billionaire. But if the attendees followed his advice, he could make them rich within ten. “Is that OK?” he asked with his trademark rapid-fire delivery. “YES!” the audience shouted.

Chen Anzhi, who also goes by Steve Chen, is practically a household name in China. His books and CDs line airport shelves, with titles like The Biggest Secrets of Success, Diamond Success Methods, Super Success Studies Action Handbook, and Success for Kids. He tours constantly, holding three-day conferences where newbies can hear an introductory lecture and enlist as one of his “disciples.” For 20,000 yuan ($3,207), students can attend four basic courses over a year. An “entry-level disciple” pays 250,000 yuan ($40,080) to join Chen’s “private club” of 400 followers; an “ultimate disciple” pays one million yuan ($160,576) to have Chen as life coach for life. According to his spokesperson, his students number more than 32 million. This has made him the grandfather of the Chinese self-help industry—which is booming, thanks to 30 years of rapidly rising incomes and even more rapidly rising status anxiety. If you’re not rich, the stats imply, you’re doing it wrong.

Chen, who is 46, discovered motivational speaking when he was living in California in the mid-’80s. His parents had sent him to the United States from Taiwan when he was 14. After high school, he enrolled at Pepperdine University and, according to his own legend, worked 18 different jobs—including serving food at Panda Express—before a friend took him to a lecture by Tony Robbins, the silver-tongued life coach who was already a national phenomenon.

Robbins was far from the first American self-help guru: The United States has fixated on being its best self from the start. Think of the Puritans’ emphasis on finding one’s “calling” or Benjamin Franklin’s pontifications on how to get rich. Mid-twentieth-century paperbacks like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People flew off shelves as Americans rode the country’s historic economic expansion. But it wasn’t until the economy contracted in the early ’70s that the self-help craze really began. As real wages declined for the first time since World War II, Americans wanted desperately to know which seven habits would make them highly effective people, what color their parachute was, and, later, who had moved their cheese. In the ’80s, Robbins bounded into this world of uncertainty, promising to help people harness their “personal power.” He was soon selling out arenas.

Chen was among the millions who signed up for one of Robbins’s classes. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is awesome,’ ” Chen told me. “He walks his talk.” Chen dropped out of college to sell tapes and videos for Robbins’s company. Around 1990, he took a speaking job in Taiwan, and then, in 2000, he brought his act to mainland China.

The country had changed radically while he’d been in the United States—and, it turned out, was primed for his message. Between 1978 and 2012, average urban disposable income rose 71-fold. Onetime luxuries like TV sets have been replaced by a new vocabulary of status symbols, from Western suits to sports cars (both of which Chen collects). In 2010, China hit the milestone of one million millionaires. If billionaire entrepreneurs like Jack Ma (Alibaba) and Pony Ma (Tencent) personify the country’s post-1979 economic boom, Chen represents the other 1.2999999 billion Chinese people who see their achievements and think, “That could be me.”

But China’s boom has also fostered an unprecedented unease. The proverbial “iron rice bowl” of guaranteed wages has been replaced by the takeout boxed lunch of long-distance migrant work and overnight factory shutdowns. Urban real estate prices have climbed without mercy, snuffing out the twin dreams of buying a house and a car for most twenty- and thirtysomethings. Social mobility in China is even lower than in the United States. Yet there is a pervasive sense that anyone can make it, reinforced by the designer handbags on every arm, the iPhones in every pocket, the Audis idling in traffic. Would-be strivers under Mao could blame their poverty on a lack of opportunity, but the rise of the self-made man—“phoenix man” in Chinese—casts a shadow on everyone who has not struck gold. Chen has located this knot in the Chinese psyche and worked it. “There’s a method for success,” he likes to say, along with the corollary slogan, “There’s a reason for failure.”

When I met Chen at his sumptuous “tea house” in western Shanghai (membership: 50,000 yuan, or $8,028), I found him in a lavender-walled room, sitting at the end of a long wooden table flanked by business associates, including a Nestlé executive, a man introduced as the world’s top feng shui expert, and a coffee entrepreneur who I was told could make 19 flavors from one kind of bean and to whom Chen referred simply as “The Master.” On the table were glass jars full of a clear, Jell-O-like substance that turned out to be an edible bird’s nest. Each jar cost 1,500 yuan, or $240. “It’s good for your throat,” Chen said, spooning the jelly into his mouth. “Lots of fiber,” added the Nestlé exec. In the corner of the room, one of Chen’s disciples was demonstrating a medical device of his own creation called the “Quantum Resonance Magnetic Analyzer.”

Our “interview” proceeded in fits and starts. Chen would pronounce slogans—“[Success] is like a Ferrari: You can’t have one broken tire.” “To be number one, you need to know who number one is.”—amid a bustle of visitors, side conversations, and assistants whispering in his ear. Near the end of our conversation, I asked if there was anything else he wanted to say about his philosophy. “Everyone who reads this message needs to know three words,” he said. “Just do it.”

Chen’s methodology is thin on specifics. His three keys to success are (1) find a good coach (preferably Chen); (2) surround yourself with other successful people (Chen, for example); and (3) set a high standard for yourself (e.g., Chen). At the Beijing conference, he proudly described how he borrowed $4,350 from his mother so he could enroll in Robbins’s class and encouraged the audience to do the same. He did offer them two concrete benefits: for entrepreneurs, access to his network of investors; for aspiring motivational speakers, a chance to join his company. Of course, Chen noted, he couldn’t guarantee success, but he did promise better results than business school. Paying to rub shoulders with the stars is “a hundred times more expensive than tuition fees,” he said. “But once you’ve entered my circle, the growth will be exponential.”

Most people eagerly absorbed these wisdom nuggets: Several young acolytes explained to me, with unsettling amounts of eye contact, how Chen gave them confidence to follow their dreams. But the shtick doesn’t work for everyone. A woman at the conference who would only give her surname, Tian, nervously confided that the whole thing reminded her of chuanxiao, a pyramid scheme. “The atmosphere here is not very normal,” she said in a low voice.

Xu Chao, a 24-year-old who’d traveled the 900 miles from Jiangxi Province, told me over lunch that he’d signed up for the 20,000 yuan ($3,206) package despite having only 68 yuan ($10.90) to his name. I asked how he planned to come up with the rest. “I’ll find a way,” he said, although his current job laying floorboards only paid the equivalent of $320 a month. He explained that he was taking the course because he wants to help out his parents. “I don’t have anything to support them with,” he said, reaching for a napkin to wipe away tears. “There’s a lot I can’t accomplish.” Step one: Finding money for the twelve-hour train ride home.

At the climax of Chen’s lecture, he invited onstage anyone who wanted to become his disciple. A couple dozen people gathered around him, and he addressed them with his back to the audience. The new students were now inside; the rest of us were outside. Chen exited the ballroom with his entourage and was ushered by an attendant into the nearest elevator. Others tried to squeeze on but were waved away. The doors closed. Chen was going up.