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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Beijing Finds Common Cause With Chinese Buddhists

July 25, 2010

Louisa Lim
National Public Radio (NPR) USA
July 22, 2010


Fourth of five parts

Four years ago, eight senior monks, clad in
scarlet-and-saffron-robes, filed in front of a
golden Buddha and began chanting on stage in the
eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou. It marked an
important turning point in China's attitude toward religion.

This was the first World Buddhist Forum, attended
by more than 1,000 monks, and held in China.
Never before had the officially atheist country
sponsored such a large religious conference.

The moment signaled Beijing's new proactive
approach to religion and, in particular, its
support for Buddhism, possibly as a counterweight
to the explosion of Christianity in China.

Tensions still remain in Beijing's relationship
to Tibetan Buddhism, particularly given
believers' loyalty to their exiled spiritual
leader, the Dalai Lama. He is viewed by the
Chinese government as a "splittist," with the aim of dividing China.

But Chinese Buddhism is not seen to be politically problematic in this way.

Some academics estimate there are 20 million
Buddhists in China, and Buddhism has been at the
forefront of the changing role of religious
institutions, particularly when it comes to charity.

Leprosy patients in Xiamen who benefit from donations from Nanputuo Temple

Louisa Lim/NPR

Leprosy patients who live in a small hospital on
a hillside outside Xiamen receive donations every
year from the Nanputuo Temple foundation. Many of
the patients have lived in the hospital for
decades after being abandoned by their families.
Over the past 16 years, the Buddhist foundation
has given out a total of about $7 million in aid.

A Pioneer In Buddhist Charity Work

Monks from Nanputuo Temple, a monastery with a
thousand years of history in the southeastern
coastal city of Xiamen, led the way. In 1994,
they set up the country's first Buddhist
philanthropic foundation, says the Venerable
Zhengxin, an official with the foundation.

"This motivated other Buddhist organizations to
take part in charitable work," he says.

The foundation is now one of the most developed
religious funds in China, with annual audits, a newspaper and a magazine.

Much of its income comes from its 45,000 members,
who each donate about a $1.50 per month. One
office worker, surnamed Lei, admits he joined as a result of peer pressure.

"A friend of mine was giving money to the fund,"
he says, "and I was influenced by him."

Donations are growing, as people have more
disposable income: According to the foundation's
own figures, donations grew by more than 11
percent in 2009 compared to the previous year.
And the foundation is spending ever more as well,
with total expenditures last year of almost $1.75 million.

Over the past 16 years, Nanputuo's foundation has
given out a total of about $7 million in aid.
That adds up to free medical aid for 210,000
people, 25 new schools and repairs for 67 other schools.

Another fund administrator, the Venerable Putuo,
says local government officials choose which projects receive the money.

"Each project requires a survey, and we depend on
[local officials from the] State Administration
for Religious Affairs for that. They'll look at
how much a place is suffering or the cost of
medical equipment or whatever," she says. "Each
project we've done in our 16-year history has
been inextricably linked with the local government."

Such cooperation with religious institutions
marks a significant advance from the Chinese
Communist Party's recent turbulent history of religious intolerance.

Four decades ago during the Cultural Revolution,
all religious worship was banned, including
Buddhism. Temples were destroyed or turned into
factories or storage facilities, precious relics
were destroyed and monks were imprisoned, and in some cases even killed.

The Nanputuo foundation also has donated $20,000
to Neicuo primary school in Xiamen to help
construct its new buildings. "I think one of the
main functions of these foundations is to provide
financial aid to schools," says headmaster Song Xubo.

Cash-Strapped Local Governments Welcome Help

But today religious institutions around China are
beginning to play a much larger role in aid work;
the massive earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 was the
turning point. Then, officials invited religious
groups, including Buddhists, Christians and
Catholics, to help in the aid effort.

At a local level, it's not uncommon for religious
groups to operate medical clinics, build
orphanages and donate money to the poor. Some
religious charities are even contributing to fund
public works projects, such as building roads and bridges.

Andre Laliberte of the University of Ottawa is
researching Buddhist philanthropy in China.

"Local governments [that] are cash-strapped are
only too happy to have donations from religious
organizations [that] want to help them," says Laliberte.

But he says that work is happening in a very
low-key way since "the [local governments] don't
want to give credit, as that might increase the
social capital of those institutions."

"It also looks bad for the state," he adds. "If
it can't provide social services, then it becomes
an issue of government legitimacy."

Temple, Local Economies Interconnected

One beneficiary of Nanputuo Temple foundation's
largesse is a small, austere hospital for leprosy
patients, situated next to a pig farm on the
outskirts of Xiamen. It was originally located on
this hilltop, away from residential districts,
because of public fear of leprosy.

Some of the patients have lived at the facility
for decades, abandoned by their families. The
fund gives the hospital about $3,000 a year. It's
not much, but hospital director Chen Xichen says
it makes a huge difference to patients.

"The foundation gave us money, electric fans and
cookers, clothes, closets and beds," he says,
gesturing at almost every single possession in
one patient's room. "Sometimes I ask our patients
what else they need, but they can never even think of anything else."

The economic function of Buddhist temples goes
further still. Every year, at least 2 million
visitors crowd into Nanputuo's courtyards.

The temple is a cash cow; its vegetarian
restaurant caters to tens of thousands, and it
has created business for sellers of incense and Buddhist trinkets.

Tourists hand over ticket fees of nearly $900,000
a year. Some of that goes towards the temple's
development and upkeep, but part of that revenue
also goes to the local government, according to
Li Xiangping from East China Normal University's
Institute of Religion and Social Development.

The development of the Buddhist economy is often
interconnected with that of local government
economy, as they're driving each other. The two
sides may cooperate over the planning of tourist
destinations and tourism revenues. This also helps build Buddhism's image.

- Li Xiangping, East China Normal University

"The development of the Buddhist economy is often
interconnected with that of the local government
economy, as they're driving each other," Li says.
"The two sides may cooperate over the planning of
tourist destinations and tourism revenues. This
also helps build Buddhism's image."

In the past, money matters have caused disputes
in the corridors where today Buddhist music is
piped. In 1990s, a disagreement over the
management of the restaurant at Nanputuo Temple
culminated in a stand-off; militant monks held
government officials hostage overnight, leading
to a raid on the temple by special forces.

But today, the temple's relationship with the
local government in economic terms is mutually beneficial.

Buddhism Promoted As Counterbalance

Academics such as Laliberte believe Beijing is
also supporting Buddhism for another reason: to
counterbalance the explosion of Christianity in China.

"I have reason to believe the Chinese government
might be encouraging Buddhist institutions,
simply because they're worried about the rapid
spread of Christianity and Protestantism in particular," he says.

The government can't prevent demand for spiritual
succor, Laliberte says, but adds:

"They can try to channel it and Buddhism is a
good candidate. The infrastructure is there and
Buddhist monks are willing to accept that role."

China's communist leaders are mobilizing all
resources -- including Buddhists -- to build a
"harmonious society," their latest watchword. As
people grow richer, the temples are becoming more
like multinational corporations, with their balance-sheets ballooning.

Their contributions to government coffers may not
yet be huge, but they will surely increase over
time. And China's pragmatic leaders are making
sure the government is benefiting from the
economic effects of this religious revival.
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