Tuesday, May 5, 2009

More about the Chongqing Temple Predicament

Additional details have emerged since my previous post titled "The Predicament of a Buddhist Temple in Chongqing."

It turns out that the people the blogging monk accused of beating him up on April 21st were three officials sent by Chongqing city government to resolve the conflict between the developer and the temple. A report by Southern Metropolitan Weekly titled "Chongqing Hot Spring Temple: Scramble between Commerce and Religion" gives the leading official's name as Yu Baiyan, a director of the Chongqing Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs (a department of the city government). Yu claimed that the monk, with monastic name Dingrong, made rude remarks first, then a scuffle occurred. Both men declared injuries.

Interestingly, ten days before the scuffle, it was the same official Yu who told Singapore's Zaobao his version of the real reason for the temple's protest. According to Yu, because the managing abbot, Zhenggang, had a long history of contention with the Beibei district government, the latter wanted to remove Zhenggang from his position. That was what really upset the monks. It was ridiculous to call it a case of the government colluding with a developer, Yu said.

Yu spoke with absolute confidence that he was on the right side. However, he doesn't even have a common netizen's brain. On many websites, readers have been asking "Why should a religious position be appointed by the government?" Right on. If China were still in the Mao era, that would be a wrong question to ask. But 30 years into Reform and Opening, people are expecting more freedom and rights everywhere in the society.

So, whatever the real reasons were behind the Hot Spring Temple's protest, the case has already raised another important issue (in addition to the religious property rights I mentioned in the previous post): the legitimacy of the government's role in controlling religious affairs. If this issue is not resolved, more conflicts will surely ensue. The unenlightened Yu aside, it is time for the Chinese government to adjust its religious policy.

In the current situation, religious personnel are like a daughter-in-law with no husband but having multiple bossy (and sometimes even abusive) mothers-in-law: there's the Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs from the government line (市政府民宗委); there's the United Front Work Department from the Party line (市委统战部); there's the Subcommittee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs from the Political Consultative Conference line (政协民宗委); there's also the government-controlled "mass organization" – Buddhist Association (佛协). What a big mess. Do the solitude-seeking monks really need this many mothers-in-law? And, when there is a conflict like this one, none of them help.

Chongqing's Hot Spring Temple isn't the only case of conflict between commercial and spiritual interests. Chinese media reported that on March 20, monks of the famous Famen Temple (法门寺) in Shaanxi Province pushed down a wall built by the developer of a commercial scenic area. The construction named "Famen Cultural Scenic Area" is another government project utilizing important religious cites as attractions for tourists. Once built, the gate ticket price will increase from 25 yuan to 180 yuan, unaffordable by a working class family.

The monks of the Famen Temple said they never liked the idea of being walled into a commercial tourist area that charges high price tickets to visitors, but under the government's coordination, they reluctantly agreed for the temple to be included in the "unified management" of the project. "It was already a big compromise," the managing abbot said. Now that the developer pushed further to have the wall block the temple's driveway, the monks could tolerate it no more. After the wall was toppled by the angry monks, the government mediated and the developer agreed not to rebuild that part of the wall.

Chongqing's Hot Spring Temple will face a similar problem after the luxury spa center opens to the public. The high-priced tickets will certainly diminish the temple's religious activities.

Yesterday I read on monk Dingrong's blog that the government has rejected their proposal to separate the temple from the spa area with a wall. However when I tried to revisit today the monk's blog has been removed. Dingrong (in the picture above) was reportedly a policeman before he became a monk four years ago.


I called a friend in Chongqing last week discussing the Hot Spring Temple case. The friend is an intelligent academic who served as a committee member in the Political Consultative Conference (政协) last term. I asked him if there was a way to have 政协 discuss the issues of religious property rights and personnel appointments. He said (with a slightly cynical tone), "You live so far away, and you want to uphold justice here? I admire you for that, but I don't think there's much that can be done."

He told me during his five-year term, he was one of the few committee members who would speak their own minds. For this he became unwelcome in the committee. Before each committee meeting, the leaders in his work unit would forewarn him not to be so disagreeable. Most members are there for the social status. Though 政协 is supposed to be an advisory body to the Party and government, and should consist of different political parties and organizations as well as independent members, today's 政协 members are mostly government officials at various levels. It is now unlikely for a person who doesn't have any administrative position to become a 政协 member. This reminded me what a doctor friend (who I cited in the post titled "What Kind of Country is China Today?") said, "In the local Political Consultative Conference (政协), there may be one third of us [from other parties] and two thirds CCP members, so when taking votes they always win."

My academic friend added that there used to be a time when most 政协 members were knowledgeable professionals from all sorts of fields, and they had sharp minds and fresh ideas. I asked when that was, and he said it was before the June 4th massacre of 1989. "After the Cultural Revolution, those people had seen the future for China to go on a different political path, so they enthusiastically participated in the Political Consultative Conference. But they lost hope after June 4th and were gone."


Anonymous said...

Alas! I witnessed the destruction of the North Hot Spring Park which used to be one of my favorite parks in this horrible monstrous city (my hometown, sadly) with few parks. There is no rule of law in China today and the bunch of CCP hooligans is hurriedly digging their own tombs...

Xujun Eberlein said...

Anon, I prefer rational discussions instead of cheap extreme words.

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Anonymous said...

It is interesting that netizens speak up against the government appointing religious figures. Where are those voices when the same government carry out the same policies in Tibet?

Sutra said...


Sutra said...


Anonymous said...

Since religious groups try to influence politics all the time, I do not see why Gov should not have some agencies to manage religious activities.

pug ster said...

In an ideal country even in the US there should be a separation of church and state but in reality that is not true. Like what Anonymous says, that in the US, many religious groups lobby the government against abortion and gay marriage. Some religious groups believe that parents should not immunize their child and the government have to step in. Also, check out the supreme court case Employment Division vs. Smith. These court cases would influence the Religious Freedom Restoration Act where religious freedom is allowed as long as it does not conflict with the interest of the state.

I think China does follow similiar guidelines in terms of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the US. The Falun gong was questioned when its follows does not think they do not have to see the doctor for sickness. Later they were really put down because they tried to destabilize the government. Followers of the Dalai Lama was being put down for similiar reasons.

Anonymous said...

In the US there are many groups such as Americans for Separation of Church and State and ACLU that sue the govt and religious organizations that try to break down the wall of separation between religion and govt - and they very often win their cases. And the verdicts are actually enforced! I would not call the words of the first anon above "cheap extreme words". They are heartfelt and quite true.

perspectivehere said...


Regarding the netizen's comment, "Why should a religious position be appointed by the government?" it might put things in perspective to consider this:

Church of England appointment of bishops has always involved government input (and even control) for almost 500 years.

See, for example:

It was only in 2007 that Gordon Brown reduced the government's role in appointing bishops "in one of the biggest changes to the relationship between Church and State for generations."

"The Prime Minister made it clear, however, that the Government remained committed to the establishment of the Church of England with the monarch as Supreme Governor."


No one accuses England of being stuck in the Maoist era.

Looking at the world over, there are all kinds of accommodations to resolve the conflicts between religious organizations and the State over authority, taxation, land use, conscience and "rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar". China is no different in this regard.

I think your description of the religious personnel as a "daughter-in-law with no husband but having multiple bossy (and sometimes even abusive) mothers-in-law" is a charming metaphor for the inevitable tensions that arise in the relationship between religious and secular authorities, not just in China, but everywhere.

But I would modify it somewhat: instead of "no husband", the "husband" is actually the people whom the daughter-in-law (religious organization) is serving. The husband owes allegiance and love (of a different kind) to both his wife and mother, but sometimes has difficulty choosing, and always has to tiptoe a fine line between the two, at the risk of offending one with too much loyalty towards the other.

And when wife and mother-in-law fight, that's when the husband really suffers.

Xujun Eberlein said...


You make an interesting point, though I do think that there is a difference between a government that has for centuries had the head of state be the head of the state religion, and a government that has declared itself atheist. Why should an atheist government be appointing people in religious positions?

By the way, your extension of the mother-in-law metaphor made me chuckle. :-)

alfaeco said...

It seems in China a separation of Church and State is needed.

Not because o the meddling of the Church with the State but of meddling of the State with the Church.

Interesting Chinese characteristic....

please said...

Why should an atheist government be appointing people in religious positions?


Seriously, is it some kind of blind view? It actually makes perfect sense for an atheist government to regulate religious groups: because its atheist view, an atheist government can just treat the religious groups as regular organizations as companies or NGOs. So as a head of state, it has authority on all organizations under its jurisdiction.

Anonymous said...

Traditionally, the emperor had the authority to make religious appointments. In China, religion serves government, not the other way around. Religion independent of government is subversion by definition (hetrodox).

alfaeco said...

Regulation is different from direct intervention in internal affairs of any, political or religious, organization.

alfaeco said...

In China, religion is instrumentalized by the government to control society.

alfaeco said...

"It actually makes perfect sense for an atheist government to regulate religious groups: because its atheist view, an atheist government can just treat the religious groups as regular organizations as companies or NGOs."

Actually not, an Atheist government will have a conflict of interest in regulating religion. In the same way a religious government would have a conflict of interest in regulating atheist organizations.

Secular government is more correct.

please said...

alfaeco, you might be right. CCP before the end of CR could be seen as an atheist government. Currently it is more a namely atheist but actual secular government

please said...

Regulation is different from direct intervention in internal affairs of any, political or religious, organization.

Nonsense. Regulation is the just concept that I will mess with you if you do not obey me. For example bank regulation, the top bankers must be approved by banking regulators. If necessary, regulators can fire the whole board of directors (BOA and treasury) in order to make the banks buy something they do not want to buy. And for banks and insurance companies, whether you can do business is also subject to approve. Church or temple is no different from bank or insurance company on this front as far as I can see

alfaeco said...

I think we have a different understanding or Regulation.

From my direct experience I can tell there is a different between regulation and direct intervention.

Any government has the power to intervene in internal affairs of organizations when it sees it necessary (or urgent) to do so. But that is not regulation to me, rather... special circumstances.

What reasons make a government to intervene in such direct way and in which institutions?

Hhhhmm.... it depends on the nature of the government. ;-)

alfaeco said...

Just a thought

There is a difference between Regulation and being Regulated.

in the same way there is a difference between Harmony and being Harmonized....

Anonymous said...

"There is a difference between Regulation and being Regulated."

Westerners dont like being regulated.

Assume you make 100,000 dollars a year. If your government cant regulate you in some ways, then there is no way your government can limit the influence and the power of the riches in your country, see how the government gave away hundreds of billions of dollars/Euros to save the banks and financial institutions ?

That, is the price you have to pay for not wanting being regulated.

There is one thing you have to remember :

One of the necessary conditions that a government can be called a people's government is that the government can limit the influence and power of riches.

perspectivehere said...

Xujun, you wrote,

"You make an interesting point, though I do think that there is a difference between a government that has for centuries had the head of state be the head of the state religion, and a government that has declared itself atheist. Why should an atheist government be appointing people in religious positions? "

Hmmm. I'm having a little trouble seeing the essence of the distinction you're drawing. Perhaps it is because to call the English crown the "head of the state religion" is somewhat dubious, in my view. It may be so as a matter of English law, but as a matter of substance, it is doubtful that many English Christians look to the Queen as the spiritual head of their church; certainly not in the way Roman Catholics look to the Pope.

In fact, the manner in which the English monarch first asserted its legal authority over the church from 1534 onward was as much an act of state tyranny whether seen through the eyes of contemporaries then or today. Monastic lands and properties were confiscated outright, and religious personnel who resisted faced execution: "In less than 20 years, the monastic impulse had effectively been extinguished in England."

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissolution_of_the_Monasteries for a flavor of

"Philosophical concepts of the power of the king over church may have played a part in Henry's decision to suppress the monasteries, but so did greed. The monasteries were rich, and a lot of that wealth found its way directly or indirectly to the royal treasury. Some of the monastery buildings were sold to wealthy gentry for use as country estates. Many others became sources of cheap building materials for local inhabitants."


Seen in a broader perspective, one can view the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 16th century England as one of the first significant steps in the secularization of Europe, involving the emergence of nation states, leading to the Enlightenment, age of political revolutions (followed by the industrial revolution, with its concomitant labor-capital tensions, and colonial empire-building, leading to the emergence of modern nation-building states in the developing world in the 20th century). The English confiscation of church properties for secular purposes (for the use of Oxford and Cambridge colleges) and the assertion of secular control over religious institutions and personnel find their echoes in actions taken by modernizing secular governments such as in the PRC in the 20th century.

These actions were abusive, cruel and ugly in 16th century England, just as they were in 20th century China. Secularization has its victors and its victims.

While it seems to be a common reflex to condemn the PRC government for its assertion of secular authority over religious institutions, one should not fail to consider how modern governments in other places which seldom receive such condemnation today (such as England) gained their control over religious authorities centuries earlier.

My point is this: the only reason England has a government that "for centuries had the head of state be the head of the state religion" is because the English government crushed and neutered its religious institutions almost 500 years ago and left them a feeble shadow of their former selves, unable to challenge its political authority. The fact that the English state has reigned supreme over its religious institutions for almost 500 years there means that it has had more time to work out forms of accommodation that become settled and widely acceptable.

The Chinese government has not had much time, in comparison. The Chongqing Hot Spring Temple should be an interesting case to observe. Thank you for drawing our attention to it.