Taiwan Buddhist charity Tzu Chi sets up shop in atheist China
China’s ruling Communist Party has a testy and often bitter relationship with religion. During the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, temples and churches were shut, statues smashed, scriptures burned, and monks and nuns forced to return to secular life, often after receiving a good beating or even jail.
(Photo: Suzhou, June 10, 2005/Thierry Roge)
While the officially atheist Communist Party hardly pushes religion these days, its attitude has softened considerably, though rights groups frequently complain of sometimes harsh restrictions on Christians and Muslims especially.
On Friday, the Taiwanese Buddhist charity the Tzu Chi Foundation opened its Chinese chapter, in the historic eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, perhaps better known in the outside world for its stunning gardens. Officials say Tzu Chi is the first overseas non-governmental organisation to receive the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ blessing to operate in China. Normally they have to register with the Commerce Ministry as businesses.
It is another sign of China’s Communist rulers’ growing but still limited religious tolerance and part of a drive to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese. The Chinese government is generally less fearful of Buddhism
with its home-grown roots, but maintains tight control especially in Tibet where monks have been jailed for supporting their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Yet Tzu Chi is barred from preaching and cannot raise funds from ordinary Chinese without government approval on an ad hoc basis. “We will not make it a point to preach when we do charity work on the mainland, but if people ask me my religion, I will say I’m Buddhist,” foundation spokesman Rey-sheng Her told Reuters.
(Photo: Suzhou, September 9, 2001/Claro Cortes)
“We will use compassion to care for every suffering person and enlighten them to use love to help others,” said Her, a former Taiwan television news anchor.
The opening of Tzu Chi’s China chapter, housed in a traditional courtyard, was attended by Chen Yunlin, China’s top negotiator with self-ruled and democratic Taiwan. Despite China and Taiwan’s political rivalry, bilateral trade and investment, tourism and civilian exchanges have blossomed since the late 1980s. “The two sides of the (Taiwan) strait need this spiritual bridge … so that they can live in harmony,” Chen said.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and insists on eventual unification, through force if necessary, a goal it has not renounced despite the signing of landmark trade and tourism agreements following the election of the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan president two years ago.
Taiwan, with its rambunctious democracy, enjoys complete freedom of belief. In China, the Communist Party sees religions as rivals for the loyalty of the Chinese people and have maintained tight control over beliefs since taking power in 1949. The Party has sought to use religion to help curb rising social unrest and fill an ideological vacuum in the post-Mao Zedong era which has eroded ethics and spawned graft.
In what appears to be growing tolerance towards religion, museums in Beijing and Shanghai hosted exhibits this year to commemorate the 400th death anniversary of Matteo Ricci (1582-1610), the Italian Jesuit who brought Christianity to China. Foreign clerics, including Jesuits and other Catholic orders, were expelled after the Communists seized power in a revolution in 1949.
(Image: Matteo Ricci, 1610 portrait by Emmanuel Pereira/Yu Wen-hui)
But in recent years cash-strapped local authorities have turned a blind eye to or allowed individual Western missionaries to work on small social welfare or educational projects in China. In one example, a Jesuit priest has been allowed to help lepers in the southern province of Guangxi.
Ricci — known as Li Madou in Chinese — is remembered fondly as a unique bridge between East and West. He dressed as a Confucian scholar and spent the last nine years of his life in Beijing before dying in 1610.
Fluent in spoken and written Chinese, Ricci introduced China to astronomy, mathematics and geography. He was the first person to draw a map of the world for the Chinese and to translate books on Western science, logic and philosophy into Chinese.
His translations of Chinese classics into Latin and colourful accounts of his own work gave Europeans unprecedented insight into Chinese culture and society. He expressed open admiration for China’s highly ordered society.
But Gianni Criveller of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong told Reuters much of what China was doing when it came to religion was aimed at the international audience, to give foreigners a good impression of the country. “In fact inside China religious control for Chinese believers is still tight,” he said.
The launch of Tzu Chi’s China chapter and the Ricci exhibits are in keeping with President Hu Jintao’s 17th Party congress speech in 2007 that “religious figures and followers should play a positive role in promoting economic and social development.”
(Photo: Statue of the Buddhist figure “Guanyin” in a Beijing park, August 12, 2010/David Gray)
China keeps a tight lid on NGOs, but welcomes the millions of dollars they bring annually to make up for a dearth of government spending in public welfare and environmental protection. Tzu Chi was founded in 1966 by Buddhist nun Cheng Yen, known as Taiwan’s Mother Teresa, and steers well clear of politics, one of the reasons it is allowed to operate in China.
“This policy of no-politics has served it in very good stead in China, which was initially suspicious of a Buddhist charity based in Taiwan,” Mark O’Neill, author of “A Silent Revolution — the Tzu Chi Story,” said in an email. “But, as Chinese officials saw how it operated and how it provided aid without any condition or political strings, their anxieties vanished.”
Tzu Chi is already well-regarded in Taiwan. It has responded swiftly and sent volunteers and relief supplies to some of the world’s biggest disasters, including hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005 and China’s devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008. After the tremor, it built 13 schools in Sichuan. Its hospitals have organised bone marrow transplants for more than 2,000 patients in 27 countries.
The group, which has 10 million donors worldwide and raised T$10 billion ($314.5 million) in Taiwan alone in 2009, also recycles plastic bottles at a factory and churns out polyester blankets for disaster zones, shirts, scarves and cloth shopping bags.
(Photo: Typhoon victims in Manila receive blankets and other relief goods from Tzu Chi volunteers, November 19, 2009/Erik de Castro)
Tzu Chi owns a cable network in Taiwan called Great Love and operates a university and a medical college. It boasts an army of two million volunteers, who have engaged in poverty alleviation work in China’s dirt-poor Guizhou province and built water storage tanks in arid Gansu province. In Tzu Chi’s China debut in 1991, it built 3,000 houses in three flood-ravaged provinces. Volunteers, many of them investors and educated professionals, are a familiar sight in disaster areas, donning their navy blue shirts or blouse and white pants.