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#MeToo hits Chinese Buddhists

Dang Yuan
August 2, 2018

A Buddhist abbot in China is accused of sexually harassing female worshippers. The #MeToo movement isn't new to the country, yet victims have little chance of recourse as the state seems to protect powerful perpetrators.

Shi Xuecheng
Image: Getty Images/AFP/W. Zhao

The Buddhist Longquan Temple is a quiet place in a northwestern suburb of China's busy capital, Beijing. Faithful come from near and far to experience spirituality and the company of Buddha in the officially atheist country.

But now a cloud of suspicion hangs over the 10th-century holy site and is threatening to tarnish its image. Two monks at the temple — both of whom earned engineering degrees at the renowned Tsinghua University before joining the religious order — have leveled serious accusations against the temple's abbot: sexual harassment and coercion while taking advantage of vulnerable people, as well as embezzlement and massive fraud.

The accusations were first published in a 95-page online document, which DW has in its possession. It consists of five chapters and five attachments. Screenshots and victims' chat protocols have been included to substantiate the claims.

Read more: #MeToo movement meets China's firewall

According to the text, the abbot exploited the dependent relationship of female worshippers as a means of forcing them into sexual relations. Bank statements from the years 2015 and 2016 are also said to provide proof that some 10 million yuan (roughly €1.3 million, $1.5 million) ended up in the abbot's private bank account during that time. No police investigation has been opened, but on Thursday, the state Administration for Religious Affairs announced that it would examine the veracity of the documents.

Longquan Temple
Longquan Temple is one of China's most famous monasteriesImage: picture alliance/dpa

Protecting the abbot through state censorship

The abbot in question is Shi Xuecheng (pictured at top). His name means "honesty in the family Shi." All monks in China bear the religious name Shi, a shortened form of the family name Shakyamuni, referring to the founder of Buddhism. Xuecheng is an immensely powerful monk. The 51-year-old is the chairman of the Buddhist Association of China. Not only does the body administrate 33,000 pagodas across the country, it also governs some 240,000 monks. Official statistics suggest that China is home to some 100 million Buddhists.

Xuecheng is not only well-connected within the Buddhist community, the same can be said of his relationships within China's political system. As the chairman of the China Committee on Religion and Peace in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory board to parliament, he has close ties to the Communist Party of China.

Read more: Tiananmen anniversary — keeping the memory of the massacre alive

Such ties have paid off for the abbot, who has enjoyed the protection of China's censors. No concrete accusations against the man are to be read in the country. Nevertheless, Xuecheng addressed the controversy in a written statement in the name of the Longquan Monastery. He vehemently denied the accusations, calling them a fabrication. Moreover, he has filed charges for libel. He claims that all of the documents put forth by his accusers are fake.

Male and powerful

Although the #MeToo movement arrived in China some time ago, it has been of little consequence. Many accusations of sexual harassment have become public, with film directors, academics and television moderators facing criticism. The accused have much in common. They tend — almost exclusively — to be public figures that are rich and well-connected, like Xuecheng. None of them have been prosecuted.

China TV Star Zhu Jun
TV star Zhu Jen is one of a number of powerful men in China accused of sexual misconductImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Imaginechina/G. Junfh

China's powerful censors make public debate impossible, according to an activist from the Beijing civil rights group Women's Voice who wishes to remain anonymous because the nongovernmental organization itself is under pressure from the government. On Wednesday, all of its social media user accounts were blocked by state authorities.    

The internet: A last chance for justice

"There are no independent reports on the accusations, #MeToo reports have a very short online lifespan anyhow," the activist told DW. "Censors scrub them as quickly as they can."

Read more: How much do Chinese people care about privacy?

The criminal offense of sexual harassment must also be addressed in the Chinese criminal code, the activist said, noting that the code lists such a crime but there is no clear definition of what it is. Apparently, the Chinese police also have little interest in prosecuting the many sexual attacks recorded by surveillance cameras in busses and subways across the country, the activist added.

Criminal proceedings, should they ever take place, offer little prospect of justice, however. "The only thing a victim can do is to publish accusations on the internet to get them out into the court of public opinion, even if they don't stay there for long," the activist said, explaining that the only solution would be a prosecutorial authority that earnestly investigated accusations, and, of course, a country that operated under the rule of law.