A Mirror Media report dated October 23rd revealed that the Chinese Unification Promotion Party had infiltrated 30 local temples throughout Taiwan, sparking public outcry. Curiously on the same day, the abbot of the Bennyuannshan Amitabha Lecture Hall Temple, located in Taichung, “encouraged” 40 college students to go to the Taipei District Prosecutors Office to “watch and learn” from the “heroic” president of the Chinese Unification Promotion Party, Chang An-le, who was accusing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of being involved in organized crime.
Then, not many days before, there were reports of freely provided teaching materials and farmers’ almanacs of certain temples were full of paradoxical statements pertaining to Chinese annexation-invasion talking points.
Taiwan as an open society facing China’s goal of ‘liberate Taiwan.” But what do temples have to do with this?
Compared to different flavors of Christianity which arrived on Taiwan’s shores via missionaries from abroad starting in the 1800’s, within Taiwan’s traditional folk beliefs, most of the myths and deities are intimately related to Chinese culture. This creates a convenient and familiar link for Chinese influence in Taiwan. As a result, the most deeply-rooted temple organizations have become the most natural representatives to carry out a campaign of “come ashore, infiltrate the homes, and enter the hearts.”
China’s policymakers have a good grasp on Taiwanese society at a grassroots level. According to a 1990 China News Service report, with the beginning of unrestricted family visits between China and Taiwan, the Mazu (媽祖) temple in Fujian, where the popular sea goddess purportedly came from, has only increased every year.
Even without the issue of Chinese influence, there should be corresponding laws pertaining to the management and regulation of records, property, tax contributions, and other issues related to religious group organizations. However, the only law passed with a special focus on religious groups was the Regulations of the Supervision of Temples (監督寺廟條例) passed by the ROC government when it was still located in China back in 1929.
Moreover, this clause only pertains to Buddhism, Taoism, and other traditional religions of China, and doesn’t include Catholicism, Protestantism or Islam. The situations both back then and in the present are starkly different, and that law is highly inadequate for the present circumstances.
According to a government statement from June 2017 describing a draft bill on religious organizations, starting in 1953 the Ministry of Interior has extensively collected domestic and foreign religious decrees, and held discussions on separate legislation to regulate religiously-affiliated organizations and activities. But the statement from 2017 goes on to say that “There are controversies as to whether or not to interfere in the freedom of religion, which makes it difficult to make a breakthrough in the promotion of the legislative process.”
From 2002 to 2016, the Executive Yuan has proposed a draft bill for the “Religious Groups Law” five times, but none of the bills were ever passed. The Legislative Yuan always holds an attitude of suspicion and contempt towards the “Religious Groups Law” proposed by the Executive Yuan.
Looking at the Legislative Yuan’s own joint proposals, the story is even stranger.
The legislative versions lack most of the contemporary religious registration and management procedures proposed by the Executive Yuan, and includes clauses that essentially bar the Legislative Yuan from actually regulating religious group personnel. One clause even said, “religious groups shall not be required to adhere to principles of democracy and transparency.” Moreover in Article 27 of the draft, there’s a line that legalizes agricultural and public land that are illegally occupied by religious organizations.
The legislators themselves are a huge roadblock for regulating religious organizations, because in Taiwan you cannot win an election without local temples mobilizing their adherents and funds for you. As a result, religious organizations in Taiwan are an unregulated mess, something no one wants to touch. Both the Executive Yuan and the Legislative Yuan have gone through bill after bill, discussion after discussion, but the result is always the same – nothing is done.
Of course, China is also well aware of how powerful local temples are in Taiwan. And China is taking advantage of Taiwan’s inability to come up with a modernized law system to keep religious organizations in check, and because of this inability, China has been carefully laying out programs for religious exchanges with Taiwanese temples since the 1990’s.
But if we look more broadly, including the case involving Changhua County’s Biyun Temple, and the Tainan Wuhsingtien Maz temple, these aren’t large scale temples – it’s rather easy for them to have been manipulated. Focusing too much on these specific cases takes attention away from the bigger picture.
What truly needs a lot of attention are those mid- and large-scale temples and monasteries who possess immense political power. These temples have been heavily infiltrated and are well-connected to Chinese authorities, something that must be addressed immediately.
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