Sacred sites caught in high-stakes IPOs

By Duan Wuning in Shanghai Source:Global Times Published: 2012-7-9 22:20:02

A monk walks around a temple on Wutai Mountain in Shanxi Province on September 22, 2011. Photo: IC
A monk walks around a temple on Wutai Mountain in Shanxi Province on September 22, 2011. Photo: IC

The 1.5 million-or-so followers of Master Yancan's microblog are generally greeted with posts about the meaning of life, but on July 4 something was different. On that day, the post read:

"What is wrong? It's likely that in the near future, the Taoist destinations Taishan Mountain, Huashan Mountain and Wudang Mountain will all become publicly listed companies. This means that believers will be visiting listed companies, not spiritual havens. It's a moral tragedy."

The remarks of the vice chairman of the Buddhist Association of Hebei Province came after reports of possible Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) of the Buddhist mountains. Predictably, it caused quite a stir.

The most recent report involved Putuo Mountain in Zhejiang Province, one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism in China. According to the China News Service, the Putuo Mountain Management Committee is preparing for an IPO on the Shanghai Stock Exchange in an estimated two years' time, and aim to attract around 750 million yuan ($117.85 million) when it goes public under the banner of the Putuo Mountain Tourism Development Co.

It's not the only mountain being listed. Xinzhou authorities in Shanxi Province announced in July last year that they were preparing to list Wutai Mountain. Further south, the management committee behind Jiuhua Mountain in East China's Anhui Province already failed previous IPO attempts in 2004 and 2009. They have recently launched a third attempt, according to a list of companies that are under preliminary review by the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), which was released at the end of June.

The management of the other Buddhist mountain, Emei Mountain (stock name Emei Shan), has had better luck. The site has been listed on the main board of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange since 1997, and had a market value of 5.17 billion yuan as of Monday.

The State Administration for Religious Affairs weighed in on the matter on June 5, after IPO plans for the Famen Temple in Shaanxi Province were shelved. It was supposed to go public in 2013. News of the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province going public stoked controversy in 2009, but the plan also fell through.

More than money at stake

Liu Wei, an official with the administration, said that places of worship are non-profit organizations, and the developing market economy should have boundaries.

Business commentators have also had harsh words for many of these IPOs, stating that local governments are the direct beneficiaries.

"Only by getting the sites listed can local governments or even individuals receive revenue and profit from them. Regardless of whether they're places of worship or tourist sites, they are all seen as honey-pots," Ye Tan, a well-known business columnist pointed out in one of her recent articles. "Religion has become a tourism asset, and their sacredness has given way to economic profit."

"The idea is totally different, the media and the public have misunderstood the IPO move," Mao Jiantao, the general manager of the Putuo Mountain Tourism Development Co, the soon-to-be listed body, said. He is also the deputy director of the Putuo Mountain Management Committee that runs the tourist site.

"Going public doesn't just mean grabbing profits, it is a business activity when you have departments to administer," Mao told the Global Times, stressing that Putuo Mountain does not equal religion. "It is a 5A tourist site, which has temples as one part, and ticket revenues will be separate from listed assets."

"The IPO will not affect normal religious operations, and will help perfect the infrastructure to ensure tourists visiting the mountain will be able to enjoy better services," Mao said. "We think Buddhist practitioners will understand and respect this."

However, when asked whether the authorities communicated with temple authorities on the matter, Mao said, "I think that's totally unnecessary."

The to-be-listed assets include items like a tour bus center, a cableway company, a bus company and incense factories, none of which were Buddhist temples and convents. This was a stipulation required by the CSRC.

Putuo Mountain is on one of the 1,390 islands of the Zhoushan Islands along the coast of East China's Zhejiang Province. The island attracted nearly 5.2 million visitors last year, raking in over 3 billion yuan according to information on the site's website. The tourist site was rated as a 5A site in 2007, joining 126 other 5A sites in China.

Experts weigh in

"It is impossible to separate temples and listed assets," Ye Tan said. "There will be no tourism service industries if there are no temples. How can the local tourism industry attract visitors without the Buddhist assets?"

"Whatever excuse they use, this is the bottom line of Buddhist culture. The public listing will be blasphemy," Master Yancan told the Global Times. "People's spiritual pursuits will collapse. Materials can be bought, but spiritual pursuits cannot."

Andrew Abel, an assistant professor of sociology at Hastings College in the US, agreed.

"Markets can be self-defeating, and some kind of social control beyond self-interest is often necessary. Any tourist destination - Paris or the Vatican or the Holy Land - can be destroyed by the wrong kind of development. Ironically, what makes these Buddhist mountains attractive to tourists can easily be ruined by tourism corporations," he told the Global Times in an e-mail interview.

"It's common for religious sites to help promote local tourism industries in other parts of the world. What's different here is that local government and businessmen cooperate to reap extremely high profits while taking advantage of places of worship," Yang Fenggang, a professor of sociology and the director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the US said in an e-mail reply to the Global Times.

"It could help boost the local economy in the short term, but it will commercialize Buddhism and cheapen it in the end, sacrificing its original function of purifying people's minds," he pointed out.

This further reflects a shortage in religious resources. Yang said research shows that every 800 people share a formal place of worship in the US, while on the Chinese mainland, that number is 10,000. Demand for religious services can't be satisfied, so there are still many visitors even though temples have high ticket prices.

"The limited number of places of worship has contributed to the fact that religious venues can be used to gain profits," Yang said.

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