Religious revival

Buddhism is big business in China.

Phoenix TV, which broadcasts across China and around the world on satellite, occupies two floors of a nondescript tower in Kowloon, on the north side of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. Aside from a large inlaid stone globe in the reception area, there’s little indication that wealth and power radiates from this humble place. The control rooms are cramped, the carpets threadbare. This penny-pinching doesn’t alter the fact that Phoenix is one of China’s largest private television networks, broadcasting to over 40 million Chinese homes, and bringing in more than US$100 million in annual advertising income. Although the network is partly owned by Rupert Murdoch, the world’s richest media baron, the majority owner is 57-year-old Liu Changle, who ranks 179th on Forbes’ most recent list of China’s richest people. His net worth is estimated at US$440 million. Phoenix, behind its low-budget façade, is a major money-maker.

In person, Liu is just as unprepossessing as his studios. A former People’s Liberation Army colonel, he speaks in gentle, thoughtful cadences and avoids controversial themes. That’s not unusual in a country notorious for extremely tight media controls. But instead of offering predictable platitudes in his public statements, Liu often focuses on a surprising theme: Buddhism. “I became interested in Buddhism about a decade ago, and I’ve been a Buddhist since 2005,” he explained in an interview during a retreat last year to celebrate the festival of the Guanyin Buddha. “People call me a Buddhist businessman. My business is based on the Buddha in my heart.”

Just a decade ago, that admission might have cost Liu his licence to broadcast in China, which has a long history of violent religious repression and remains an atheistic state. In the 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, thousands of temples and churches were despoiled, and religious leaders were bitterly persecuted by Maoist extremists bent on destroying relics of China’s feudal past.

But in a deeply religious country where Taoism, Confucianism and many folk religions date back thousands of years, by the early 1980s the government had decided the religious purges were undermining its credibility. New laws were issued, granting limited religious freedom for five registered faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islamism, Catholicism and Christianity.

Chinese religious policies have continued to evolve rapidly — largely because the economic boom has unleashed a massive religious resurgence. Scholarly estimates now suggest that, in a population of 1.3 billion, 200 million Chinese attend Buddhist temples regularly. As many as 800 million others are thought to hold Buddhist sympathies. Taiwanese analysts say as many as one-third of China’s 60 million Communist party members are religious. On holy days, main Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian sites are overrun with pilgrims. With floods of money from newly observant donors, temples across the country are being restored at a frantic pace. Christianity is also booming in China, with an estimated one million new followers joining congregations annually.

The Communist government maintains an ideological commitment to atheism as a central tenet of Marxism, and bitterly resents the intrusion of religion into politics in Tibet and the growth of unregistered religious groups such as Falun Gong. But faced with religion’s unstoppable explosion, the government wants to harness it to national unity to reduce social divisions in a country increasingly fractured by ethnic nationalism, and divisions between urban and rural people, and the rich and the poor.

When top Communist officials from across the country met before the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, Chinese President Hu Jintao listed managing China’s religious resurgence to assist the creation of hexie shehui — a more harmonious society — among the government’s top strategic priorities. As soon as Hu uttered these words, which derive from Confucian teachings, “the new slogan went viral,” says Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, a New York–based non-profit research group. All over China, says Schell, “party cadres began jumping on the harmony bandwagon, so that soon almost any idea, article, conference, theory or project could win favour simply by being introduced by and joined with this new, almost sacred mantra.”

In an interview in his office adjacent to the Forbidden City, the former palace of the imperial regime, State Minister for Religious Affairs Ye Xiao Wen explains that the government now aims to channel religion toward economic growth and social stability. “General secretary Hu put forward the idea of bringing into play the positive role of religious personages and believers in promoting economic and social development,” Ye says. Religion, he adds, can help “boost the development of our market economy.”

Chinese religious leaders have reacted with joy to Beijing’s affirmation of the role of religion in the economy. In part, this is because religion itself is big business, not just for networks like Phoenix TV offering religious programming, but also for tourism operators building massive hotel and temple complexesfor the growing hordes of pilgrims attending religious festivals in different parts of the country.

Many Buddhist temples in China are now deluged with contributions from newly wealthy believers hoping to accrue a little positive karma. At Shanghai’s Jade Buddha Temple, one of the country’s richest and most powerful, abbot Jue Xing says his booming restaurant and gift shop businesses require sophisticated management expertise. “I decided to send a monk from this temple to get an MBA,” explains Jue, who also serves as vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association of China and is a member of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party. “We want to do better by combining traditional and modern management techniques.”

While Chinese Buddhists study up on business, Chinese business leaders are studying Buddhism. Several business programs at Chinese universities now offer courses in Zen Buddhism and, according to the Shanghai News, at least one monastery outside the city offers retreats for business people, including a “CEO purification course.” Seen in this context, the suggestion from Phoenix TV’s Liu Changle that “Buddhist philosophies and principles apply in business” is a message people doing business in China seem increasingly inclined to heed.

Margaret Cornish, a consultant, former diplomat and banker who serves as a director of the Canada-China Business Council, notes that during the past three decades of rapid modernization, the Chinese have absorbed aspects of western values into their Confucian-based ethical framework, which rests on five concepts: humanity, humility, harmony, family and “face” — or personal dignity. “What they do not see is a similar western willingness to recognize Chinese values,” says Cornish. “There is growing Chinese resistance to the western assumption that China should do all the adapting.”

Cornish says the Canadian companies that have done well in China — including Sun Life, BMO, Scotiabank, Bombardier, Manulife and Power Corp. — have all shown respect for China’s value system. “It may be time for Canadians to think more about listening to and learning from China, making the relationship a two-way exchange,” she says.

Success with powerful Chinese counterparts takes much more than mere professional competence, says Cyndee Todgham Cherniak, a Toronto-based lawyer with Lang Michener LLP. It’s also a matter of cultural, and spiritual, sensitivity. “I generally read some of the Buddhist teachings on my flights over there,” she says. “These are teachings that will help you understand how to approach people in China.”

The advantage conferred by reading these teachings, says Cherniak, comes into play in business meetings and negotiations. “We [westerners] are taught to speak about ourselves too much, and not to listen enough,” she says. “In China, you have to acknowledge that you have listened. You have to demonstrate that you are humble and respectful. You suggest things, as opposed to demanding them.” Amen.