Religion in Taiwan: When Faith and Money Collide

    Proposed legislation would require religious foundations to establish internal financial auditing systems.

Earlier this year, the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, Taiwan’s largest and arguably most revered charity organization due to its efficient response at times of natural disasters, quite unexpectedly found itself under heavy attack by the domestic media and netizens over the notion that donations go to meet the very secular objective of acquiring huge wealth.

Specifically, the reports claimed that Tzu Chi has become Taiwan’s largest owner of private land and questioned such deals as its proposed land development project in Taipei’s Neihu district, where Tzu Chi sought to establish a logistics center and disaster relief workshop in a geologically sensitive protected area. Its less-than-transparent management practices dragged into the limelight as a result of the brouhaha, Tzu Chi withdrew from the project and promised to make public its financial records.

“80 to 85 percent of total donations for religious groups in Taiwan that are declared in followers’ income tax declarations go to Tzu Chi, meaning an annual income of about NT$70 billion [US$2.3 billion],” says Bert Lim, president of the World Economics Society, a Taipei-based think tank. “There also is a huge amount in donations that are made without receipt, for example by tourists visiting Tzu Chi’s sites, as well as the revenue created by the 10 hospitals Tzu Chi operates around Taiwan.” Lim notes that he was once in charge of a research project commissioned by the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to look into Taiwan’s religious groups from an economic perspective.

Tzu Chi has become Taiwan’s largest owner of private land and has an annual income of about NT$70 billion [US$2.3 billion]

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Taoist celebrations and pilgrimages are a major part of religious life in Taiwan.

Tzu Chi was founded in 1966 in Hualien where it remains based, but is now operating in 47 countries around the world. Among the organization’s many efforts are providing education and medical care for the disadvantaged and disaster relief. Tzu Chi is renowned in Taiwan for its disaster relief efforts in the wake of the September 21, 1999 (921) earthquake that killed over 2,000 Taiwanese, as well as its response to Typhoon Morakot in 2009. The foundation is currently engaged in assisting the families of burn victims of the New Taipei City waterpark explosion, and is also building schools and providing medical care in Nepal following the recent devastating earthquake. It recently opened a 500-bed hospital in Jakarta.

“Local government heads, political party leaders, and even presidential candidates often visit large temples and attend religious ceremonies, and they do so particularly frequently during election campaigns to attract votes,” Chiu says. “They are actually directly trading political power with religious power.”

According to the MOI’s Department of Civil Affairs, the government bureau overseeing Taiwan’s religious organizations, as of the end of 2013, there were 12,083 temples, 3,323 churches, 1,984 religious foundations, and 2,353 religious civic groups registered in Taiwan, as well as 27 officially recognized religions. While offical recognition is not mandatory under the secular Republic of China constitution, it brings the weighty advantage that adherents can deduct donations from their income tax. The organizations are also exempt from taxation and auditing.

“Different temples have different strategies to make money,” says Chiu Hei-yuan, a former research fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica. He notes that many, like the ones dedicated to the Tudi Gong [Earth God], rely on financial support from the nearby community, while “others draw donations with miracles and magic.”

Chiu considers a third type to include Tzu Chi and Foguangshan, Taiwan’s second-largest Buddhist organization, which have “developed into a modern industry with sightseeing, bookstores, and so forth.”

as of the end of 2013, there were 12,083 temples, 3,323 churches, 1,984 religious foundations, and 2,353 religious civic groups registered in Taiwan, as well as 27 officially recognized religions.

Expounding on the government’s hands-off approach, Chiu points to what he perceives as an alliance of convenience between the political elite and the religious groups, as evidenced by politicians descending on the temples whenever elections are looming or during the Lunar New Year holiday. “Local government heads, political party leaders, and even presidential candidates often visit large temples and attend religious ceremonies, and they do so particularly frequently during election campaigns to attract votes,” Chiu says. “They are actually directly trading political power with religious power.”

By contrast, Chiu continues, churches play but a minor deal in such activity, “because if the president goes to a Catholic church, he would just sit there without being given a microphone, whereas at a temple he can hold a campaign speech.”

In the United States, politicians are allowed to speak at tax-exempt churches provided that the church doesn’t specifically endorse the candidate and that equal opportunity to speak before the congregation is extended to all major candidates, regardless of whether they accept or not.

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Another look at Taoist celebrations and pilgrimages.

The tourism and food service industries are also beneficiaries of the religious devotions. Referring to the Tourism Bureau’s 2014 Annual Report, Huang Tzung-cheng, a professor at National Chiayi University’s Graduate Institute of Recreation, Tourism and Hospitality Management, notes that Taiwanese took 43.4 million trips to visit religious sites in other localities that year. With earlier surveys indicating that each person spends an average of NT$1,908 on such trips, it can be estimated that about NT$83.3 billion (US$2.7 billion) is spent annually on religious tourism in Taiwan. He adds that yet another survey by the Tourism Bureau found that hotels and restaurants in the vicinity of the temples receive 10.3% and 24.4% of that pie respectively. Tour operators also profit, while the bulk of the spending is in the form of tax-exempt donations to the temple, which are non-profit organizations.

Taiwanese took 43.4 million trips to visit religious sites in other localities that year, spending a total of about NT$83.3 billion (US$2.7 billion).

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Foguangshan in Kaohsiung.

According to MOI, the most popular religious sites in Taiwan are the Nankunshen Daitianfu folk religion temple in Tainan; the Foguangshan (Buddha Light Mountain) monastery in Kaoshisung, and the Chaotian Mazu temple in Yulin County’s Beigang. The three sites annually attract about 10.7 million, 7.5 million, and 6.2 million visitors respectively. (In comparison, Taipei as a whole is estimated by the city government’s Department of Information and Tourism to have received 9 million visitors last year, according to local media.)

Animal dealers are also among the beneficiaries. By some accounts, the Taiwanese each year set free some 200 million fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals into the wild, in the belief that so-doing will accumulate good karma for themselves. A study carried out in 2004 by the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST) showed that 24.1% of temples and religious institutions provided animal-releasing services, and that 60% of bird retailers sold birds specifically for the purpose.

The Taiwan media frequently reports on an unintended consequence of this practice: mountain communities terrorized by droves of poisonous snakes released in their vicinity as a part of Buddhist ceremonies. Even more problematic is that some of these prayer animals are smuggled in from abroad and then invade Taiwan’s ecology. An example is the Red-whiskered Bulbul, a medium-sized songbird widespread on the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia but not naturally native to Taiwan. The Bulbuls, particularly popular with temple-goers for release during religious ceremonies, now threaten other species through competition for food.

Reform measures

Some of the mainstream religious groups have been concerned that the government’s laissez-faire attitude toward religious organizations have made it easier for some charlatans or shady characters to take advantage of the public in the guise of providing spiritual guidance. For example, the Taipei-based Taoism Society of the Republic of China – Taiwan’s oldest Daoist association – has for years been lobbying the Legislative Yuan and the MOI to limit the scope of religious organizations allowed to formally register so as to qualify to provide income tax deductions to donors.

The Society has also been advocating the establishment of a licensing system for all clergy. “We would also like to see a law making financial audits obligatory,” says Chang Chao-heng, the Society’s secretary-general. Without such government oversight, “anybody can become a religious leader and get money to lead a wealthier life.”

The ROC I-Kuan Tao Association echoes these calls. (Also spelled Yi Guan Dao, the belief is often described as a mixture of various world religious with an emphasis on veganism.) “If there are no restrictions, people will seek to make business out of it,” says Lee Yu-chu, the Association’s president.

Tzu Chi volunteers arrive in Kathmandu with relief supplies to aid victims of a severe earthquake in Nepal this past April.
Tzu Chi volunteers arrive in Kathmandu with relief supplies to aid victims of a severe earthquake in Nepal this past April.

“Another problem is that religious groups want more land for temples and that many temples are already built illegally on unsafe land,” he adds. “If such temples collapse, it could kill hundreds of people.”

Chao Chien-chih, an officer with the MOI Department of Civic Affairs, points out that the draft of a new religious law is currently before the Legislative Yuan. The most important provision is considered to be the stipulation that religious juristic persons establish an internal audit system, with the data made transparent to all followers and donors, although transparency to the public would be voluntary. But the bill has been stalled in the legislature for several years, Chao explains, mainly due to sustained opposition by some large religious groups.

“Passage of that law is something our department has been pushing for some time, and there is now some reason to be optimistic,” says Chao. “That’s because the society is now more aware of the issue [due in part to the Tzu Chi controversy], so we think there is now a 50% chance of passing this year compared to 30% in previous years.”

One comment

  1. You should change the picture on top. That is a picture of the head temple of Chung Tai, which you never mention–even once–in the entire piece. Makes it seem you are not too familiar with the nuances between the different groups.

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