ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This week, we've been hearing about a religious boom in China, as well as the Chinese government's struggle to control it. Christianity is one of five officially recognized faiths in China and has as many 100 million adherents there. Thats why the government is actively supporting the development of Chinese Buddhism as a counterweight.
Beijing still has a tense relationship with Tibetan Buddhists because of their support for their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing views as a separatist. But Chinese Buddhism has no such political problem.
Whats more, its temples are beginning to play an economic role in the country, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Fujian Province, in the south of China.
Unidentified Man: This solemn, historical moment will be here soon.
LOUISA LIM: Four years ago, amid fanfare, China hosted the first World Buddhist Forum. Never before had this officially atheist country sponsored such a large religious conference.
(Soundbite of chanting)
LIM: Prominent monks were invited to begin the chanting onstage. This moment was an important milestone in China's attitude towards religion. It signaled Beijing's new, proactive approach to religion and in particular, its support for Buddhism.
When it comes to charity, Buddhist temples have led the way, as the Venerable Zhengxin from Nanputuo Temple in Xiamen explains.
Venerable ZHENGXIN (Buddhist Monk): (Through Translator) In 1994, we set up the country's first Buddhist philanthropic foundation. And this motivated other Buddhist organizations to take part in charitable work.
(Soundbite of chanting)
LIM: Monks from Nanputuo Temple in Xiamen, heard here chanting, started China's first religious charity 16 years ago. Their temple boasts a thousand years of history and also has its own Buddhist academy. Their philanthropic foundation is now one of the most developed, with annual audits and a magazine. It works by subscription. Each member donates about a $1.50 a month.
They're people like office worker Mr. Lei.
Mr. LEI (Office Worker): (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: A friend of mine was giving money to the fund, he said, and I was influenced by him. Now, the fund has 45,000 members.
Over the past 16 years, Nanputuo has given out around $7 million in aid. That adds up to free medical care for 210,000 people, 25 new schools, and repairs for 67 other schools. In effect, it's relieving the local government of some of its burdens.
Another fund administrator, the Venerable Putuo, says its projects are chosen by the local government.
Venerable PUTUO (Buddhist Nun): (Through Translator) Each project requires a survey, and we depend on the State Administration for Religious Affairs for that. They'll look at how much a place is suffering or the cost of medical equipment, or whatever. Each project we've done in our 16-year history has been inextricably linked with the local government.
LIM: Off on a remote hillside on the outskirts of Xiamen is a beneficiary of this largesse. It's a small, austere hospital for leprosy patients, some of whom have been here for decades, abandoned by their families.
Nanputuo Temple's foundation gives this hospital about $3,000 a year. It's not much, but hospital director Chen Xichen says it makes a huge difference to patients.
Mr. CHEN XICHEN (Hospital Director): (Through Translator) The foundation gave us money, electric fans and cookers, clothes, closets and beds. Sometimes I ask our patients what else they need, but they can never think of anything else.
(Soundbite of a crowd and conversations)
LIM: The economic function of Buddhist temples goes further still. Every year, at least 2 million visitors crowd into Nanputuo's courtyards. The temple is a cash cow. Its vegetarian restaurant caters to tens of thousands, and it's created business for sellers of incense and Buddhist trinkets.
The tourists hand over ticket fees of nearly $900,000 a year. Some of that revenue goes to the local government, according to Li Xiangping, from East China Normal University's Institute of Religion and Social Development.
Professor LI XIANGPING (Director, Institute of Religion and Social Development, East China Normal University): (Through Translator) The development of the Buddhist economy is often interconnected with that of the local government economy, as they're driving each other. The two sides may cooperate over the planning of tourist destinations and tourism revenues. This also helps build Buddhism's image.
(Soundbite of a song)
LIM: In the past, money matters have caused disputes in these corridors where today, Buddhist music is piped. Back in the '90s, disagreement over the management of Nanputuo Temple restaurant culminated in a stand-off. Militant monks held government officials hostage overnight, leading to a raid on the temple by special forces. But today, the temple's relationship with the local government is one which, in economic terms, is mutually beneficial.
Scholars like Li Xiangping believe Beijing is also supporting Buddhism for another reason: to counterbalance the explosion of Christianity in China.
Prof. XIANGPING: (Through Translator) The government wants Buddhism to develop. I think it believes Buddhism is more suitable for Chinese society.
(Soundbite of music)
LIM: China's communist leaders are mobilizing all resources, including Buddhists, to build a harmonious society - their latest watchword. As people get richer, the temples are becoming more like multinational corporations, with their balance-sheets ballooning.
Their contributions to government coffers may not yet be huge, but they will surely increase over time. And China's pragmatic leaders are making sure the government is benefiting from the economic effects of this religious revival.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.
SIEGEL: There's a photo gallery of Chinese Buddhist temples at npr.org. And tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we turn to the remarkable rebirth of folk religion in China.