ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
China today is a whirlwind of competing trends - authoritarianism versus personal freedom, pollution versus environmentalism, self-interest versus spirituality. As for that last conflict, NPR's Frank Langfitt says you can see it play out on weekends along the river in Shanghai.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language).
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hundreds of Buddhists pack the banks of Shanghai's Huangpu River every other Sunday morning. Monks in saffron-colored robes lead them in song in the shadow of some of the world's tallest skyscrapers. Then...
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)
LANGFITT: They pour thousands of fish and mollusks into the muddy waters that empty a dozen miles downstream into the mighty Yangtze River. Shen Tianlong, a retired chef, climbs over the railing onto a ledge and gently brushes the remaining snails into the water.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language).
LANGFITT: Everybody's worried he'll fall in. Unfazed, he pauses to explain why he's here.
SHEN TIANLONG: (Through interpreter) We are freeing captive animals. Why do we free them? They're just like us. We are all living creatures.
LANGFITT: Releasing animals is an ancient tradition among Chinese Buddhists, who believe saving an animal that's about to die is an act of compassion. Xu Gaosheng, a retired ad agency worker who's wearing a pink polo shirt, explains.
XU GAOSHENG: (Through interpreter) Buddhism seeks to deliver all living creatures from torment and emphasizes benevolence. All living creatures should be treated well.
LANGFITT: Environmentalists have criticized animal releases disruptive to habitats. The ritual here also draws opportunists...
(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING ON METAL CUP)
LANGFITT: Like the beggar who shows up to work the crowd while tapping a metal cup or migrant workers who prey on the Buddhists' conscience by hawking turtles at exorbitant prices. And then, just 20 yards downstream, there are the two-dozen men who lie in wait with nets, men who see this ritual as nothing more than a free meal.
There's a fisherman here named Li, and he's doing a bonanza, getting a lot of fish. He's got, like, a 15-foot pole. And he's just - people are dumping them right in front of him. Oh, he's double dipping, going in and getting another one. So now he's got two. He's just actually tossing them in the shrubs and going to pick them up later.
Li's caught over 20 fish. I ask if he thinks scooping up all these fish is fair.
LI: (Through interpreter) What's fair? What isn't fair? There are people releasing fish and people catching them. Nothing's fair in today's society. The more skilled swindlers just cheat the weaker ones.
LANGFITT: Wang Jisi disagrees. She's a retired accountant and Buddhist who's helping release the fish today. She chases down Li and scolds him.
WANG JISI: (Speaking foreign language).
LANGFITT: She says he may catch fish today, but karmic payback is coming.
JISI: (Through intepreter) If they catch fish and it makes them happy, then I guess I'm happy for them. But when something bad happens to their family and they wonder why, it's because he did something bad.
LANGFITT: In these fisherman, Wang says, she sees a greed that pervades society here and elsewhere around the world.
JISI: (Through intepreter) I don't think I hate them. I pity them. They aren't enlightened. They don't understand. They don't understand karma.
LANGFITT: And they aren't likely to anytime soon. Li shrugs off his scolding and returns to the railing where he reaches over with his net and tries to add to his catch. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
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