Table of Contents

Taiwan is a vibrant democracy whose existence faces a constant threat from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which claims the self-governing island as an integral part of its territory.1 In the 1990s, Beijing used military interventions and verbal threats to intimidate Taiwan but failed to stop the island nation’s march toward democracy. As a result, Beijing had to devise a less coercive approach toward its stated goal of annexation. The PRC therefore began to target nonstate actors with its time-honored strategy of so-called united front work, through which China makes political use of rifts among its adversaries by befriending its minor enemies and isolating its major ones.2

By pursuing strategies like encircling politics with business (yishang weizheng), promoting unification via economics (yijing cutong), and pressuring officials via the people (yimin biguan), the PRC targeted Taiwan’s economic actors, including business investors in China and domestic agricultural producers. Beijing’s economic united front work aimed to cultivate a group of collaborators whose interests and political loyalty would be permanently linked to China’s growing prosperity.3 The PRC also set its eyes on civil society actors, including the media, university students, labor unions, and neighborhoods in the hope that less obtrusive influence campaigns among these groups might result in a broader reception for Beijing’s political agenda.

The most active sector of Taiwanese civil society consists of faith communities and their organizations. Despite its democratic progress, Taiwan has not emerged as a nation of joiners: a 2012 survey indicated that only 36.7 percent of Taiwanese were members of a voluntary association, far behind their democratic East Asian neighbors in Japan (82.9 percent) and South Korea (76.1 percent). The most popular voluntary associations among the Taiwanese were religious organizations, in which 12.1 percent of survey respondents were members, followed by recreational organizations (11.2 percent).4 Taiwan’s vibrant religious life emerged as a result of the island’s democracy; yet Taiwanese leaders and faith communities became the prime targets of China’s influence campaigns for geopolitical ends.

China’s Controlling Approach to Religion

The PRC’s evolving religious policy indicates a learning curve for an expanding authoritarian regime. The PRC began with an aggressive program to eradicate existing religions, culminating in iconoclastic violence during the 1966–1976 Cultural Revolution. Communist leaders after Mao Zedong were less repressive but still insisted that religious practices be aligned with state goals. Independent religious organizations were not tolerated, and the management of temples was placed firmly in the hands of local officials. Religion, then, is a noteworthy arena that showcases how PRC leaders started from an atheist persuasion and proceeded to perfect the art of controlling religions and transforming them to enable authoritarian expansion over time.

PRC officials did not even attempt to disguise their instrumental attitude toward religion, which is reflected in the popular saying “Build a religious stage to sing an economic opera.” PRC officials often doubled as delegates of religious organizations to enable their political outreach. For instance, the former director of the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs, Ye Xiaowen, visited Taiwan several times as chair of the Chinese Religious and Cultural Exchange Association. As for the purpose of these religious exchanges, Ye was explicit:

Religions have unique advantages, and they can narrow the distance between people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and facilitate cross-strait exchanges... Based on existing foundations, we need to promote cross-strait religious exchanges, especially in Buddhism and Taoism, to unify [our] Taiwanese compatriots and deter the secessionist activities of the Taiwanese independence movement for the sake of peace [across] the Taiwan Strait.5

Ming-sho Ho
Ming-sho Ho is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the National Taiwan University and the director of the Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the National Science and Technology Council, Taiwan.

The Taiwanese are not known for their religious fervor or piety. Secularism—in the sense of the separation of church and state—is widely accepted. Modern Taiwan is rich in faith diversity, however: in a 2020 survey, 22.9 percent of respondents said they followed popular religion, 19.8 percent Buddhism, 18.7 percent Taoism, and 6.9 percent Christianity, while 24.0 percent had no particular religious belief.6 The term popular religion denotes an ecosystem of dispersed worship of deities, centered on community temples. Beijing sees Taiwan’s spiritual followers as soft targets to spread its influence, so long as it crafts suitable messaging for each religion.

Popular Religion: The Making of a Cultural-Industrial Complex

Without a central authority to systematize its teaching, popular religion freely borrows elements from Buddhism and Taoism to the extent that its boundaries are always blurry. It is plausible that many of the 2020 survey respondents who identified as Buddhists or Taoists are unwittingly followers of popular religion. The Taiwanese worship Mazu, Guan Yu, Lord Protectors (wangye), and other deities whose influences mostly came from mainland China through migration from the seventeenth century onward.

Popular religion is largely apolitical, yet it has sustained a contentious relationship with the government. During the 1937–1945 Sino-Japanese War, the colonial government banned the practice of popular religion in an effort to assimilate the polytheistic Taiwanese into Japanese Shintoism. The postwar authoritarian government also placed stringent restrictions on religion in the name of suppressing superstition and encouraging thrift. Still, popular religion survived these hostilities and prospered with Taiwan’s growing affluence, and after the demise of authoritarian rule in 1980, it emerged as a powerful political force. The management of temples has traditionally been in the hands of local community leaders, and democratization allowed them a larger political space.

While the vitality of popular religion came to symbolize the spirit of the Taiwanese, religious leaders were keen on exchanges with their Chinese counterparts. Temples are interconnected through the practice of dividing incense—a ritual by which worshippers in one temple take ash of incense and use it to establish an affiliated shrine at another location—and original temples are believed to have higher standing and greater religious efficacy. Since the late 1980s, Taiwan’s temples have organized tours for worshippers to visit the places in China from which their deities originated, in violation of the law. A Taiwanese donation helped rebuild dilapidated temples in China and revived ritual practices. Meizhou in China’s Fujian province, for instance, was the birthplace of sea goddess Mazu and quickly emerged as a mecca for Taiwan’s believers.7

PRC officials noted this influx of money and worshippers, even though popular religion was not listed among China’s officially recognized religions. Seeing these religious sites as an attraction for the Taiwanese and for overseas investors as well as for tourists, local officials encouraged the revival of popular religion in China.8 In 2006, the PRC legalized the Chinese Mazu Cultural Exchange Association, which included representatives from Taiwan’s temples. This organization has become one of the conduits through which Taiwanese temple leaders build personal connections with PRC officials—a vital resource for business success in China.

Some Taiwanese temples were allowed to build branch temples on the mainland, which often generated considerable profits in land redevelopment. As such, a cross-strait Mazu cultural-industrial complex emerged, which involved an opaque mixture of political power and economic interests.Taiwan’s participating temples also hosted visiting PRC officials and arranged visits to other temples, thereby spreading the web of united front work across Taiwan. However, as these events were not public, outsiders often did not know what happened in these closed-door meetings.10

Buddhism: Eyeing the Chinese Religious Market

The idea of socially engaged Buddhism was first conceived in China’s republican era in the first half of the twentieth century, but only came to fruition in postwar Taiwan. Political stability and economic prosperity made possible a flourishing of so-called Humanist Buddhism, which attracted many middle-class followers in Taiwan.11 The four leading Humanist Buddhist organizations are Tzu Chi, Buddha Light Mountain, Chung Tai Chan Monastery, and Dharma Drum Mountain.

Tzu Chi was the only major Buddhist organization founded by native Taiwanese. It has a markedly secular orientation and concentrates on charity, education, and healthcare. Tzu Chi has asserted its neutrality between Taiwan and China and carefully avoided taking a political stance in the dispute. Nevertheless, Tzu Chi pioneered disaster relief after the 1991 floods in eastern China. To help the victims, the organization launched a donation campaign, which faced criticism in Taiwan for aiding a hostile force. Tzu Chi leaders insisted that Buddhist compassion transcended the political divide across the Taiwan Strait. In its subsequent relief efforts in China, the organization opted for a less high-profile strategy, and more funding was raised locally. Because of its leading role in disaster relief, Tzu Chi was among the first foreign charity groups that were allowed to operate in China. As such, the group was able to establish several operating centers and recruited local volunteers for its charity and environmental protection activities.12

The founders of Buddha Light Mountain and Chun Tai Chan Monastery were Chinese mainlanders who fled with the nationalist government to Taiwan in 1949. Once the subsequent ban on travel to China was lifted in 1987, they were eager to spread their Buddhist teachings on the mainland, and with the PRC’s approval, both organizations established branches in major Chinese cities. Both Buddhist leaders embraced a strong Chinese identity and were outspoken in their opposition to Taiwan’s growing indigenous identity and the movement for a de jure independent Taiwanese state—very likely the reason why both organizations were allowed to host educational and cultural activities in China. Both have been active participants in the forums held by the PRC’s official Buddhist organizations since 2006. Once Chinese citizens were allowed to visit Taiwan in 2008, many tourist groups visited Buddha Light Mountain and Chun Tai Chan Monastery.

Protestantism: Pressured by Taiwan’s Cultural War

Christians in postwar Taiwan have been the best-treated believers, because the island’s authoritarian rulers have relied heavily for their survival on the United States, where Christianity is the majority religion. Protestant and Catholic churches were allowed to operate schools and universities in Taiwan from very early on, while this privilege was denied to Buddhist and other religious groups until the mid-1990s. Taiwan’s Christians continued to maintain links with their Western counterparts and thus represented a more modernized version of the faith when the PRC relaxed its repression of Christians in the 1980s. Like Taiwan’s Buddhist leaders, Protestants were keen to explore China’s vast emerging religious market. Since the 1990s, Taiwanese church leaders have been going to China on proselytizing missions, bringing material resources like Bibles and institutions such as fellowships to the mainland to help attract young, urban, and educated believers.13

However, the PRC government continued to distrust Chinese Christians because their faith was not homegrown. Except for officially sanctioned patriotic churches that professed loyalty to the Communist leadership, Christians had to congregate illegally in their homes, earning their gatherings the name “underground churches.” Taiwan’s Protestant leaders initially contacted these persecuted underground believers, but over the years, they drew closer to the PRC’s official policy of condemning unrecognized underground churches as an evil cult.

One of the major push factors behind this conservative turn had to do with the emergence of LGBTQ politics in Taiwan, which posed a threat to the Christian view of the family and triggered rounds of large-scale mobilization and electioneering by Taiwan’s conservative Christians.14 In campaigning against the impending legalization of same-sex marriage, conservative Christians claimed to be defending traditional marriage by emphasizing the Confucian values of family piety. Starting in 2013, Taiwan’s conservative churches joined the annual Cross-strait Christian Forum, which invited only patriotic churches from the mainland. Pressured by a cultural war of social values at home and drawn by a PRC regime that has abandoned the universalist ideology of socialist revolution and gravitated toward traditional Confucianism, Taiwan’s Protestant leaders mostly opted for a collaborative stance with the PRC authorities.

Conclusion

Research on China’s influence campaigns has focused on identifying local collaborative agents and the incentives that induce them to accommodate Beijing’s agenda.15 This chapter has developed a more sophisticated picture of the ways in which Taiwan’s religious leaders have responded to Beijing’s charm offensives. Taiwan-based actors initiated cross-strait exchanges and, to that end, became willing to collaborate with the PRC authorities to varying degrees. When the travel ban from Taiwan to China was lifted in the late 1980s, Taiwan’s religious organizations enjoyed a tremendous advantage over their counterparts in China, which have not fully recovered from violent persecution and isolation. With Mandarin Chinese as their shared language, Taiwanese Buddhist and Protestant leaders were poised to tap into the vast religious market in China, while leaders of popular religion were motivated by concerns of temple prestige and religious efficacy.

These motives on the part of Taiwan’s religious leaders are complex and relate to interests that, following a distinction made by sociologist Max Weber, can be either material or ideal.16 While material interests are more or less straightforward and can be measured in monetary terms, ideal interests are more complicated as they are shaped by contending worldviews. Taiwan’s religious leaders pursued several ideal interests, including in the fields of religion, specifically temple prestige, influence, and proselytizing; political identity; and the culture war, namely family values (see table 1). A plethora of interests—religious and nonreligious, legal and illicit, monetary and reputational—encouraged Taiwan’s religious leaders to enter into different forms of collaboration with PRC officials, either willingly or inadvertently enabling their united front work.

Table 1: Interests of Taiwan’s Religious Leaders in Taiwan and China
  Material Interests Ideal Interests
In Taiwan Popular religion: temple donation Popular religion: temple prestige, religious efficacy
Buddhists: supporting unification
Protestants: defending traditional family values
In China Popular religion: land development, temple donation Buddhists: influence, charity projects
Protestants: proselytizing

 

The PRC’s influence campaigns are embedded in the configuration of religious actors’ material and ideal interests, which constitute the vulnerabilities of Taiwanese civil society, because its leaders seek to expand their influence and material benefits in mainland China. If PRC officials can deploy incentives in both Taiwan and China, and if more interests are involved in the transactions between the PRC authorities and religious leaders, civil society actors are likely to be more compliant with Beijing’s political agenda. This explains why Taiwan’s popular religion is more susceptible to the PRC’s united front strategy than is Buddhism or Christianity.

The Taiwanese case study also has broader implications. Recently, the PRC incorporated its religious united front work into its massive Belt and Road Initiative. This initiative explicitly weaponizes the Mazu cult as a form of outreach toward the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia as well as Chinatown residents in Western cities.17 In other words, what has happened in Taiwan is likely to be reproduced elsewhere in the world.

Looking ahead, how can Taiwan’s democracy defend itself against influence and manipulation by a hostile dictatorship? By definition, a democracy has to respect citizens’ choice of faith, and any governmental intervention is always suspicious. Taiwan’s authoritarian past makes tighter regulation morally questionable. Yet the irony is that the authoritarian PRC controls religions within its borders and simultaneously deploys them to achieve its geopolitical goals abroad.

As of 2021, Taiwan had more than 12,000 temples, but only a tiny portion of them are officially registered.18 Not all temples release financial statements, which makes them easy channels for money laundering and potential recipients of PRC funding. Legislation on financial transparency is underway in Taiwan, but resistance is stiff because temples are typically led by powerful politicians. Religious followers can also be a source of deterrence for the PRC’s influence campaigns. More public exposure of the illicit dealings of Taiwan’s religious leaders could generate stronger immunity to Chinese influence. A healthy religious market in which different faiths and persuasions compete for believers is an antidote, too. For instance, aside from Humanist Buddhism, which has Chinese roots, Taiwan has many followers of Tibetan Buddhism, who are unlikely to accept Beijing’s propaganda at face value. In short, Taiwan will need to learn the art of democratic self-defense without abrogating freedom of religion.

Ming-sho Ho is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the National Taiwan University and the director of the Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the National Science and Technology Council, Taiwan.

The Carnegie Endowment thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation for generous support that helps make the work of the Civic Research Network work possible. The views expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the authors alone.

Notes

1 This chapter was made possible by helpful discussions with Ke-hsien Huang, Kuei-min Chang, and Yining Liu as well as comments from members of the Carnegie Civic Research Network.

2 Szu-chien Hsu, Anne-Marle Brady, and J. Michael Cole, “Introduction,” in Insidious Power: How China Undermines Global Democracy, eds. Szu-chien Hsu and J. Michael Cole (Manchester: Camphor Press, 2020), xv–xxxix.

3 Ming-sho Ho, Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019), 47–50.

4 Ray-may Hsung, “Social Capital and Trust: Reflections on Data From the East Asia Social Capital Survey” (in Chinese), Taiwanese Journal of Sociology 54 (2014): 1–30, https://dx.doi.org/10.6786/TJS.201406_(54).0001.

5 Chia-Lin Chang, A Study on Chinese Mainland Religious Groups and Their Cross-Strait Exchanges (in Chinese, unpublished), Mainland Affairs Council, 2008, 22–23.

6 Chyi-In Wu et al., Taiwan Social Change Survey, 2020 (in Chinese), Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, 2021, 164.

7 Mayfair Mei-hui Yang, “Goddess Across the Taiwan Strait: Matrifocal Ritual Space, Nation-State, and Satellite Television Footprints,” Public Culture 16, no. 2 (2004): 209–238, http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/08992363-16-2-209.

8 Kuei-min Chang, “Between Spiritual Economy and Religious Commodification: Negotiating Temple Autonomy in Contemporary China,” China Quarterly 242 (2020): 440–459, http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S030574101900122X.

9 Yu-Chiao Chen, One Mazu, Different Interpretations: Reexamination on Cross-Strait Mazu Belief Exchanges (in Chinese), master’s thesis, National Chengchi University, 2021.

10 Ming-chun Ku and Ying-fa Hung, “The Cross-Strait Interests of the Mazu Cult,” in The Anaconda in the Chandelier: Forces and Reactions of the China Factor (in Chinese), eds. Jieh-min Wu et al. (Taipei: Rive Gauche, 2017), 314–316.

11 Richard Madsen, Democracy’s Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2007).

12 Yining Liu, “The Chinese Sentiment or the Buddhist Market,” in The Anaconda in the Chandelier: Forces and Reactions of the China Factor (in Chinese), eds. Jieh-min Wu et al. (Taipei: Rive Gauche, 2017), 325–366.

13 Ke-hsien Huang, “The Cross-Strait Interaction of Christianity and Its Transformation,” in The Anaconda in the Chandelier: Forces and Reactions of the China Factor, eds. Jieh-min Wu et al. (Taipei: Rive Gauche, 2017), 372–378.

14 Se-fen Chiao, “The Amazing Mobilizing Capacity of Taiwan’s Anti-Gay Churches,” Initium, November 30, 2018; Ming-sho Ho, “The Religion-Based Conservative Countermovement in Taiwan: Origin, Tactics and Impacts,” in Civil Society and the State in Democratic East Asia Between Entanglement and Contention in Post High Growth, eds. David Chiavacci et al. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020), 141–166.

15 Jieh-min Wu and Hung-jen Tsai, “The China Factor in Taiwan: Incentive Structure, Impact Assessment, and Counteractions,” in Insidious Power: How China Undermines Global Democracy, eds. Szu-chien Hsu and J. Michael Cole (Manchester: Camphor Press, 2020), 205–236.

16 Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 280.

17 Ming-chun Ku, “Mazu Culture: An Instrument of the Chinese Communist Party Expanding Offshore Influences” (in Chinese), Mainland China Studies 62, no. 4 (2019): 103–132, https://doi.org/10.30389/MCS.201912_62(4).0004.

18 “National Religion Information Network,” Taiwanese Ministry of the Interior, https://ws.moi.gov.tw/001/Upload/400/relfile/0/4405/48349492-6f8c-453b-a9d1-4a8f0593b979/year/y01-03.ods.