How Chinese #MeToo movement led to the fall of top Buddhist monk

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]hina’s powerful State Administration for Religious Affairs, the government regulatory body that oversees the country’s religious groups, confirmed the allegations that Venerable Xuecheng, China’s highest-ranking Buddhist monk, had sent obscene messages to female monastics recently.

“Shi Xuecheng is suspected of violating Buddhist doctrines,” the State Administration for Religious Affairs said in an official notice. “The administration has asked the Buddhist Association of China to deal with the case in accordance with Buddhist doctrines and relevant regulations.”

Venerable Xuecheng, had earlier resigned from his leadership of the Buddhist Association of China amid allegations of sexually harassing several Buddhist nuns.

Accused of lewdness toward nuns and financial misconduct, Xuecheng, 52, was stripped of his titles and banished to a small temple in his home province of Fujian. Government investigators — who now occupy the cleric’s main temple in Beijing — have purged his cadre of loyal monks and are scouring his books for financial wrongdoing.

“It’s impossible not to feel pained and sorrowful” at recent developments, two monks wrote in a 95-page report detailing accusations of sexual and financial misdeeds against Xuecheng. They asked the government to act quickly or “we dare not imagine where Xuecheng will lead this group of Buddhists!”

In a program of sending clergy abroad, most of those sent overseas were nuns. Like Xuecheng, they had taken a vow of chastity, but unlike other clergy members, who are banned by monastic rules from using cellphones, these nuns were given phones so they could communicate when overseas.

Six of them were summoned to meet Xuecheng for instruction. Xuecheng began sending them explicit messages, according to transcripts reprinted in the 95-page report, such as asking one if she would be willing to be caressed and have intercourse. When she said no, he said she had to “break through” this kind of thinking. He started a conversation with another nun, asking her, “Who do you belong to?” Her answer: “The Master,” meaning Xuecheng, an exchange that made clear the power relationship between the two.

Late in 2017, the nuns contacted two senior monks, who took up their cause. In their report, the monks also assert that donations to the temple were siphoned into Xuecheng’s personal bank account.

But the monks alleged that Xuecheng blocked their efforts to begin a formal investigation. In February, the monks forwarded their report to the government, and in August someone posted it on social media. Later that month, Xuecheng was stripped of his main titles and the authorities confirmed he had sent the messages.

Li Tingting, a prominent Chinese feminist activist, said the charges represent the spread of the Chinese #MeToo movement beyond relatively soft targets, like figures in academia, the news media and NGOs, who in China generally have little political clout.

Many of Xuecheng’s followers think he has been given a raw deal and hope he will be back. “Xuecheng did a lot of good things; he had great virtues,” said one, a 25-year-old who runs an inn for pilgrims near Longquan Temple and asked for anonymity for fear of government trouble. “You can’t deny him totally, even if he did it.”

The founding editor of the grassroots publishing platform Feminist Voice, Lu Pin, said the case against Xuecheng is unique, but that it helps to bring more awareness to the #Metoo movement in China. “Even though it’s a special case, it makes people realise that speaking up about sexual harassment is useful,” Lu told TIME, “so it sends a signal of encouragement to China’s #MeToo.”

Since the beginning of 2018, female students in universities across China have spoken up against professors with a history of sexual harassment, which led to several investigations and sackings.

(With inputs from New York Times and TIME)