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Why a popular Tibetan Buddhist monastery is under investigation

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Buddhism is becoming very popular in China. It turned one Tibetan Buddhist monastery into a thriving pilgrimage site - that is, until this year when it possibly got too popular. NPR's Emily Fang reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: We're driving through the hardscrabble, hilly landscape of northwestern China. The mineral deposits in these hills have left multicolored streaks of dark-red, yellow and dusty turquoise.

And in these clay hills is evidence of a religious revival. The residents in one village named Heavenly Peace donated thousands of dollars per family to rebuild the village temple. They, like others in this piece, want to stay anonymous because, as you'll hear, religion can be a politically sensitive topic

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: One resident explains, as the village got wealthier, their temples have also become more beautiful. In the village of Heavenly Peace, one-third of residents are Buddhists, a third are Taoists, and the remaining third are Muslims.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: So a resident explains that for the sake of diversity, their temple also includes statues of the three local protector deities. Just beyond their fields, nestled in the foot of the nearby hills, shining golden roofs and gilt stupas glint in the sun. It's Red City Monastery, or Hongchengsi. Part of it was originally built in the 13th century by the Mongolians, but I can only admire it from afar. Plainclothes police block me.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: We have been blocked from entering. The police are saying that they can't tell us why the monastery is closed off. It could be COVID-related, but they're not allowed to tell us.

The police assure me, without prompting, that the monks and nuns are totally fine, hinting at the real trouble inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: These are videos of a protest the monastery's nuns and monks held this summer. Many of them were forcibly evicted by police because their IDs were registered elsewhere. Their Tibetan lama, the religious head, has disappeared after questioning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Chinese, crying).

FENG: Local residents allege the trouble all began after Red City donated a few thousand dollars towards COVID relief efforts. That caught the attention of the state-run Buddhist Association. Just the week before, Chinese leader Xi Jinping had visited Tibet, where he called for, quote, "he full implementation of the Communist Party's management of religion." Following Xi's remarks, the Buddhist Association asked for control of Red City Monastery's finances and management. The lama reportedly refused. So according to local residents, the state took action. Here's a shopkeeper who lives in the village.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) They sent in their special police force, which discovered lots of money and assets in a monastery raid. Now the place is cordoned off.

FENG: Residents believe Red City is under investigation for foreign donations. It had become wealthy as China's urbanites adopted Tibetan Buddhism. They frequently visited, lavishing gifts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) Back when policies were more liberal, thousands of Buddhists from all over China came by.

FENG: And nearly everyone, including Red City Monastery's monks and nuns, were not Tibetans but Han, china's ethnic majority.

MAX OIDTMANN: It represents the assimilation - or the acculturation of Tibetan Buddhist establishments into something which looks a lot more like Chinese popular religion.

FENG: This is Max Oidtmann, an associate history professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. He's describing how Tibetan Buddhism became popular among China's rich and famous.

OIDTMANN: It seems mysterious. It seems more authentic. It's romanticized.

FENG: The appeal of Tibetan Buddhism is worrying the Chinese state because a religion that's highly controlled in Tibet is now spreading across the country.

OIDTMANN: The potential of people who live in borderland areas to revert to the culture of non-Chinese peoples is highly problematic and undermines many of the narratives about the superiority of Chinese culture.

FENG: As a result, Red City Monastery has been closed. Residents think it will reopen, but this time under state control.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Lanzhou, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF HNNY'S "MEMORY TAPE ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.