BEIJING (AP) — China is telling tourist-favored Buddhist temples: Don't let money be your mantra.
Authorities announced a ban this week on temples selling shares to investors after leaders of several popular temples planned to pursue stock market listings for them as commercial entities. Even the Shaolin Temple of kung fu movie fame was once rumored to be planning a stock market debut — and critics have slammed such plans as a step too far in China's already unrestrained commercial culture.
"Everywhere in China now is about developing the economy," complained Beijing resident Fu Runxing, a 40-year-old accountant who said he recently went to a temple where incense was priced at 300 yuan ($50) a stick.
"It's too excessive. It's looting," she said.
Centuries-old Buddhist pilgrimage sites Mount Wutai in Shanxi province, Mount Putuo in Zhejiang and Mount Jiuhua in Anhui all were moving toward listing on stock markets in recent months to finance expansions, according to state media.
The government's religious affairs office called on local authorities to ban profiteering related to religious activity and told them not to allow religious venues to be run as business ventures or listed as corporate assets.
Companies that manage temple sites may be able to bypass the prohibition on listing shares simply by excluding the temples themselves from their lists of assets. A Buddhist site at Mount Emei in Sichuan already has been on the Shenzhen stock exchange since 1997 but its listed assets include a hotel, cable car company and ticket booths — not the temples, which date back several hundred years. Shanghai lawyer Wang Yun said the new prohibition wouldn't likely affect Emei, but might make additional companies think twice before listing.
Turning religious sites into profit-making enterprises is certainly not limited to China, but it illustrates just how commercialized this communist country has become in the past couple of decades, with entrepreneurs seizing on every opportunity to make money. One businessman has started selling canned "fresh air" in polluted Beijing.
No one could have anticipated that the poor and egalitarian China of Mao Zedong's time would become a "Wild West" of commercialism, said Mary Bergstrom, founder of The Bergstrom Group, a marketing consultancy in Shanghai.
"There aren't the established checks and balances in China that exist in other countries ,so people are more willing and able to test the boundaries of what is acceptable, especially if the end result of these tests is potential profit," she said.
The Chinese government has strict controls on religion, with temples, churches and mosques run by state-controlled groups. Even so, religion is booming, along with tourism, giving some places a chance to cash in.