China targets Taiwan's temples, Matsu worshippers in influence ops

How a sea goddess was co-opted by Beijing's United Front operations targeting millions of voters.
By Hsia Hsiao-hwa, Mai Xiaotian and Lee Tsung-han for RFA Mandarin
2024.01.10
China targets Taiwan's temples, Matsu worshippers in influence ops With her statue in the background, worshippers pray during a celebration of the sea goddess Matsu on Nangan Island in Taiwan's outlying Matsu Island chain in 2011.
Wally Santana/AP

All three candidates in Taiwan's forthcoming presidential election have made a point of showing their devotion to the sea goddess Matsu, who is hugely popular on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, amid warnings that the deity is being used as a vehicle for the Chinese Communist Party's United Front operation to influence and persuade the democratic island's 23 million people to accept "peaceful unification."

The goddess has an estimated 10 million followers in Taiwan, where local businessmen and politicians vie for a place of honor carrying her statue on numerous parades, or in dance troupes performing at her festivities, and where politicians of every hue take care to include her on the campaign trail.

In September, incumbent ruling Democratic Progressive Party vice president and presidential hopeful Lai Ching-te told a gathering at the Baishatun Temple in Taiwan's Miaoli county: "I pray that the Heavenly Mother [Matsu] will bless the 2024 elections, and that the people of this country who are its masters will vote according to their own wishes rather than under the influence of external forces or false information."

Meanwhile, Taiwan People's Party candidate and Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je went one better -- talking about taking part in a grueling nine-day pilgrimage during the annual Matsu festivities.

"During the nine days I walked, I didn't have to buy anything to eat along the way," Ko said. "I ate for free, and I experienced the kindness of the Taiwanese people ... who gave out food and drink, liniment patches for soreness, and massages [to pilgrims]."

"There aren't so many differences and antagonisms in our society," he commented on the experience.

Kuomintang candidate Hou Yu-ih, whose party has a reputation for encouraging closer ties with Beijing, told reporters on the campaign trail that he had played in the temple of Matsu as a child, claiming that the deity wishes to see people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait live in peace and harmony.

"Matsu was like our mother," Hou said. "She came from Fujian, and she wanted people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to live and work in peace and contentment, uniting our forces in peace and stability instead of fighting each other."

Weather witch

The goddess started life in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian as Lin Monian, a witch who could predict the weather and was revered by local people as a fortune teller, before being elevated to divine status, where she gained a reputation for protecting fishermen and other seafaring folk after failing to rescue her brother from drowning in a dream while still mortal.

With a plethora of miraculous tales and interventions to her name, Matsu became a key figure also known as Tin Hau, the Queen of Heaven, "Grandmother" or just "Mother" in the Buddhist and Taoist pantheon, with temples across the region, including Southeast Asia.

Ahead of the 2020 presidential race, Foxconn founder Terry Gou announced his candidacy by saying Matsu had appeared to him in a dream and told him to run. He later withdrew, ahead of a landslide second-term victory for the DPP's President Tsai Ing-wen, who campaigned on a platform of protecting Taiwan from Chinese infiltration and attempts at "unification."

While politicians are frequently seen making offerings to Taoist and Buddhist folk deities, Bodhisattvas and other sacred figures at more than 14,000 temples and shrines across Taiwan, Matsu has taken on an extra significance due to recent attempts by the Chinese government to turn her into a force for peaceful "unification."

A woman prostrates herself during the annual pilgrimage to honor the sea goddess Matsu in Taiwan’s Yunlin county in 2005. (Richard Chung/Reuters)
A woman prostrates herself during the annual pilgrimage to honor the sea goddess Matsu in Taiwan’s Yunlin county in 2005. (Richard Chung/Reuters)

While Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the People's Republic of China, Beijing insists the island is part of its territory, and refuses to rule out an armed invasion if attempts to "reunify" the country by peaceful means are resisted indefinitely.

Authorities in Fujian have invested in huge temples and pilgrimages to Matsu since the 1980s, bringing large numbers of Taiwanese worshipers across the Strait on package holidays in recent years, while Peng Liyuan, now China's first lady, sang a hymn to Matsu at a Spring Festival Gala in 2002.

Far from banning her worship as a cult, China's atheist Communist Party has encouraged it, according to Ku Ming-chun, professor at Taiwan's Tsinghua University.

"China now regards her as a goddess for both sides of the Taiwan Strait ... her image shifts as the times change," Ku said. 

"Religious exchanges came to the forefront of the cross-straits political agenda," he said. "China's United Front Work Departments at central and provincial level spotted the worship of Matsu as strategic high ground for their work targeting Taiwan."

"Local religious and cultural beliefs can be reworked into tools of the party-state," he said. "They want to [use them to] move closer to unification and undermine support for Taiwan's independence."

"They can insert a lot of ideology into these beliefs, such as saying people on both sides of the strait are all part of one big family," Ku said, adding that he once went on a cross-straits temple pilgrimage.

"They don't say directly that it's about unification, but usually there's talk ... of plans and possibilities for future cooperation during the banquet," he said.

Lots of untraceable cash

China also throws a lot of cash at Taiwanese temples without anyone being able to trace it, according to people familiar with the situation.

"China's approach is usually for Taiwan Affairs Offices in different locations [across China] to contact Taiwanese businessmen and [give them money to donate] in the name of cultural and religious exchanges," a person who gave only the initial Y for fear of reprisals told RFA Mandarin.

"Many Taiwanese believe that if you take that money and do nothing, you will be punished by the gods," she said.

Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou (C) and Premier Wu Den-yih (2nd from L) hold a statue of the sea goddess Matsu during the annual pilgrimage in Taichung, Taiwan, in 2010. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou (C) and Premier Wu Den-yih (2nd from L) hold a statue of the sea goddess Matsu during the annual pilgrimage in Taichung, Taiwan, in 2010. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

Wang Hsing-huan, who heads the pro-independence Taiwan Statebuilding Party, agreed.

"Without laws, there is no way to supervise religious finances," Wang said. "When it comes to exchanges between Taiwan and China, there's no way to know about what exchanges of people and money are taking place between temples."

He called for amendments to existing laws limiting hostile foreign influences to include donations to religious organizations and institutions.

The issue, which has led some temples to hang the Chinese national flag, has also been highlighted by Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

Council chairman Chiu Tai-san said Chinese officials are taking a leaf out of the books of Taiwanese politicians, who often visit temples to garner votes.

"China very cleverly uses our temples for its political United Front work," Chiu said. "Things have gotten chaotic, with temples raising the communist flag."

"China also sends people to Taiwan to research public opinion under the guise of religious exchanges," he said.

Businessmen targeted

Shen Po-yang, associate professor at the Institute of Criminology at Taipei University, said temples are community centers where it's possible to make contact with prominent local figures.

"Temples are just a way for them to contact local dignitaries," Shen said.

Taiwanese businessman Liao Chin-chang, who once did business in China, said Taiwanese may not see any risk in accepting invitations from Chinese officials.

"People in Taiwan who take part in temple exchanges feel that the Chinese side is entertaining them, so they go with a delegation," Liao said. "They are very proud of this, but they don't know that they will be the death of Taiwan."

He said Chinese officials typically target Taiwanese businessmen with companies on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to make the donations on their behalf.

Worshipers carry a statue of the goddess Matsu during the annual pilgrimage in Taichung, Taiwan, in 2010. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)
Worshipers carry a statue of the goddess Matsu during the annual pilgrimage in Taichung, Taiwan, in 2010. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

The Taiwanese companies donate to the temples, and the Chinese government gives them tax and other preferential treatment.

There are also all-expenses-paid junkets available to Chinese temples.

"If you take a group to China to worship at a temple, the Chinese will pay most of the travel expenses," he said, although he added that cash-strapped local governments have less of a budget for such operations during the current economic downturn.

'We're all one big family'

Officials have other rewards to offer the cooperative, said a woman with many friends and relatives who worship at temples. The woman, who did not give her name, cited business and factory licenses and other paperwork, gifts of high-end liquor and other blandishments.

"'We're all brothers, sharing the same ancestry ... we're all one big family,' they tell Taiwanese businessmen," she said. "The Chinese Communist Party is very good at cultivating you, feeding you, then eating you up at its leisure later."

She said many major donations are made by Taiwanese businessmen at China's behest, and explained as donations by a well-to-do entrepreneur wanting to benefit his hometown.

Religious believers are also told that if they vote for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, it will be harder for them to travel to temples in China in future, and "the gods will be unhappy," she said.

Former Taiwanese lawmaker Chen Pai-wei said such influence operations are a cynical bid to appropriate the island's spiritual life.

"These actions are political, and aimed at appropriating Taiwan's gods, bringing them back to China, hoping that those who believe in them will follow suit," Chen said. "They are trying to see if they can get a change of leadership."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.

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