A woman left in the Nanjing shrine memorial tablets of Japanese war criminals. The CCP seized the opportunity to promote a nationwide crackdown on temples.
by Zhu Yaozu
If it were a Christian organization, the CCP might have thought that this year Christmas for it came in July. A hashtag on religion gathered 880 million clicks on Weibo, and it was about posts demanding less freedom and more control for Buddhist and other temples. Trolls might have been at work but most of the messages appeared to be genuine. Only in its wildest dreams the CCP might have expected a spontaneous social media campaign demanding more, rather than less, surveillance on religion.
What happened, exactly? On July 21, a netizen posted on Weibo the pictures taken at the Xuanzang Buddhist temple in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, of four memorial tablets of Japanese war criminals responsible for the so-called “Rape of Nanjing” of 1937, a massacre where some 200,000 Chinese were killed by the Japanese Army. In fact netizens were informed that Xuanzang Temple hosted the memorial tablets of five Japanese officers regarded as war criminals: Iwane Matsui, the commander of the Japanese occupation forces in Nanjing in 1937, Hisao Tani, Takeshi Noda, Gunkichi Tanaka, and Toshikai Mukai.
The picture went viral and generated an enormous outrage, as the “Rape of Nanjing” lives in the memory of the Chinese as the quintessential war atrocity perpetrated by the Japanese.
The timing of the posting was, however, suspicious. The picture was posted on July 21 but had been taken in February. The Xuanzang Temple confirmed that in February somebody noticed the tablets and complained with the monks, who immediately removed them. The timing was almost too perfect, as the post came after days of CCP propaganda following the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose assassin intended to protest against the Unification Church.
The Chinese media took the opportunity to attacks the “cults” and their real or alleged support of Japanese politics. Since Japanese right-wing politicians sometimes deny that the “Rape of Nanjing” ever happened, it was easy for Chinese netizens to suspect that what happened at Xuanzang Temple was just another product of the perverse connection between Japanese conservative politics and “bad” religion or “cults.”
It took only 24 hours for the police to raid the temple on July 22, and temporarily close it. The Abbott was dismissed from his function on the same day. The director of the Ethnic and religious affairs bureau of Nanjing’s Xuanwu district was also fired, while other officers were put under investigation. It was confirmed that the tablets were identified and removed in February, but the Abbot was accused of not having reported the incident to public security immediately.
On July 25, the police reported that a woman called Wu Aping, identified though the temple records as responsible for the incident, had been arrested. She had confessed of having enshrined in December 2017 the tablets of the five Japanese officers and of American missionary Minnie Vautrin who tried to help the victims of the “Rape of Nanjing” but in 1941 committed suicide in the U.S. due to the extreme stress she had suffered during the massacre. According to the police Wu, a nurse who had been three times in psychiatric hospitals, believed she may “resolve grievances” by enshrining the tablets.
On July 26, the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) issued a national directive claiming that all government-controlled religions should “learn the lesson” of the Xuanzang Temple incident. SARA required “all localities to increase the supervision and inspection of religious activity sites, religious schools, and religious groups, guide religious groups to improve their rules and regulations, support religious circles in comprehensively and strictly administering religion, and effectively improve the level of self-education, self-management, and self-discipline.
Strengthen the ideological guidance of the religious circles, guide the religious circles to continue to carry out patriotism, collectivism, and socialism education, deepen the study of the history of the Party, the history of new China, the history of reform and opening up, and the history of socialist development, and guide the religious circles and believers to practice and implement the core socialist values, earnestly enhance the national awareness, civic awareness, and awareness of the rule of law among religious people, ensure that they are always clear-headed on issues of right and wrong and principles, resolutely prevent such problems from occurring, and effectively maintain harmony and stability in the religious field.”
The CCP jumped on the opportunity to impose more control and more mandatory education on Party history and ideology on all religious places of worship, schools, and organizations, which is inconsistent with the theory that the Xuanzang Temple incident was due to the lonely action of one psychotic woman.
Perhaps Wu Aping, assuming she was the real responsible, acted alone, and the CCP just seized the opportunity to launch a national campaign to increase control on churches and temples. Or perhaps the psychotic woman was persuaded by “somebody” to create the incident, which was then left there to be “discovered” at the appropriate time. We may never know for sure, but all temples and churches will soon feel a pressure the CCP will justify with the Xuanzang Temple incident.