China : Treatment of Guanyin Famen practitioners (Kuan Yin Famen, Guanyin Method, Quanyin Famen, Way of the Goddess of Mercy, Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association) (2014-August 2015) [CHN105272.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

Information on Guanyin Famen and the treatment of its practitioners was scarce among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

1. Overview of Guanyin Famen

Sources indicate that Guanyin Famen was established in 1988 by its founder, Shi Qinghai (Dui Hua Foundation 29 Aug. 2013; CIW 5 June 2015), in Taiwan (ibid.).

The Dui Hua Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian organization based in San Francisco that monitors and advocates for those detained in China, notably on religious and political grounds (Dui Hua Foundation n.d.a), states that Guanyin Famen

is registered with the Taiwanese Ministry of the Interior and is known internationally as the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association. … The group is estimated to have more than 2 million disciples worldwide, with about 300,000 in Taiwan. (ibid. 29 Aug. 2013)

The Dui Hua Foundation adds that Guanyin Famen was "introduced to mainland China around 1992, it had 500,000 followers across over 20 provinces at its peak" (Dui Hua Foundation 10 July 2014). Information on the number of members in 2015 could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

According to the Dui Hua Foundation, Shi Qinghai is an ethnic Chinese woman born in Vietnam who is known as "the Supreme Master Ching Hai" by her followers (Dui Hua Foundation 29 Aug. 2013). Guangdong newspaper the Daily Mirror, reports that she "styles herself as 'supreme teacher' equal to Siddharta Gautama, Jesus Christ, and Allah" [1] (CIW 5 June 2014).

Sources characterize Guanyin Famen as a Buddhist group (Dui Hua Foundation 29 Aug. 2013; US 10 Oct. 2009, 115) or a "Taiwan-based sect" of Buddhism (ibid.). In another article, the Dui Hua Foundation describes Guanyin Famen as "highly commercialized" and as being "marketed on healthy practices like vegetarianism and meditation" (10 July 2014). In particular, sources report that Guanyin Famen operates a worldwide chain of vegan restaurants and meditation centres (Dui Hua Foundation 29 Aug. 2013; Phoenix New Times 2 June 2011).

The Dui Hua Foundation also provides the following information on the group's beliefs:

Core to the practice is daily meditation and a vegan lifestyle defined by “five no’s”—no killing, no lying, no stealing, no lewdness, and no drinking. According to the China Anti-Cult Association, GYFM [Guanyin Famen] believes that two thirds of the world’s population must become vegetarian to prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change (Dui Hua Foundation 29 Aug. 2013).

2. Perception and Treatment of Its Practitioners by Authorities

Sources indicate that the Dui Hua Foundation adds that Guanyin Famen is banned in China (US 28 July 2014, 4; Dui Hua Foundation 29 Aug. 2013). The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) states that the Chinese government banned the group in July 1999 (US 22 Aug. 2005). The CECC states that the group is designated as a "'cult organization'" by the government (US 10 Oct. 2009, 115).

The Dui Hua Foundation states that

[t]hose who engage in Buddhist worship without permission from [the Buddhist Association of China] or local religious bureaus have been charged with disturbing social order, fraud, illegal business activity, or crimes under Article 300 [of the Criminal Law]: 'organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.' Punishment for these offenses results in confiscations, fines, detention, reeducation through labor, or imprisonment. (Dui Hua Foundation 29 Aug 2013)

Article 300 of the Criminal Law of the People's Republic of China states the following:

Whoever organizes and utilizes superstitious sects, secret societies, and evil religious organizations or sabotages the implementation of the state's laws and executive regulations by utilizing superstition is to be sentenced to not less than three years and not more than seven years of fixed-term imprisonment; when circumstances are particularly serious, to not less than seven years of fixed-term imprisonment.

Whoever organizes and utilizes superstitious sects, secret societies, and evil religious organizations or cheats others by utilizing superstition, thereby giving rise to the death of people is to be punished in accordance with the previous paragraph.

Whoever organizes and utilizes superstitious sects, secret societies, and evil religious organizations or has illicit sexual relations with women, defraud money and property by utilizing superstition is to be convicted and punished in accordance with the regulations of articles 236, 266 [regarding rape and fraud respectively] of the law. (China 1979)

The CECC Annual Report 2009 states that "the 6–10 Office, an extralegal Party-run security force that suppresses banned religious groups has stepped up efforts in some provinces to gather intelligence on Guanyin Famen and curb its spread" (US 10 Oct. 2009, 115).

According to the Dui Hua Foundation, business activity conducted by the group "is characterized by the Chinese government as foreign infiltration and swindling" (Dui Hua Foundation 29 Aug. 2013). The Dui Hua Foundation adds that the group

was accused of visiting China frequently 'under the cover of traveling, visiting, investing, and opening up factories for the purpose of recruiting and founding secret meeting places' and 'intending to amass vast fortunes by opening vegetarian chain restaurants.' Shi has been described by the China Anti-Cult Association as anti-communist for remarks made in the early 1990s about communism’s inevitable demise in China, Vietnam, and the Eastern Bloc. But others affiliated with the group have reportedly been persecuted not for their political beliefs, but their business practices and association with foreigners. (Dui Hua Foundation 29 Aug. 2013)

Further and corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within time constraints of this Response.

3. Specific Cases Regarding Treatment of Guanyin Famen Practitioners

The Dui Hua Foundation provides the following information regarding particular cases involving Guanyin Famen practitioners:

Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) [2] has information on over two dozen GYFM members, most of whom were detained between 1996 and 2005. Thirteen leading members were given prison sentences of one-and-a-half to eight years’ imprisonment under Article 300. …Although the number of publicized cases has decreased sharply in recent years, local government records continue to provide evidence of repression. On March 21, 2009, Urumqi police confiscated a total of 86,800 leaflets and detained four suspects. In 2011 authorities prevented a total of 242 members from exiting Jilin Province to attend a puja in Taiwan.

The most recent conviction reported in Chinese media was in 2012. In March, Jilin’s Tiedong District People’s Court sentenced two defendants to seven years’ imprisonment for organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law. Both were accused of using donations of 10,000 yuan [approximately 2,000 Canadian dollars] to purchase and distribute leaflets and 2,600 copies of a book on vegetarianism and climate change. Two additional defendants, a couple who organized a video screening at their home, were given suspended sentences. (Dui Hua Foundation 29 Aug 2013)

The CECC also notes cases involving the detention of six Guanyin Famen practitioners in Zhangye city, Gansu province in 2009 (US 10 Oct., 2009, 115). The CECC also reported that six other members in Urumqi were sentenced in 2005 to imprisonment ranging from two to four years for "'cult' activities" (US 22 Aug. 2005).

Further information on more recent cases involving Guanyin Famen practitioners could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

The Dui Hua Foundation also noted that the group is "frequently listed in local records" as an "inspection target," without providing details (Dui Hua Foundation 10 July 2014).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Notes

[1] The Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), a research institution at the Australian National University (CIW n.d.), provides an English summary of the Daily Mirror news article on its website (CIW 5 June 2015).

[2] According to the Dui Hua Foundation, the Foundation's Political Prisoner Database "contains information about political and religious prisoners incarcerated in China since 1980" (Dui Hua Foundation n.d.b). The Dui Hua Foundation states that the database information on non-violent political dissidents, religious practitioners, ethnic minorities and petitioners is obtained mainly through open-source material (ibid.).

References

China. 1979 (Amended 1997). Criminal Law of the People's Republic of China. [Accessed 12 Aug. 2015]

CIW, Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW). N.d. "Australian Centre on China in the World." [Accessed 14 Aug. 2015]

_____.5 June 2014. "The Eleven Most Active Religious Cults in China." [Accessed 12 Aug. 2015]

Dui Hua Foundation. 10 July 2014. "Identifying Cult Organizations in China." [Accessed 5 Aug. 2015]

_____. 29 August 2013. "The 'Cult' of Buddha." [Accessed 5 Aug. 2015]

_____. N.d.a. "About Dui Hua." [Accessed 11 Aug. 2015]

_____. N.d.b. "Databases." [Accessed 12 Aug. 2015]

Phoenix New Times. 2 June 2011. Stephen Lemons. "Critics Claim Supreme Master Ching Hai's Followers' Restaurants Featuring Tasty Vegan Fare Front for an Exploitive Movement." [Accessed 11 Aug. 2015]

United States (US). 28 July 2014. Department of State. "China (Includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau)." International Religious Freedom Report for 2013. [Accessed 10 Aug. 2015]

_____. 10 October 2009. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Annual Report 2009. [Accessed 10 Aug. 2015]

_____. 22 August 2005. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). "Urumqi Court Sentences Six Guanyin Famen "Cult" Members." [Accessed 5 Aug. 2015]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: The following were unable to provide information for this Response: Doctoral candidate, Australian Centre on China in the World; free-lance journalist based in Beijing; Lecturer, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Auckland; Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations of Chinese Politics, University of Auckland; Professor, Duke Divinity School; Scholar at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne.

Attempts to contact the following were unsuccessful within the time constraints of this Response: Associate Professor in the Politics of China, Department of Politics and International Relations, Merton College; Director, Australian Centre on China in the World; independent human rights researcher.

Internet sites, including: Adherents.com; Amnesty International; Asia Harvest; Asian Human Rights Commission; Center for Studies on New Religions; China Aid Association; China Daily; China Digital Times; ChinaSource; ecoi.net; Factiva; Global China Center; Global Times; Guanyin Famen – God's Direct Contact, Supreme Master Ching Hai News Magazine; Human Rights Watch; Human Rights in China; Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Hong Kong; Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies; Radio Free Asia; Religioustolerance.org; United Kingdom – Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Home Office; United Nations – Refworld.