A few weeks ago, the world’s biggest coffee chain, Starbucks, opened a new shop in the commercial district near Lingyin Temple. This temple, whose name means the Temple of the Soul’s Retreat, is in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Founded in the 4th century, it houses one of China’s most famous monasteries for Chan Buddhism (known as Zen in Japan), and is a place for meditation and reflection.
The news immediately provoked a wave of overwhelming criticism and sarcasm from the public. Five years ago, public outcry had forced the chain to close the coffee shop it had just opened in the middle of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The Hangzhou tourism administration responded to the storm of protest by saying that the coffee shop was outside the monastery, in the tourist services area, which is more than a mile away from the temple: there is already a KFC, shops and hotel nearby. Starbucks China also tried to minimize the controversy by clarifying that “our store is on a corner, not on the main tourist road to the temple.”
It is a clarification that seems to be very weak indeed.
These seemingly arbitrary criticisms are actually worthy of the attention of policymakers and administrators of relevant governmental departments. They are symptomatic of the spiritual and cultural anxiety and unease of the Chinese public.
Every culture is different. Chinese culture is about traditional architecture, painting, literature and music, but also poetry, ethereal temples in mountain valleys, and the brush-strokes of calligraphy.
Yet commercial developments around China’s Buddhist monasteries have transformed them from cultural assets into business venues. While the public originally went to these temples for physical and spiritual tranquility, they are no longer able to escape the mortal, commercial world.
Everything is economic
Whether it’s the Lingyin Temple, the Shaolin Temple famous for its Kung Fu monks, Mount Putuo, one of four sacred mountains in Chinese Buddhism, the Great White Pagoda, or the Little Potala, these historical temples have all been commercialized by local governments.
Since the economic reform and the opening up of China, the country has undertaken a series of commercial transformations. In developing the tourism industry, local governments have turned almost all places of worship, former residences of celebrities, and famous monasteries or mountains into economic resources.
Driven by the appeal of tourism revenue and the concept of profitability, local governments and monasteries are forging business alliances.
Master Puzhen, the Chinese Buddhist Association’s spokesman, said recently, “The trend of incorporating commercial operations into historical Chinese monasteries is a hijacking of Buddhist values. But since it’s been a reality for a while now, why keep pretending otherwise?”
Chinese historical monuments have been so excessively commercialized that our religion and culture have been damaged, and in the long term, this will be also be harmful for the tourism industry itself.
Though we advocate a more tolerant attitude towards commercial activities with today’s economic globalization, it raises a question worthy of consideration by our decision-makers. Where is the boundary between business and culture?
Foreign experiences are worth learning from. Take for instance our neighbors Japan and South Korea. The Korean government does not allow any restaurant or cafe to operate within the 14th-century Gyeongbokgung, the royal palace in northern Seoul. They believe it would destroy the traditional cultural atmosphere. All that is allowed are some vending machines at the gate. Japan is even more conservative in its efforts to protect historical heritage. Any historical site that introduces unauthorized modern equipment or business risks the loss of its cultural heritage status.
What happened with Starbucks at Lingyin should be a warning to businesses. In proximity to culture and religion, one must be restrained and respectful. The resulting outcry has damaged the company and shown our people that barging recklessly into China's religious landscape is harmful.
We should respect our traditional culture and history, and businesses should leave a little room for meditation and reflection.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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