Raising the red flag

Raising the red flag
Sep 7, 2018 (WiC 423)

The Shaolin Temple is no stranger to making the news in China, in part because of its monks’ martial arts skills (which regularly prompt challenges from rival fighters keen to debunk the idea of Shaolin’s kungfu being invincible). Shaolin’s more commercial side grabs headlines too – because some think it sits ill with the Zen Buddhism that Shaolin espouses. For instance, its chief abbot Shi Yongxin was nicknamed the ‘CEO Monk’ after he incorporated the temple and trademarked its brand. He even monetised the monastery’s fighting prowess in a video game and in 2015 came up with an unusual proposal to combine a Shaolin Temple with a golf resort in Australia.

So you’d have thought Shi and Shaolin had just about exhausted their capacity to surprise. But late last month they managed to do so again when Shi did something for the first time in the temple’s 1,500 year history. At 7am on August 27 he and his monks raised the flag of the People’s Republic of China, at an event that also included the vice chairman of the Buddhist Association of China and a member of the Party’s local standing committee.

Sina says the move came after a meeting earlier in the summer of national religious groups in Beijing where a new initiative was proposed on ‘raising the flag at religious ceremonies’. After an “in-depth study of the constitution” Shi decided his temple would take the lead and set the example for others.

The ceremony again shows Shi’s pragmatic side, but for critics it is yet another example of the Party extending its control. As one netizen lamented: “Religion cannot be mingled with the state, it needs to maintain a neutral relationship. But in China it is hard to have pure religion.”

Leaving his money lying around

Leaving his money lying around
Aug 31, 2018 (WiC 422)

The word ‘venal’ first appeared in the English language in the mid-17th century, derived from the Latin word ‘venum’ meaning ‘thing for sale’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “showing susceptibility to bribery; corrupt”.

And an exemplary case of ‘vena’l behaviour came to light in China this month when investigators found three tonnes of banknotes piled up in the properties of a detained public official. The man in question was Lai Xiaomin, the former chairman of China Huarong Asset Management, a state agency set up to clean up bad debts in the banking system but which has morphed over the years into a financial services behemoth.

Lai was detained for suspected graft in April, but it was only later that his properties were searched and the hoards of local cash and foreign currency were found. Counting the cash was no easy feat but Caixin Weekly reports that the haul came to about Rmb270 million ($39.65 million) in total.

On August 12 Huarong issued a warning that it would report “a prominent decrease” in its first half profits and its share price is down about two-thirds since Lai’s arrest. Among its problematic investments is a 36% stake in CEFC Hainan, bought to assist parent firm CEFC China as part of a $9.1 billion investment in Russian oil giant Rosneft. The latter deal failed to complete after CEFC’s boss Ye Jianming was himself detained in February. Only weeks later Lai was arrested too, leading analysts to speculate that the two detentions must be connected.

An unlikely e-commerce star

An unlikely e-commerce star
Aug 17, 2018 (WiC 420)

When you think of global brands on Alibaba’s Tmall shopping platform, names like Adidas, Lancome or Uniqlo might spring to mind. You probably wouldn’t propose the British Museum as a contender. But that would be a misjudgement. Since it launched its store on Tmall at the beginning of July, the museum has been a surprising hit. Website Huxiu even described it as the “best selling Tmall store” noting that the museum’s goods sold out within a month due to the scale of demand. The UK’s Daily Telegraph concurred, noting that it had proved a “smash hit on Tmall”. So what were the Chinese so avidly buying? At launch the museum offered 20 items from teacups featuring Egyptian princesses to iPhone cases embossed with images of pharaohs. Bags and moon-shaped fans were also available for prices that ranged from as low as Rmb6 for stationery to Rmb169 ($24.54) for umbrellas. By late July the museum had also gained an impressive 150,000 followers for its e-commerce site.

A message on the site now explains that the museum is replenishing its stock, with its merchandising boss Craig Bendle telling the Telegraph: “It’s an exciting prospect for the British Museum to be working with a company of Alibaba’s stature as part of the museum’s product licencing campaign.”

For Britain, maybe this is a positive signal. After all, the nation’s Brexiteers have claimed that the country can sell more to the Chinese as it tries to diversify away from the EU market. Perhaps one of the country’s best-loved tourist attractions can lead the effort?