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Funeral of Taiwan Buddhist leader sparks cross-strait political spat

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File photo Feb. 6, 2023
File photo Feb. 6, 2023


Officials from across the Taiwan Strait bickered Saturday after Beijing slammed Taiwan's government for barring Chinese officials and religious leaders from traveling to Taiwan for the funeral of a prominent Buddhist leader scheduled to be held on Monday in Kaohsiung.

The death of Hsing Yun (星雲), founder of the Buddhist organization Fo Guang Shan (FGS), on Feb. 5 at the age of 95, has attracted much attention because of the late Buddhist leader's influence in the religious and secular domains.

Both President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) expressed condolences over Hsing Yun's passing and are reportedly planning to attend his funereal.

However, the event has become the source of a political spat after China's Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) on Saturday publicly accused Taiwan's government of blocking its delegation from traveling to Taiwan for the ceremony.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has "brazenly refused to allow the Chinese delegation to travel to Taiwan" from Feb. 11-14, TAO spokeswoman Zhu Fenglian (朱鳳蓮) said in a statement.

According to Zhu, the 38-member delegation, which consists of officials from the TAO and the National Religious Affairs Administration, as well as representatives of Buddhist groups, had planned to visit Taiwan at the invitation of FGS.

"Members of the delegation, who gathered at Beijing Capital International Airport on the morning of Feb. 11 as previously planned, were unable to depart due to the obstruction of Taiwan authorities," Zhu said.

There was no indication whether the group had obtained permission to travel to Taiwan.

In response, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) said later the same day that the government had not approved the requests to visit Taiwan by 12 Chinese officials handling Taiwan affairs and united-front operations because they did not follow official procedures.

Taiwan currently does not allow visits from Chinese tourists due to COVID-19 concerns, but those with special exemptions, including for religious matters, are allowed to travel to Taiwan if their application to Taiwan's National Immigration Agency is accepted.

According to the MAC, the top government agency handling cross-strait affairs, Chinese officials must also obtain permission from the MAC prior to any trip to Taiwan.

An MAC official told CNA Saturday that the 12 officials, including TAO Deputy Director Long Mingbiao (龍明彪), had not applied to come to Taiwan with the MAC, but simply "relayed" their travel plans to the MAC through FGS.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was "regrettable" that the Chinese had chosen to blame Taiwan's government over the matter when they should have followed existing procedures.

At the same time, the MAC noted that 120 Chinese nationals have been allowed to visit Taiwan for next Monday's event, including family members and friends of Hsing Yun, FGS's followers, and representatives of religious groups in China.

However, former top Chinese religious affairs official Ye Xiaowen (葉小文) was also denied an entry permit to visit Taiwan, the MAC said on Friday, citing "allegations of religious persecution against the former Chinese official by civil society groups."

The agency added that social order considerations were also a factor, as Ye's previous visit to Taiwan for the 2009 World Buddhist Forum sparked widespread public protests.

Hsing Yun, born in 1927 in the Chinese province of Jiangsu as Lee Kuo-shen (李國深), became a monk at the age of 12.

After relocating to Taiwan in 1949, Hsing Yun gradually increased his religious influence at home and abroad, boasting millions of followers and over 300 branch temples across the world, according to FGS's website.

Apart from promoting Buddhism, FGS's operations have over the years expanded into the fields of education, charity and media.

In 1985, Hsing Yun officially stepped down as FGS's director, but remained involved in its operations. He began making fewer public appearances after suffering strokes in 2011 and 2016.

Despite criticism in some quarters, the late Buddhist leader did not shy away from participating in political affairs or commenting on Taiwan's politics and cross-strait issues.

Hsing Yun had served as a KMT consultant and Central Review Committee member, and traveled to Beijing in both 2013 and 2014 as part of the KMT's delegation to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平).

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