A group of Buddhists is seeking greater participation in politics, and is seeking to meet with religious leaders who will be voting in Hong Kong’s leadership election at the end of this month.

The citizen-led Buddhist Concern Alliance is running a petition campaign demanding talks with the ten Buddhist leaders who have a vote in the leadership race. Nine of the ten leaders nominated candidate Carrie Lam last month, while the last one did not submit a nomination.

Yawen Chan (R) of the Buddhist Concern Alliance. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

“How can [the electors] say they represent the Buddhist community if they don’t communicate with us at all? They should gradually open up participation to all Buddhists,” the alliances’s Yawen Chan, a Buddhist and clinical psychologist, told HKFP.

Lack of transparency

Chan founded the group last September after learning that the Hong Kong Buddhist Association has the power to nominate ten people to sit on the 1,200-member Chief Executive Election Committee, a body tasked with selecting the city’s leader.

But there was no information on how the nominees would be picked. The Buddhist community was also not invited to take part in the nomination process. Chan therefore wanted to bring together Buddhists interested in making the process more transparent.

Five other religions – Catholicism, Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism and Islam – also have ten seats each on the committee. Though most subsectors are required to hold elections to pick the Election Committee members, the religious subsector is exempt from the rule.

Winners of the 2016 Election Committee IT subsector election. Photo: Ping Wong, via Facebook.

Instead, a designated body for each religion is responsible for selecting the members and then submitting the names to the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC). The commission will generally accept the nominations, unless they are invalidated for reasons like failing to meet the legal criteria.

HKFP has asked the EAC whether it knows how religious bodies chose the nominees. It did not directly answer the question, saying that they are not required to provide such information.

Behind closed doors

Of the ten electors representing Buddhism, nine are incumbent board members of the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. The last one is the chairman of a secondary school run by the association.

The association told HKFP that the electors come from various temples and Buddhist groups, and were nominated by its 44 board members. It did not state who was considered for nomination.

Ex-candidate Regina Ip (front, second left) met with the Buddhist Association / Election Committee members for her campaign. Photo: Regina Ip.

The electors are not required to support the same candidate, it added. Rather, they will bear in mind three factors during the vote: the candidates’ ability to unite society; their commitment to serve the interests of Hong Kong society, especially the grassroots interests; and their respect for religious freedom and equality.

“Politics affects our everyday life. The Election Committee provides a platform for politicians to hear the voices of Buddhists,” it said.

Lawyer Mary Jean Reimer, who is a vocal critic of scandalous behaviour within the Buddhist community, criticised the “unfair” closed-door arrangement.

“It is arguable whether the association is representative of Buddhists – at least I don’t think it represents me,” Reimer told HKFP.

She recalled an incident where the group tried to distance itself from a monastery embroiled in a suspected marriage-for-residency scandal in 2015.

“At the time it said it was just a ‘social club’ and did not play a supervisory role over monasteries. It was very disappointing. It enjoys power and benefits, so it should bear the burden that comes with it and help the Buddhist community get back on the right track,” she said.

Mary Jean Reimer (R) confronted a fake monk last year. Photo: Youtube.

“More Buddhist groups should be involved [in the religious subsector], so that not just one group takes all the votes.”

‘Politically passive’ community

Yawen Chan said the association was responsive to her enquiries at the beginning, until she proposed a meeting with the electors before the end of the nomination period of the chief executive election.

But she does not blame the group for the lack of response.

“We Buddhists have never asked to participate in the election,” she said. “So we can’t accuse the association of making decisions in the ‘black box.’ We also have the responsibility to think about our role and level of participation.”

Her petition seeking talks with the ten electors has attracted only 55 signatures so far, raising questions on the level of political engagement of the Buddhist community. According to a government publication released in 2016, there are over one million Buddhists in the city.

“I believe 99 per cent of them don’t have an opinion on the election arrangement,” Chan said. “To many Buddhists, politics is about quarrels and power struggle. But Buddhists are peace-loving, so they tend to avoid politics.”

The Big Buddha in Hong Kong. Photo: Henry Wang, via Pixabay.

She added that many fear upsetting their religious teachers if they are too vocal.

“While it is not realistic to expect many Buddhists to participate in the political process, I am optimistic about bringing together a group of Buddhists interested in engaged Buddhism.”

Engaged Buddhism

Engaged Buddhism is a movement in Buddhism that advocates the social application of Buddhist teachings to end suffering and injustice.

In light of the general lack of discussion on political issues within the Buddhist community, Chan hosted an academic forum on Tuesday, providing a rare opportunity for members of the public to explore the possibilities of Buddhist participation in politics.

“Buddhism is not about self-interest. It is about compassion and ending suffering. So if we can make policies from the top down that benefit society, that would be much better than just donations or welfare initiatives,” Chan said. “And the chief executive is a policymaker.”

Forum on political participation of Buddhists. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

A participant at the forum said that though she went to the pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014, she felt she could not share her thoughts with her religious teachers. At the time, the Buddhist Association issued a statement urging followers to “stay away from the protest sites” and refrain from joining the protests.

Another argued that it is difficult to engage Buddhists in social movements because, unlike the Christian and Catholic communities, there are no Buddhist leaders who are outspoken against social injustices.

But Chinese cultural studies scholar Billy Tang Ka-jau, who authored a book on the history of Hong Kong Buddhism, said Buddhist institutions have actually been politically active – but they just do not see themselves as such.

“They have been very active in charity work, like building hospitals and schools,” he said. “We use the label ‘charity’ rather than political activities. But from another perspective, these activities are doing what the government is incapable of doing. They reflect the incompetence of the government. But we don’t see them negatively.”

Billy Tang Ka-jau. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

“Likewise, we can understand politics in a positive light,” the scholar added. “In the past, we responded to the physical needs of society. Today, there are needs on the ideological level, and this is an area that lacks Buddhist participation.”

Taiwan’s Buddhist master Shih Chao-hwei said in a pre-recorded video for the event: “Buddhists cannot be completely politically apathetic. Their degrees of political awareness may vary, but the goal is the same: to build a better society.”

She warned that a politically apathetic religious community would be susceptible to oppression, as politicians would ignore their voices while being swayed more easily by other religious groups seeking more power.

“To my mind, transcendence is not just about staying outside the system. It can also be a good thing if you enter the system without being drawn to the temptations of power and self-interest, while upholding justice and the principles of love and care for society,” she said.

Shih Chao-hwei. Photo: Buddhist Concern Alliance’s video.

See also: Separation of church and state? Christians debate the role of religion in choosing the next Chief Executive

Three other religions – Confucianism, Taoism and Islam – also made the nomination decisions behind closed doors. Their designated bodies did not respond to HKFP’s enquires despite repeated attempts.

In comparison, Christian and Catholic leaders opened the nomination process to followers by holding a lucky draw.

The small-circle chief executive election is scheduled for March 26. The candidates are former chief secretary Carrie Lam, former finance chief John Tsang, and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.