Travel agency withdraws IPO filing after allegations of 'commercializing a Buddhist shrine'

The statue of Guanyin on Mount Putuo Photo: Alamy

A Chinese travel agency doing business in the scenic area of a holy mountain has withdrawn its application for an initial public offering after a religious organization criticized the firm for "commercializing the Buddhist shrine", which violates new rules aimed at protecting religion.

Putuoshan Tourism Development has been under fire for "marketing the Buddhist faith" since it filed an updated IPO prospectus in April. The travel agency is licensed to run businesses related to tourist transport, cable car, souvenir sales, catering as well as other recreational facilities in the scenic area of Mount Putuo, which is believed to be an "ashram" where the Goddess of Mercy, a Buddhist icon representing wisdom and benevolence, enlightens human beings.

Located in the Zhoushan region of eastern China's Zhejiang province, Mount Putuo is one of the four Buddhist holy mountains in China, and is famous for its temples and a towering golden statue of the Goddess of Mercy, or Guanyin in Chinese.

In its first IPO prospectus released in June last year, the travel agency, whose actual controlling stakeholder is the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of Zhoushan, stated that the planned listing would help it raise funds for the construction of infrastructure including parking lots, cable cars and a spa facility.

Days after the release of the updated IPO prospectus in April, the Buddhist Association of China published an article titled "Who is commercializing Buddhism – Worries about Putuoshan listing" on its official website on April 11, in which the government-backed religious organization asked Putuoshan Tourism Development to stop bundling the name of Mount Putou, which is associated with Buddhism, with commercial activities like a stock market listing.

"Putuoshan [Tourism Development] is suspected of taking advantage of Buddhism to launch an IPO, which will inevitably vulgarize and commercialize Buddhism and impair the legal interests of Buddhist followers," said the article.

In order to the justify Mount Putuo's close connection with Buddhism, the article also presented the evidence that Putuoshan is a transliteration of the word "Potalaka" in the Flower Adornment Sutra, one of the most influential Mahayana sutras of East Asian Buddhism. The Sutra records "Potalaka" as the legendary residence of the Goddess of Mercy, said the article.

The article was followed by a statement by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of Zhoushan saying that "Putuoshan" will not be the stock name if Putuoshan Tourism Development goes public. The Commission also clarified that the listed assets do not involve religious assets and sites.

However, Putuoshan Tourism Development's efforts for the IPO met a stiff regulatory resistance on April 18, when the China Securities Regulatory Commission issued a notice saying that it had postponed the processing of the travel agency's application for the IPO, citing the rules regarding the commercialization of religious sites that the State Administration of Religious Affairs of China rolled out in November 2017. According to the rules, listing of Buddhist and Taoist sites and using those sites for business purposes are banned.

According to the revised Religious Affairs Regulations, which took effect on February 1, 2018, companies are prohibited from investing in religious attractions and conducting commercial activities in the name of religion.

The withdrawal of Putuoshan Tourism Development's IPO application marks a rare victory in the fight against the commercialization of religious sites. Sichuan province-based Emeishan Tourism and Anhui Jiuhuashan Tourism Development have completed the listing of their tourism assets that are related to two holy mountains in China, with Shanxi Wutaishan Cultural Tourism also preparing for an IPO. Mount Putuo, Mount Emei, Mount Jiuhua and Mount Wutai are recognized as the four sacred mountains by Buddhist believers.

Different from these tour operators, the Shaolin Temple, which is said to be the birthplace of Chinese kung fu, has found a unique way to make money by leveraging its intellectual property. The Shaolin Temple has authorized some film and video game producers to use its trademark. In 2009, the Temple was rumored to be preparing for an IPO, which was later denied by its abbot Shi Yongxin, who was investigated in 2015 following allegations about his integrity.

In his book "The Shaolin Temple in My Heart" published in 2010, Shi wrote that he "will never make concession" to any attempts of listing the temple, saying that once the temple goes public it will lose its brand image. The abbot called a potential listing an event that would be worse than the temple's destruction in 1928.
 


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