by Garrett Dee

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Photo Credit: Miuki/WikiCommons/CC

CONTROVERSY ON the subject of the government’s supposed restrictions on religious practices and their impact on the environment has sparked protests in Taiwan with the start of Ghost Month, leading over ten thousand Taoist and Buddhist devotees to march in Taipei in opposition to what they saw as unreasonable government interference in their religious expression. The gathering was organized in response to a rumor which rapidly disseminated through the Taiwanese Internet last month that the Tsai government was considering imposing restrictions on local traditional practices such as burning paper money and incense in response to concerns over environmental impact.

According to this rumor, which appears to have been first circulated on content mill website COCO1 and was spread via text message, traditional practices would be subject to regulation by a “Department of Religious Affairs”, and permits and registration would have to be sought in order to carry on temple activities related to funerals and such matters. This action, which included new tax regulations for the temples, would lead to many traditional Taiwanese temple customs such as the burning of paper money and incense as offerings during prayers being suppressed, which would hamper the observation of burial customs and other communal events often centered around temples, and would be largely viewed as unacceptable.

On the other hand, environmental concerns have long been a consideration in Taiwan. Protests against the expansion of nuclear power plants in Taiwan have often been headline-grabbing issues, and the announcement that the Tsai administration plans to approve the restart of nuclear reactors sets the stage for renewed controversy over its impact. However, the accumulation of smaller-scale pollutants have a large impact on the Taiwanese environment as well, including those related to traditional practices.

Demonstrators dressed as deities. Photo credit: EPA

One of Taiwan’s most internationally well-known festivals, the annual Pingxi Lantern Festival to mark the end of the Lunar New Year, has come under fire for the large amount of waste generated and its impact on the local environment. Tons of plastic waste from the lighting of lanterns during the festival have been collected within a wide radius of the area, and though the festival itself is the most well-known instance of lantern-lighting in Taiwan, the lanterns themselves can be lit all year round. The practice still continues unimpeded despite these concerns.

However, counter-arguments to the position that such practices are a major source of the pollution problem in Taiwan point to the government’s relatively lax standards to industrial pollution emitted from factories as well as other sources of pollution. Though much of the blame for pollution in Taiwan is often placed squarely upon the shoulders of clouds of emissions coming over from factories in China, in truth a large part of Taiwanese pollution is produced domestically, especially in the heavy industrial areas around Yunlin, Taichung, and Changhua. Particle levels have topped PM2.5 in recent years, and lung cancer attributed to high levels of air particles remain a serious cause of death in Taiwan.

Thus, claims by the opponents of this hypothetical ban on the burning of paper money and incense that their practices do not make up the preponderance of the volume of pollution produced domestically may hold water. Some have gone as far as to suggest that the Tsai administration is intentionally launching an attack on religious freedoms, suggesting that there might be a political element involved in efforts to curb such practices. This seems unlikely, however, as the southern areas in which the rumor first propagated are largely seen as DPP strongholds, and the Tsai administration has made no hint that it would be launching any effort to limit religious freedoms, given that Taiwan is a democratic country in which a large percentage of the population is religious to some degree.

Despite this, environmentalism is also seen as an important international concern, and Taiwan has recently been seeking to position itself as a one of Asia’s most progressive countries, particularly under the Tsai administration as it seeks to raise Taiwan’s profile internationally as part of its bulwark strategy against China. It is likely that Tsai will want to be seen as taking meaningful action on the issue in order to boost its own reputation with environmentally-conscious countries that are moving towards alternative sources of energy and environmentally-friendly practices. However, actions like those of the Formosa Plastics group, which has dumped tons of waste from its factories in Vietnam into the Vietnamese environment with the complicity of the Vietnamese government, leaving the Vietnamese people themselves to clean up the mess, smirch any Taiwanese efforts to clean up its own local environmental and cast doubts on Taiwan’s ability to practice what it preaches.

Photo credit: EPA

Irrespective of these arguments, however, the Ministry of the Interior has since clarified that no such ban will be enforced, calling into question the source of the rumor and the virulence with which it spread. Indeed, it seems that within the government itself there is debate about the handling of the issue, regardless of whether miscommunication or intentional misdirection aimed at raising environmental awareness amongst the population was responsible for the origin of the rumor.

Regardless of whether or not the Tsai administration intends to consider such a ban in the future, which at the time it gives no indication it will, modern social mores like environmentalism are almost certain to come into conflict with traditional cultural practices in Taiwan in the near future. Modern movements such as the anti-nuclear protests or the increased drives to get people to recycle reflect the contemporary importance that people attach to environmental protection; however, it is unlikely that deeply entrenched practices such as the burning of paper money or lighting of lanterns are going to go without a fight. Some temples are attempting to take up practices such as the use of sound systems to mimic the lighting of firecrackers or imposing limitations on the amount of paper money that can be burned in order to address these concerns. However, if these protests are an example of the brewing backlash on this issue, it may be that this “fake news” item may become actual news.