Monk accused of sexual misconduct as #MeToo expands in China

BEIJING — One of China's highest-ranking Buddhist monks is facing a government investigation over accusations of sexual misconduct, in what is seen by some as an indication the #MeToo movement is gaining traction in the world's most populous nation.

Longquan Monastery abbot Shi Xuecheng is accused of harassing and demanding sexual favors from numerous nuns in a 95-page statement compiled by two fellow monks at the storied center of Buddhist learning in Beijing. The statement including testimony from the alleged victims leaked this week on social media, prompting an outcry and unusual coverage by state media before it was censored.

China's State Administration of Religious Affairs said Thursday it would investigate the claims. Xuecheng and the monastery denied the accusations, which also included claims of embezzlement.

A volunteer who answered the phone at the monastery on Friday said it was unclear if Xuecheng was still serving as abbot. Shi Xianqi, a monastery deacon who had reported the abbot, said in text messages to The Associated Press that he and the other whistleblower, Shi Xianjia, had been expelled from the monastery and were cooperating with the government investigation.

Xuecheng, who heads the Buddhist Association of China and serves on a political advisory body to the central government, is the latest high-profile man to fall under scrutiny as China's #MeToo movement accumulates momentum. Well-known university professors, activists and media figures have been accused online and placed under investigation, with at least one dismissed from his post, as more women speak out despite the risk of censorship and official retribution.

Xuecheng, 51, is a well-known religious figure in China, having published numerous books and daily blog posts for his large social media following. China has roughly 250 million Buddhists and countless more followers of folk religions containing Buddhist elements.

Born Fu Ruilin in southern Fujian province, the charismatic monk is credited with reviving the fortunes of the 1,000-year-old Longquan monastery in northwest Beijing, known these days for attracting tech entrepreneurs and elite university graduates who flock there to spend days — or years — in spiritual retreat and Buddhist study. The temple generated headlines in recent years for allowing monks to study sutras on iPads and building a robot in the shape of a pint-sized monk able to answer questions about Buddhism.

The text messages and documentation compiled by Longquan's whistleblowing monks painted a picture of a cloistered life where access to phones and the internet was limited — but where the abbot's power was not.

Xianqi and Xianjia, two men who identified themselves as holders of a doctorate in engineering who had entered monastic life more than a decade ago, compiled screenshots of text messages and accounts of women who said Xuecheng sent suggestive text messages and forced them to have sex. The document also included financial statements suggesting he embezzled nearly $1.5 million.

Xianqi said that Xuecheng's power in the temple meant that only the government could step in to protect nuns. The religious affairs administration has the power to remove Xuecheng from his official position but not to bring criminal charges. It's unclear whether police will investigate the charges of sexual misconduct and embezzlement.

"The monks have been controlled for too long to be able to self-cleanse, self-discipline," Xianqi, whose lay name is Du Qixin, told the AP. "We did this to stop more bhikkhuni (nuns) from being hurt, so we asked the government for help."

Xuecheng posted a statement on Wednesday under the monastery's name that decried the document as "forged materials, distorted facts and false accusations." Typical of Buddhist monks, Xuecheng took a vow of celibacy when entering monastic life.

The park that surrounds the monastery had been closed due to "safety reasons," domestic media reported.

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Associated Press researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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