China wields Mazu ‘peace goddess’ religion as weapon in Taiwan election

China wields Mazu ‘peace goddess’ religion as weapon in Taiwan election

DAJIA, Taiwan (Reuters): The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is ramping up exchanges with folk religious groups in rural Taiwan in an attempt to manipulate political opinion in Beijing’s favour ahead of elections next month, according to Taiwan government documents and security officials.

Religious trips across the Taiwan Strait increased this year after the end of China’s years-long zero COVID policy, according to a review of the websites of the Chinese government, CCP-run religious groups and state media. Dozens of the trips were focused on worship of Mazu, a sea goddess whose 10 million Taiwanese worshippers make her the island’s most popular deity.

Reuters examined five Taiwanese security documents and interviewed five Taiwanese security officials, as well as five Mazu temple leaders and four analysts. They provided previously unreported details about how CCP officials tried to build ties with religious establishments with inducements such as subsidised trips to China. Some of them spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.

In response, Taiwan has stepped up monitoring of religious activities with China, including Mazu, according to the Mainland Affairs Council, the Taiwanese body responsible for ties with Beijing, and three documents seen by Reuters.

The campaign comes ahead of Taiwan’s Jan. 13 presidential and legislative elections, which five Taiwanese officials said Beijing is trying to influence in favour of parties supporting closer ties with China.

The vote will define the island’s relations with Beijing – which claims sovereignty over democratically governed Taiwan – for the next four years.

China has established influence over the Mazu faith in Taiwan through mediums such as its Religious Affairs Administration – which also engages with Christians, Buddhists and Taoists on the island – according to an intelligence report reviewed by Reuters in October, which security sources described as Taiwan’s most recent analysis.

The administration is overseen by the CCP’s United Front Work Department, a network of groups that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has described as a “magic weapon” to bolster Beijing’s reach abroad.

The United Front Work Department and Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office did not return requests for comment.

At least five Taiwan Mazu temple associations have contacts with six of their Chinese counterparts, all of which are run by the administration, according to the document. It did not provide supplementary evidence.

A document – an analysis that cited Taiwanese intelligence on Chinese activities – said China sees that faith, which has the closest ties with Beijing, as the “axis” of its influence operations. Mazu’s origins date back to China’s Fujian province, directly across the strait, and millions of Chinese also worship the goddess.

While China is officially atheist, the United Front has long used folk religions to build ties with Taiwanese believers, many of whom regularly visit China for pilgrimages, according to two United Front reports from 2020 and 2016 reviewed by Reuters.

Chinese state media said in September that Mazu-related exchange programs play a “key role” in “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan.

The Mainland Affairs Council told Reuters in a written response that it welcomed genuine religious exchanges with China but would step up monitoring and engagement with Taiwanese temples to “reduce the operational space” for the United Front.


In late October, half a dozen Mazu and Buddhist leaders held a religious ritual in a temple in the mountains of central Taiwan.

“We wish for Taiwan to be a blessed island but not an island with military arsenals … not to become an island of battlefields,” the clerics chanted in front of gilded statues of the Buddha and Mazu, according to a video of the event seen by Reuters.

While clergy around the world regularly pray for peace, the language alarmed two Taiwanese security officials investigating voting interference, who say it echoed China’s framing of the upcoming election.

Beijing views Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its presidential candidate Lai Ching-te, who has consistently led in the polls, as dangerous separatists. It has warned that a vote for the DPP is tantamount to voting for a war across the Taiwan Strait.

Senior officials from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party have also made similar comparisons. The KMT fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to the CCP, but supports closer economic and cultural ties to China.

In contrast, China signals to Taiwanese voters that “supporting pro-China parties means peace,” one of the officials said.

Asked about the similarity of its messaging, the KMT said it is “indisputable fact” that the DPP is leading Taiwan to the edge of war due to a lack of communications with China. Lai has repeatedly said during the campaign that he does not seek to change the status quo.

This religious push comes alongside ramped-up Chinese military drills near Taiwan, which sees them as part a “multi-front campaign” to sway voters.

The People’s Liberation Army released a propaganda video as it conducted exercises around Taiwan in August, showing fighter jets and submarines alongside Mazu, as a narrator called Chinese forces and the goddess protective influences across the Taiwan Strait.

The film also included clips of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and Lai – currently vice president – as people chanted “save Taiwan, oppose Taiwan independence.”

Also of interest to the security officials was the location of many temple activities. One of the officials said Taiwan was aware of a recent push by Beijing to build “ties with small-to-medium sized shrines and temples” outside Taiwan’s largest cities.

Such rural networks are “an effective system to spread rumours locally” and help shape public opinion, the official said.

Beijing has also infiltrated temples on Taiwan’s offshore islands and more sparsely populated east coast, according to a government summary of China’s religious infiltration that cited intelligence on Beijing’s activities.

Wen Tsung-han, an academic who has researched Taiwanese folk beliefs, said China seeks influence over rural temples because they play a larger role in the everyday life of believers compared to urban religious centres.

“They can reach social organizations or local societies, which are capable of influencing election results,” he said.


Between 2018 and 2020, China organised more than 70 large-scale mutual temple visits with Taiwan involving at least 20,400 people, according to a government report that detailed dates of the trips and the temples’ Chinese contacts.

At least nine of the trips were partly financed by the Chinese government, it said. The document did not include evidence but the US-based Freedom House think tank has documented how Beijing has offered academics and journalists complimentary trips.

This year, Beijing sponsored trips to China for hundreds of Taiwanese politicians, unnerving Taiwanese officials who are now investigating the travel for alleged violations of election and security laws.

Chang Chien-huang, who manages a Mazu temple in a Taipei suburb, told Reuters he had been invited to China on religious-focused exchanges that saw Chinese officials join him for banquets with alcohol.

Two other Taiwanese security officials said they saw such trips as “opportunities” for China to gather intelligence and recruit sympathisers to conduct influence campaigns.

Cheng Ming-kun, head of the Taiwan Mazu Fellowship, an influential Mazu network with over 180 temples as members, says direct engagement with Beijing is important.

“We need to increase exchanges so that we don’t walk towards a war,” said Cheng during an interview in his office in central Taiwan’s Dajia district, stacked with religious icons, ceramics and vintage spirits.

“Director Song is an old friend,” Cheng said, referring to Song Tao, China’s top Taiwan policymaker. “The (Chinese) central government thinks Mazu would bring stability and peace.”

Cheng denied being a CCP representative but said he hoped the election would bring a change in government.

Taiwan is monitoring more than 40 major temples and religious centres, as well as dozens of religious figures it suspects of having ties with the United Front and Chinese policymakers, according to three documents seen by Reuters. None of the associations named in the documents are accused of illegal acts.

Some Taiwanese politicians have called for tighter laws to counter Beijing’s religious incursions.

A planned November pilgrimage to Taiwan by the Mazu temple on China’s Meizhou island was recently cancelled. The temple said on Facebook that Taiwanese authorities used “every possible means to create difficulties” and its blocking of the pilgrimage amounted to “disrespect” towards the gods.

The temple is the most important Mazu religious centre and has a major role in the Chinese Mazu Cultural Exchange Association, which has organised more than 60 trips this year for its Taiwanese counterparts, according to a review of its social media posts.

The Mainland Affairs Council has said it did not block the pilgrimage. Taiwan has said the applicants did not send in required supplementary details.

Chang, the temple manager, said he received more invitations to visit China this year from various Mazu associations, including one to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen that offered temple visits, a China-Taiwan student baseball competition and a drone show.

But this time, he declined them, saying that the upcoming election would raise questions about the trip.

“Religion should be neutral,” Chang said. “We shouldn’t take sides.”