The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may have hit a bump in the road — somewhere between a pebble and a boulder — with its temple plans in Shanghai.
On April 5, during the final session of the faith’s General Conference, church President Russell M. Nelson stunned believers with the news that among its new temples would be one in China.
Nelson, who has long-standing ties to Shanghai, was careful in how he described the holy space to be established there.
“In Shanghai, a modest, multipurpose meeting place will provide a way for Chinese members to continue to participate in ordinances of the temple … for them and their ancestors,” Nelson told his global audience. It was prompted in part by the closure of the Hong Kong Temple for renovation.
He noted the church’s legal status in mainland China “remains unchanged” — it is not legally recognized — and it will not send missionaries to that country.
“In an initial phase of facility use, entry will be by appointment only,” he said. “The Shanghai Temple will not be a temple for tourists from other countries.”
Within days of Nelson’s remarks, though, the Shanghai Municipal Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau said twice on its website it knew nothing about a “Mormon temple” being built in the city of more than 24 million people.
In response to a question posed on Weibo (China’s Twitter), the bureau first wrote, “foreigners are not allowed to establish religious organizations or areas of religious activity within China’s borders” and “the news that the American Mormon Church announced that it is building a temple came only from the American side.”
Later, the Shanghai organization repeated the statement about foreigners, insisting it “knew nothing about [the American Mormon Church … building a so-called ‘temple’ in Shanghai].”
This second statement added, “wishful thinking, not based in reality,” according to an independent translation.
Neither statement, however, indicates that the temple can’t or won’t be built.
The temple flap was noted in Foreign Policy’s April 22 newsletter.
For its part, the church declined to comment on the Shanghai bureau’s statements.
Talks can be tricky
Every major Chinese city — Shanghai is the nation’s largest — has a “religious affairs bureau,” said Frederick Crook, director of research at The China Group in Alpine, who has lived in Shanghai. “It’s a very powerful organization that controls all religious activities in Shanghai.”
Any negotiations between Americans and Chinese can be tricky, said Stephen Markscheid, a business consultant in Chicago and a China expert.
“It is not unusual for the Western party to think they’ve got a deal and for the Chinese to deny it,” Markscheid said. “It happens all the time.”
As long as “you don’t draw attention to yourself,” he said, “you’d have no problem.”
Marco Marazzi, an Italy-based attorney who has lived and worked in Shanghai for many years, has spent his career helping companies across the world do business in China.
He points out that cultural differences and varied expectations often present problems in trying to make agreements.
“It is even more complicated if you are negotiating with the government,” Marazzi said in a phone interview. “You have to be sure you are talking to the right person — which bureau, who they represent — but if you ask, they might see that as impolite.”
There can be “thousands of issues to deal with every day,” Marazzi added, especially now “with the COVID-19 crisis, companies going bankrupt, the economy slowing down and China’s trade war with the United States.”
The temple announcement also came amid Beijing’s two-year repression of religions.
“China’s government is ratcheting up a crackdown on Christian congregations in Beijing and several provinces, destroying crosses, burning Bibles, shutting churches and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith,” The Associated Press reported in 2018 of allegations from pastors and a watchdog group. “The campaign corresponds with a drive to ‘Sinicize’ religion by demanding loyalty to the officially atheist Communist Party and eliminating any challenge to its power over people’s lives.”
On Tuesday, the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom issued its annual report, which included this statement: “Based on the Chinese government’s systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, USCIRF again finds that China merits designation in 2019 as a ‘country of particular concern.’”
For years, the LDS Church has managed to survive in the world’s most populous nation — with a history of hostility to religion — by quietly following China’s rules.
In Beijing, for instance, Chinese and expatriate members meet in separate spaces in a high-rise with no signage of Latter-day Saint services there.
As attendees gather for their separate weekly services, the branch (congregation) president reads an official statement from the pulpit, explaining to any new members or visitors that proselytizing is forbidden. So is distributing church literature or members of the two groups mingling.
10,000 or more members
The church organized its first branches for Chinese members in 2004, according to independent Latter-day Saint demographer Matt Martinich, and today has a presence in most of China’s major cities.
“There appear to be at least 10,000 Latter-day Saints in the [People’s Republic of China], the vast majority of whom are likely PRC citizens,” Martinich writes on his blog, ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com. “Shanghai is one of the three major church centers in the PRC for both foreign and PRC citizens, the others being Beijing and Guangzhou.”
Periodically, a representative of China’s government attends services in Beijing, members say, and reports back to party bosses what happens there.
Members in China wonder if similar checks will take place in a temple. Will an undercover representative show up regularly for religious rituals there to observe the ceremonies and relay that to government officials?
The Utah-based faith reported in 2010 that it was engaged in "high-level" talks that were "expected to lead to 'regularized' [church] operations" in China.
“A senior representative of the People’s Republic of China huddled with the faith’s governing First Presidency in Salt Lake City on Aug. 24,” a church spokesman said at the time. “That session came on the heels of meetings in February and May in Beijing initiated by the Chinese representative and attended by Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks.”
A church spokesman said then that the “church deeply appreciates the courtesy of the Chinese leadership in opening up a way to better define how the church and its members can proceed with daily activities, all in harmony with Chinese law."
Nearly 10 years later, some of the credit for the planned Shanghai Temple likely is due to Nelson, a former cardiac surgeon, who long has had a warm spot in his heart for China. In 1980, he trained doctors in China, and it was there, in 1985, that he performed his last open-heart surgery.
In 2015, he was honored by physicians he trained at the Shandong University School of Medicine. And, in January, the church sent two planeloads of protective medical equipment to the Children’s Medical Center in Shanghai to help deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
Nelson has promised that the church will continue following all China’s rules governing religion.
The Shanghai temple will be limited “to Chinese [church] members. .. holding a valid recommend,” the church’s website says. “These Chinese members will have a membership record in the China Administrative Unit of the church or will reside outside of China but hold a valid PRC passport.”
The Chinese government recognizes five religious groups: Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims and Taoists (the latter being the only native Chinese faith; the others all were imported). But only their homegrown versions are registered — their organizational connections to foreign churches are not permitted.
Mormonism, which did not break from other forms of Christianity but rather sees itself as the restoration of Jesus' original church, does not fit into any of those groups. Its headquarters is in the United States.
Despite its unofficial status, the LDS Church “has built a strong relationship of trust with the People’s Republic of China by always respecting the laws and traditions of that country,” the church’s website says. “The church teaches its members in each country to obey, honor, and sustain the law, to be good parents and exemplary citizens, and to make positive contributions to society.”
Latter-day Saint temple ceremonies in China “would be consistent with traditional Chinese culture and values,” the site says. “This includes positive emphasis to strengthen marriage and family, honor ancestors, encourage family and clan histories, and nurture character, virtuous moral standards, and traditional values.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, though, the Shanghai Temple is the only recently announced one not mentioned on the church’s official online tally of established or planned temples.