Buddhist monks selling spiritual services on WeChat raise eyebrows in China

Published: October 22, 2016
Tech in Asia
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Buddhist accounts offer incense burning and and other religious services in the popular messaging app. PHOTO: AFP

Buddhist accounts offer incense burning and and other religious services in the popular messaging app. PHOTO: AFP

WeChat is a magical place. In one app, you can order wine, hail a cab, split bills, get your laundry done, and – apparently – pay for prayers at a Buddhist temple.

For just a couple of Chinese yuan, WeChat users can buy offerings that will be placed at a shrine by a monk. A bouquet of lotus flowers, a few sticks of ‘peace’ incense, and a small pile of peaches costs US$1.70. After you pay with WeChat Wallet, the messaging app’s mobile payment system, a monk on the receiving end sets everything up and prays for you at his temple.

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Some accounts even offer live release services, where a Buddhist monk will save an animal of your choice. Creatures like a mud fish are considered low-end – only ten cents – whereas turtles are more expensive, like the “10,000-year-old” turtle, which costs just over US$13.

PHOTO: EVA XIAO

But are people getting what they paid for? Or is it monk-e-business?

“I’m so angry I’m shaking. There are so many scams on WeChat and Tencent doesn’t seem to care,” wrote a furious Chinese netizen on Zhihu, a Quora-like website.

In a long tirade, she describes how her mother had gotten sucked into one of these accounts, making regular purchases of incense and flowers. Ever since her mother linked her bank card to her WeChat account, money has been disappearing.

“Scam artists put a lot of effort into WeChat, not even bothering with a website,” she said. “I guess there’s no point in going online if they know old people are on WeChat, right? It must be so easy to con old people on WeChat.”

Some of these so-called Buddhist service accounts even use the same interface and incense menu. For example, searching for “pay respect to Buddha” on WeChat pulls up a long list of accounts with several offering identical incense services. When Tech in Asia called one account’s customer service hotline, the agent on the other end claimed that they belonged to the Taiwan Fo Guang Shan Buddhist temple.

“Currently, many of these live release prayer pages have been shut down because so many people have flagged them,” reported Chinese blog PingWest today. “But still, there are many accounts offering prayer services.”

PHOTO: EVA XIAO

‘WeChat drone’ ready for takeoff

Tencent actively moderates and censors content on WeChat, often blocking pages or shutting down accounts that are deemed inappropriate, rumor-mongering, or illegal. More recently, the Chinese tech giant has started cracking down on fake pageview numbers, which are displayed at the bottom of WeChat articles. Still, with over 800 million active users and thousands of official WeChat accounts registered to businesses, it’s almost impossible to keep the platform squeaky clean.

This article originally appeared on Tech in Asia.

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