Lumbini-Kapilvastu Day Blog

Welcome to Lumbini, Nepal – the birthplace of Buddha

China’s $3 Billion Investment in Buddhist Mecca Sparks a Row

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on November 21, 2011

By Jane Poretsis

On the 9th August, China declared that it had just signed a USD 3 billion deal with Nepal to develop Lumbini, the birth place of Buddha, sparking a row of lack of transparency.

The investment will see China leading the project, to transform the small town of Lumbini into a Buddhist Mecca and place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from around the world. A huge building project situated in the Southern region adjoining India. Seeing the construction of a new airport, highway, hotels, convention centre, temples and a Buddhist university; plus, the water, electricity and communication lines it currently lacks.

According to the Xinhua News Agency, in July, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Hong Kong based – Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), signed a MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) in Beijing.

This was met by concern in certain quarters of the Nepalese Government, which felt that it had been left in the dark and not consulted; prompting a dismissal from China on reports in the media of a secret pact with certain Maoist sections of the Government.

On the 9th August, the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Yang Houlan met with the Terai Madhes Democratic Party, clarifying that they had signed the Memorandum of Understanding with Tourism Minister Khagda Bahadur, who is also a Maoist leader. Pushpa Kamal (aka Prachanda) head of the Maoist party (UCPN) in Nepal, is also the co-chairman of the APEC Foundation that has signed the deal with the UN Industrial Development Organization to develop Lumbini as a Buddhist Mecca,

According to Hridayes Tripathi, Vice-chairman of the party (TMDP) who was also present during the meeting, the Chinese Ambassador stated that there might be lack of coordination among the Nepalese Ministers as the Ministry of Culture and Finance were not aware of the MoU,


The Chinese Ambassador also made assurances that original Master Plan prepared by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange in1978, to develop Lumbini as a ‘Special Development Zone that aims to bring in economic prosperity to the country’ – would be followed.

The Secretary in the Ministry of Culture, Modraj Dotel, promptly quit stating: “I have resigned as works are being done in a non- transparent way which has become a matter of concern for us,” he was quoted as saying by Annapurna Post Daily, before heading to India’s religious town of Kashi.

Dotel is in favour of staying faithful to the original master plan for the development of Lumbini prepared by famous Japanese architect Kenjo Tange in 1978 at the initiative of then UN Secretary General, rather than “making it a commercial centre as envisioned by the Foundation”. Prior to stepping down, Dotel hinted at pressure being exerted to implement the project by the Foundation, whose co-chairmen are Maoist chief Prachanda and Nepal”s former Prince Paras.

Officials at the Lumbini Development Trust, the main body entrusted to develop the historic town, have also stated that they had no information about the project.

The latest investment plan follows hot on the heels of a previous plan, put forward last November by Beijing Zhongtai Jinghu Investment Company headed by the former Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Li Debiao. A private sector company that was granted permission by the Government of Nepal to invest Rs 8 billion, to start work on a construction project that would include a 100 metre Bhuddha statue, excavation of the remaining part of the Maya Devi Temple, an international Buddhist museum and the operation of green buses in the Lumbini region.

Earlier in 2010, a Plan of Operation was also signed between the Government of Nepal and UNESCO and launched on July 16th in Kathmandu – for the conservation management of Lumbini. With a grant of USD 800,000 the project was a coordination between the UNESCO Kathmandu office and the World Heritage Centre – implemented through both the Department of Archaeology of Nepal and the Lumbini Development Trust, in the framework of the Japanese Funds-in- Trust for the Preservation of the Worlds Cultural Heritage.

The project was set up to contribute in the protection of the site that was inscribed in 1997 in the World Heritage List. In particular, the conservation of the Ashoka Pillar, the Marker Stone and the Nativity Sculpture; plus, a survey of the archeological vestiges within and around the property; a review of the present state of the Sacred Garden and the establishment of an Integrated Management Plan for the entire property.

This was announced as a major step forward by Axel Plathe, Head of Office and UNESCO Representative to Nepal on the occasion of signing. “We are grateful to the Government of Japan to accompany the Government of Nepal and its implementing partners in this endeavor”.

With Japan’s Ambassador to Nepal, Tatsuo Mizuno saying: “We applaud Nepal’s efforts to preserve Lumbini as one of the world’s centre of Buddhist pilgrimage and are proud to be able to contribute to protect this unique spiritual place for future generations. The Government of Japan wishes that this project will contribute to further enhancement of technical cooperation in preservation of cultural heritage and friendly relations with Nepal”.

Now going back to the $3 billion of Chinese investment that is a lot of money, especially when you consider that last year’s GDP in Nepal was only $35 billion – making the Chinese investment almost 10% of their yearly GDP. What some people have being asking is what do the Chinese want back?

According to The Buddhist Channel, the APEC Foundation is a quasi-governmental non-governmental organisation. Its executive vice president, Xiao Wunan, a member of the Communist Party and holding a position at the National Development and Reform Commission, a state agency; so not entirely an NGO.

They went on to say that, with the backing of the UN, Xiao has said he hopes Lumbini will bring together all three schools of the faith: the Mahayana as practised in China, Japan, and South Korea; the Hinayana as practiced in Southeast Asia; and Tibetan Buddhism.

“Lumbini will transcend religion, ideology and race. We hope to rejuvenate the spirit of Lord Buddha”, said Xiao Wunan, who is a devout Buddhist, to the Nepal News Agency. He went on to say that the foundation hoped to talk to New Delhi about the possibility of developing Bodh Gaya in eastern India where Buddha attained enlightenment, and Kushinagar, where he died.

Indeed, the APECF says it has already received full support from Buddhists representing all three schools, with one exception, apparently, no one from the Lumbini project has reached out to the Dalai Lama’s office.

The Buddhist Channel went on to say that he Dalai Lama, head of the Gelug, or “Yellow Hat” branch of Buddhism, is spiritual leader to millions of Buddhists around the world.; making him a top candidate for involvement in the Lumbini project. But he’s also China’s enemy. Posing the question: is it even fathomable that China would allow the Dalai Lama to traipse around Lumbini’s grounds after building the place at a cost of $3bn?

“It’s just not a question we’re looking at, for the moment,” says Xiao. “We’re pulling together experts in finance, investment; we’ve got economists. Our primary focus is on building infrastructure, setting up running water and electricity. We’re focusing on developmental issues.”

It is true that it is early days; it is an investment opportunity that with Xiao’s background as a former employee of China’s Industrial and Commercial Bank could certainly help facilitate any deals. Xiao has also made it clear that the $3bn investment is not coming from the Chinese government, but rather from various funds “around the world”. But it is also seen as a smart move by China and an extension of its soft power.

The dynamics of the whole operation is huge, with Nepal needing to find international builders to make this dream happen. However, China should be top of the list with an investment like that – with many construction companies ready to take a slice.

With approximately 500,000 visitors making a pilgrimage to Lumbini each year, the new investment could see the numbers increase dramatically. So the Dalai Lama aside for one moment, the benefits to the Nepalese people could be dramatic. As Hu Yuandong of UNIDO, which will advise on the creation of the development zone, says – the focus of the project is job creation, poverty alleviation and environmental protection.

As with China’s successful zones such as, Shenzhen, the Nepalese people could also benefit with preferential treatment, tax breaks and investment incentives – all which would be much welcomed.

However, as Nepal is between both China and India – is this also a game of strategy?

Earlier this month the Centre for Air Power Studies, in New Delhi, warned that Lumbini would “help China achieve its long-term strategic goal of bringing Nepal irrevocably under its influence”. They also went on to say: “China will have crossed the Himalayas and established its influence up to the lower foothills bordering India”.

As Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University says: “This is more significant than it might at first appear because Buddhism has no overarching international structure. So that makes any initiative by a powerful government to establish some kind of organising structure for the religion more significant than in other religions.”

As The Buddhist Channel went on to say: the Chinese President Hu Jintao has been promoting a “harmonious society” as part of his socio-economic vision, and some years ago Party officials began to entertain the notion that religion, if carefully managed, could play a positive role in building such a society. Buddhism’s historical connection with China made it the likeliest candidate as the contributor.

“It is seen as an indigenous Chinese religion, not a foreign one,” says Robbie Barnett. “And because it doesn’t have a single, institutional structure such as in Catholicism, it’s viewed as being less likely to oppose the state.”

It was pointed out: the Lumbini project is partially a sign China is concerned about the spiritual deficiency of its own population in a country whose ideology is communist, but whose practice has become capitalist.

As The Buddhist Channel continued:
1) What role, for example, will the university at Lumbini play? Would it offer scholarships for free monastic education to monks around the world? And if so, what would it teach? A Chinese-sanctioned version of Buddhism? Or will monks have the opportunity, as is the tradition in many parts, for spirited theological debates?

2) Would the Dalai Lama be welcome at Lumbini. As an invitiation would send a signal that the project’s intention is strictly religious and even economic – but not political. Shutting the Dalai Lama out of the project would only confirm ulterior Chinese motives.

3) The signal is mixed. Xiao Wunan himself is a devout Buddhist, who appears dedicated and enthusiastic, along with others around him working on the project. They say they’d like Lumbini to become the Buddhist Mecca.

4) On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has not been allowed to visit Lumbini since the late 1980s, and the Nepalese government, under pressure from Chinese diplomats, continues to show little tolerance of its Tibetan refugee community.

5) On the Dalai Lama’s birthday last week, Nepalese riot police prevented Tibetans from celebrating, over concerns the gatherings would turn anti-Chinese – perhaps a nod to its $3bn benefactor.

All things considered though, this is an investment that could bring a much needed injection to Nepal’s economy; however, only time will tell if it was a wise move.

Historical Description
The Shakya Prince Siddharta Gautama, better known as the Lord Buddha (and also, as’ Tathagata’ – the “Wayfarer”) was born to Queen Mayadevi, wife of King Suddodhana, ruler of Kapilavastu, in 623 BCE at the famous gardens of Lumbini, while she was on a journey from her husband’s capital of Tilaurakot to her family home in Devadaha.

In 249 BCE the devout Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, third of the Mauryan rulers of India, made a pilgrimage to this very sacred area in company with his teacher, Upagupta, and erected pillars at Lumbini, Gotihawa, and Niglihawa, as he did in many parts of India, to commemorate his visit. The inscription on the Lumbini pillar identifies this as the birthplace of the Lord Buddha.

Lumbini was a site of pilgrimage until the 15th century CE. Its early history is well documented in the accounts of Chinese travellers, notably Fa Hsien (4th century CE) and Hsuan Tsang (7th century CE), who described the temples, stupas, and other establishments that they visited there. In the early 14th century King Ripu Malla recorded his pilgrimage in the form of an additional inscription on the Ashoka pillar.

The reasons for its ceasing to attract Buddhist pilgrims after the 15th century remain obscure. The only local cult centered on worship of a 3rd-4th century image of Mayadevi as a Hindu mother goddess. The Buddhist temples fell into disrepair and eventually into ruins, not to be rediscovered until they were identified in 1896 by Dr A Fiihrer and Khadga Samsher, then Governor of Palpa, who discovered the Ashoka pillar.

Source: Advisory Body Evaluation

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