Buddhist monks selling spiritual services on WeChat raise eyebrows in China
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World Fellowship of Buddhists 27th General Conference held on October 16 - 18, 2014 in the Famen Temple Buddhist Cultural Area in Baoji, Shaanxi province. China (CC BY SA 4.0 Buddhika Sanjeewa21 via Wikimedia Commons)

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

Tech in Asia

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.

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.

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.

(1) Enter the temple. (2) Pick which animal you want to save.

(1) Enter the temple. (2) Pick which animal you want to save. (Photo credit: Eva Xiao for Tech in Asia)

“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.

(1) Choose goods. (2) Cha-ching! Photo credit: Eva Xiao.

(1) Choose goods. (2) Cha-ching! (Photo credit: Eva Xiao for Tech in Asia)

(1) Choose goods. (2) Cha-ching! Photo credit: Eva Xiao.

“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.”

Tencent actively moderates and censors content on WeChat, often blocking pages orshutting 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.

Converted from Chinese yuan. Rate: US$1 = RMB 6.77.

This article originally appeared at Tech in Asia.

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Eva Xiao

About Eva Xiao


Writing for Tech in Asia, Eva is a Chinese-American back in the homeland. Tech reporting interests include artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data.

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