border review | 17 July 2011

Buddha's Birthplace as Special Zone: Chinese foundation plans $3 billion project Lumbini, Nepal

Al Jazeera and The Hindu broke the story yesterday: A Chinese foundation by the name of Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF) with close ties to Beijing’s Party elite unveiled plans for a USD 3 billion “special development zone” in Lumbini (Nepal),  the place where Buddha Shakyamuni was born. Inspired by Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the idea is to develop Lumbini into a sprawling centre for tourism, pilgrimage, and commerce with new roads, power and water supplies. APECF’s chairman Xiao Wunan is said to be not only a Party member and a high ranking government official in China’s National Development and Reform Commission, but a Buddhist himself. He is confident to raise the money and says that support across the entire political spectrum in Nepal is already secured.

The Hindu’s Ananth Krishnan and Prashant Jha mention an interesting detail in this respect:

The APECF is known in Nepal for its association with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda.’ Last October, Mr. Prachanda attended a conference organised by the foundation in Kuala Lumpur. On his return, he told journalists in Kathmandu that the foundation appointed him as its ‘co-chairman.’

So there we go: a “special zone” to fuse religion and commerce, supported by the Chinese Communist Party and the leader of the Maoists in Nepal.

That pilgrimage centres and business ventures go well together is neither a Chinese nor a Nepali idea – just consider Lourdes or Rome. Also, that the Chinese Party State has a linking for Buddhism is well documented –  Shi Yongxin, abbot of the renown Shaolin monastery, said prominently at the 10th National People’s Congress in Beijing in 2007: Buddhism can contribute to building the Harmonious Society. And finally, that Chinese development would reach Nepal in the form of a “special zone” was only a question of time – Chinese managed “special zone” are prolific in the PRC’s neighbouring countries.

Thus, it makes absolute sense that Lumbini is the target (although I would never have guessed it). And still, the politics involved cannot be overlooked. This comes just a few days after Nepali police raided a Tibetan celebration of his His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday assome sort of welcome gift to the new Chinese Ambassador to Nepal.