Monks pull down a wall built by a developer in front of Famen Temple, in protest against rapid commercialisation in 2009. Photo: SCMP Pictures

A provincial city’s ambitious plans for turning an ancient Buddhist temple near Xian into the world capital of Buddhism and listing it on a stock exchange have stagnated, leaving the temple surrounded by fake monks and sham Buddha statues.

Famen Temple houses a Buddhist relic. Photo: AP
In an investigative report, the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly documents how the project involving the 1,700-year-old Famen Temple in Shaanxi province – which boasts the ownership of Buddha’s finger bone – went horribly wrong.

Now, fake monks from Hubei province roam a nearby scenic park that opened in 2009 and that tourists and pilgrims mistaken as part of the temple. The impostors get commission for collecting donations to the Shaanxi Famen Charitable Foundation.

But clueless visitors do not know the foundation is a front for the operating company of the park, Shaanxi Famen Temple Scenic Park Cultural Industrial Group, and is not related to the temple, the weekly reported last week.

Still the company is not collecting enough donations to make a profit, despite plans to be publicly listed. Last year, it had to take on 320 million yuan (HK$398 million) in debt. In 2011, it already had to borrow some 107 million yuan, according to the report.

The project had started in 2002, when the local government, only a two-hours’ drive west of the provincial capital Xian, decided on betting on the temple’s stature for economic development and windfall profits from rising real estate prices.

In 2004, the city approved to commission the Taiwanese architect CY Lee to build the world’s tallest stupa, a worthy landmark for its ambitious project. Lee had just completed Taipei 101 in Taiwan, which at the time was the world’s tallest building.

Silent opposition against the massive expansion became apparent in 2005, when no monks from Famen Temple attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the giant building - which has since made it on the annual list of China’s ugliest buildings.

When the park opened in 2009, it quickly became apparent that the massive project was not the goldmine it had promised to be for the government, and investors disappeared. In search for new capital, its operators set up an organisation, which could collect donations from Buddhist believers and bankroll the company.

The foundation collected some 54 million yuan in donations in 2011, Southern Weekly reported. A year later, it even considered listing on the stock exchange.

But the temple’s abbot and monks refused to pose as figureheads for the enterprise. Zeng Qin, a monk and head of the Xian’s Buddhist Association, told the weekly he was "involuntarily" selected as head of the foundation, and his requests for resignation have been rejected.

The Famen monks have said they were pushed into a contract with the company and last year refused to extend a contract with it, saying that the project had brought them only disrepute. In a quagmire, the local city administration offered to transfer the company’s ownership to the monks. They refused, well aware of its debt burden.

With massive debts and dreams unfulfilled, the park is getting by with donations from unknowing tourists. For 100 yuan to thousands of yuan, visitors can have their names carved on merit plates. Some 26,000 people have done so already, Southern Weekly calculated.

In July, Zhao He, a woman from Qinghuangdao in northeastern Hebei province, said she spent some 111,000 yuan during a visit, including 9,999 yuan to cover "costs for chanting and blessing by a Buddhist master".

When she found out that the park had nothing to do with the temple, she alerted police and was promised her money back.