BEIJING — A well-known Chinese Buddhist leader has been accused of sexually harassing at least two female disciples, in one of the most prominent #MeToo cases to emerge in China.
In a 95-page document that circulated widely on social media this week, two male monks accused the Venerable Xuecheng, the abbot of Longquan Monastery in Beijing and a powerful religious official, of sending explicit messages and making unwanted advances toward women.
“We find that great social crises are lurking behind Xuecheng’s illegal actions,” the monks, Du Qixin and Liu Xinjia, wrote.
The Venerable Xuecheng, 50, who is also secretary general of the Buddhist Association of China, a supervisory organ controlled by the ruling Communist Party, has denied the accusations.
The case is a high-stakes test of whether China’s burgeoning #MeToo movement can take on powerful officials.
The government has tried to suppress the movement, which has so far been largely limited to academia, the nonprofit sector and the media industry, by censoring posts about sexual harassment and abuse. In some cases, the authorities have discouraged women from bringing forth complaints.
The accusations against the Venerable Xuecheng were quickly deleted from Chinese websites, and comments about the case were banned on social media platforms.
The State Administration for Religious Affairs said in a statement on Thursday that it was investigating the case and “attaches great importance” to the allegations.
In the document, the monks, Mr. Du and Mr. Liu, say they are writing on behalf of two women who came to them with details of harassment. The document includes explicit messages that the women say were sent to them by the Venerable Xuecheng between December and February.
In addition to the two women, the monks said that through interviews and a review of messages, they had identified at least four other women who received explicit messages from the Venerable Xuecheng.
In the document, the monks say that the Venerable Xuecheng suggested that female students have sex to further their spiritual practice. They say that he manipulated women by asking that they cut off contact with friends and relatives.
In the document, the women say they were deeply hurt by the experience. “My belief system nearly collapsed, and I thought about leaving the life of a nun,” one woman recounted.
Longquan Monastery disputed the accuracy of the document, saying in a statement on Wednesday that Mr. Du and Mr. Liu had “collected and forged materials, distorted facts and disseminated inaccurate information that harmed Buddhist morals and misled the public.”
The Buddhist Association of China did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Mr. Du and Mr. Liu did not answer their phones on Thursday.
The Venerable Xuecheng, who became a monk in 1982 and took the helm of Longquan Monastery in 2005, is one of China’s most prominent spiritual leaders, with millions of online fans and endorsements from celebrities, entrepreneurs and government officials.
He leads a vibrant temple in northwestern Beijing that attracts scores of young people, many of them from high-tech companies and universities, who come seeking relief from the grueling pace of city life. The temple is run by a group of highly educated monks, many of them with backgrounds in science, math and computing.
The Venerable Xuecheng is also an influential voice on religious affairs within the Communist Party and a member of one of China’s top political advisory bodies.
On Wednesday, as the accusations spread across the internet, he posted photos of a flag-raising ceremony at the temple on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media sites, extolling the virtue of patriotism.
While several professors and leaders of nonprofit groups have been forced to resign after sexual harassment and assault allegations in recent months, many cases have been ignored.
Experts say it is likely that the Chinese government will try to protect powerful officials accused of wrongdoing.
“There is a limit on how far and how high up public discussions can go before it gets on the leadership’s nerves,” said Lotus Ruan, a researcher at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.
Still, Ms. Ruan said there was hope for the movement, given that censorship in China is inconsistent and that internet users often resort to creative means to express themselves.
“The movement will continue and reach more people in China,” she said.
Follow Javier C. Hernández on Twitter: @HernandezJavier.
Iris Zhao and Charlotte Pu contributed research.
Orignially published in NYT.