Published in China Outlook, 10 Feb. 2014.
My central points in this article include the following:
1. Some commentators have argued that President XI Jinping’s recent speech was a tacit acknowledgement that China has somehow lost its moral compass due to past political events and that this represents the beginning of a new era in which the Party leadership will become more tolerant toward religions.
Others are less optimistic and argue it is a cynical move to try to curb rising social unrest and perpetuate one-party rule. If the state cannot satisfy the basic demands for jobs and better social conditions, the argument goes, then people can find solace in religion, rather than take it out on the Party. In spite of the varied opinions in response to Xi’s remark, his comments are worth examining. It is not often that a senior figure in the leadership makes comments about religion.
the social reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping and embodied in the 1978 Constitution guarantee “freedom of religion” in Article 36, which states that “no state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion. The state protects normal religious activities… nobody can make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.” However, religions were not given carte-blanche. Instead, the government established five state-sanctioned religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. The rest remained beyond the pale.
3. As Oxford sinologist Prof. Barend ter Haar points out, folk religions were seen as containing the potential of harming the imperial central regime, therefore religions were feared, their followers cast out and prosecuted. In recent times, Falun Gong can be seen as one example which also shows the framing of a stereotype and the central government’s control over all matters ideological.
Therefore the recent speech of President Xi Jinping can be seen as a reinforcement of Chinese state heritage, to control matters of belief in order to sanction the growth and diversity of individuality. Any suspicion of disorder could trigger large-scale persecution and result in confiscations, banishments and executions. By applying a sense of belonging in state-sanctioned communities and religious institutions, the state seeks to secure its far-reaching control.
4. Intrinsically Chinese?
In addition to central government’s control, the complexity of religious matters in China also lies in the political, social and economic infrastructure of a fast-growing society and the complexity of social classes. For example, Christians in China nowadays – both Catholics and Protestants – are no longer under pressure to renounce their religion (though they still cannot join the Chinese Communist Party without doing so), but within and beyond the country, they are quite often misunderstood by their own people as well as by “foreigners”.
It has, for example, been widely noticed that Christianity in China, particularly rural China, has been highly localised in terms of the church architecture, the liturgy and many other aspects of worship and religious practice. However it should also be noted that many non-local forces are at work, connecting Chinese Christianity to the wider world of Christian communication. Christianity retains its catholic nature beneath its localised images and diversities in China today, which certainly pronounces issues regarding the “global” and “local” aspects of world religions.
As for Protestantism, the attempts to regulate that form of Christianity have in many cases led to the growth of ‘House churches’, formed initially during the period of the Cultural Revolution when even the supine, officially sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) was banned. The TSPM remains the only state-sanctioned protestant church, but it is a matter of conjecture as to whether or not its drive to find a specifically Chinese form of Christianity can stem the growth of house churches driven by the tide of people looking for real religious freedom.
As many religious organisations, including Falun Gong and house churches, are closely interrelated to Chinese communities from abroad, the political and socio-geographic complexity of contemporary China also highlights the transnational relations of religious communities and issues of belonging in Asia-Pacific and beyond. Whether it likes it or not, religion in China continues to be dominated by the same old – and unresolved – questions of central state ideology and what constitutes a specifically Chinese form of worship.