This short essay sketches out the different views that may be identified within the Chinese Communist Party as we look at the recent actions of the party on religious affairs—actions that seem to end in contradictory directions. On the one hand, the promotion of international Buddhist and Taoist forums and the liberalization of regulations concerning the social activities religious organizations are allowed to perform, and, on the other hand, the continued harassment of some religious minorities.
Debates about the involvement of religion in contemporary global politics have for the last four decades often overlooked China, an oversight rooted in two misconceptions widely held both in the West and among Chinese leaders themselves. The second is the notion that no religion has ever exercised political influence the way Christianity and Islam have done in the societies in which these faiths are practiced by the majority populations.
Christian Values in Communist China
The misconception that China is a secular state conflates two different conceptions of what a secular state is. The second is the principle of the separation of religion and state. On neither of these counts, however, is China a secular state. Not only has the number of adherents to the five state-approved religions increased, but the practices of both communal religions and new religious movements have also become increasingly visible. As research by anthropologists and sociologists over the last four decades has made clear, religiosity in China today is alive and well, notwithstanding the reports of persecution against Falun Gong followers, clampdowns against house churches, or harassment of Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims, all of which still happen all too often, but in the context of increasing participation in religious rituals.
And this participation includes not only attendance at the state-approved Buddhist temples, Christian churches, and Muslim mosques, but also participation in the religious activities that are broadly known as popular beliefs, as well as practices such as qigong, spiritual healing, and others that straddle the boundaries between the sphere of religion and those of medicine, the arts, and the economy. Second, the Chinese state has not put in place institutions preserving the separation between religion and state: on the contrary, the State Administration of Religious Affairs, which oversees the five state-approved religions and monitors other forms of religiosity, embodies quite the opposite of the principle of separation.
While a secular state, in theory, does not get involved in religious affairs, the Chinese government remains extremely concerned about them. In doing so, the Party displays an approach not unlike that of the rulers of imperial China.
The view that religion has never had an impact on Chinese politics appears all the more misguided when we take the long term view. In sum, the influence of religion in Chinese politics has taken many forms historically, more varied even than the variety of religions that have evolved in China through the millennia. When thinking about the future, it is important to look at this legacy from the past.
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This diversity of views is all the more difficult to identify because the Communist Party is ever wary of giving the impression of internal division. Certainly adding to the angst of the government is the fact that all of these religious movements are attracting sympathy, if not support, from outside the country. China today is in a totally different position in world affairs, and the scale of the problems it faces, on issues such as environmental degradation and demographic challenges, are unprecedented. Therefore, analogies with the past, even if relatively recent, are misguided.
China is not in a position of subordination with respect to the core of the world-system, as it is itself rapidly moving from the periphery to the core of global political and economic power. Most importantly, no religion in China is in a position to create a credible opposition to the Communist Party, capable of challenging the state as did the Catholic Church in Poland or, more recently, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, both of which provided the training and the resources necessary for sustaining political alternatives that were already embraced by significant proportion of the population.
Protestant and Catholic Christianity are even less likely to succeed in federating a political opposition, as they are bound to be tainted with the suspicion of being foreign agents by a population aware of the association between churches and colonial powers. Islam and Tibetan Buddhism may represent a source of concern for national unity, but they do not represent an alternative for the Han majority.
The Party increasingly looks at it as a resource not incompatible with progress and capable of contributing to social stability. However, the view of religion as social capital suffers from the same basic flaw as the view of religion as a threat: it overestimates the potential of religious institutions.
This inaccurate perception results, not from a lack of goodwill on the part of religious believers, but from the institutional context in which they find themselves. The Chinese government would like religious institutions to devote more resources to the delivery of social services, but the regulations on the role of nongovernmental organizations remain marred by uncertainties.
Unless they receive funding from abroad or from wealthy patrons at home, most religious institutions lack financial and human resources to deliver social services. After decades of persecution or neglect, lasting until the late s, most of them lack the expertise necessary to manage social services. In other words, even if religious institutions would like to cooperate with the state, their limited resources are likely to lead them to become reliant on outside support, an option that could in turn expose them to mistrust from the Party.
The second consideration has to do with what religious believers themselves derive from their beliefs on the political front. Are the political inclinations of religious believers likely to give credence to the idea that religion is a threat to the regime? Article Navigation.
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