Chinatown in NYC

Chinese Society & Politics

Religious (Re)Awakening and Chinese Society

Originally presented as the opening address at a seminar on "China's Religious (Re)Awakening: The Impact of Religion on Chinese Society," sponsored by the Thornton China Center, the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., April 6, 2009. An audio version and transcript (pdf) are available at: http://www.brookings.edu/events/2009/0406_china_religion.aspx

R
eligion is an important part of Chinese society, but often neglected by scholars and media commentators. The buds of civil society in China today include religious organizations and their offshoots—charitable, educational, and medical institutions. Just as these have always been a central part of American civil society, so they were a large part of early modern civil society in China one hundred years ago, which has been the focus of my research and writing for the past two years.

Rebirth of Civil Society and Religious Practice

The dynamics of the growth of religion in Post-Mao China should be viewed as part of a broader social and cultural pluralism that has been integral to economic reform and opening over the past thirty years. Like the economy, Chinese society has been “outgrowing socialism,” despite the continued occupation of the “high ground” by the party-state. Just as there are private businesses in the economic market sector adding competitive pressures on state-owned companies, there is a growing “market” for private and quasi-independent nonprofit organizations that provide healthy competition for the large GONGOS (government-organized NGOs). There is also what we might call a “religious market” of private belief systems and independent communities, developing alongside the state-authorized orthodoxy of “socialist culture,” the contents of which might be termed “scientific atheism” or “atheistic scientism.” All of these markets are global, with any number of international actors involved in China and Chinese participation overseas.

From 1990 until recently, government authorities gave a static set of figures for the number of religious believers—“over 100 million.” Now researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) have cited a survey by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and East China Normal University citing 300 million. This likely does not include “folk faith” but rather covers the five authorized religions. Within this general number, the largest and fastest-growing groups would be Buddhist and Protestant. Guesstimates for the latter range from 75–100 million, with unregistered groups three to four times the membership of the official monopoly association, the China Christian Council (CCC).

Diversity and Contention in Religious Groups

It is important to note that pluralism spawns not only growth but diversity and competition—even conflict—within each religious group, and between groups, complicating the management of social issues and underscoring the importance of conflict resolution concepts and skills in Chinese society.

Positive Influence of Christians on Society

After decades of marginal status in society, when the church largely was composed of women, the elderly, and the poor, there are now Christians in every walk of life. What is called the “emerging church” is made up of young and highly educated urban professionals, including those who became Christians on campus in China and scholars returning from overseas. Mostly Protestant and evangelical, they meet in small fellowship groups networked together for resources, including shared lay pastors. They position themselves as “open churches” engaged with society, a “third way” as distinct from the registered churches in the China Christian Council (the official monopoly association) and older, often rural, formerly “underground” house church networks.

I would emphasize, however, that these lines are blurring with increasing physical and social mobility in society. All three “wings” of the church are spontaneously engaging with society, offering agape love that fills the human need for respect and dignity, a sense of community belonging, mutual support for life’s crises, and humanitarian efforts to fill major gaps in China’s social services, such as schools and churches for migrants. Examples include a blind man whose Christian friends had aroused him from nearly two years in bed with illness and depression; he is now developing software to turn Chinese print into Braille. They include a school run by Christians that provides therapy and education for autistic children and support for their parents.

Along with these trends of growth and influence, there has been a major shift in social attitudes toward religion, starting with individuals and their families. Parents of Chinese students coming to the United States ask that they explore religion and decide whether the family should adopt Buddhism or Christianity. Retirees visiting their children overseas have been baptized and returned to China to join or start up churches. Academics have essentially “exonerated” or even praised the early foreign missionaries, despite the official blanket condemnation of the pre-1949 mission era and ban on foreign or Chinese missionary activity.

Policy Response to Religion

The growth of religious influence on the people of China has prompted a slow evolution in state attitudes and policies. The Mao era brought total religious suppression, with coercive restrictions beginning during the Korean War, 1950–1955, advancing to violent persecution starting with the anti-rightist movement and the Great Leap Forward of 1957–1960, something that is often forgotten in the focus on Cultural Revolution attacks on elite groups.

After a brief period of “de-Maoification” in 1979–1980, China returned to a policy of “freedom of religious belief” (not practice), again implementing the Soviet institutional structure of the early 1950s. The government’s goal was state dominance over society, and the eventual demise of religion. To this end, the CCP’s United Front Department was granted control over key social groups through functional monopoly associations: the Communist Youth League, the Women’s Federation, the Trade Union Federation, the five “patriotic” religious associations, and professional, arts, and business associations. Privileges were given to certain sects and denominations, which were used to suppress others (e.g. the Panchen Lama, rather than the Dalai Lama, liberal rather than evangelical Protestants). This approach, especially in religious and labor affairs, was way behind the curve of opening to foreign ties seen in other arenas. (For example, missionaries are still libeled as cultural imperialists even as economic “imperialists” are welcomed; there is even a Standard Oil Museum now.)

In the 1990s, they re-began a trend to use government rather than Party institutions and public regulations to control society. This provided more space for religion and some tools for self-protection, but the new policies were still far from the U.N.’s international standards for freedom of religion and belief, which China has signed. Meanwhile, the government began opening up academic studies and media coverage of religion overseas (not in China), as well as allowing the operation of some international and domestic faith-based organizations (FBOs) involved in poverty alleviation, starting with the “Go West” program of economic development in North-West and South-West China, and expanding up through the ongoing Sichuan earthquake relief effort after May 2008.

From 2001 to 2010, a stated ten-year policy of accepting the long-term existence of religion in society has proven in actuality to be selective discrimination among civic and religious groups in order to serve state interests. The focus on national security influenced by the global war on terrorism after 9/11 aggravated negative attitudes toward religion. Muslim ethnic minority groups, as well as networks of rural “sects” of all kinds, have been labeled cults or even terrorists and are more harshly suppressed than ever. The official goal of creating a “harmonious society” is opening up social services to select NPOs and tolerating the involvement of some religious groups, but the organization of non-state associations by activists is still suppressed. For example, there has been violent abuse in detention for Christian legal advocates and leaders of a house church alliance. Since 2005, in reaction to “color revolutions” in Eurasia, progress in NPO development and reform of religious and other United Front policies have been halted.

The Importance of Paradigm

The state in China retains the traditional role of moral-cultural arbiter promoting the favored “socialist culture.” State “orthodoxy” for the Han majority is science and atheism, based on an outdated “ideology of modernity” that assumes that secularization accompanies urbanization and industrialization. (Weberian Sociologist Peter Berger of Boston University, who helped originate that theory, has repudiated it, making the point that pluralization, not secularization, is central to modernity.) In this paradigm, the state dispenses privileges; there are no inalienable rights. Thus, religious freedom is an exception granted to ethnic minorities or the marginalized (ethnic, retired, elderly, women, disabled). It is “superstition” for the uneducated, not suitable for China’s “scientific” elite. Religion is a dangerous matter—ideological heresy—that threatens the Party-state role and must be quarantined off from the core of society, rather than a natural and welcome source of cooperation with government and business for the development of society.

American academics, media, and government have inadvertently reinforced this mindset. The secular bias of American academic institutions evident in recent academic articles and book reviews in the major China journals shows very few entries on religion. Those alleging to cover Chinese “society” barely mention religion despite the evidence of its rapid growth everywhere.

Media and academic coverage of religion in China adopts an assumption of contention rather than cooperation between state and society, and focuses on the political, not the social role of religion. Outsiders with this slant then appear to be promoting (not just recording) anti-government activity in China, which makes religious groups even more suspect.

U.S. media have only recently given more balanced treatment of both the official and unregistered groups, of growing toleration and the predominance of discrimination rather than persecution. The media, however, still tend to take at face value the claims of legal advocates and activists that they “represent” whole religious groups. The U.S. government in the 1990s, in response to the June Fourth tragedy in China and the demise of European Communism, focused its concern on political dissent or the “cultural” rights of ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, rarely raising religious freedom issues. In this decade, more weight has been given to the rights of religious believers, especially Christians, while still ignoring the rights of all Chinese to freedom of religion and belief—including the leaders of society.

Current Issues

For the PRC, as the government is drafting a new ten year economic and social program for 2011–2020, the burning issues are freedom of association and freedom of the press, as well as freedom of “manifestation” of religion, rather than mere “religious belief.”

The new U.S. administration faces a policy challenge in implementing the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), There is value in keeping up public and private pressure against religious rights abuses. These bring gains in terms of growing PRC government attention, caution in local officials, and Chinese public awareness. International exposure is especially important for specific cases of severe abuse. However, there are risks in using bilateral rather than international means of advocacy and in reinforcing the politicizing of religion.