Chinese Society and Religion in the Twenty Years since Tiananmen

Twenty years ago, Party and government leaders in China theoretically were supposed to be implementing the 13th Party Congress platform endorsed in October 1987, which encompassed a comprehensive program for economic, political and social reform. In the past twenty years, however, only the market economic reforms have been implemented. Fledgling efforts in 1988 to draft legislation to promote basic freedoms of the press, religion and association were halted after the June Fourth tragedy of 1989. The system of top-down organization of society by the party-state, which reflected practices dating back to the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China as well, was re-imposed. For the past twenty years, social and cultural change has come from the bottom and middle of society.With the growth of an urban middle class, there is underway a re-birth of an autonomous civil society in China. Two major developments have together shaped the Chinese society of today:First, the disastrous results of the violent conflict between state and society in 1989 were apparent to all in the Chinese elite, and were viewed in the larger context of the demise of European communism by 1992. This led to a new consensus shared by Chinese leaders and people that there was only one path ahead -- to join the international market economy and civil society.Second, China’s joining of the WTO at the turn of the century -- the prerequisite for competing globally -- accelerated market reforms, which in turn speeded up the pace of change on other fronts.The result has been a major transformation of Chinese society and culture, with the following characteristics.

1. Urbanization and commercialization of society

Unlike twenty years ago, half of the Chinese population now lives most of the time in the city, not the countryside. Rural migrants come to the cities and return, bringing new ideas and technologies back to the countryside.Since China joined WTO, the commercialization of culture and growth of a consumer society have led to greater personal freedoms in making life decisions.

2. Transnational nature of society and culture

Due to the global revolution in communications technology and the major upgrading of China’s communication and transportation infrastructure, most Chinese now are exposed to and affected by trends in global culture.Educated urbanites travel and study or work overseas; thousands of ex-patriates live and work in China; and millions of other foreign visitors travel all over the country. Chinese increasingly travel, live and work abroad.

3. More “space” for civic and religious activities

  • State-organized institutions have gained greater freedom as the government relies on them to compete with unofficial society;
  • Semi-autonomous or (de facto) private associations, including professional, avocational, religious and charitable NPOs (nonprofit organizations), are operating, some registered as businesses but functioning as nonprofits. Some are set up by business leaders to carry out corporate social responsibility (CSR) obligations.
  • There is extensive involvement by international NPOs (INPOs), some of them registered in Hong Kong.
  • Growing numbers of religious organizations and faith-based charities have an impact in society.

4. Pluralistic Culture

As a result of this transnational exchange of resources of all kinds, state monopoly controls over all aspects of life have given way to private sector options for employment, housing, education, and other social services. Alternative identities, belief systems and lifestyles are now possible; these choices are considered a personal matter, no longer a test of political loyalty.Changes in culture, especially the rapid growth of religion, reflect the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) de facto loss of ideological monopoly in the wake of June Fourth.Before 1989, intellectuals were relying on the top-down reforms of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang to bring about both prosperity and democracy. Consequently, the student demonstrations in 1986-89 were spurred by high expectations mixed with anxiety that economic setbacks and leadership infighting were about to derail the reform agenda. The tragedy of June 1989, and anti-communist revolutions in Europe, together dashed the confidence of the elite in Party-led change.The monolithic Party-state culture suffered yet another blow when the “win-win” strategy and publicity for China’s entrance into WTO signaled that adherence to international standards, not Party standards, was now the “last word,” not just in the economy, but also in everything from education to nonprofit organization. China wants its own Harvard University and its own Ford Foundation. Chinese see themselves as part of global communities, whether academic, business or religious in nature.One result of the cultural opening has been the rapid and continuing growth of religious practice in China over the past 20 years. Before 1989, religion was mostly reappearing in the rural areas among the less educated, women and the elderly. This resurgence included Buddhism, localized folk religion and Christianity. But the renewal of the crisis of faith among intellectuals after 1989 led to an unprecedented level of elite interest in religion, especially in Protestant Christianity.This was evident, for example, among the graduate students and scholars in the United States. Prior to 1989, they might express interest in personal conversations about faith and might experiment with attending English language church services to explore American life, but they would never risk attending Chinese churches. After June Fourth, there was an exponential growth of mainland Chinese fellowship groups, which soon developed into churches, and now have great impact back in China through travel, publications and the Chinese Internet. Prominent Tiananmen activists from 1989, now in exile (having been banned from reentry to China), have also adopted the Christian faith. Some serve as pastors and evangelists with international influence.In this decade, with a much more open society, Chinese Protestants have become part of a world Christian community and consciousness; they have developed influence on and off campus, in the media and in the business and nonprofit sectors, with independent networking and organizing. In many areas of China, there is tacit quasi-official recognition, not just tolerance. Increasingly, the “house church” networks interact across borders and are, in effect, the largest independent social community in China.Religion has more potential influence in China than the limited role of providing social services desired by the state.

  • The desire for community is strong in a newly-mobile society. Traditional village life has decayed as workers spend most of the year in the cities; socialist work unit relationships are largely defunct.
  • The crisis of morality—evident in corrupt business practices and also in troubled family relations—means that people are searching for more than money to give meaning and order to their lives.
  • Concern for social justice has spawned a community of legal rights advocates, a number of them motivated by Christian conviction.
  • The normal efforts by unregistered churches and other social groups and civic organizations to find meeting space, handle financial accounts, hire personnel and work with volunteers all result in parallel efforts to obtain citizen rights.

Where is this social and cultural change headed?

The system of official monopolies for managing social groups defined by occupation—workers, farmers, students, industrialists, women, religious groups—has stunted and distorted the social development of the past two decades. Freedom of association is the core issue in state-society relations.The immediate effect of the global financial crisis may be to strengthen the tradition of a paternalistic state and dependent society. On the other hand, there will be limits to state resources and authority. There is an increasingly complex and sophisticated society, more able to access instant information and willing to defend its interests. There likely will be breakthroughs in social management that allow more autonomous bottom-up association, secular and religious, in the not too distant future.