Print Version    Email to Friend
Dicey time for religion in China

HONG KONG (SE): “Everybody is out there… trying to reify that part of life which is not filled by bread alone, by commerce alone,” Orville Schell, the director of the Asia Society Centre on relations between the United States of America and China, said during a panel discussion on religion in China held at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University on May 1.
The discussion was organised to mark the presentation of the Shorenstein Journalism Award to veteran journalist and China scholar, Ian Johnston, who in his reception speech addressed the topic of Religion and Mao.
Johnson said he believes that China is experiencing a religious resurgence, which symbolises the tension between the present and the past, as people are searching for purpose in a country that has been shaken by expansive reforms and modernisation efforts over the past four decades.
With over 30 years’ experience as a journalist, Johnson has written extensively about the history, religion and culture of China and, as an author, recently published The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao.
Johnson, who has spent weeks and months living together with a wide variety of religious groups in China, stressed in his acceptance speech that although religious persecution in China is often attributed to the anti-religious campaigns of Mao Zedong following the assumption of power by the Communist Party, it does in fact have a much longer history.
He said that in his opinion what the Communist Party did was inherit a variety of superstitions about religion, which lead to a radical misunderstanding on its part and saw it attempt to oversimplify its definition of religion simply as a cultural issue.
This assumption led to the belief that it could be expunged by simply desensitising its practice and organisation, a mistake which has led to a resurgence of interest in religious beliefs and spirituality.
However, as the winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize noted, the tactic was a failure.
Awarded for a series of articles he wrote revealing stories about victims of the often brutal suppression of the Falun Gong movement for the Wall Street Journal, Johnson pointed out that the swift and sweeping economic reforms have brought angst and anxiety among the population, prompting some people across every socio-economic sphere to turn to religion as an outlet.
However, with the shift in religious dynamic of the late 1990s and early 2000s came a new approach from the government. Instead of the repressive mood of the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a move to see religion as something that could provide some sort of moral framework for some people.
Members of the panel noted that today, people are searching for meaning in their lives and many are joining religious groups amid resource competition and the mass migration that has usurped traditional family structures and disquieted those who have moved from close-knit rural towns to alienating urban centres.
Zhou Xueguang, a professor of sociology at the Freeman Spogli Institute, described many religious groups today as fragmented, although he believes cohesion is growing in some areas as participation by local government leaders has drawn greater attention to the practice of faith.
“In grassroots China, religion, spiritual life and the party really go hand-in-hand—they’re intertwined,” Zhou commented, adding, “Local elites are involved both in the spiritual world and the party world, and they shift back and forth simultaneously.”
However, there was general agreement among the panellists that there is great uncertainty about the life span of this relationship, as religious groups are mostly fragile and could easily fracture and the government could suddenly shift its policy and begin to favour the more traditional popular religious sects, such as Confucianism, Taoism of shamanic traditions.
Johnson said he believes this could also lead to the establishment of quasi-state religions, as while religions do provide positive services, the government is wary of any group with an alternative source of knowledge and values.
Schell concluded the discussion by saying, “Every dynasty in China knows that one way dynasties usually ended is with some millenarian movement,” which he believes is adding to the government’s apprehension.
“They are afraid of religious movements, because they do bespeak of higher values, higher loyalties and different organisational structures that don’t owe fealty to the party,” he explained.

More from this section