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Unease with religion in China is an historical inheritance


HONG KONG (SE): The relationship between religion and the state in China has been a topic that has held the attention of people from many walks of life, partly because of the somewhat uniqueness of its nature, partly because it is seen as connected with the development of human rights and partly because it reflects progress or regress in the rule of law.
It has also been brought to a head by the high profile, yet clandestine talks taking place between the Vatican and Beijing over finding a mutually acceptable way of appointing bishops.
While the idea of the two even talking is intriguing, the sound proofed doors behind which it happens add to the intrigue, as guess work becomes the medium of public discussion, giving birth to one of the most intriguing things on earth, rumours.
But this is not a new conversation for the Vatican, as throughout history it has made agreements with nations and territories all over the world and with some countries today still renews and upgrades them regularly, albeit with arguably a greater mutual understanding.
But not all are straight forward, as the current development of relations with Vietnam illustrate.
In an extract from an article entitled, Religion-State Relationship in the Chinese Context, published in the Institute of Sino-Christian Studies News (Autumn 2016), Lai Pan-chiu claims that tension with China should be expected, especially in the case of what he calls non-traditional religions like Christianity.
"Because of the radical divergence between the mainstream of religion-state relation in the Chinese and Christian traditions, the tensions between Christianity and the contemporary Chinese government are to a certain extent inevitable," Lai says.
However, Lai is not of the opinion that all is lost, saying that there is a possibility of some light on the horizon.

"Considering the pluralistic alternatives within the Christian tradition, as well as the significant difference between the government of Communist China and that of pre-modern China, there is also a theoretical possibility of developing a relatively more stable and peaceful relation between the state and the Christian Churches," he proposes.

But comparisons between the current state and the pre-modern Chinese state can be complex, as traditionally religion was the principal legitimiser of the government.
Even more than a legitimiser, Lai says that in many ways the state itself was a religious institution, with the emperor as the high priest.
However, there was no divine right of kings, as it was not birth itself giving legitimacy, but good deeds and merit, coupled with carrying out the sacred rites properly and governing effectively.
"Therefore, the state is supposed to have the right to decide what is the true religion permitted and to crush all the heresies and obscene worship, which are more or less equivalent to what are labelled as evil cults in contemporary China," Lai says.
Although modern day China has inherited these cultural attitudes, as an atheistic government legitimisation by religion is out of the question, so a substitute has to be found.
While governing effectively is still a big legitimiser and raising the standard of living of its people the principal criteria, more is needed and presentation of the Marxist theory of history as the truth of history is the chosen option.
But while the emperor may have been replaced by the party, the basic role of subordinating everything under its power remains and while self-criticism is a principal mechanism of check and balance, it has in-built limitations.
But being an atheistic state makes the subordination of religion a much more complex matter than in the days of old, so the state is faced with the option of either suppressing or absorbing religious attitudes and practices into its identity.
But the ticklish question is how.
In pre-modern China, titles were conferred on gods in recognition of a service rendered and often applied to leaders of the connected religions as well, who mostly accepted this system happily.
Lai quotes the famous Buddhist monk, Dao'an, as saying, "Without relying on the emperor, it is difficult to launch the matters of the Dharma."
He adds that this attitude became so deeply engrained that it spilled over into the republican period and the idea of the emperor as the boss of religion was still alive and kicking.
Even though there were many reform movements in Buddhism in that era, some of them continued to look for the patronage of the government.
While the emperor expected obedience from his religious subjects, which in the western world may be equated with good citizenship, in today's China it is patriotism, and like the emperor of old, the government has retained the right to define what it means.
But Lai says that the tension in the Church-state relations in China today is mostly inherited from the western world.
Disagreements over the appointment of bishops he calls an investiture struggle, which in Europe has only relatively recently been settled.
But in some places today appointments are still subject at least to government approval.
In all events, whatever the practice in a particular place, it is subject to an arrangement with the state, but generally, the Catholic Church resents interference.
Both Catholic and Protestant Churches also resent any type of subordination to the state, as it violates the principle of separation of Church and state, but while this is a western development, it is also a fairly recent one.
Vestiges of old remain, as with the queen or king in England being the supreme governor on earth, a title conferred by the Anglican Communion, a concept difficult to imagine the government in China accepting in the same way as it baulks at Catholics being loyal to the pope.
While the Communist Party first went down the road of suppression of religion, its question today is how to subordinate the values of religion to serve its own ends. But this involves a corruption of the basic nature of a religion, so Churches and faiths must object.
At the Tenth Annual Gathering of the Ecclesiological Investigation International Research Network at the Ming Hua Theological College in Central on July 21 last year, two bishops presented two Church perspectives on this dilemma.
Archbishop Paul Kwong, the primate of the Anglican Province of Hong Kong, strongly defended his membership in the National People's Congress, saying that although he has been criticised from both inside and outside his Church, it is in the Anglican tradition to engage with government, as the Church cannot be restricted to doctrinal matters only and its vocation is to bring the peace of the incarnate God to broken societies.
"We will address these problems in the Chinese way—quietly," he said.
Catholic Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung spoke from the perspective of his experience in China with Caritas, quoting Pope John Paul II as saying the Church can find its identity and mission in social services.
He stressed that love for Church does not contradict love for country and there needs to be a fusion of Church and culture. 
"Charity is the first and simplest response," he said, adding that there is also a need for humility, concern and formation of the heart.
"It is about giving people an opportunity to develop to their fullest potential," he added.
He stressed the importance of Churches and civic organisations working together. "We need synergy," he said, "and it takes many hands to do it."
But Lai argues that relations will always be marked with hostility until the government can develop the rule of law in a way that can moderate the excesses of the state. Ironically, it is the financial investment industry that offers hope.
China is begging for finance to develop its One Belt One Road initiative, but international finance wants a stronger rule of law to protect its investments.
But until the rule of law is strengthened to a significant degree, Lai predicts that tension will remain the way of religious life on mainland China.