Letter from China: For Beijing, fear grows as spirituality blooms

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
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XINING, China At Bei Shan Si, an ancient Taoist shrine that sits atop one of the peaks that ring this old Silk Road city, worshipers turn out in large numbers on a misty Sunday morning to climb the shrine’s many stairs, to burn incense in an appeal to the gods, or simply to kneel in silent prayer.
Some of them have an expert look about them, knowing their way around the temple and knowing exactly what to do. Many others, though, uncertain novices, young and not so young, studiously watch the old-timers and perform the rites as best they can, some climbing all the way to the caves cut from the high mountainside.
No one looking up from there could possibly miss the big, blocky characters looming above the magnificent 1,400-year-old shrine. There, the official exhortation reads: “Xining Eastern Development Zone.” Equally unmissable was the unwritten message, a slap by the country’s materialist state ideology against the country’s blossoming spirituality.
Why was such a crude propaganda display necessary atop a holy place like this? Fifty-six years of Communist Party rule in China have succeeded, often at the price of great violence, in destroying the fabric of religion in this country, along with countless temples, churches and shrines. Decades of anti-religious teaching, meanwhile, have convinced many Chinese people that religion is dark and antiquated superstition, something unfit for a modern, confident country like theirs.
This approach has worked so well that today when discussing any remotely moral issue, young people often state flatly that China, in contradistinction to the Western world, is “not a religious country.”
Academics, who should know better, go further, speaking almost as if Chinese were genetically programmed to be indifferent toward religion – not just today, but throughout this country’s long history. Actually, it is the academics who have been programmed to know what views can be safely espoused within the establishment, and religion apparently is not yet one of them.
Why then must Beijing continue to treat religion as something suitable for strict control, even quarantine, like some deadly infectious disease? Sometimes historical reasons are invoked to bolster the state’s antireligion stance. In the past, it is said, religion has encouraged factionalism, fanaticism and that paramount Chinese taboo, disorder.
At another level, the attitude seems driven by a deep fear in the Communist Party of allowing any kind of independent civil society to emerge. Even in today’s China, the country of headlines about miracle growth and irresistible rise, religious groups, like every other kind of association of any scale, from chess clubs to writers’ leagues, must be officially sanctioned, which actually means carefully controlled.
Xining sits at the frontier of two worlds, the densely populated China of the Han majority, and the rest of China, which one might very well call God’s Country. To the northwest lies Xinjiang, a province that is culturally far more akin to the Muslim republics of Central Asia than it is to the China that has absorbed it only through conquest and settlement over the past two centuries.
To the southwest lies Tibet, seized by the Chinese military in 1951. Tibetan culture is deeply steeped in Buddhism, and remains so, even in the face of heavy-handed political control by Beijing and accelerating Han migration.
It is Xining’s province, Qinghai, though, that provides the most interesting rebuttal by China’s great west to the state’s hostility and suspicion toward religion. The sparsely populated province, which for most of its history was part of Tibet, has long been used by Beijing as a sort of dumping ground, where labor camps for political and other prisoners abound and where nuclear weapons were once tested.
A 700-kilometer, or 435-mile, drive across the province, which is nearly one and a half times as large as France, however, revealed Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Nestorians and Christians, including Han and non-Han minorities, all living in peace and harmony, often cheek to jowl. In one town after another, one can see the churches, shrines and temples of these different faiths, all of which have ancient roots in China, sitting within stone’s throw of one another, without the least hint of tension or communal strife.
This is good news for China, and news that the government would do well to embrace, for the simple reason that contrary to common perceptions, religion is on the rise everywhere in the country. And in an age where information flows more freely than ever before and Chinese people travel widely, there would seem to be little that Beijing can do about it.
Even by conservative estimates there are 100 million regular practitioners of various religious faiths in China, along with at least 100 million others who are more casual in their devotion. From the evidence of China’s big cities, where officially sanctioned church parishes are filled and illegal house churches are booming, or from the countryside, where visits to temples and shrines is strong, these numbers seem only likely to grow.
Seen in this light, the state’s insistence on control of every aspect of religion seems an impossible, or even a foolish task, one which over time only will feed resentments. Just this week, for example, Beijing denied permission to a number of state-appointed Roman Catholic bishops to attend a conference in Rome. The official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which rejects papal authority, denounced the invitations, saying they “showed no respect” toward Chinese Catholics.
A glimpse of what is really going on here can be perceived through the cracks in the otherwise anodyne comments of an expert on religion in China. He spoke of antiquity, which in China is often the safest way to talk about the delicate present.
“There have been three great catastrophes for religion in China,” said Li Xiangping, a religion expert at Shanghai University. “Monks were told they couldn’t function as monks, temples were knocked down, and their contents were confiscated.”
What was the reason? “Basically, their social and economic power were considered too big, but a bunch of fake reasons were offered,” he added. “It was said they affected the social order. In China, no third force, beyond the state and the market, can be allowed to play such a large role.”
E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com

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