President Xi Jinping delivered a very significant speech on religion on April 23. His oratory is expected to guide relations between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the country’s religious groups in the future.
The CCP has made similar pronouncements on this subject in the past. In the latest case, Xi notes the party will have to “guide” religions. However, Xi has tellingly chosen to use a Chinese verb for “guide” for the first time that is fraught with new and subtle meanings.
Using this verb means the CCP is de facto introducing an entirely new model that will govern its relationship with religious groups. The model tries to blend two elements — conservative and innovative. The party keeps the old role of guidance and management of religious organizations. But it is told to do so by recognizing each religion’s specific characteristics.
The party will thus manage religious organizations by keeping “politics and religions separate.” This point has been conveyed by using the special verb in its rhetoric. The cryptic word play resembles a similar practice in Catholic scholastic tradition. It is easy for foreign media and other commentators outside China to miss this point — as has often happened in the past several days.
Different characters, different meanings
The key element of the speech is the concept of yindao 引导 that means to lead to guide but it is different from other words with a similar meaning — as for example zhidao 指导. Yin in yindao indicates a reaction, that is to guide by reacting to an action taken by others (the religious “bodies” which Xi says are like the masses and should be considered as such, as an essential element for the attention of the party).
This is unlike, for example, the word zhidao where zhi means “indicate” and it points to a whole subjective action towards an element that must be and must remain passive.
Therefore, there appears to be a linguistic/philosophical compromise in the role of the party and religious groups where it is clear that the faithful of each religion will adhere to the precepts of their religion. In yindao there is a way to escape the possible contradiction of the faithful: do you first obey your religion and then the party or vice versa? With this formulation the party maintains the lead but not in an autocephalous way. The party must guide by reacting to the stimuli and impulses of religious bodies.
China has had a complex relationship with religions. It is ruled by an officially atheist communist party that in the late 1990s saw its hold on power challenged by the semi-Buddhist beliefs of the dissident sect Falun Gong.
After the government crackdown on the Falun Gong in 1999, China’s attitude to religions slowly began to change. The party realized that the common people needed an anchor for their souls. The party couldn’t fill such a need after Mao’s demise in 1976 and had to stop claiming to be a total answer to mass spiritual needs. This contrasted with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s when Mao was regarded as some form of demigod.
Traditional religions revived
In this context, the CCP encouraged people to turn to traditional religions — especially Chinese Zen Buddhism and the semi-religious rituals of Confucianism. President Hu Jintao (2002-2012) organized the first world conference on Buddhism hosted by the province of Zhejiang in 2006 and amply promoted a revival of Confucianism.
Yet not all religions are treated equally in China. Radical Islam, in the past couple of years, has been repressed in restive western province of Xinjiang, where local anti-Beijing militants are inspired by traditionalist Wahhabi Islam. Similarly, the worship of the Dalai Lama, a symbol of independent Tibet, is also repressed in the large Tibetan areas of China.
But overall, the CCP’s attitude toward religion has officially changed since the 17th Party Congress in 2007. At that time, Hu underscored the point that “religious figures” play a positive role in building a harmonious society. Building a harmonious society was the party’s official goal in those years.
Over the past 15 years or so, Christians of all stripes have also multiplied. According to some estimates, they represent about 10% of the Chinese population. They made up about 2% in 1949, with 1% Protestants and 1% Catholics. Many current Christians are led by self-appointed pastors without formal training or education in Christianity. They may add their special beliefs to traditional Christian doctrines, similar to the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Taiping, the rebels who nearly toppled the Manchu empire in the 19th century.
In the last few months, controversies have erupted over the demolition of some churches in Zhejiang. Some Christians have alleged religious persecution. However, many of these churches were erected without official building permits. With the new religious fervor, building Christian churches and Buddhist temples have become a new business in China: donations and alms can recover the initial investment of constructing a building in less than one year.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.