From Notting Hill Editions
The number of Christians has increased by 17 times since 1949, writes Simon Scott Plummer. In 40 years, China might become the most populous Christian country on earth.
China's Cultural Revolution was one of the most determined attempts in history to extirpate religious belief, whether indigenous or imported. Yet, a generation after the death of Mao Zedong, it is enjoying phenomenal growth. The rise in the number of Protestants, estimated at over 50 million, has been described as the single greatest revival Christianity has ever known. There is talk that, by the middle of this century, Chinese Christians will have outnumbered those in the United States, at present more than 170 million and declining, making China the most populous Christian country on earth.
This essay will examine the fluctuating fortunes of religious belief over the past 100 years, in particular since the Communist Revolution of 1949, and assess the impact of the current religious revival on the body politic.
Even before the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, attempts were made to purge Chinese society of religious practices which, in the view of reformers wishing to build a modern state, had contributed to the country's humiliation at the hands of the Western powers and Japan. This led to the seizure of Buddhist and Taoist temples and a distinction being made between local cults, which were branded as superstition, and religions - Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam - which were viewed more positively. Indeed, both Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, and Chiang Kai-shek, his successor, were converts to Christianity.
The same could not be said of Mao. But it would be a mistake to think of the apotheosis of Maoism, the Cultural Revolution, as typical of the Communist Party's dealings with religion. Its attempts to organise the peasantry from 1927 onwards heightened the party's awareness of the depth of religious belief in rural areas and of the need not to alienate farmers by attacking their gods. The same deference can be seen during the Long March with regard to the Tibetan Buddhist, Muslim and mountain tribal inhabitants of the remote regions through which the Red Army was passing.
Once in power, the Communists set about eliminating what they regarded as feudal practices followed by the great majority of Chinese - Confucianism, temple cults and so-called redemptive societies, which combined elements of indigenous and imported beliefs. The main religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Christianity (the last divided into Catholic and Protestant groups), were corralled into associations under government authority. Under the "Three-Self" principle (self-governing, self-financing and self-propagating), foreign missionaries were expelled.
The temperature rose with the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1958 and the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to rival the American economy within a generation which led to mass starvation.
A 1951 agreement with Tibet, which had recognised Chinese sovereignty but left the local political and religious structure intact, was rescinded, and the Dalai Lama fled to India. Protestant and Catholic clergy were purged and all the churches taken under the control of the associations. Religion was defined as an issue of class struggle. Over a million cadres were despatched to the villages to eradicate capitalistic practices, religion, superstition and lavish birth, wedding and funeral rituals.
This was followed by the Smash the Four Olds (customs, culture, habits, ideas) campaign, launched at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Using traditional terminology, the party condemned religious leaders as ox demons and snake spirits. The few remaining officially sanctioned temples, monasteries, mosques and churches were closed. Spiritual life in China appeared to have been finally snuffed out.
Yet, as Vincert Goossaert and David Palmer point out in their book, The Religious Question in Modern China, the Cultural Revolution was far from being a secularizing movement. The 20th century saw the glorification of Hitler at the Nuremberg rallies and of Stalin as a great war leader defying the Nazis from the Kremlin. Likewise, in China, the two authors write, the Cultural Revolution constituted "a parallel trend of political sacralization, which had roots in imperial Chinese political and religious culture, as well as in the utopian and apocalyptic dimensions of modernist revolution". At its heart was the cult of Mao, symbolized by his swim across the River Yangtze at the age of 73 and The Little Red Book of his quotations.
If the portrayal of Mao as superhuman filled the gap created by the suppression of religion, his death in 1976 left a spiritual and moral void which was to become a seedbed for religious revival. One of its first manifestations, although not strictly a religion, was qigong, a form of meditation based on mastering one's breath which had been promoted - ironically, given its subsequent fate - by the Communist Party after the revolution.
Since the liberalisation initiated by Deng Xiaoping, Buddhist and Taoist temples have been rebuilt, and the number of Christians has risen to 17 times what it was in 1949. The causes of Buddhism in Tibet and Islam in the western region of Xinjiang, both under threat from Han colonisation, have acquired a global dimension. In its revolutionary phase, the party believed that religion would wither as a result of class struggle. Today, that eventuality has been all but discounted. While retaining the old legal framework for religion, the state has become much more tolerant of local practice, and has tried to co-opt believers in its campaign to create a "harmonious society".
There it has had only limited success. One of the greatest challenges to its authority since the death of Mao came from practitioners of Falungong, a qigong method, who, under the leadership of Li Hongzhi, moved beyond disciplining the body to voice their disgust at the corruption of society. Their coup de théâtre was getting 10,000 adherents to surround the headquarters of the Communist Party in Beijing in 1999, the biggest popular protest since the democracy movement based on Tiananmen Square 10 years before. Falungong was banned and ruthlessly repressed and most other qigong groups were disbanded.
The main concern of the party with regard to Catholics and Protestants is that most of them do not recognise the official associations. The number of Catholics has risen from three million at the revolution to around 17 million today, that of Protestants from one million to more than 50 million. The Communists traditionally viewed Christianity as an arm of Western imperialism, and that suspicion lives on in post-Mao China because of the greater contact which local churches now have with their foreign counterparts.
The most obvious source of tension is with the Vatican, which still grants diplomatic recognition to Taiwan and is at odds with Beijing over the appointment of bishops. In a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI called on the underground and official churches to unite, so that all Catholics in China could come into communion with Rome. Reminding Catholics of their missionary vocation, the Pope wrote: "For 2,000 years Christ's followers have carried out this mission. Now, at the dawn of the third millennium, it is your turn. It is your turn to go out into the world to preach the message of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes". China as a source of global evangelisation: that cannot have been comfortable reading for the Communist Party.
The seeds of the Protestant revival were the house churches formed under persecution during the Cultural Revolution. These enjoy strong support in the United States, where some evangelicals look forward to Christianity's becoming China's dominant religion, turning the country into an ally in the fight against radical Islam. Pentecostalism, which orginates from early 20th century America, is the driving force behind Chinese Protestantism but the sheer diversity of Protestant expression makes Chinese believers' contacts with the outside world very difficult for the party to control. There are thousands of foreign missionaries, ostensibly students, language teachers and businessmen, at work in China. They come from North America, Taiwan, South Korea and Scandinavia.
No resolution of the conflict between Beijing and the Dalai Lama may be in sight but, largely through his winning personality and frequent travels, Tibetan Buddhism has surpassed Zen as the most popular Buddhist tradition in the West. The anger with which the Chinese government responds to his official reception abroad is a measure of its unease about a region which stubbornly resists integration into a Han-dominated culture.
The oppression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang likewise resonates well beyond China's boundaries. The causes of both were taken up by demonstrators as the Olympic flame made its way round the world to Beijing in 2008.
Noting that no single religion has ever claimed the explicit and exclusive adherence of the majority of Chinese, Goossaert and Palmer find today "a decentred religious universe, exploding centrifugally in all directions". China, they conclude, is "a huge religious laboratory in which all kinds of spirituality and religiosity...have become possible in a massive cauldron, an expanding grey area that largely falls beyond direct legal and institutional control".
Does this extraordinary activity constitute a threat to the Communist state itself? Two factors would suggest not. The first is that the religious forces in China are so varied - communal societies, Buddhist and Taoist temples, traditional and house churches, official and underground congregations - that it is difficult to see their coming together to mount a serious challenge to secular authority.
The second factor is that there is, as yet, no indication that they would like to. Buddhism may have the largest number of adherents but, outside Tibet, has not defied the state in the way, to take one example, that Buddhist monks have in Burma under the junta. Christianity's links with the outside world may make it suspect but the number of faithful, though impressive in absolute terms, is only a small percentage of China's total population of 1.3 billion. And the indigenous churches have generally shunned political engagement.
That said, the increase in religious observance will continue to grow. The Communists hoped that modernisation would cause religion to wither. But the breakneck pace of development in recent years has, rather, pushed people towards religion as a way of coping with, and making sense of, rapid change. Research in Shenzhen, the special economic zone founded under Deng Xiaoping across the border from Hong Kong, showed that in a city totally lacking a religious culture, people have turned to traditional forms of disciplining the body, set up shrines at home and joined prayer or scripture-reading groups.
In their introduction to God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge describe a meeting of well-off Chinese Christians in a Shanghai flat who read together a passage from St Paul's Epistle to the Romans, then discuss it for nearly two and half hours. Summing up, the host equates Christianity with a strong nation-state. America is strong because it has many Christians; the more there are in China, the stronger it will become.
This fascinating vignette equates Christianity with modernity, a link which can be traced back to the promotion of education by American and European missionaries in the 19th century, and with the nationalism which the Communist Party has espoused to replace its bankrupt ideology. But it also illustrates the uneasy relationship between the party and believers; the authors conceal the identity of the host and the management consultancy for which he works.
If China continues to maintain rapid growth, the rise in religious belief is unlikely to pose an existential threat to the atheistic core of the state. Were the economy seriously to falter - and these are nerve-wracking times - mass unrest in which believers would be involved cannot be ruled out.
The combination of centralized power and economic liberalisation has resulted in a widening gap between rich and poor and monumental corruption. The party's brutal reaction to the challenge posed by Falungong betrayed its vulnerability to these charges. A much longer shadow is cast by the Taiping Rebellion, led in the mid-19th century by a man who declared himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. It was eventually crushed by the Qing leaders but it broke the back of their empire.
Today, the Communist Party is fighting a losing battle against the spread of belief. Having survived the Cultural Revolution, the religious question is back with a vengeance.
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