Wednesday, July 2, 2008

China changes in the face of foreign religious devils

On December 18, the party's politburo, the highest ruling body in the country, held a plenary collective study session. It was the second one since the 17th Communist Party Congress that ended in October last year. For the first time in the history of the People's Republic, the party's top echelons met to discuss a once-taboo subject - religion.

The Chinese Communist Party, like many other communist parties, is patently atheist, to the point that religious affiliation is forbidden for party members. However, right in Congress there was the first sign that things could be moving in a different direction.

Broadcasting from the cavernous Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where the 17th Party Congress was in session, TV screens showed the slim and attentive face of the young Panchen Lama (the second-highest ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama), who was following the speech of party general secretary Hu Jintao. The badge on his chest said "guest". [...] Indeed, Hu's keynote speech devoted a paragraph to religion [2]. He said religious people, including priests, monks and lay-believers, played a positive role in the social and economic development of China. Furthermore, Hu did not talk about religions as such, thus establishing a form of respect and non-interference in purely religious affairs. That is, the party is not interested in religion per se, but it values the positive social contribution of religious people.

At the study session on December 18, the politburo explored the issue. Two experts introduced the subject. One was Zuo Xinping, a specialist on Christianity from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the other was Mou Zhongjian, a scholar on Confucianism from the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing. It seemed the party wanted two perspectives, one about new Christian faiths coming from abroad and one from the country's own native traditions.

Hu presented some introductory remarks, reported in a Xinhua article in Chinese [3], and it was indeed an historic event. Two facts are extraordinary.

It was the first high-level meeting of the party fully devoted to religion. That was a sign that party leaders recognized the great political significance of religion in building a "moderate, affluent and harmonious society". Religion is no longer an issue of public security that can be handed over to the police - it is a top social and political issue involving all aspects of society, and therefore all politburo members must be aware of it.

Secondly, in all of the Xinhua reports, there were no negative, derogatory remarks about religion, as one would expect to find about the "opiate of the masses". There were not even "ifs" or "buts" to indicate that the party would handle religion with diffidence. The English version stresses that there must be freedom of belief, and in the Chinese version, Hu is quoted as saying that the party must mobilize the positive elements of religion for economic and social development. Thus, religion can play an important role in realizing the "harmonious society" that is the new political goal of the party. [...]

However, Chinese history tells party leaders that religion is also an extremely volatile element. Major uprisings in the past were organized by religious groups. For instance, the Taiping, who almost brought to an end the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, were pseudo-Christians. Similarly, extreme radical Islam now mobilizes millions worldwide. Religion has to be handled with care, but it cannot simply be ignored or looked down on like some kind of feudal leftover.

"China's massive wrench: Change in the face of foreign devils" (Francesco Sisci), Asia Times Online (03 July 08)

[Rest of this thread at Sunthar V (Jun 6, 2008 )

China's New Confucianism by Daniel A Bell / Reith lectures on China]

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