The New Chinese Nationalism

China: Church, Meet State

"You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but She will still hurry back"
—Horace, Epistles

Chinese propaganda poster, 1970. The caption reads "Resolutely destroy all enemies who dare to encroach upon us!" (courtesy of the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam)

When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), once comprised solely of workers and peasants, welcomed capitalists into its fold last July, it may have rightly caused Mao and Marx to turn over in their graves. But there would be more surprises in store; the move was only the beginning of dramatic policy shifts within the ruling party. Last month, the CCP announced another abandonment of its now merely titular political ideology: It admitted religion into Chinese society.

The contradiction here goes without saying. When Mao Zedong took power in 1949, the Great Helmsman had called on his fellow Marxists to abandon traditional Chinese culture, which he considered feudal and corrupt, and replace it with communism. This meant that popular belief systems such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism were banished from Chinese society under the new ideology.

Yet on Dec. 10, 2001, the Chinese Communist Party, in a strategic effort to secure support for the party and to quell social unrest, tried to reconcile the two—Marxism and religion—at a three-day religious affairs conference in Beijing. The event was attended by all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's highest executive body, and received prominent coverage in the government-owned newspaper People's Daily.

The results of the conference were as contradictory as the antipodal ways of looking at the world it sought to reconcile. Jiang Zemin called on party cadres to stand firm as atheists. But he also urged them to acknowledge that religion would continue to exist in China and to shape global affairs.

Clearly, religion cannot be ignored as a crucial factor in world events, as Osama bin Laden's peculiar worldview attests. For Beijing's leadership, which has long been concerned with the threat religious groups can pose to complete loyalty to the state, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 provided an unequivocal confirmation of its belief that religion, if ignored, can undermine the regime's authority.

One of the primary goals of the conference was to address how to make it easier for church and other religious organizations to register with the state. This new policy serves an important purpose: It brings independent church groups under state control and reduces a religious organization's risk of being caught in a state crackdown on unauthorized religious activities. China-based analysts George Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham estimate that in 2001, the number of unauthorized churches in Beijing alone reached around 1,000. Today, they say, an estimated 30 million Christians live in China. About half of these Christians belong to underground churches. In the past, government crackdowns have destroyed hundreds of unsanctioned churches and temples.

David Murphy, a Beijing-based journalist, predicts that Protestants will be the main beneficiaries of the CCP's new policy on religion. New regulations will allow them to maintain their denominational status, which they forego when they join the Three Self Patriotic Association, formerly the only official Protestant church.

The two most obvious groups that risk greater persecution under the new policy are the Falun Gong and separatists among the Turkic, Muslim Uighurs of China's western Xinjiang province, both of which are considered enemies of the state. Beijing has branded Falun Gong a cult and has been cracking down on the movement, which propounds the unity of body, mind, and soul through physical exercise, for the past two years. Because of Falun Gong's rapidly growing following, both inside China and out, the Beijing leadership considers it a continuing and serious threat to the political status quo.

According to Beijing's government-run Xinhua news agency, on Dec. 12 Premier Zhu Rongji alluded to Falun Gong when he said, "Heretical cults are not religions....We must continue to fight against and crack down on all activities of heretical cults according to the law and strictly prevent the emergence of new heretical cults." President Jiang Zemin emphasized at the conference, "No religion has special rights that transcend the Constitution or laws, and no religion can interfere with the implementation of government administration, legislation, education, or other government functions....We will never allow the use of religion to oppose the party's leadership and the socialist system or undermine the unification of the state and unity among various nationalities."

The Uighurs, whom Beijing has also tagged a menace, are campaigning for an independent state in what they call East Turkestan, and some Uighur separatists, allegedly aided by Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries, have used terrorist tactics to push for independence. According to Chinese press reports, in 1997, the Uighur Resistance Movement blew up three buses in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on the day of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's funeral.

Premier Zhu Rongji may have been referring to the Uighur separatists when he said, "We should lay stress on doing well [sic] religious affairs in rural areas and among people of minority nationalities" (Xinhua Domestic Service, Dec. 12, 2001).

While at first blush it may seem as though the party's new policy signals a tolerance toward religion, a closer look suggests the conference's resolutions may be little more than a high-level effort to separate the compliant wheat from the dangerous chaff. According to the independent Moscow Times (Oct. 26, 2001), "politically active Uighurs say [that] China makes little distinction between those involved in terrorism and those who engage in even the mildest of political activity." Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Uighur activists claim, the Chinese government has taken advantage of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism to justify the use of increasingly harsh tactics against the movement.

By embracing religion, if only awkwardly, the CCP is arming itself with yet another state instrument meant to bolster the legitimacy of the party. Chinese religious believers, like the party's new capitalist members, are to be seen as "a positive force for constructing socialism with Chinese characteristics," according to the CCP's new dogma.

The emphasis is clearly on the "Chinese characteristics." If the CCP's guiding ideology is no longer communist in anything but name, then what is it? The answer may well turn out to be "nationalist." Nationalism, unlike communism, is compatible with the economic reforms that have so successfully transformed China from a centrally planned economy to a market system. The growing prosperity many Chinese enjoy today, along with a revived sense of China's place in the world, are galvanizing Chinese society and helping to rebuild national pride.

The new religion policy conveniently brings traditional Chinese beliefs and teachings back into vogue, enabling the CCP to garner support by stirring up Chinese nationalistic sentiments. Reversing Mao's banishment of Chinese traditional culture, which caused the current "faith vacuum[s] and moral depravity" [Sing Tao Jih Pao, Hong Kong, Dec. 24, 2001], the CCP now stresses its vast social value.

According to Hong Kong's centrist Sing Tao Jih Pao, Premier Zhu Rongji recently visited a Buddhist stone carving in Dazu County and became "so engrossed in the carvings that he stayed beyond the predetermined time...[I]t was the stone carvings in Dazu, which blend Buddhist doctrine [with] Confucian loyalty, filial piety, and ethics [and] preach China's traditional culture, that made Zhu stay on with no thought of leaving."

If all goes according to the CCP's plan, the party may be able to enjoy the same.