Friday, December 19, 2008

No religious freedoms in China is a myth

By China Watcher

Ever since, China opened up to the world 30 years ago and boldly adopted pragmatic economic reforms to improve the livelihood of its people, there are now 31.4 percent of the population who have practiced some forms of religious beliefs. This represents 300 million people, a huge number of religious believers as compared to the period of the Cultural Revolution when the numbers were very much smaller. Christianity is presently the fastest growing religion in China. The Chinese government recognizes five religions namely Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. The places of worship like churches, temples and mosques representing these 5 tolerated religions are allowed. In 2005, new regulations on religious affairs were passed allowing religious organizations to possess property, publish literature, train and approveclergy and collect donations as long as they registered with the state.

The Western media continuous slamming of China for no religious freedom is a myth. Tolerance of religion among the people has also been noticed by visitors traveling to China. It has been the practice of Chinese emperors in ancient times to impose a certain measure of control over religions as it could pose a threat to the existing Confucian order and the governance of the emperor as a mandate from heaven. Hence, it is no different now that the present government in a single party system continues to adopt such administrative style.

In future, I strongly believe that as the government and the people become more confidence and readily accept the demands of the people for a varied lifestyle without undermining the social stability, more tolerance and leeway will be allowed in the social systems. It is for the Chinese people to decide and not from the nosy Westerners and its media.

Yesterday, I have come across an informative article from the Singapore’s Straits Times on the same topic, which is quite enlightening as compared to the many anti-China bashing articles coming from the West. I have enjoyed reading it and I hope you do.

Straits Times dated 18 December 2008

Arrianna Liu, 30, feels more at ease now saying grace before a meal in a restaurant than she did before. It is not just that the government appears to have loosened the reins on religion. People are also generally more tolerant than they were before of religious practices, including those of a foreign religion like Christianity.
"A few years ago, I would worry about how others saw me. But now, yes, there is curiosity but no judgment," said the Beijing-based Liu, who works for a non-governmental organisation.
Indeed, in the 30 years since her birth in 1978 - the very same year that China embarked on economic reforms and opened its doors to the world - Chinese society has undergone tremendous changes that have led to a burgeoning of religious believers.
A government-sponsored survey last year found that 300 million Chinese, or 31.4 per cent of the country's adult population, considered themselves religious believers, much larger than the government estimate of around 100 million.
Two-thirds of the believers are Buddhists, Taoists or devotees of traditional deities such as the Dragon King or God of Fortune. The survey estimated that 12 per cent of all believers - or 40 million – were Christians, up from 16 million in 2005. That makes Christianity one of thefastest-growing religions in China. Some foreign estimates put the estimated number of Christians even higher, from 50 to 70 million. Many attend independent, unregistered house churches.
The government recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Buddhism, with an estimated 100 million believers, is the largest. There are around 20 million Muslims, many of whom are from minority ethnic groups such as the Uighurs.
Philosophy professor Liu Zhongyu attributed the spike in religious believers to the religious freedom the Chinese people have enjoyed over the past 30 years and the social problems they faced at a time of rapid change.

After Deng Xiaoping launched economic reforms in 1978, the government began to loosen its control over various aspects of social life, including religion, in order to facilitate the reforms. In 1982, an edict on religious freedom was passed that acknowledged that religion would exist for a long time before eventually fading away. Freedom of religious belief was granted on condition that believers also love their country, support the rule of the Chinese Communist Party and observe the socialist law - in other words, place the state and the party before religion.
The government's decision to allow for greater - if not full – religious freedom is seen by observers as both the result of its growing confidence and a response to society's demand for room to practice religion.

Certainly, Chinese society has undergone great transformation as a result of three decades of reforms. The reforms have increased social and geographical mobility. They have taken the state out of social life so people now have greater freedom to choose where they want to work and live, and whom they want to associate with. But such freedom also comes with insecurities, for the state no longer looks after people from cradle to grave, as it claimed to do during the Maoist era.
Prof Liu, in an interview with the China Daily newspaper, noted: "More Chinese feel unstable and harassed by the rootless lives they live now."

He told the Oriental Outlook magazine that standards of morality were declining and that "people don't trust each other any more. They are looking for something to anchor their lives to," including religion. Other analysts have noted that being part of a religious group, such as a house church, affords believers a social network they can trust.

Looking at it from a different perspective, particularly with regard to Buddhism, is Master Xuecheng, vice-president of the Buddhist Association of China, and abbot of four monasteries including the Longquan monastery in Beijing. He argued that once people have satisfied their basic needs and wants such as housing and food, they would have more spiritual demands.
He added: "Only when a society has prospered and developed can it have the strength to tolerate different kinds of thinking... Only after a society has prospered to a certain level can it have considerable numbers of people with relatively high standards of knowledge and, therefore, the qualification to devote themselves to the study of Buddhist scriptures."

He cited as evidence the fact that Buddhism flourished during ancient China's golden age, the Tang Dynasty, particularly in the region of Chang'an (present-day Xian), at the Chinese end of the Silk Road.

Ms Liu, who has also explored Buddhism, finds Buddhist scriptures too difficult to grasp. They run into thousands of volumes compared with the one-volume Bible for Christians and the Quran for Muslims. Besides, Buddhism "requires you to give up a lot in life", said Ms Liu,adding that she found this hard to accept. Buddhists strive ultimately to chushi, withdraw from the world, she argued.

Some Chinese scholars like Professor Kang Xiaoguang of Renmin University do not think that Christianity will have significant success in China. But the reality is that it is growing at a tremendous pace and attracting many young people.

Kang, who advocates Confucianism as the basis for governance in China, held that those who are less mature, follow fashion slavishly and who worship things Western turn to Christianity, while more mature, knowledgeable Chinese tend to be followers of Buddhism. Christianity is popular among young people, Kang noted, who are liberal-minded, pro-America, anti-establishment and Internet-savvy, and who live in big and medium-sized cities.Xuecheng pointed out that Buddhism, a foreign religion, became rooted in Chinese society after it was localized, adopting the vocabulary of indigenous Chinese thought systems, such as Confucianism and Taoism, and developing its own Chinese canon. He added that Islam and Christianity face the same problem of localization.

However, he noted that Buddhist groups had adopted some Christian methods of spreading the religion, such as through charity work. They are also using modern tools: His Longquan monastery, for example, has a Chinese and an English website managed by volunteer devotees.
A survey of cultural nationalism among Chinese, done by Kang last year, found that 33.5 per cent of respondents thought Buddhism was the greatest of all religions or cultural traditions, 14.9 per cent said that of Confucianism, and 8.6 per cent of Christianity, including Catholicism. Taoism, China's only indigenous religion came in fourth with just 3 per cent.

Although Taoism appears marginalized in Chinese society today, it is very much a part of Chinese life. Xuecheng pointed out that the basic principles of traditional Chinese medicine and the ideas of yin and yang and the five elements all have their origins in Taoism. One might add feng shui, the basic principle of which is to live in harmony with the natural environment.
Analysts are in the main optimistic about the growth of religion in China so long as the government sees its usefulness in helping to maintain a stable society. The government's support for Chinese cultural traditions and indigenous or indigenized religions can be seen in its participation in the first World Buddhist Forum held in China in 2006 and in annual ceremonies to commemorate Confucius and the legendary Yellow Emperor from whom the Chinese are supposed to have descended. As for Christianity, it has adopted a policy of monitoring and controlling but not suppressing it, said Kang.

It remains to be seen whether Christianity will take root in China -and if it does, to what extent and in what form? Will it become a pillar of Chinese society together with Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism? It is difficult to tell at the moment, but Christianity's growth in China is one of unintended consequences of the reforms Deng Xiaoping launched 30 years ago this week.

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