Sunday, March 21, 2010

An analysis of religious policy in China

I would like to alert all religious liberty monitors and analysts to a paper that has been released by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).

The Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs
Back to the Future: Pre-modern Religious Policy in Post-Secular China
By Richard Madsen. 15 March 2010

FPRI introduces Richard Madsen as: "the Distinguished Professor & Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author or co-author of eleven books on Chinese culture, American culture, and international relations."

What I offer here is a mere summary of Madsen's main arguments and observations concerning Chinese Communist Party's religious policy and its implications for the Chinese Protestants. Anyone interested in truly understanding the evolution of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policy on religion, should read Madsen's whole paper for themselves.

Madsen notes that the Chinese government's policy on religion has been based on the secularisation theory that religion will eventually die out, becoming irrelevant as modernisation advances. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that religion is not dying out and is even growing and dynamically evolving and reviving. According to Madsen, "Many social scientists are now saying that the secularization thesis is wrong and that we need a post-secularist social theory to account for the empirically obvious facts of the early twenty-first century. Religious belief and practice have not faded away, and in many parts of the world they are playing a more obvious role in public life than in the past century."

Madsen provides a detailed and insightful look at: "CCP Policy Towards Religion", and "Religion in China Today", concluding that the theoretical categories the CCP has long used to define religion and determine the difference between religion and superstition are simply no longer applicable. "The secularist assumptions behind the government's religious policy-that religion will gradually and inevitably, if not as quickly as once believed, fade away-are untenable."

"As a result the policy itself-which aims to constrain the growth of religion, to confine it to the private sphere, and to keep it from affecting politics and ethnic relations-has utterly failed, even on its own terms. Despite all efforts to control its growth, religion has grown rapidly and overwhelmed China's systems for surveillance and control. Clumsy methods of suppressing unwanted forms of religion have actually intensified religiously inspired conflict with the state. The attempt to disconnect religion from ethnic conflict has only added religious zeal to ethnic struggle. The failure is obvious enough that the leadership of the Communist Party has begun to recognize it and is searching for a new approach to religious policy."

Then under the heading: "Groping Toward a New Policy", Madsen provides an insightful analysis of evolving CCP policy. The trends he examines are trends I have been monitoring for over a decade.

Madsen notes the establishment of the public security forces, a secret police organisation which bypasses the state criminal justice system and reports directly to the CCP leadership. "Although originally developed [in 1999] to destroy an 'evil cult,' [Falungong] it has extended its reach to cover political dissidents and other threats to Party domination. The expanded organization has recently been given a new name-the 'Harmonious Society Security Office'.

"Initiatives toward increased tolerance of some religious activities are joined with new methods of repression toward others. There does not seem to be much central coordination of these separate developments, and they separately develop at their own pace according to the ambitions of the various bureaucratic units that were their source. Recognizing the incoherence of its ad hoc policies, the Party is looking for a new theoretical framework to guide its approach toward religion. The framework seems to be heading back to the future, away from a modernist Marxist version of secularism and toward a modernized version of Imperial China's sacral hegemony."

Concerning this New Imperial Sacral Hegemony, Madsen writes that historically, the Emperor, as the 'Son of Heaven', was mandated to mediate between heaven and earth. The Emperor differentiated between right religious practise and false (mythical/superstitious) religious practice. Often it was the case that for religious practice to be defined as right and true, it merely had to bolster social stability under imperial rule. Emperors controlled large communities by means of imperial patronage, and institutions and leaders would be rewarded for their loyalty.

"However," writes Madsen, "sectarian organizations that gathered people together from many different communities, contravened gender distinctions by allowing men and women to worship together as equals, preached an imminent end to the present era, and sometimes became the organizational basis for rebellion-such organizations might be labeled heterodox and persecuted strongly."

[. . .]

"As noted in a recent paper by Zhuo Xinping, the director of the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, the basic principle of imperial policy toward religion was that 'the government is the master, religion the follower (zhengzhu, jiaocong)'."

As Madsen notes, in recent years the CCP has moved to rebrand itself. No longer does the CCP promote itself as a party of revolution, but as a party that delivers economic development, secures territorial integrity and promotes cultural heritage. Today the CCP's slogan is "Harmonious Society", which is said to be dependent on "social stability". According to Madsen, "In religious affairs at least, the approach now seems to be more indebted to the great Ming and Qing emperors than to Mao Zedong." As such, "The history of China's rulers in protecting and promoting China's cultural heritage thus becomes a more fundamental basis for religious policy than Marxian theory."

Madsen continues: "In its new incarnation, the supposedly secular Party assumes a sacred aura. It now presents itself as the carrier of a sacred national destiny. It carries out spectacular public rituals like the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics - ceremonies which powerfully evoked the glorious cultural heritage of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism but gave no mention at all to Mao Zedong or even to socialism."

And as Madsen so rightly notes: "This can lead to new patterns of religious tolerance and repression. [. . .] Christian communities are . . . problematic, because they practice a foreign religion, not part of the Chinese cultural heritage. But as long as they thoroughly indigenize-which in practice means that they accept the principle that the government is the master, religion the follower-they can be accepted." For the truly globalised religions, however, this is particularly problematic.

As China develops, it wants to export its cultural heritage. But, as Madsen notes, the kind of religion that China wants to export "is one deeply embedded in Han Chinese culture, whose elites in the past have been willing to follow the 'government master, religion follower' formula, and which celebrates the glories of Han Chinese ethnicity. [. . .] Thus, Christianity, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism pose severe challenges to a neo-imperial sacral hegemony."

[. . .]

"Protestant Christianity in China is much more decentralized [than Roman Catholicism], and does not pose the threat of an authoritarian ecclesiastical power attempting to impose its version of orthodoxy on Chinese believers. But as a global faith, it too is open to influence spread through modern media (and often carried directly by modern missionaries) from around the world. However indigenized Protestant Christianity becomes in China, it will remain in communication with-and be subject to-influence by spiritual movements from abroad. A completely secular liberal government would not have much problem with such cosmopolitan religious influence. But a government that claims a modern Mandate of Heaven in principle could not tolerate such influence. The outlook is that the Chinese ruling party will try to restrict the spread of Christianity while actually encouraging the revival of much of its indigenous folk religion-but the restrictions will not likely be effective and the growth of Christianity will continue to cause controversy among the Chinese elite, and the result will be seemingly arbitrary, incoherent policies toward Christianity."

[. . .]

Madsen concludes: "The one way to keep universalizing global religious movements from undermining [CCP] policy is for China to become so powerful that it can set the terms of its relationship with the rest of world, or at least in Asia. Then it could use its military and economic might to enforce its claim that universal standards of religious freedom do not apply to China and that universal religions can only enter China if they accept the principle of government master, religion follower. Some political leaders think that they can accomplish this."


Madsen's conclusions are identical to my own. In fact, there has already been a marked increase in persecution since August 2008 when the global economy collapsed, stripping the US International Freedom from Religious Persecution Act (1998) of its economic leverage.