Religious freedom in China

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Despite the expectation that China might open up a little more, and that the Games would be a catalyst for this change, instead it seems China has become more authoritarian and restrictive.

This from Canada.com


Stress on 'harmony' keeps lid on religion
Close to 300 million Chinese consider themselves religious

Douglas Todd
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Chinese Catholics, Muslims and Buddhists openly practise their officially sanctioned religions, but the Communist regime keeps a tight rein on spirituality, as it does on every other aspect of life in China.
CREDIT: Andrew Wong, Getty and Nir Elias, Reuters
Chinese Catholics, Muslims and Buddhists openly practise their officially sanctioned religions, but the Communist regime keeps a tight rein on spirituality, as it does on every other aspect of life in China.

It's not only Olympic sponsors like Visa and Coke that are eager to find new followers among China's 1.3 billion people. Religious organizations also want to break into the expanding market.

But religion might be a harder sell than credit cards and soda pop in a country that's putting more restrictions on spirituality than it is on capitalism, nightclubs and industrial pollution.

China's religious scene is unlike that anywhere else. The country's religious trends are heading in contrasting directions at the same time.

The country's rigid authorities have found inventive ways to keep a lid on religion. They say they do it to "discourage foreign interference," but it also reduces the chance religious people will question either the government or the side-effects of the catapulting economy.

Chinese leaders employ harsh measures because they recognize religious people often end up resisting the state (like Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and, of course, Tibetan monks like the Dalai Lama.)

Despite their relative lack of freedom, however, religious groups have been slowly expanding in the country since modest liberalizing efforts began in the early 1980s. While the country continues to officially call itself atheist and Communist, religions are doing somewhat better than they did under Mao Zedong.

But only to a point. Polls suggest Chinese government censorship and disregard for human rights continue to limit Chinese people's spiritual impulses.

Even though U.S. President George W. Bush last week attended a service at one of China's "official" Protestant churches (drawing criticism from Amnesty International for supporting state control of religion), China remains one of the least religious countries on Earth.

Only one out of five Chinese citizens associate themselves with an institutional religion, compared, for instance, to about two out of three Canadians.

Still, since China's population is huge, it means the country contains roughly 300 million religious people, most of whom affiliate with the country's five officially sanctioned religions.

Public opinion polling reported in Chinese-government controlled media, and validated by the respected Pew Forum in the U.S., suggests 16 per cent of Chinese nationals adhere to state-sanctioned Buddhist institutions; almost two per cent go to approved "Protestant Christian" churches; another one per cent attend official Catholic churches; more than one per cent go to sanctioned Muslim mosques, and another one per cent are Taoist.

Since religious polling is difficult in China, specialists are unsure about whether this data includes the somewhat misnamed "underground" churches and temples of China.

How have residents of China who are religious and spiritual been doing during the Summer Olympics (an event which a majority of Canadians told Angus Reid pollsters should not have been given to China)? Not that great. Tibetan Buddhists have faced increased repression, particularly after Tibet's supporters disrupted the torch relay in Europe and North America. Pro-Tibetan activist Nicole Rycroft, 41, of Vancouver, was deported from China this week for unfurling a "Free Tibet" banner in Beijing.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Chinese Buddhists who are not Tibetan, the roughly 100 million who follow Pure Land Buddhism, have continued their quietistic ways during the sporting event, staying out of political trouble while honouring celestial beings and pursuing their private nirvana. However, a small group of Chinese Muslims has not been so passive. The restive Uighur Muslims of western China's Xianjiang province have responded to crackdowns in past weeks by attacking and killing up to 30 Chinese police and others.

In censorship-dominated China, millions of Chinese followers of Falun Gong have not been heard from during the Olympics. Without evidence, Chinese officials outlaw Falun Gong, which combines spiritual beliefs with bodily movements, labelling it an "evil" cult.

Meanwhile, the Vatican has been continuing its careful diplomatic dance with Chinese leaders. And some Christians dissidents in China have been arrested during the Olympics. They include Hua Huigi, who was detained while bicycling to the Kuanje Protestant church service attended by Bush.

With restrictions on foreign journalists in China during the Olympics, it's hard to know what else religious Chinese might really be up to. I suspect the state secrecy is hiding things that are not too pretty.

Even though China considers itself a Communist country, critics say its market-driven society should more correctly be called neo-fascist. The Oxford Dictionary defines fascist as "a system of right-wing authoritarian views" characterized by intolerance and extreme nationalism.

While Chinese bureaucrats have publicly hidden Mao's hyper-egalitarian, anti-religious philosophy during these Olympics, they've instead been pushing the ancient teachings of Confucius. They're placing strongest emphasis on the Confucian concept of "harmony."

However, while a harmonious society can be a wonderful thing, harmony, if advanced too narrowly, can be manipulated to justify social repression.

An over-emphasis on getting along harmoniously, doing one's duty for community, family or country, is being used by Chinese leaders to repress individuality and freedom. (Chinese officials' focus on harmony is one reason they are having their universities promote Anglo-American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. The Harvard thinker taught harmony is a key "aim" of all living things, but Chinese officials tend to play down that Whitehead believed the other aims were intensity and novelty.)

What is the long-range future of religion and spirituality in China? Despite the rising optimism of many convert-seeking non-Chinese Christians, I don't expect Protestants or Catholics will experience dramatic growth in China for a long time.

Even though China is scouting the world to learn about technology, finance, science and philosophy, the Chinese leaders who restrict religion will do so until a true revolution occurs.

China is a world largely unto itself. And its non-elected leaders are not going to change their defiant ways because of escalating foreign trade, human-rights organizations, the fleeting Olympics or outside champions of religious freedom.

http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=a3c7bdc7-5f9e-4cc8-beff-280c63cf006e
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