On China and Religion
For different cultural, political and historical reasons, the Chinese government officially recognises Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism as religions. As in the realm of commerce, medicine, the legal profession or any other human endeavours, China, like many nations and for her own reasons have chosen, as it is her right, to lay down a legal and regulatory framework within which religions are practised.
Within the above five religions, the government does not prefer one religion to another and neither does it care about ecclesiastical or inter-faith doctrinal differences. It does not care whether Jesus is the Son of God, one of the Prophets of Allah or just a mere rabbi. It does not care whether the Virgin Mary or the Saints ought to be worshipped and much less whether the Quakers are pacifists who live according to personal beliefs. Like any other governments in the world, what it does care about are whether they break China’s laws while in China and whether a belief system contravenes the public interest.
In no countries are the clergy or religious institutions free from or above the temporal laws of the land. An American Catholic priest convicted of paedophilia, fraud or mere speeding in America is still guilty and may suffer the appropriate judicial consequences, irrespective of the fact that he is a priest. Should the Church as an organisation in any way be involved, it too is liable to criminal as well as possible civil lawsuits.
Just as there is no such thing as absolute political and commercial freedom, neither is there such a thing as absolute religious freedom. There are only varying degrees of religious freedom that is regulated in turn by ecclesiastic rules, doctrines, temporal laws, social customs and traditions in accordance with the demands of the relevant state and society. For example, many in the UK believe in Fengshui, but nevertheless in a test case before the English Court of Appeal, the Judges, as it is within their remit, chose not to recognise it as a religion, just as they do not recognise any religion that is not monotheist as a matter of policy. By contrast, because of its Chinese community Indonesia recognises Confucianism as a religion when China only sees it as a school of philosophy, so that just because something is lawful in one country does not make it so in another.
While under Chinese laws, proselytising, preaching and the politicisation of religion is unlawful; China does not ban the personal practice of any religions nor its variations so long as they adhere to the laws of China. Irrespective of race, if you are a British Anglican, an American Quaker or a South Korean Evangelical living in China, you are free to practice your faith within your own homes or congregate subject to approval, at a lawful Christian Church. But should you proselytise, preach or seek to politicise religious beliefs or practices, you will be prosecuted for breaking China’s laws.
The authorities may also suspect your company’s involvement so that as well as suffering personal and professional consequences, the authorities will likely consider you to have entered the country under false pretences and you may be deported and declared persona non grata. This is in line with international practices, just as if you overstayed any host nation’s tourist visa or decided to take up employment. It’s as simple as that.
China does not ban the practice of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism or Buddhism, it simply chooses not to recognise the authority of the Vatican or that of the Church of England, just as it does not recognise the Pope’s and the Dalai Lama’s authority in China, such as in his ban on the worshipping of Dorje Shugden and other Tibetan Buddhist traditions that are still widely practised within China.
In Catholicism’s case, the reasons are manifold and not dissimilar to the political reasons why the Church of England and other Protestant movements split itself off from the Roman Catholic Church (except the part about Henry 8th being a horny old goat with a low sperm count and gout, but who desperately wanted a son and blames his wives, but the Pope wouldn’t let him) and includes the issue of Taiwan, sovereignty and whose laws are supreme in China, particularly on the issue of the right to appoint bishops, who will in essence become community leaders.
In the case of Anglicanism, China does not recognise the Church of England because firstly, it is the Church of England, not the Church of China, secondly, as noted above China regards the Anglican Church as very much a political creation, which coupled with the fact that a British monarch is its “Supreme Governor” with the right to appoint the Archbishop and England’s history in China, renders it unacceptable to the government and to many Chinese people. A third reason is the often preachy, windbag-like and politicised nature of Anglican sermons (yes, I have attended quite a few and fell asleep at many more).
As for Quakers, Baptists and Evangelists, China simply considers them and Anglicanism as part of Protestantism out of administrative and policy convenience, but the same laws and same attitude applies equally. Just as China will not tolerate some self-appointed redneck hellfire and brimstone merchant from the American mid-west setting up shop or TV channel for their own narrow purposes in China as a matter of public policy and interest, it will also not allow some radical foreign Muslim imams invoking jihad against kafirs, be they Han Chinese or otherwise. Consequently, to prevent religious radicalism and politicisation, China insists that all its clergy, be they monks, priests or imams at one time or another undergo “patriotic education” (I suggest that people research this for what it really is rather than the negative/sinister spin that has been put on it), just as France insist that Muslim imams preaching in France undergo education on what it means to be French.
Fundamentally, just as in Western societies, it is generally considered impolite to bring up the topic of money, politics or religion, so too among the majority Han Chinese there has always been an implicit rejection of forcing one’s religious beliefs onto others. Such that especially since the fall of the Qing Empire, coupled with a rejection of foreign cultural and religious imposition, this attitude has crystallised into today’s prohibition and the cultural view that religious devotion should be sought out of one’s volition, free from any current incentives nor be based on promises of the thereafter.
Because of their generally perceived vulnerabilities and susceptibilities to “undesirable” influences, no nation state or society can afford to abdicate its collective responsibility towards its youth. For better or worse, corresponding laws, customs and traditions exist in China as in all societies, for its children’s protection, whether it is negatively expressed as regards tobacco, alcohol, pornography, gambling, advertising and the age of sexual consent or positively expressed as regards compulsory immunisation or schooling. Because of socio-political, cultural as well as historical reasons, in China this perceived need extends to belief systems, be they cultish, religious or pseudo-religious.
This law is a reflection of many Chinese’ cultural disdain for their children to join a celibate clergy, whether of the Buddhist or Christian persuasion, because of a perceived duty and importance to continue the family line and to secure progenitors, especially under the one-child policy. This is no different from many religions’ emphasis on the need and desirability to procreate, except that in China such values are expressed culturally rather than religiously.
The restrictions/rejections did not began with the Communists, but have always been both a part of Chinese culture and were at one time or another formalised in its legal code or by imperial edict because of its historical experiences with organised religions and competing domestic and foreign religious claims of the divine and their impact on China’s peoples and society. Consequently, China’s peoples, particularly the majority Han Chinese has culturally always been too pragmatic, cynical and sceptical to go wholesale into one religion or another.
Whilst from a Western perspective, it can be argued that the issue of whether a family wishes its single child to enter a life of religious celibacy is for the family and the child alone to decide. However, just as with all nations and societies, China and its peoples have always placed significance on the family unit, be they nuclear or extended, as the society’s and the nation’s building blocks, so that laws are inevitably enacted in support of and to reinforce the family and issues of family values regularly crop up too during elections in Europe or the Americas.
However, policies and laws in support of the family unit must necessarily also be balanced against public interests and the need of the society, less a family feels compelled to have more children simply to fulfil or to satisfy the parents’ or others’ spiritual needs. An example is the prevalence of polyandry that is still practised in Tibet and where Tibetan women, to the chagrin of feminists, inevitably bear the brunt of competition between brothers and even between fathers and sons to have surplus children to enter the clergy and to satisfy the whole family’s perceived spiritual needs, to safeguard family wealth and to gain social status (imagine Tibetans’ reaction should the Dalai Lama call for a ban on polyandry).
Therefore together with a ban on proselytising, preaching and the politicisation of religion, those under 18 years of age and/or are students, cannot attend religious establishments nor receive religious education, irrespective of their family’s background or religion. But once a child reaches 18 years of age or is no longer attending education, the issue of whether he or she wishes to join a religion, join a clergy or to convert from her family’s religion to another of her choice becomes a matter for the individual and the family.
As the CCP forms the government of China, it is also a government of over one billion people and of over 50 ethnic groups and their associated cultural and religious practices, so that from a practical and administrative perspective no government officer can be seen to favour one religion or one ethnic group over another as he/she moves from one posting to another. This is not a new practice, but harks back to imperial traditions when imperial officials are regularly reassigned to different parts of China for administrative purposes. Just as any judicial process needs to be fair as well as appears to be fair, a government needs to be impartial as well as be seen to be impartial in the execution of its functions. Consequently, government workers and CCP members are banned from having any religious affiliations under China’s laws.
In doing so, China, like Turkey or France, has simply enacted into law practices that in other countries are restricted by cultural customs and traditions. An example is the controversy over Ruth Kelly being appointed UK Minister for Education under Tony Blair’s government when it became known that she is also a member of Opus Dei, thereby causing public unease over her influence on the direction of Britain’s education policy, particularly with regards to that government’s predilection for faith schools in a country that largely considers itself as either Anglican or secular, but with a large Muslim minority.
China does not regard any religion as inherently good or evil, but simply sees the need for the regulation of the practice of those religions based on what it deems necessary. These laws are not there to benefit or to hinder any one religion. They are simply a reflection of China’s cultural and socio-political circumstances, being a function of its historical experience.
Just as there are now female Anglican priests because of a need to give expression to equality of the sexes within the Anglican Church, China’s Muslim community is unique in that there are female Muslim imams. And should in the near future there arise within China’s Catholic community a desire and a consensus for female priests, this too will be allowed and it is doubtful what the Vatican can do about it. In a similar vein should in future there arises within China an impetus for a change of these laws and it is appropriate to do so, the Chinese government will and must inevitably respond.
Ultimately, the laws as they stand now are there to protect and to benefit China’s society and all its peoples who call China home, not some fly-by-night, here today, gone tomorrow evangelical preachers or expatriates, nor foreigners not even residing in China.
UPDATE (by Buxi): Here are a few links related to this topic
- PBS Frontline documentary: Jesus in China
- Shanghaiist links to a number of related articles, including Chicago Tribune story that’s the basis of the Frontline documentary.
(by admin) More discussions in a related thread.