China's Religious Problem

News Abroad

Thomas David DuBois is Associate Professor of History at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of Religion and the Making of Modern East Asia by Cambridge University Press.

The recent detention of artist Ai Weiwei again thrust China into the headlines for all the wrong reasons.  This particular cycle of dissent and suppression was prompted by the toppling of autocratic regimes in the Middle East, but the pattern is nothing new.  China’s public security apparatus reacted in a similar fashion to the “color revolutions” of the previous decade, and the rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union before that.

Even with China’s growing clout on the world stage, suppression of dissent does have consequences.  Although the United States has grown increasingly pragmatic in its handling of human rights in China, reports of secret detentions, censorship of the Internet, and intimidation of foreign journalists harm the image of China’s “peaceful rise,” and stoke fears of what a rising China means for the world.  More to the point, foreign investors are uneasy with any sign of domestic instability.

The suppression of religion may be the stickiest point of all, at least as far as international community is concerned.  The Dalai Lama wields more international influence than any of China’s domestic critics, due in no small part to his image as a spiritual figure.  In 1999, China announced a campaign to suppress a relatively obscure new age movement called Falungong.  But rather than destroying it, this campaign ended up giving the Falungong an international prominence they could have never otherwise attained.  China’s persecution of Christian “house churches” became a serious irritant to U.S.-China relations under the presidency of George W. Bush, and remains a focal point of significant anti-China sentiment within the United States.

Why then does China pursue a policy towards religion that costs it so dearly in terms of international image?  The response that one often hears is that the regime is simply fragile to the point of paranoia, and too accustomed to taking a sledgehammer to any and all public security problems.  There is certainly some element of truth to such an idea, but doesn’t it seem strange that the same regime that has so competently overseen the breathtaking modernization of the economy so strikingly inept at averting the entirely predictable public relations disaster that ensue following a harsh crackdown on religion?

Another possibility is authorities are not deterred by this regular diplomatic conflict, and may even find it in some ways beneficial.  China has long claimed that the international human rights regime is slanted in favor of the West, and the United States in particular.  This is not to say that China is unable to play by global rules.  China espouses an absolute interpretation of national sovereignty, but has been able to lay these principles aside when it had an interest in doing so.  China was a cautious signatory to the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) coalition, which theoretically allows for humanitarian intervention by the United Nations, and most recently, muted its opposition to NATO intervention in Libya.

Just as China’s central bank can at once call to replace the U.S. dollar as the reserve currency of global debt while at the same time holding on to record dollar reserves, Chinese diplomats frequently voice the need for alternate principles of international relations, even while the country thrives within the confines of the current order.  China is not merely hedging its bets; it is positioning itself at the vanguard of an alternate world order.  Rhetorical conflict over the principles of human rights, including China’s stance that freedom of speech should not outweigh the need for order and economic growth, plays to a domestic audience, and resonates throughout Asia.

To understand its current policy towards religion, it is important to remember that for two millennia, China was a profoundly religious state.  As early as the Han, a long-lived dynasty that was roughly contemporary to the Roman Empire, China’s rulers rhetorically grounded their legitimacy in the ideals of Confucian moral governance.  Later dynasties increased this dependence by building their domestic institutions and international diplomacy on a Confucian foundation.  From the fourteenth century to the fall of the imperial system in 1911, the Ming and subsequent Qing dynasties, Confucian texts and ideals were the basis of state ritual, official recruitment and promotion, and civil law.

Diplomacy with neighboring courts in Korea, Siam, Vietnam and Burma was conducted through the Confucian idiom of benevolent hierarchy.  Foreign emissaries approached China in the guise of paying tribute to a cultural and moral superior.  Since tributary diplomacy undergirded the political legitimacy of the dynasty, embassies were recorded in dynastic annals whether they actually arrived or not.

A severe breach of this protocol could spark a real diplomatic crisis. Tokugawa Japan refused to accept even the appearance of subservient status, preferring instead to simply cut off diplomatic contact with the Qing court for most of two centuries.  Most famously, the appearance of tributary diplomacy proved a major stumbling block for communication between China and Britain.  Even as trade tensions grew during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the crucial moments of diplomacy between Britain and the Qing dynasty were frequently derailed by disagreements over terminology and protocol.  To British eyes at least, China’s emperors were mired in their smug, inward-looking Confucian worldview.

But these same Confucian emperors also carried on a double life as Buddhist monarchs.  The Qianlong emperor, who reigned for much of the eighteenth century, and who famously dismissed the 1793 trade mission of Lord George Macartney, took Confucian moral universalism deeply to heart, and without question saw his own august person as the apex of the world’s great moral patriarchy of nations.  At the same time, Qianlong was also the center of a distinct but equally coherent system of Buddhist diplomacy.  Buddhist diplomacy was based on the ideal of the cakravartin, an enlightened “wheel turning” monarch who would protect institutions such as the monkhood, and advance the progress of the Buddha’s teaching throughout the world.

In the centuries before the Confucian renaissance ushered in the era of tribute diplomacy, the ideals and idioms of political Buddhism had served as the lingua franca of international relations.  Buddhist exchanges created and strengthened alliances between kingdoms across northern China, the Korean peninsula and Japan.  Even after Confucianism supplanted the Buddhist idiom in East Asia, political Buddhism remained vibrant in Central Asia, where incarnated Buddhas and lamas held real power, and supported a succession of Mongol khans who ruled as the reincarnated consciousness of the great Cinggis.  Imperial China, especially the territorially vast Qing, spanned these two worlds. Qing emperors like Qianlong ruled their Han subjects as Confucian monarchs, but in their dealings with the lamaist belt of Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria, they skillfully employed the idiom of Buddhist kingship.

The Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute houses a graphic expression of this side of Qing rule:  a portrait of Qianlong painted by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione, in which the emperor sits surrounded by Tibetan deities, and holding in his hands the wheel of the cakravartin king.  Such images were commissioned by the court, and distributed to lamaist Buddhist monasteries as a literal expression of imperial divinity.  Qing China was not only grounded in religion, its rulers were effectively bilingual, simultaneously employing the symbols, language and idioms of two distinct forms of religious kingship.

Even now, religion retains a very prominent place in Chinese political thinking.  Although the Chinese Communist Party is itself formally atheist, Chinese law does allow for limited religious expression. The five officially accepted religions receive approval and even support, but not as independent organizations.  The result is not so very different from the place of religion under the Qing.  Religion is not merely subjected to state authority; it is actually a branch of the government itself.  The Chinese government claims for itself the authority to name the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, and conversely, it rejects the authority of the Vatican to appoint Catholic bishops.  As a result, both Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Catholics have two sets of leaders, one set appointed by Beijing, and another shadow clergy of their own choosing.

The state also sets the boundaries of religion by criminalizing religions that fall outside of its control and its chosen narrative.  Chinese propaganda inaccurately vilifies the Dalai Lama as a separatist, and thus as a traitor to the state’s heavily idealized history of ethnic unity.  The suppression of Falungong was modeled on a 1951 campaign against a religious teaching called the Way of Penetrating Unity (Yiguandao).  The two campaigns shared the tactic of branding religious leaders not merely as misguided, but as enemies of the people.  The 1951 campaign was undoubtedly the more successful of the two; many of those with whom I spoke in 1999 felt that the sudden vilification of Falungong was simply a sideshow put on to distract people from economic doldrums.

Scapegoating religious enemies is nothing new in any country, but what many Western observers fail to appreciate is that religion in China always been seen as the rightful purview of state control.  There is little reason to expect the current regime to view things differently.

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