Religion in Contemporary China: Resurgence and Challenge

Dr. Xinping Zhuo, a professor and the director of Institute of World Religions, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, brought a summarizing closure to the full-day conference Religion in China Today: Resurgence and Challenge. The conference brought together scholars from different institutes within China and the US to discuss the current religious landscape, religious developments in China, and more importantly the causes and political consequences of these developments.

In his lecture to the public, Dr. Zhuo began by introducing the religious demographics of China. According to China’s official statistics in 1997, there were 100 million religious believers in China. But according to today’s unofficial estimates published in China Daily, as well as estimates from other sources such as Silver Point, there are at least 300 million religious believers, which is roughly the size of the US population. Even with such a large number of believers, religious adherents are still minorities in China. Dr. Zhuo also presented the challenges that religions face in contemporary China.

There are some major ongoing debates about religion in China. The first one Dr. Zhuo raised was whether contemporary China needs religion given its historical background. Many argue that China is a secular state historically and culturally, and does not need religion at all. The anti-religion movement in the early 20th century, and also during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, smashed religious traditions, making society doubt if there is a place for religion in China. Three dialogues on the essence of religion have emerged beginning the 1960s: 1. Are religions merely superstitions? (1960s) 2. Is religion a cultural phenomenon or just “opium for the masses”? (1980s) 3. Religion vs. Atheism (Now) which is debated mainly in the academic arena. Scholars question if religious study is pursued for religious freedom or if it is actually anti-atheism.

The second major debate Dr. Zhuo spoke on pertained to religious culture. Is the reemergence of religion a sign of going backwards or of regaining cultural wisdom? Some argue that under social evolution theory, religion will vanish because the modernized state is secular. On one hand, some argue that religious culture should be limited to religious sites only, but others believe that religion is an intangible part of society’s cultural heritage and is, in fact, the foundation of the state. Dr. Zhuo vividly illustrated possible misunderstandings of religion in modern society by joking that while the US says In God we trust, in money we use, in some places in China people think In money we trust, in God we use. People invest wealth to build enormous Buddha statues and extravagant temples, which they can then charge visitors an entrance fee to make profits from people’s religious beliefs. This phenomenon mostly exists in local areas, where some do not fully understand the precepts of their religious worship.

The third debate discussed was on the political position of religion. Dr. Zhuo expounded on the complicated relationship between religion and politics. In the Chinese tradition, the relationship is that of state dominated and religion subordinated, while most western societies promote the separation between church and state. He also challenged the notion that present-day China is changing its political situation without changing its political mentality. He said that before 1949, the Chinese government was Communist, revolutionary and rebellious. Now Chinese society needs harmony and stability. With the changing social structure, religions should also change to reflect modern society.

The fourth debate was on the significance of religion as an ideology or as a value system. Dr. Zhuo highlighted the ideological conflicts between religion and Communism. Religious philosophy revolves around theism and idealism, whereas Communist ideology is dependent on atheism, materialism, and Marxism. Dr. Zhuo believes there is tension between religion and a harmonious society. There is consonance on the surface, but there is actually a fundamental difference between the two when observed on a deeper societal level. Some religious groups in China use the slogan “Love the country, love the party, and love the religion,” but this slogan is not recognized by all, and more specifically is not recognized at the government level.

The fifth ongoing major debate is the debate on the relationship between religion and hostile forces,extremism, and terrorist ideas. Dr. Zhuo noticed that hostile attitudes lead to misunderstandings between China and the West. Christianity as part of western ideology challenges Chinese society and cultural heritage. The Chinese word Yangjiao (foreign religion) explicitly shows that hostile attitudes embedded in the language, as “yang” means “foreign” or “non-native”, “jiao” means “religion”, but combined the connotation conveys a sense that believing in these foreign ideas makes you brain-washed by an outside power. The continued hostile sentiment is perpetuated by the fact that many political candidates with Christian backgrounds in the western world often attack China for their own political goals. This causes many people in China to associate Christianity with hostile forces. Dr. Zhuo thinks that the international influence of religion is being over-emphasized in China, for example through the media. He used the extremists in Xinjiang as an example. News media emphasizes that there are foreign extremist influences on Chinese Muslims, which makes people turn into religious extremists, even though in the reality some of these radicals know nothing about religion. Dr.Zhuo also mentioned people’s associations between the separatism in Tibetan Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism (mainly located in Southeast Asia). He expressed his hope that people can discuss these political-religious issues without biases.

Dr. Xinping Zhuo stressed the progress made on religious freedom in China, and his hopes for the development of religion in contemporary China. He thinks that the current waves of rediscover[ing] the value[s] of Chinese traditional culture brings hope to religions, along with Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream which rediscovers traditional values, belief systems, and also Chinese ways of teaching and spiritual cultivation, may bring a new perspectives to religions in China. Zhuo thinks that Chinese religions may enjoy an objective and fairer view, for the realization of [the] Chinese Dream [with] social, cultural and political harmony because the expression of cultural belief[s] brings understanding and tolerance of religions. These societal changes also followed by the dialogues between cultures brings further hope to religious developments in China. Zhuo also feels that religious dialogues can foster respect among different religious value systems, and provide platforms for political cooperation, for example the Mazu Cult shared by both the mainland China and Taiwan.

In the end, Dr. Zhuo said some of the characteristics of Chinese religions have been positive elements in the maintenance of a great-unity state for [a] thousand years. He emphasized that in order for Chinese society to accept criticisms more easily, people have to affirm the progress that Chinese people have made towards religion development, and acknowledge the hope for further growth.

Dr. Zhuo’s lecture provided insights into not only how the religious resurgence is viewed by the general Chinese populace, but more definitively by the Chinese government itself. Dr. Zhuo’s usage of certain key terms coined and circulated by the CCP such as “harmonious society” and the “Chinese Dream” reiterated that his viewpoint is in line with the way the Chinese government sees religious developments in its own country. Thus, the Chinese government, an party whose founding tenant centered around atheism, is now outwardly amenable to allowing religious free-thought in China.

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Siru (Rose) Zhu

is a staff writer of UCSD's Prospect Journal and an undergraduate Political Science student at UC San Diego. She likes to bring awareness to the stories and facts that are under-reported by the mainstream media. Growing up in China combined with extensive travel has endowed Rose with a well-rounded perspective, making her believe that listening to different opinions helps people have more open and unbiased views. For her, life is all about loving, exploring, and improving oneself.

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