There is a religious revival in China – under the constant surveillance of the Communist Party

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The Chinese government has promoted a revival of Confucianism, as well as traditional religious practices, as part of its nationalist agenda. AP Photo / Mark Schiefelbein

The Chinese Communist Party celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding in 1921. For most of those decades, the party sought to restrict or erase traditional religious practices, which it saw as part of China’s “feudal” past. .

But since the late 1970s, the party has slowly enabled a far-reaching, multi-faceted religious revival in China. Most recently, current Chinese President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping endorsed the party’s continued tolerance for religion as filling a moral vacuum that has developed amid China’s rapid economic growth.

This support comes with caveats and restrictions, however, including the demand that religious leaders support the Communist Party.

As a specialist in Chinese religions, these dramatic changes are of particular interest to me.

A religious revival

Atheism remains the official ideology of the party, with members prohibited from professing religious faith. The party’s aggressive efforts to annihilate all religious beliefs and practices culminated in the tumultuous decade of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. All temples and churches were closed or destroyed. Any form of religious activity was prohibited, although there was vigorous promotion of the cult of Mao (Zedong), which assumed the role of an officially sanctioned religion.

As part of major reforms and a loosening of social controls, initiated in the late 1970s, the party has slowly accepted a range of behaviors and traditions that meet religious needs or provide spiritual outlets. Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Islam and Protestantism – the five officially recognized religions – have made comebacks, albeit with varying success.

There are a growing number of local temples, associations, pilgrimages and festivals, and a growing number of Buddhist, Christian and Taoist clergy. Many religious sites are open for private worship and community service and are frequented by people from all walks of life.

Local governments are often keen to restore and promote religious establishments, in large part to stimulate tourism and local economic development.

As a result, a large metropolis like Shanghai has become home to large and small, official and underground religious establishments. They range from local shrines to Buddhist and Taoist temples, churches and mosques. There are also new entrants to the religious scene, exemplified by the yoga centers that have sprung up in many Chinese cities.

It seems that people have welcomed these policy changes. A 2020 study by the Pew Research Center found that 48.2% of the Chinese population had some form of religious affiliation.

The exact data is questionable and it is difficult to conduct reliable research in China. But these results suggest that many Chinese participate in various activities that can be characterized as religious.

A mixture of religious practices

Traditionally, most Chinese do not subscribe to a single faith or build a narrow religious identity. They engage in varied beliefs and practices, a pattern of religious piety dating back centuries to ancient imperial China.

This encompasses aspects of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, as well as many practices known as “folk religion”. These range from visiting temples, participating in pilgrimages and festivals, praying and offering incense, ancestor worship and worshiping various heavenly deities. There are also the popular practices of geomancy or feng shui, an ancient art of harmonizing humans with their environment, and divination or divination.

These rich traditions often have regional variations, such as the worship of Mazu, a sea goddess, particularly prevalent in southeast China and Taiwan. Originally a patron goddess of sailors, Mazu is widely revered by people from all walks of life and promoted as an important symbol of local culture.

Confucian rapprochement

The Communist Party also stopped criticizing the teachings of Confucius, the famous philosopher and educator of the 6th and 5th centuries BC. But that has changed in recent decades, as the party sought to reposition itself as the guardian of Chinese traditions.

This contributed to a significant revival of Confucianism.

The age-old ethical framework of Confucianism provides benchmarks for navigating the often difficult realities of life in a highly competitive society. But the party has also found it useful to exploit aspects of Confucianism that resonate with its core interests, such as obedience to authority and respect for the leader.

As a result, the government supported the reestablishment of Confucian temples and institutes. He also sponsored conferences on Confucianism and even held conferences on Confucian teachings for party officials.

Control and curation of religion

Adopting attitudes and methods with long precedents in the dynastic history of Imperial China, the Communist government is positioning itself as the ultimate arbiter of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, or appropriate and inappropriate religious practices. Religious leaders must support the party and follow its guidelines.

The authorities exercise firm administrative control over all forms of religious expressions and organizations, by any means they deem prudent or necessary. As we know from reports by Western academics and journalists, this control ranges from subtle forms of domination and co-opting of religious groups to outright bans or repressions.

In 2015, the government removed 1,200 crosses from churches in Zhejiang Province. In 2016, a Zhejiang court sentenced a Protestant pastor to 14 years in prison for resisting a government order to remove the cross from his church. In 2018, the government demolished the Golden Lampstand Church in Shanxi Province.

In response, most religious groups are cautious and engage in self-censorship, as I and others have observed on research trips to China.

Muslim Uyghur communities in Turkey and other countries have protested against the oppression of Uyghurs by the Chinese government in the far west province of Xinjiang. Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

China tends to treat harshly religions perceived as potentially threatening to the established order, especially if they are suspected of foreign ties or secessionist tendencies. For example, for decades China strictly regulated Buddhism in Tibet, as it pursued policies aimed at suppressing the cultural and national identities of Tibetans. This contrasts with more relaxed attitudes towards the form of Buddhism practiced by the Han majority.

The party explained its recent ruthless campaign to suppress the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in Xinjiang – a nominally autonomous region in northwest China – as intended to fight terrorism and separatism. According to leaked documents, since 2014, up to one million Uyghurs have been interned in “re-education camps”. This is part of a harsh policy of secularization and “sinization”, which involves assimilating the Uyghurs into the majority Han culture, to the detriment of their religious and ethnic identities.

Balancing act

As it celebrates its 100th anniversary, the Chinese Communist Party seeks to project the image of a unified nation returning to global political and economic domination.

But at home, he faces many problems and is engaged in a balancing act: asserting his dual role of guardian and curator of traditional Chinese culture and religion, but in a way that strengthens rather than undermines. his power and authority.

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This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Mario Poceski, University of Florida.

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Mario Poceski does not work, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond his academic appointment.

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