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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

China's stress on "harmony" keeps tight lid on religion

August 25, 2008

Douglas Todd
The Vancouver Sun (Canada)
August 24, 2008

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, the Tibetan Dalai Lama.)

Despite their relative lack of freedom, however, Christian and other
religious groups have been slowly expanding in China 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. This photo
of a mountainside Buddhist sculpture in China, taken by a B.C.
traveller named Barb, illustrates some of that openness.

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. "Underground" religions avoid some of
the Chinese government's bureaucratization, but they do not actually
meet in secret. Most of these small religious groups gather in public
buildings.

In another apparent contradiction, the Pew Forum has found three out
of five Chinese people, including many who say they aren't religious,
believe in supernatural phenomenon -- such as divinely dictated good
and bad fortune, as well as fate.

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.
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