Thursday, March 12, 2009

Article - The faithful come out

Mark Vernon (Guardian UK, 28 Jan 2009)

China is experiencing a religious resurgence and, remarkably, the government is letting it happen

If you walk down Battery Path in central Hong Kong you are likely to see a silent protest on one side of the pavement. Two or three demonstrators sit, cross-legged on the ground, in meditation. Next to them, on boards, are displayed the hideous images of individuals who have been beaten and presumably tortured. Passing parents shield the eyes of their children.

These are supporters of Falun Gong, the religious movement founded in the 1990s. It is distinguished by being probably the highest profile victim of the Chinese government's fear of organised religion. A clampdown began after a peaceful protest in July 1999 in Tiananmen Square when Falun Gong was outlawed. According to Amnesty International, the government then launched "a long-term campaign of intimidation and persecution, directed by a special organisation called the 610 Office." Protests are allowed in Hong Kong, just yards away from government offices, because of the status of the Special Administrative Region.

It is a clear reminder of the dark side of the Chinese authority's approach to religion. However, it is not the whole story.

Martin Palmer is the secretary-general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). He runs one of the few organisations that have a license from the Chinese government to work with religious groups in the country. He can hardly stress enough how profound the changes now taking place are. So are they a sign of a more relaxed attitude towards freedom of religious expression?

About three years ago, he was approached to make contact with Taoists. This followed similar suggestions about working with Buddhists, three years before that. These invitations struck Palmer as odd, to say the least. After all, this is a regime that had tried to wipe out Taoism, destroying about 98% of its temples, statues and scriptures.

However, reforms have continued apace. Just last year, in 2008, several public holidays were reformed, again indicative of development. The May Day holiday, symbolic for any socialist, was downgraded and in its place two others were revived. One is the Qing Ming, or Festival of the Dead, on which Chinese people remember their ancestors. A second is the Dragon Boat Festival, which partly commemorates a famous mandarin who warned an emperor against corruption. The significance of that story will not be lost on the Chinese people.

Palmer believes that three factors have come together to make the Chinese government reconsider its attitude towards religion.

The first is the consequences of the one-child policy. "It's the biggest single sociological change in China since what we think of as China was created," he says. "It completely undermines the notion of the family and the clan." In short, it encourages people to disregard the elders and focus all their hopes and aspirations on the one child.

As any parent might realise, single-minded devotion of that sort does not make for ideal child-rearing. In China, people talk of creating a generation of "little emperors and empresses", and they're not using terms of endearment.

The second factor is untramelled consumerism, the free market policies that are creating a generation raised on greed. "Chinese culture has always previously recognised an underpinning ideology," Palmer explains, referring to Confucianism, republicanism and most recently communism. "They may have been honoured in the breach as much as in observance, but now it is recognised that the country has a problem" – namely, how to nurture a sense of society, care and ethics.

That links in with the third issue, which Palmer calls "the almost complete collapse in communism". He reports how officials, wearing communist insignia, have told him to ignore the word: they really work for the "Chinese party" not the "Communist party", they say. This is no bad thing, of course. In relation to religion, it has led to a relaxing of the rules so that it is now possible to be a member of the party and have a registered religious affiliation. To date, about 40% of party members have "come out" as religious as a result.

All in all, the government is clearly turning to the country's traditional religions in order to revive old sources of value.

No doubt it is partly a cynical move. If religion is the "heart of a heartless world", to recall Marx, it can also be used as an opiate for the people.

A little religious commitment might help to mitigate the social unrest that a growing gap between rich and poor can bring. It is this kind of strife that the authorities fear more than anything. Falun Gong's problem is that it is perceived as exacerbating such discord, not calming it. It sounds paranoid, but the received wisdom in China is that every past regime has been weakened by a religious uprising that eventually led to the regime being overthrown. Falun Gong is the unfortunate heir of that myth. It fits the bill because it is, in part, an apocalyptic movement.

But more widely, religion is resurgent in an extraordinary way in modern China. Whether it can turn the tide of carefree morality, characteristic of the new capitalism, is another question entirely.

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Thirty years ago, the Chinese government forbid all religious activity. Today, freedom of religion is in China's constitution.

Human rights groups have called for greater freedom in China, including the freedom of religion. The communist country remains officially atheist, and China has been criticized for its treatment of some religious minorities and groups that do not enjoy official sanction. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Beijing, however, that some Chinese see a growing role for religion in the future.

The consensus from the streets is that religion is a positive force in society.

Question: How relevant is religion to China today?

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