China struggles with religion and identity

China struggles with religion and identity

By Monika Chansoria | 13 August, 2017
China exercises brutal control upon civilian liberties and severely curtails freedom of religious choices.

In a mandate released on 15 July in the Qiushi Journal belonging to the Party’s Central Committee, the State Administration for Religious Affairs issued fresh directives to all Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members to adhere to Marxist atheism and stick to the Party’s faith that does not allow seeking value and belief in religion. By making this pronouncement, China has ended up exposing its prolonged struggle and contradictions with religion and religious identity.

Instructions have been passed on to nearly 89 million members of the Communist Party to “guide religious groups and individuals with socialist core values”, renounce personal religious beliefs and refuse support to any religious activities, whatever the reason may be. Further, the Chinese government has been asked to continue to “maintain its tight grip on religious groups…” In all, it’s a loud and clear warning that holding on to any religious belief shall be considered a red line for the cadres the Party. They have no option but to denounce religion, or else, face censure.

There has been a view among many state officials in China, including Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs that “non-local” and “foreign religions such as Christianity and Islam” have been used to spread “political beliefs” within China. Following the release of the above mandate, another commentary published by Chinese state media exactly four days later, on 19 July titled “Hindu nationalism risks pushing India into war with China” said that India’s present political dispensation took “advantage of rising Hindu nationalism to come to power…and made India more subject to the influence of conservatives”. Chinese domestic politics, including pressure on the Central government to craft a strong Chinese national identity, is among the main drivers behind China’s manipulation of historical consciousness to glorify the Party, re-establish its legitimacy, and consolidate national identity. Historical revisions, reinterpretations, and distortions have often been cited by China to justify redrawing of frontiers and expanding spheres of influence. Beijing’s tone and content against a democratically elected and representative government of the world’s largest democracy, India, is unsubstantiated, inflammatory and irresponsible. China is not even close to comprehending a system in which the power rests with the peoples, and the government of the day is a representation of the people’s choice.

The inherent contradictions between identity, state, religion, and politics are more than apparent in the Chinese case. In March 1982, releasing perhaps the most essential document issued by the CCP’s Central Committee, Document 19, elucidated official Chinese view on religion and religious policy. This document presented a rather contrarian view to the latest mandate released by the State Administration for Religious Affairs. Warning party members against banning religious activity, Document 19 asserted that the Party’s adopted policy on religion is that of respect and protection of the freedom of religious belief. Although Document 19 and the latest mandate promulgate similar views that Communists are atheists and must unremittingly propagate atheism. However, Document 19 had issued a stern cautionary advice that “...it will be…extremely harmful to use…coercion in dealing with the people’s ideological and spiritual questions—and this includes religious questions.” 

Evidently, the 1982 advisory is being blatantly violated by the present Xi Jinping administration in China. While Article 36 of the self-styled, puppet “Constitution of the PRC” guarantees citizens the freedom of religious belief, the bitter fact remains that China exercises the most repressive, despotic and brutal control upon civilian liberties, while severely curtailing freedom of religious choices and expression. The world is not oblivious to the continuing atrocities and crackdown against the ethnic communities that are seething under a fierce Chinese onslaught, resulting in a society, which remains filled with trepidation and unease.

Besides, China officially provides recognition to five religions—Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Islam, and Protestantism. However, there has been a sharp increase in religious persecution, with four ethnic minority communities specifically being targeted for their respective faiths—Tibetan Buddhists, Hui, Protestant Christians, and Uyghur Muslims. Not surprisingly, the July mandate shall see the common thread of social and religious crackdown applied most strictly throughout northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region and the Gansu Province.

A signature line that Xi Jinping often recites is, “If the people have faith, the nation has hope, and the country has strength.” The contest between China’s “peoples”, their “freedom to practice religion” and violent state power seems unending. Socio-political subjugation and any aspect of demonstrating socio-economic change that shall likely threaten the political authority or legitimacy of the Party will continue to be “treated” with an iron fist.

Dr Monika Chansoria is a Tokyo-based Resident Visiting Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).

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