How religion is unofficially influencing China

In the Xi Jinping era, China’s position on religion is being changed at an informal, grassroots level

Jonathan Tam

Government and governance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | East Asia

7 December 2015

Members of the Chinese diaspora are returning home and quietly, unofficially, influencing the country’s policies on religion, writes Jonathan Tam.

While China has undergone a number of changes since entering the Xi Jinping era, its position on religion has remained relatively unchanged, although evidence suggests that policy is being changed at an informal, grassroots level.

Xi has been preoccupied with taking down the “big tigers” in his party to consolidate his power and has not had time to evaluate religion closely. Although a number of high profile issues intertwined with religion are beginning to pose some difficult questions, Xi has maintained the status quo by not rocking the boat – for now.

Even though the West generally views China as a country without religious freedom, the reality is that China has “religious freedom” in its constitution, although that freedom only extends to the five legal religions – Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Islam. But, as with most things in China, the religious landscape on what is permissible is constantly shifting and it has become essential for religious practitioners to be able to navigate change. For example, Falun Gong was permissible until Beijing deemed it to be a destabilising factor.

China is extremely protective of its religious sector and notorious for being indifferent to international pressures, which is understandable given religiously motivated movements of the masses have historically threatened (e.g. Taiping Rebellion) and even toppled (e.g. Red Turban Rebellion) Chinese dynasties.

It is unlikely in the near future that official foreign partnerships, such as that between the Vatican and China, would come to fruition. Nonetheless, China recognises some benefits in importing foreign religious influences and there is an informal, alternative stream returning to the country from the Chinese diaspora, which the Chinese state sometimes permits.

The Chinese diaspora is arguably the largest in the world both in terms of spread and sheer numbers. Members are well positioned to serve as critical cultural brokers in developed countries. For example, in a recent study I found that Chinese officials are more trusting towards fellow Chinese over non-Chinese in matters of religion. A major reason is diaspora members are better equipped (e.g. language, sociocultural norms, socioeconomic status) to navigate China’s complex and shifting socio-political landscape and do not carry the post-colonial burdens that their white counterparts do.

Diaspora Christian communities are actively and covertly exporting Christian ideas and practices to China. Because they usually partner with local Chinese state-approved agents, they end up influencing religious policies. Recently, I observed a team of Chinese-Canadians running an English summer camp at a government-sanctioned church in a village in Central China. A high-ranking official from the province’s Religious Affairs Bureau became suspicious of the activity and came with his wife to observe the camp.

The Chinese-Canadian team observed the ground rules of not proselytizing, but carried on teaching English supported by games and singing children’s hymns like Father Abraham with modified lyrics. The Chinese-Canadian team leader told me that the main goal was capacity-building for the local church so that they can run their own camps to serve their community in the future. Over the week of interacting with the Chinese-Canadians and local Protestant clergy, the official became convinced this team was safe to partner with, and even drove some members to the airport for their flight back to Canada. There are now discussions on how this team can expand their operations under the aegis of the provincial government.

From China’s perspective, there are many benefits in regulating foreign religious influences. First, given China’s rapid economic growth, Xi has stated the necessity of improving the moral condition of the country and religion is a key arbiter of ethical values.

Second, it makes no sense to reject free human and material resources that benefit places that have not boomed economically like the upper-tier coastal cities have, and these resources are especially welcome in rural regions with scant social services. Diaspora religious communities not only offer religion, but also qualified professionals with credentials from the West such as doctors, engineers, teachers, and lawyers.

Third, having the diaspora agents cooperate with the local state agents makes them easier to observe and regulate. Some diaspora organisations have even been redeployed by the state, going from running summer camps to helping build hospitals.

Fourth, China needs overseas expertise on religion, especially Protestant and Catholic. In fact, importing overseas theological training fills a dire need  – to prevent house churches radicalising into cults, and consequent destabilisation (e.g. Eastern Lightning).

Specifically, this allows the state to support religious teachings aligned with its agenda, and to allow for representatives from the overseas communities to educate the house church members, whose leaders can struggle to receive formal training from government-sanctioned seminaries.

Finally, should any of these transnational associations not work out, it allows the state to remain free from any consequences since the partnership was covert to begin with.

China’s religious policy in the foreseeable future is to maintain flexibility. As many things are in China, what is written may not be what is practiced. The state recognises that it is impossible for its domestic religious communities to be religiously sequestered from the rest of the world in the face of rapid globalisation. Even though official religious channels are closed, religious ideas and practices can still be imported covertly as long as one plays by China’s unwritten rules.

Domestically, Hong Kong already serves as a middle ground – a launching pad for overseas and local religious agents to enter the Mainland and also a place for Mainland Chinese to receive theological training free from government censorship. Furthermore, Taiwan and Singapore’s religious communities are eyeing the religious market within China as political ties are improving. By strategically partnering and regulating religious communities from the diaspora, China gets plenty of opportunities to assess the credibility and trustworthiness of potential partners.

By no means are all religions in China on an equal footing. China supports the indigenous religions, Buddhism and Daoism, while Catholicism and Protestantism are treated with scepticism, and Islam has it the worst with China’s systemic discrimination. While it may be a stretch to extrapolate the Christian case above to other legal religions, all five major religions nonetheless have potential partners abroad.

There’s an undercurrent of change through transnational linkages that is going largely unnoticed, but if it hits key figures, such as the aforementioned official, it can cause significant ripples in the Chinese religious policy landscape. To quote from one of my interviews with a diaspora religious leader, “The Chinese government is just like an old traditional Chinese father. If you save his face, he will let you do whatever you like. So just don’t make him lose face and publicly embarrass him.”

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