Communist Party of China embraces virtues of religion in diplomacy

By Chen Lijun Source:Global Times Published: 2015-5-4 19:03:01

A woman prays at a temple in Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Even though the Communist Party of China is officially atheist, and the central government was once wary of religion, subtle signs and increasing activities show there is a changing attitude towards religion in order to unite China and its neighbors.

In March last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping stood in the offices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, and extolled the profound impact Buddhism has had on China.

"Buddhism originated in ancient India," said Xi, the leader of the officially atheist Communist Party of China. "After it was introduced into China, the religion went through an extended period of integrated development with the indigenous Confucianism and Taoism and finally became the Buddhism with Chinese characteristics, thus making a deep impact on the religious belief, philosophy, literature, art, etiquette and customs of the Chinese people."

This is the first time that a Chinese president gave this kind of public speech, and is a sign of a sea change in the way the Party is talking about the role that religion plays in society.

Religion, once derided as the "opium of the people," was marginalized in China's political and social arenas after 1949. During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), many houses of worship were turned into animal stables or destroyed, and clergymen were forced to work in the fields. China's treatment of religious followers has been a constant irritant in its relations with other countries.

However, China's stance toward religion is pivoting as it seeks to increase its influence in the region. For the first time, Communist Party leaders are discussing China's religious heritage and tolerance toward different religious groups, hoping to project a harmonious, accepting image as the country seeks to increase its influence with its religious neighbors. On television and in statements from officials, government slogans and religious sentiments are starting to blend. Religion is becoming the glue that can help bond the region under the Chinese dream.

 Thorn in its side

Religion has often been a headache for China's diplomats. Western countries frequently accuse China of violating the human right of religious freedom.

"Religion used to be a troublesome issue for China's diplomacy. The UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva (now the Human Rights Council) witnessed fierce battles between China and Western countries regarding religious freedom and human rights," said an official at the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council.

But now China's diplomats are regarding religion not as a negative, but an asset that can enhance relations with neighbors. Xi, for example, has attached great importance to it in his recent diplomatic initiatives.

China is currently investing billions of dollars into the "One Belt, One Road" initiative that seeks to bring Southeast, South and Central Asia and Eastern Europe together with roads, rails, ports and economic ties.

In July, Xi visited South Korea where he praised Kim Gyo-gak, an ancient Korean prince who practiced Buddhism for 75 years in China. In September he visited Sri Lanka and spoke of the thousand-year tie that Buddhism has created between the two countries.

In India, his visit was highlighted when he arrived in Gujarat, the place that the famous Chinese monk Xuanzang traveled to during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Explaining Xi's motivation, Xu Liping, the director of the Asia Pacific Society and Culture Research Office at the China Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times, "Today cooperation with developing countries is difficult due to the lack of trust, because they do not share the same values and have no spiritual communication."

But religion can act as a bridge connecting people's spirits. Religion will play a more and more important role in diplomacy, he said.

A television first

Chinese leaders have long known that religion can be used to unite disparate groups of stakeholders. Beijing's Lama Temple was an attempt by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) rulers to highlight the common Buddhist beliefs of Han, Manchurian, Mongolian and Tibetan people. Party leaders have rediscovered this tactic, highlighting that both religion and the Chinese government are seeking peace and harmony.

For example, on March 29, a TV debate was broadcast entitled "Peace and Harmony - the Enlightenment of Religions."

It featured a discussion of participants at the 2015 Boao Forum for Asia in southern China's Hainan Province. It is the first time since its founding in 2001 that the forum, usually focused on economics and business, put religion on its agenda.

Buddhist, Christian and Muslim leaders from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia attended the discussion. They agreed that the essence of those three religions is to promote harmony, peace and goodwill among human beings, as well as between human beings and the universe.

The religious leaders spoke in terms that sounded remarkably close to government slogans.

"We should respect, tolerate and be harmonious with each other and not separate from each other," said Master Hsing Yun, a well-known Buddhist monk from Taiwan. He is also the founding president of the World Headquarters of Buddha's Light International Association.

"We often undertake some works to benefit Hong Kong, especially in harmonious development," said Paul Kwong, archbishop of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (Anglican). He added that people of different religions in Hong Kong respect each other. 

"As a moral and spiritual force, religion can lead the rise of East Asia and further the harmonious development of Asia," said Din Syamsuddin, general chairman of Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the nation's top Muslim clerical body.

The moderator said the purpose of the discussion was to achieve harmonious relations and ideological communion through equal dialogue for people with different values and religious beliefs. The word harmony, of course, is a key slogan of the government.

Unleashing the masses

The heavy earthquake which just struck Nepal has aroused great concern among Chinese Buddhists. Monks at the China Temple in Lumbini, Nepal, which is sponsored by China and headed by a Chinese monk, are working assiduously to distribute materials, help with rescue and raise donations. The Buddhist Association of China is organizing prayer and relief efforts. In Shanghai, Buddhists have donated 4 million yuan ($640,000) for the disaster-hit areas.

This is one example of the growth of diplomacy conducted by non-government organizations, known in China as public diplomacy. Although all NGOs in China are answerable to the government, public diplomacy is seen as different from official diplomacy, and an important complement to it.

Other examples of the growing role of religion in China's public diplomacy include the Third International Taoist Forum held in Jiangxi Province last November, and the Fourth World Buddhist Forum scheduled to be held in Jiangsu Province in October. Both events are aimed at discussing the positive role of religious thought in solving world problems. A Chinese Islamic culture exhibition was held in Malaysia last July as the two countries celebrated their 40 years of diplomatic ties. A Chinese Christian group visited South Korea and held a seminar to discuss communication and cooperation in last June.

Domestic harmony

Religion is becoming a more potent force in domestic society as well as international affairs.

According to Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, there are more than 100 million people who believe in different religions in China. This is a massive shift from the time of the Cultural Revolution, which actively sought to stamp out all forms of religion and led to the destruction of temples, mosques and churches.

Since 1978, the Chinese Constitution has guaranteed freedom of religion, and the government recognizes and has institutionalized five faiths: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. However, friction has arisen from people trying to practice their faith outside of this structure. For example, the Chinese Catholic Church has no ties to Rome, and the Dalai Lama is not recognized as a spiritual leader under Chinese Buddhism.

For the three decades after 1978, Chinese people benefited from extraordinary economic growth, with hundreds of millions of people lifted out of poverty. However, many critics say that as the country grew richer, it lost its moral compass, leaving some people feeling adrift. Many are turning to religion for spiritual comfort.

Since 2004, the Chinese government has used the slogan of "building a harmonious society" to describe creating a country that balances economic growth with social stability.

Since Xi came into office in 2012, he has been promoting a policy he calls the Chinese dream, which emphasizes promoting traditional Chinese culture for the purpose of national rejuvenation.

In the current environment, China has not produced many religious leaders or scholars that have significant sway in other parts of the world, nor are these leaders being cultivated. Yet these people are needed to enhance China's influence over the world.

In addition, the government is wary about anything that could pose a threat to national security. It is concerned that religion could be manipulated by hostile foreign forces, especially among separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions who trigger terrorism and seek independence.

From recent public actions, it is clear the government has seen the importance of religion to current China. The government also realizes problems could hinder its goal and thus need to be seriously addressed. That is why many expect that the change in official rhetoric will soon be reflected by a major revision in the current Regulation on Religious Affairs, which took effect 10 years ago.


Newspaper headline: Bonds of faith

Posted in: In-Depth

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