In the face of widespread repression, what can we learn from China’s unexpected return to religion?
Religion is an undeniably contentious topic. In one form or another, it has existed at the centre of societies throughout history, influencing laws, shaping culture, and fueling conflicts – but this looks set to change. Here in Britain, it seems as though religion is slowly losing the grip it has long over our society as we move towards secularisation. The most recent British Social Attitudes Survey reveals “compelling evidence that the process of secularisation continues unabated”, with 52% of participants identifying as non-religious, a steady increase over the last decade, rising from 43% in 2008. Changes in a country’s approach to religion often correlate with its political and cultural climate in interesting ways. As Britain gradually separates from its religious identifications, China is experiencing an unlikely return to faith. The country is undergoing a religious revival which finds a search for the sacred inextricably entwined with its rapid development in the last 30 to 40 years.
At first glance, this resurgence may come as a surprise amidst news of widespread religious repression, with a particular focus on the autonomous region of Xinjiang in the north-west. The area has drawn international attention as the location of detainment camps holding an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs: a minority Muslim group living in parts of the country. A 117-page report published by the Human Rights Watch in September 2018 presents evidence of “mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment of Turkic Muslims”. Religious persecution has dramatically increased since late 2016, after Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo relocated to Xinjiang to assume leadership. Described as “reeducation facilities” by authorities, “virtually any perceived offence” could result in detention “from having traveled overseas to owning a tent”, according to Foreign Policy’s year in review.
The summary states that: “There have been reports of deaths in the political education camps, raising concerns about physical and psychological abuse, as well as stress from poor conditions, overcrowding, and indefinite confinement.” Human rights violations have been denied by Chinese officials who characterise the camps as “vocational education and employment training centres” for “criminals involved in minor offences”. Despite this, “they permit no independent monitoring of these facilities from the UN, human rights organisations, or the media”. However the government attempts to mask its actions, the camps demonstrate the ongoing cultural erasure, persecution, and abuse of religious minorities. In a letter addressed to the US Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, the camps have been described as “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today”. In November 2019, experts from the United Nations issued an “unprecedented and devastating assessment of the Chinese government’s counterterrorism law”, highlighting how the law is being used to “justify gross violations of basic rights and freedoms”. The camps present a disturbing manifestation of the war on religion orchestrated by those in power. But has it always been this way?
Religiosity as a broad term threads its way through the history of Chinese culture in many ways, including for those in the highest positions of power. In pre-20th century China, “religious authority constituted the ‘lifeblood’ of imperial rule”. The imperial title of the Chinese emperor was Tianzi or “Son of Heaven” which stems from the Tianming or “Mandate of Heaven”, a political and religious doctrine used to justify the rule of the Emperor of China. The title was taken somewhat literally in that monarchs were referred to as deities or demigods, chosen by ancient gods or goddesses. Coming back to the present day, the Chinese government recognises five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism.
Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, discusses the state of religion in China in an interview for Asia Society. He describes the party’s bias towards the so-called traditional religions of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk practices, proposing that scepticism towards Islam and Christianity is rooted in their foreign ties. However, a closer look into China’s recent history shows us that attempts to subdue a community’s faith produces the opposite effect: faith becomes a pillar with the power to unite, a source of comfort, identity, and solidarity. In the face of oppression, people appear to cling to faith stronger than ever. Johnson explains how “believers and academics have argued that periods of intense suppression, such as the Cultural Revolution, were crucibles that forged stronger belief”. For example, we can see this through the spread of house churches, independently-operated underground Christian assemblies generally considered to be illegal. They emerged towards the end of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 when all public religious practice ended, and continue to exist separately from the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which was established for Protestant Christians to declare support of the Communist Party government. The enforced religious restriction sought to stop communities from practicing their faith – but instead, they would meet in people’s homes to worship. Religion was forced to go underground, and still, the revival grew.
In the 2003 article “The Religious Revival in China” for the Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies, Hongyi Harry Lai proposed: “Rampant corruption has further undermined the official ideology, with an increasing number of people turning to religion for an alternative set of beliefs to fill the spiritual vacuum.” In his exploration of the revival’s roots, Lai argues that religion offered “spiritual peace to a population troubled and disillusioned with present-day social and political turmoil”, a process which was “just as significant as the lessening of state prohibition” in explaining the resurgence. This sense of peace is captured by photographer and anthropologist Liz Hingley, portraying the spirit of the movement in her picture essay for The Guardian, Shanghai Sacred: a series of “intimate photographs” which “document the creativity of the faithful when creating ‘sacred space’ in a dense and restless urban environment”. The photographs reflect the breadth of religious practices performed by Shanghainese from all walks of life, with a quietly moving candidness. The revival has even been noted as the fuelling source behind widespread environmental activism, reported in The New York Times. An increasing awareness of the excesses of economic development and consumerism has sparked a movement to harmonise with nature and the environment, driven by social service organisations who serve as “watchdogs for pollution”, made up of religious followers. The secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, Martin Palmer, describes the thought process behind this environmental initiative: “People are asking, ‘How do you make sense of your life?’ An awful lot are looking for something bigger than themselves, and that is increasingly the environment.”
We can learn a lot about a society both politically and culturally by observing the role that religion plays within it. Johnson explains how, in actuality, “politics and economics are the end result of deeper-seated urges and needs. They are outcomes, not causes. So if you want to understand economics and politics you have to understand what drives them.” The religious revival in China is a movement which has been brewing over the past three to four decades, evolving in correlation with the country’s exponential socioeconomic development. The “rise of China” has been named the top news story of the 21st century thus far by the Global Language Monitor (measured by appearances in global print, online, and social media). As the country embraces its status with the rest of the world continuously tracking its economic, political, and military growth, its cultural development must not be ignored. The ongoing crisis and religious oppression in Xinjiang cannot be swept under the rug. In the face of deeply entrenched repression, people continue to push back in a complex and varied show of faith that unites and strengthens.