Why religion is more important in China than in the West
It's a Chinese tradition to worship the moon on Mid-Autumn Day. Cao Jianxiong/Zuma Press/PA Images   

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One of UnHerd’s main themes is religion – specifically the idea that “religion matters, even if you don’t believe.” That’s true even in the most secular societies. For instance, the People’s Republic of China has an officially atheist government – and it has by the far the largest number of non-believers of any nation.

And yet, as the China-expert Ian Johnson says in a Five Books interview, “we can’t understand China without understanding religion in China.”

Indeed, it can be argued that religion is more important in China than in the West, because the country’s government has shut off so many secular sources of meaning:

“There are people in China who are looking for values and answers to basic moral questions. Some find it in humanism or in democracy or in human rights, but the government has largely made these taboo topics.”

Interviewed by Alec Ash, Johnson provides a number of valuable insights. Here’s one example:

“Chinese hate it when people say that China is the factory of the world – they view it as an insult. With thousands of years of civilization, they say we’re more than a factory for Apple products, we have a lot of culture and values to contribute to world civilization.”

And yet that heritage has been subject to successive campaigns of destruction that Westerners can barely imagine. In the late 19th century, there were a million temples in China. A hundred years later they were almost all gone:

“By the end of the Cultural Revolution, more or less all places of worship in China had been either destroyed, closed or repurposed, so that there was no functioning temple, church or mosque in all of China.”

Communism was responsible for much of the destruction, but half the temples had already been destroyed before the Communists took over – victims of earlier spasms of revolutionary modernisation and military conflict.

In the West, we see the more recent liberalisation of China mostly in economic terms. But there’s another story to tell about the last forty years of reform, which is China’s recovery from a civilisational apocalypse.

At the same time that China began to reorganise its economy along semi-capitalist lines, Johnson hints that some figures within the government saw religion as a way of recovering China’s identity. For instance, he tell the story of a young Communist official at the start of this reform period:

“His first assignment outside of Beijing after the Cultural Revolution, in the early 1980s, was in Hebei province, in Zhengding, a town that’s now very close to Beijing by the new high speed rail. He was sent there in 1982 to be the deputy county chief, and worked with a Buddhist monk who was trying to rebuild a temple. The two of them did quite a bit of work together. Nowadays this isn’t so uncommon, but at the time it was quite new, and sort of edgy…

“He remained in close touch with the monk for many years afterwards.”

And the name of this official? Xi Jinping… yes, that one.

Johnson is not suggesting that Xi is a secret Buddhist, “but there are good indications he was at least sympathetic or curious about Chinese religion.”

If that’s true, then one has to ask what he counts as Chinese religion. The Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian traditions would seem to qualify. But what about Islam and Christianity? Both of those have been in China for well over a thousand years, but Islam is associated with separatism in the far west of the country (as is the Tibetan form of Buddhism), while the rapid growth of Christianity further east presents a different kind of challenge.

Under Xi, there have been crackdowns – for instance, on the 1,500 churches in Zhejiang province that had their crosses forcibly removed. Johnson cautions against excessive alarm, noting that “only one church was demolished… all the others are still functioning.” However, he does fear that the government’s top-down management of religion could be storing up trouble for the future:

“What I worry most about religion in China is that because the government is picking winners and losers, and because there is so little inter-faith dialogue and many prejudices, if for whatever reason there is less authoritarian control there could be religious violence in China.”

The obvious answer is less top-down control and more inter-faith dialogue. But then a strong, self-managing civil society has never been a communist objective.

An alternative view on China's future moral character

Is President Xi a moralist like Gertrude Himmelfarb?

By Michael Burleigh