Do religions influence China’s atheistic rulers?

MADDIE ASKS:

How much of … eastern and western religions have had an influence on the [atheistic Chinese Communist] Party’s ideology?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Not much, on the surface, but there’s obvious affinity with Confucianism that the Communist authorities don’t admit. However — Is Confucianism a “religion” or a mere humanistic philosophy, since it lacks defined gods and supernaturalism?

Dr. G. Wright Doyle, director of the scholarly Global China Center, is currently in China researching Maddie’s issue and has edited a magazine issue on shifting Confucian-Christian relations (see below). He e-mails “Religion Q and A” that “on the level of daily practice” most Chinese see little ethical influence from Confucianism while on the theoretical level it’s hard to trace “conscious influences of Chinese traditional religions” on Marxism or Maoism.

However, he thinks ancient Daoism’s yin-yang dynamic of opposites does have a counterpart in Marxist embrace of Hegel’s dialectic in history and that Daoism complements Communism’s denial of “any absolute truth or abiding ethical standard.”

As for Confucianism, China’s Communists explicitly rejected it from the beginning. Yet Doyle says their “dictatorship fits well into the Confucian concept of the emperor as father and mother of the people” and with “hierarchical social structure that expects complete and unquestioning obedience from subordinates.” Confucianism also agrees with Communism’s this-worldly materialism and its communalism in place of individualism.

T.S. Tsonchev of the Montreal Review says “we can even argue that Communist China, in many respects, seems more Confucian than Marxist.” After all, Communism was an import from modern Europe while the ancient religions the party recognizes, even Christianity, were born in Asia. Oddly, the Party does not list Confucianism alongside its favored Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Tsonchev is among many who consider Chinese Communism a ”political religion” with its own Mao-worship, scriptures, doctrines, mythologies, icons, idols, and festivals.

The Party requires members to be atheists. Yet Doyle says many have “personal commitment to some form of religion, especially Chinese Buddhism and, recently, Christianity.” He remarks that Party members “at all levels contribute large sums of (ill-gotten) money to temples, either in order to procure personal peace and prosperity or to assuage a guilty conscience.”

State policy is defined in the Constitution and the Party Central Committee’s 8,000-word “Document 19? on “the religious question” (1982). Neither text hints that religions influence the Party or state, nor do they recognize that citizens might find value in faith.

Remarkably, the Constitution pledges “freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities.”

Ah, but what’s “normal” in Communist eyes?

Religious activity must not “disrupt public order,” or interfere with the state educational system, or be “subject to any foreign domination.” Document 19 adds that religions must not “meddle” in civil affairs, or criticize the Party or state socialism, or “destroy national or ethnic unity,” or allow those under age 18 to join, or distribute literature without state approval, or meet outside designated buildings, or reject affiliation with government-approved “patriotic” religious associations.

Whether religious work is criminal under those or unwritten rules is decided by atheistic bureaucrats with arbitrary powers unlimited by an independent judiciary. It appears that the Party cannot accept religious liberty both due to its atheistic dogma and from fears of competition due to corrupt Communism’s weakness and lack of credibility.

Thus Communist operatives may harass the countless Protestant “house churches” that in principle will not register with atheistic overseers, Catholics who persist in loyalty to the foreign Pope, restive Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in Xinjiang, and followers of Fulan Gong and other indigenous faiths considered troublesome.

Document 19 preaches that “religion will eventually disappear,” but not immediately, declaring that it’s unwise to eliminate it by force. That repudiated the recently deceased Mao, although the document professed fidelity to “Mao Zedong Thought.” Mao unleashed fury against millions of religionists (also Communists with equal savagery) through execution, torture, forced labor, and destruction of families, cultures, homes, livelihoods, and properties.

Currently, a “New Confucianism” is angling for increased influence. But China’s major religious phenomenon is Christian growth, especially for Protestants. Hong Kong researcher Tony Lambert cites estimates from China’s Academy of Social Sciences that the nation has 50 to 70 million Christians or at minimum 40 million. One academy expert projects that at current rates China will have 150 to 200 million Christians in 50 years, while another expects to see 200 to 300 million within 20 years.

Text of Document 19 (.pdf)

ChinaSource Quarterly issue on Confucian-Christian relations (.pdf)

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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