The Tension Between Politics and Religion in China

By He Qinglian
(Modified version of the Epoch Times translation)

Self-immolation tragedies have continually taken place among Tibetan monks in recent months. On March 23, People’s Daily Online blamed the Dalai Lama for inciting Tibetan monks to self-immolate and accused him of spreading Nazism to the Tibetan people.

Before this, officials from the regime’s Ministry of Health admitted that prisoners on death row are the source of organ transplants in China. This has reminded people of the allegation by Falun Gong practitioners that missing Falun Gong practitioners in China were the sources of organ transplants. All these painted a clear picture of the harsh conflict between Chinese politics and religion. The tension has never been so great. It is not only true for Falun Gong, but also for Tibetan Buddhism, Islam in Xinjiang, Christian family churches and Catholic Church in China.

In the face of these conflicts, only a few of government officials or highly educated individuals can fathom the issues from the perspective of structural-functional relationship between religions and society.

Most members of the Han Chinese majority think, “We’ve given the ethnic minority groups lots of economic support and favorable policies, why do such situations still happen?”

As for Falun Gong, many people simply repeat the regime’s “evil cult” propaganda and are not willing to truly listen to what Falun Gong practitioners have to say.

The similarity in opinions between the people and the regime is caused by the inherent relationship between religion and the politics of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

While Western scholars have always seen religion as “the key to deciphering human civilization” and attach great importance to studies of religious culture, the attitude of contemporary China toward religion is totally different. After 1949, all religious activities were once banned and religious studies abandoned.

I purposefully chose the elective of “the world's three major religions” in college. But the content was very shallow, and the historical view on religion taught was based on Marxist theory that “religion is the opium of the people.”

My understanding of folk religion which peaked in the Ming and Qing Dynasties built up only gradually as I studied history. Based on my own reading and thinking, the strained relations between religion and politics in China have to be understood from the following three aspects.

One: The influence from traditional Chinese political culture. This should be looked at from two angles.

The first angle: Even though Confucianism was most respected in different dynasties, Buddhism and Taoism were allowed as well. Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism are all regarded as legitimate.

There were periods in Chinese history when Buddhism was persecuted against, which are called “Three Wu One Zong” suppression (commonly known as “Three Disasters of Wu”). There were cultural reasons for the suppression, such as the opposition from social elites who followed Confucianism; but more importantly, it was the economic reason: the Buddhist monks and nuns did not produce income and paid no taxes.

However, the tension and horror created by those cases of suppression was far less severe than that created by the persecution of Falun Gong by the Chinese regime. For example, the highest death toll in a suppression of Buddhism was during the reign of Emperor Wuzong in the Tang Dynasty. About 300 Buddhists were killed.

During the Emperor Wu Di period (Yuwen Yong, 561-578) of the Northern Zhou Dynasty, several million Buddhist religious were made to return to the secular world, where they could continue practicing Buddhism as lay Buddhists.

Emperor Shizong of the Later Zhou Dynasty was even more civilized in the measures used. He only stipulated that one must have the consent from parents and relatives before becoming a monk or a nun, and that Buddhists must go to designated public altars to make vows. Meanwhile, some religious rituals that would cause harm to the body were banned.

Throughout most of Chinese history, spreading Buddhism and Taoism was allowed. Some emperors, members of the royal families, and other social elites were believers in Buddhism or Taoism—a complete antithesis of the strict and rigid control and monitoring of religions the CPC employs since it came to power.

The second angle: All dynasties kept a watchful eye on folk religions. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, folk religion was even regarded as a source of rebellions. Apart from Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, there have always been various folk religions in China. Not much research on the topic has been conducted. In his article, “Retrospective on the 100 Year History of Chinese Folk Religions”, written in 2010, religion historian Wang Qingde combed through the studies of folk religions by Chinese scholars and listed out the pros and cons of such religions.

He pointed out that it was the Dutch scholar Jan J. M. de Groot (1854-1927) who included Chinese folk religions as part of the Chinese cultural system, and not the Chinese elites who generally looked down upon the folk religions. Between 1892 and 1910, Groot compiled The Religious System of China and Chinese Families of Religion and Religious Persecution. In these books, Groot focused on the unregulated, unsystematic aspects of folk religion and its customs in an attempt to establish a system of Chinese folk religion.

In the 1940s, Chen Rongjie, a Chinese expert of religion, concluded that Chinese religious activities can be classified into two categories. The first is the folk religions, practiced by the “average Joe.” The second is the institutionalized group of the three major religions, namely Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, which were followed by well-educated and thus more enlightened people. Such a categorization gave folk religion the social status it deserved, but this academic breakthrough was completely destroyed by the political culture of the CPC.

Two: The tension between religion and the CPC is unprecedented due to the communist ideology itself.

In the field of social sciences, only communist doctrine provides explanation for the ultimate value of humankind, a characteristic unique to communism and not shared by any other social sciences, because only religion would provide the ultimate explanation for humankind. All political entities that believe in communism establish dictatorships. They want to expand their control not over the human world and human mind, but also in the divine world by offering an ultimate explanation of the matters of the world. Therefore, they consider all religions as unorthodox and evil theories that threaten their power, and they regard all organized groups as threats to their rule.

This is the root cause of the tension between religion and the CPC. Even after the reforms of the 1990s, when the CPC partially lifted the ban on such institutionalized religion as Buddhism, Taoism and Catholicism, they never allowed folk religions to exist. What corresponds this view is the characteristics of an authoritarian culture that exist in the study of religious history, which tends to define religion from the perspective of political science. 

Given that the various folk religions popular among the lower classes in society constitute beliefs that contradict the orthodoxy of the community, and their organization independent from the larger social unit—some folk religions, for example the White Lotus Sect, actually became the driving force of popular anti-government movement, they were banned by the authorities and prohibited by law. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, such folk religions were labeled evil cults, a definition with which many scholars today agree. 

Because of this, Falun Gong started off as a qigong organization, rather than a religious one. Otherwise, there would have been no room for it to spread. 

In 2000, Beijing decided to eradicate Falun Gong, the Chinese intellectuals almost agreed unanimously that the eradication was politically justified. In 2008, the general public only became aware of Beijing’s troubles in Tibet and Xinjiang when the Olympic torch relay started. Chinese people started to vaguely realize that the biggest issue in Tibet was religion and that the clashes in Xinjiang constituted conflicts between the political culture of the CPC and Islam. Long accustomed to agreeing with the government eradication of cults, the Chinese people could side with the government regarding the issue of Falun Gong. But they are confused with the political conflicts that the CPC government have with Tibet, Xinjiang and Christian family churches.

How to interpret the religious phenomenon? French historian Marc Bloch once said that religion “is like a knot connecting largely different social structures and social spirits. Simply put, religion relates to the environment of the entire mankind.” In order for any religion, including Chinese folk religion, to start and spread, it must have a strong motivation that is deeply rooted in society. It must also assume certain social functions, such as psychological counseling, social interaction, rescue and support, keeping fit, combating diseases and even making a living. Apart from all these, the most important function of religion is spiritual connection.

The clashes between politics and religion in China will become the main issue in Chinese society. If Beijing only utilizes political violence to suppress and eradicate religions, the tension between politics and religion will mount, and the clashes between the government and various religious entities will also intensify.