Religion in China.

            Organized religion can be understood as human-created systems of order and community.  Theology can be understood as human-created systems of philosophy grafted onto the initial ethical codes of early religions.  What the members of a faith, especially any clergy, make of these systems in particular historical circumstances gives them their character. 

            When Western Liberalism and Marxism were young, organized religions often sided with conservatives.  Hence, both movements tried to fence-in religion.[1]  At an extreme, Communism sought to repress religious belief and practice.  Given the immense repressive powers of dictatorships, that should have been the end of that.  Except that, in China, it wasn’t.  While many people in any society seem to live well enough without religion, many other do not.  They often feel a desire for spirituality.  They also desire some formal ethical standards.  Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity all have followers in China.  Forty years ago, the Communist Party adopted a more tolerant policy.[2] 

            Xi Jinping turned out to be an early adopter of religious tolerance.  For one thing, Marxism had begun as a religious faith offering a promise of a “heavenly” future to its adherents.  That faith dimmed among the survivors of the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.”  The Party inquisitors could keep open dissent at bay.  They could not stimulate enthusiastic belief.  Some alternative would be needed.  Xi is a big advocate of “virtue” in the individual and in society.[3]  So he found a lot to like in Confucianism and in Buddhism.  Perhaps to his surprise, there also are an estimated 60 million Protestants.  Given China’s economic progress and the emergence of a middle class of strivers, that may be no coincidence.[4] 

            If Max Weber explored connections between religion and capitalism, there also can be connections between religion and nationalism.  Xi appears content with religion that matches well with the goals of the Communist Party.  He is less happy with religion linked to challenges to Chinese power.  Such is the case in the province of Xinjiang.  It’s a huge province in China’s Far West.  Many people in Xinjiang had converted to Islam, but different groups fought.  These quarrels drew-in the Qing Dynasty during the Nineteenth Century.[5]  After this conquest, China’s many troubles in the Twentieth Century encouraged separatist revolts. 

If the surface of Xinjiang is barren, it’s sub-surface is rich in carbon (oil, coal).  China has steadily tightened control and encouraged migration by ethnic Chinese.  None of this calmed the province.  Along the way, Islam has become identified with nationalist resistance to China.  Since 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Russo-Chechen wars, any Islamic activism in Central Asia can be cast in a hostile light.[6]  In this case, Islam cannot be bent to government purposes.  The brutal repression in Xinjiang arouses Western sympathy.  As once did the fate of the schoolgirls of Chibok, Bosnians, and whales. 


[1] Thus, both the American and French Revolutions legally separated Church and State.  European Liberals often moved on to aggressive anti-clericalism.  Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity fought back by linking themselves more tightly to political conservatism. 

[2] Ian Johnson, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (2017). 

[3] In this he resembles Maximilien Robespierre.  That doesn’t mean that I’m predicting a Chinese Thermidor. 

[4] See: Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905). 

[5] For the sake of simplicity, Chinese imperialism is left out of textbook discussions of the “New Imperialism.” 

[6] See the very unhelpful Tunku Varadarajan, “How to Delete a Culture,” WSJ, 16-17 July 2022. 

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