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The best books on Religion in China

recommended by Ian Johnson

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao by Ian Johnson

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
by Ian Johnson


China is a religious country with all kinds of faiths being practised across its vast territories—despite Mao's attempts to eradicate them. The Chinese Communist Party tolerates a variety of religions but continues to grapple with the potential challenge they pose to its authority. Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson introduces the best books on the complex topic of religion in China.

Interview by Alec Ash

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao by Ian Johnson

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao
by Ian Johnson

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We can’t understand China without understanding religion in China. It is part of the fabric of the country and has been for as long as memory. In your book The Souls of China you tell the story of China’s religious renaissance since the death of Mao, following Buddhist pilgrims, Shanxi Daoists, Chengdu Christians and others over the course of one year. Why is this story important?

As you say, we can’t understand China without understanding religion, but up until recently, a lot of people would have found that statement strange, because many people – historians, ethnographers and journalists – largely ignored religion in China. It was considered to be an unimportant topic, even though it had been central to the question of how to modernize China over the past century. Reformers from Kang Youwei to Sun Yat-sen, and leaders such as Chiang Kai-shek – not to mention Mao Zedong – saw traditional Chinese religion as a key social ill that had to either be massively reformed or eradicated. This unleashed one of the most radically secularizing campaigns in history, with hundreds of thousands of places of worship, mainly traditional temples, destroyed.

So in the 1970s one political scientist wrote—and I’m paraphrasing—of the astounding fact of our time that a nation with one quarter of the world’s population had no religious life as people had known it. At that time, all places of religion under Mao had been closed, and religion didn’t seem to be an important part of Chinese life. But that began to change at the end of the Mao era. Religion had been attacked for over a century, but in the reform era for roughly 30 years until the Beijing Olympics, there was a relatively laissez-faire policy toward it. There were moments of persecution, but by and large religion flourished on its own.

Now we’re in an era where the state is actively picking losers and winners, and religion is back at the centre of a national conversation in China, playing a role in what kind of society and values does China have – what are the ideas, the beliefs of this rising superpower? Many Chinese are grappling with these questions, while the government is trying, in typical Chinese government fashion, to guide and shape it. But it’s a very messy complex question.

Is religion filling what some people call the spiritual vacuum in China, as the nation figures out what its identity is in this newest incarnation?

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. We do have dissidents, for example, who think China needs to change to a more open liberal society and a more participatory political system. A lot of those moral issues could be solved by having a more moral government, one that doesn’t rely on coercion and violence to keep itself in power. But other Chinese also see a wider moral issue, that China needs some kind of a moral framework.

“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”

Identity is also a very important part of this. 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.

The past century and a half has been so traumatic to Chinese that they don’t know what their country stands for. What is “Chinese”? If you look at Chinese clothing, Chinese architecture, city planning, the political system, the economic system, nothing is really Chinese per se. There’s Chinese food and Chinese medicine, and those are perhaps the only two big things left from the old society. So religion is a way to identify as Chinese.

In your book you also write of how Xi Jinping and the current government of China has an ambivalent relationship toward religion. As well as crackdowns, in part Xi Jinping is embracing some Chinese religions. Does that contribute to his popularity, and can you tell us more about it?

It began before Xi Jinping, but because of his concentration of power and personal charisma he has been able to push through changes more forcefully than other leaders. So he is widely seen among many Chinese as a defender or a supporter of Chinese traditions, and he is very popular among practitioners of so-called traditional Chinese religions. I say so-called because all the officially accepted faiths – Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity, which in China is divided into Protestantism and Catholicism for administrative purposes – have a long history in China. Islam has been in China for 1200 years, and Christianity first came in the Tang dynasty, roughly 1300 years ago.

The traditional religions, as many people think of them, are Buddhism, Daoism, folk religion, and Confucianism, if you want to think of it as a religion. But these beliefs were never separated into distinct religions, and are best thought of simply as “Chinese religion”, a single term. Xi is very popular among practitioners of these faiths. They see him as a backer, as a supporter, and some even fantasise that he might be a practitioner himself.

You write that he had a Buddhist mentor, perhaps.

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. Xi’s father [Xi Zhongxun] was in charge of religious affairs for the Party, and Xi embraced that, using it as a way to develop the town. He remained in close touch with the monk for many years afterwards. I don’t think he was a follower or anything like that, but there are good indications he was at least sympathetic or curious about Chinese religion.

How do you reconcile that, and expanded opportunities for religion in China today, with the other state impulse of stability maintenance. Religion has always posed a threat to political stability, so it’s a double-edged sword.

The government views religion – as governments have in many parts of the world, over the ages – as an ally that can help give legitimacy, because of this search for values that we talked about. But Beijing also sees it as a force to keep in check. That’s because they provide a system of truth and justice that is higher than any particular temporal power.

So even a belief system like Confucianism, which is often seen as a pillar of the establishment, can pose a challenge to China’s political system. Confucianism was not the emperor’s ideology. It was higher than the emperor, making it quite different from Maoism, where the ideology and the leader were the same. In the past, many officials in China committed suicide or accepted exile because they stood up against the emperor or his government for Confucian ideals and beliefs. So even Confucianism can challenge government authority – and that is even more true in Islam and Christianity, which have deeper foreign ties.

Let’s further understand the present by looking at the past. The first of your book recommendations is The Religious Question of Modern China by Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer, a primer on the history, politics and diversity of Chinese religion published in 2011. Why is this book on your list?

This book has an academic bent to it, but I chose authors who are right for a general audience. Many of these books are also ones that I teach and I find that students really like them – they’re clearly written and make compelling arguments. Goossaert and Palmer are key because they represent a new consensus in how people in China and abroad understand the past century and a half of Chinese history. Most standard histories focus on politics and perhaps some economics, but mostly miss the fact that religion has been at the centre of China’s struggle for modernity since the 19th century.

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Early reformers saw either suppressing or reforming religion as central to their efforts to save China from foreign occupation. In the late 19th century, for example, one of China’s great reformers, Kang Youwei, advocated converting temples to schools – the idea was that China needed more education and less tradition. Another example is Sun Yat-sen, who is often credited with overthrowing China’s last dynasty, the Qing, in 1911. His first act of revolution as a young man was to take a giant stick, go to the temple in his hometown, and smash the statue of a Daoist deity – a symbolic act to get rid of all of the old traditions that he felt were holding China back.

And again during the Mao era many more statues and temples were smashed. Tell us more about that – were these blips in the long history of China embracing religion, or are their effects still very strongly felt today?

In the Republican era – from 1911 until the Communist takeover in 1949 – there were many movements attacking traditional religion. Rebecca Nedostup’s book Superstitious Regimes shows how the KMT saw traditional Chinese religion as a social ill analogous to opium, foot-binding or illiteracy. One of their edicts in the 1920s decided which temples should be destroyed and which should be preserved. In a precursor to the Cultural Revolution, KMT activists went around the countryside destroying old temples and criticising them as superstitious.

So it wasn’t just the atheistic Communists attacking religion, it goes back much earlier. In the Mao era the Party pursued similar policies, but with its customary brutality. The new government allowed some religions to coalesce out of the old system in the 1950s, and the system which gave rise today to the five official religions in China was formed then. It was quickly jettisoned by Mao as he lurched more and more to the left with radical policies such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, until only Mao was left as a godhead figure.

“Rebecca Nedostup’s book Superstitious Regimes shows how the KMT saw traditional Chinese religion as a social ill analogous to opium, foot-binding or illiteracy.”

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. Just as a rough number to give you an idea, a census showed roughly a million temples in late 19th century China. By the middle of the 20th century, before the Communists took over, about half of them had been destroyed, and the Communists wrecked the rest over the next 26 years.

Now many of those temples have been rebuilt, but is the movement over? Because there still is a lot of persecution of religion in China, as you write. Islam is closely monitored, Christian organisations are raided, and many Tibetan monasteries have a police station right next to them. Has religion really survived the onslaught?

Religion used to be embedded in Chinese society. Just as in many traditional religions around the world, it was part of the fabric of daily life. People worshipped communally in temples, for example, or had patron saints for most professions. You don’t see that in China today. Religion is no longer the lifeblood of society. Now it is something that people do in their own time, their private sphere, which is essentially how modernity has dealt with religion in many other countries throughout the world. In that respect this trauma that China went through in the past century and a half ran parallel to other parts of the world.

A good country to compare this with is Turkey. The Ottoman Empire, when it collapsed at the end of World War I, was replaced by a radical secularising regime under Atatürk, which did very similar things to religion. They closed mosques, they viewed Islam as holding Turkey back, and they tried to create a European-style state that would allow some religious life as private practice on a certain day of week at a certain place of worship under government supervision, but not as anything that would challenge the state. They turned some mosques into museums, men weren’t allowed to wear full beards, just a neat little moustache, and women weren’t allowed to wear the hijab.

Still, you can’t keep religion down, and after Mao died in 1976, as soon as the 1980s there was a reflowering of practices which had previously been banned, as related in your second book pick, Qigong Fever by David Palmer.

When I was in China in the 1990s, and further back in the 1980s, there was a movement called Qigong. Qigong is a neologism created by the Communists in the 1950s to describe energetic spiritual practices that might be analogous to yoga in the Indian tradition. So methods of physical cultivation that also have a spiritual component, similar to meditation I would say. But the Communists also noticed that it had healing properties, and so they made it part of the traditional Chinese medical systems. Chinese hospitals used to offer acupuncture, herbal medicine, cupping and qigong. There are still a couple of hospitals that offer it today.

It was forbidden in the latter part of the Mao era as what the Communists called “feudal superstition,” especially during the Cultural Revolution. But after Mao died it came back in a strange way. It jumped from hospitals and clinics into the public sphere. People practised qigong in parks, and it became a form of challenge to the government, because it was very personal and physical, but performed publicly and in a large group. As the ’80s and ’90s progressed, grandmasters began to appear who not only taught qigong but had their own schools, with moralistic tracts and booklets, a kind of “popular fundamentalism”. People were searching for a new creed after communism had been discredited and replaced by economic growth at all costs, but with no other underlying moral system. The old imperial system was gone, traditions were gone, but nothing replaced them except economic growth.

So people found their answers in qigong. The five accepted religions also came back after the Cultural Revolution, but were tightly circumscribed. They were not allowed to proselytise, they couldn’t go out into parks and spread information tracts. Yet qigong was officially registered as a martial arts form, so people could freely hang banners from the trees in the parks, hand out materials, and attract mass followings. During the 80s and 90s tens of millions of people followed different qigong masters.

We often think of historical epochs as marking absolute cut-off points, but they don’t. The same people who grew up in the Mao era were now going through the traumatic economic changes of the post-Mao era. This was the beginning of the reform of state owned enterprises, in which steel works, coal mines and so on were being closed, so people had a lot of time on their hands, often retired at age 40 or 50. They had nothing to do, so they joined these groups and found a deeper meaning in qigong, which also promised health benefits. Palmer lays it out really well, with many colourful anecdotes.

As you say, these groups were organising, and one of them, Falun Gong, came to a sticky end in the late ’90s. You won the Pulitzer Prize for your reporting on this, which readers can find online or in your book Wild Grass.

Palmer has a good term for Falun Gong: “militant qigong”. In the final part of the last chapter of his book, he describes Falun Gong’s rise as the most organised but also militant of these groups. The government was coming under a lot of pressure because qigong was growing so quickly. It was obvious they were quasi-religious but were completely unregulated and growing quickly. Many hard-core atheists were demanding that officials take action. Sensing that the tide was turning, a reported 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners made the ill-fated, suicidal decision in 1999 to demand their right to organize. They carried out a sit-down strike right in front of the leadership compound at Zhongnanhai in Beijing, just to the west of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

I was there, and 10,000 is a suspiciously round number, but I think it’s safe to say that thousands of people showed up. In any case, the leadership freaked out. Jiang Zemin, who was the head of the Party at the time, set up an office called Office 610 – named after the date it was set up, June 10th – to eradicate Falun Gong, and even today you still find office 610s in local government offices around China. Many of them have a broader mandate now, which is to go after any kind of religious activity that the government doesn’t like, any kind of so-called cult.

The government justified its crackdown by labelling Falun Gong a doomsday cult, similar to the Branch Davidians in the United States in the 1950s, or the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan who perpetrated the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway in the 1990s. But Falun Gong was different because there was no attack. They didn’t do anything. The government claimed it was a suicide cult, but I find that very hard to believe because at the end of the day they could only come up with two or three cases of people committing suicide, out of what they said were 100 million followers. They also said its practitioners refused medical care, but the state was itself at fault for making that care too expensive. Also, one should keep in mind that many religions around the world, such as Christian Scientists in the United States, sometimes reject medical care.

So it didn’t seem like a cult, but it was banned and there was a huge crackdown. Thousands of people were sent to labour camps, and scores died from police brutality. It remains the biggest crackdown since the June 4 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Falun Gong is still is a very active opposition group to the Chinese government, but that marked the end of that phase of religious revival in China.

In that respect it’s a part of the wider story of China in the 1990s, still reeling from 1989 but also slowly opening up again, only to be kept back down.

That was a different era, when some things in China were up for grabs. The state was discredited post-Tiananmen, without as tight a grip on things as they do today. So a movement like qigong could rise up, even a group like Falun Gong. Can you imagine anybody doing a sit-down strike in front of Zhongnanhai today? If you went with ten people and sat down, you would be out of there within five minutes, in the back of a police car. What we are seeing now is a much more controlled kind of religious revival.

Let’s move onto Christianity then, with your third book selection, The Missionary’s Curse by Henrietta Harrison, about a Chinese village which has been Catholic since the 17th century.

Christians have been coming to China since the Tang dynasty, around 700 CE. They were the Nestorians who later became defined as a heretical sect but at the time were very influential. Then came the Franciscans in the 13th and 14th centuries. Finally, the Jesuits established a permanent presence in the 16th century. Most famous was Matteo Ricci, a fantastically colourful figure. The Jesuits were accepted as purveyors of scientific knowledge, like clocks and astronomy, until 1700, when the Jesuits were attacked for being too accommodating to traditional Chinese belief. Ricci and his successors had few reservations about ancestor worship and purposefully translated words that were similar to traditional Chinese ideas, so arguably many Chinese thought they were actually worshipping a form of Chinese religion. For example, the word for Catholicism in Chinese is tianzhu, “lord of heaven”, but there’s actually a deity called tianzhu in China, so it sounds like something traditional.

In what was called the Rites Controversy, the Pope sent a delegation to Emperor Kangxi in 1707 banning Chinese rites, such as ancestor worship. Of course Kangxi thought that this little religion, which he probably felt had been tolerated out of the goodness of his heart, had gotten out of control. So he essentially banned it.

“Christians have been coming to China since the Tang dynasty, around 700 CE”

The Missionary’s Curse is about a small Catholic village in Shanxi province in the Taihang mountains. The author, Henrietta Harrison, is a professor at Oxford University, and she speculates that traders from Shanxi met the Jesuits in Beijing, brought back this new religion and converted the whole area. Through this microscopic story Harrison describes the story of Catholicism in China – and by extension Christianity – through several brilliant epigrammatic stories.

Can you tell us one, to give a flavour of the book?

My favourite is the story of the 19th century Chinese priest who felt that the Italian priests were racist. The Chinese priests were looked down on – even to the point that in the graveyard they were buried at the feet of the Italian priests. So he went by railway and steamboat to Rome and petitioned the Pope. According to the story, when the Pope came out of St. Peter’s, the priest knelt down on the side of the street as he passed by, wearing a giant conical hat on his head with his petition written on it. The Pope stopped and the Chinese priest explained his story. The Pope said, ‘You are right, the Italians are wrong – go back and I will solve your problem.’ Through archival work at the Vatican, Harrison shows the priest did actually go to Rome, but he likely didn’t meet the Pope. But the record shows that the Vatican did listen to him and were probably sympathetic to him.

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By going to Rome for redress, the Chinese priest showed he was aware that he was part of a global religion. Harrison’s book describes how cultures interact, starting with the idea that perhaps they take things that are familiar – terms, such as tianzhu, and perhaps holy figures like the Virgin Mary, who echo Chinese deities. But over time, practitioners realize they are part of something bigger. So what happens is they begin to adopt international norms. Harrison sees this as a paradigm for broader issues of how cultures slowly grow to understand each other – starting with the familiar but eventually becoming part of a global norm.

China’s troubled history with Christianity continues with the Taiping rebellion in the mid 19th century, then the anti-Christian Boxer uprising in the first years of the 20th, and now with persecutions and splinter groups. Can we finish our potted history of Christianity in China?

In the 19th century Christianity was heavily persecuted as a foreign religion, and it only flourished because the Opium Wars forced China to allow missionaries back into China. That lasted about a hundred years until the Communists took over in 1949 and kicked out all the foreign missionaries. Many people thought Christianity might collapse in China, because it was cut off from the West. But Christianity indigenised and is now a permanent part of China’s religious landscape, even though there are continued attacks on Christianity and many Chinese still view Christianity as a foreign religion.

Not all Christian groups, however, have grown equally quickly. In 1949 there were roughly 3 million Catholics and 1 million Protestants. Today there are about 10 to 12 million Catholics, and about 50 or 60 million Protestants. The number of Catholics has not increased all that quickly, it has actually just tracked population growth, probably because cut ties to the Vatican has made it harder for bishops and priests to be appointed, whereas Protestant churches are less hierarchical and can be established by any group of believers. In both cases, it’s the so-called “underground” or “house” churches that have grown fastest. The term, though, is a bit of a misnomer. The government knows they exist so they are hardly underground and most are too big to operate in people’s homes. I describe one of them in my book with hundreds of members, a library, a seminary and a school. There are half a dozen churches like that around Beijing alone.

Some sects are still seen as a potentially dangerous fringe, though. Could you tell the story of the Church of Almighty God?

The deep background is that because religion was driven underground in the Cultural Revolution, when it revived in the 80s and 90s a lot of religious groups, especially Christian groups, had a cultish aspect to them – a bunker mentality that we can’t trust the outside world, meeting secretly and run by charismatic figures. One of them, the Church of Almighty God, had ideas mainstream Christians would consider to be heretical: that there had been a second coming of Jesus already, in Hunan, where Jesus manifested as a woman. But they also tapped into various ideas that are popular in Chinese folk religion.

Then there was a case which made it easier for the government to persecute them. A member of the church beat a woman to death in a McDonalds. It was caught on video tape, which you can still find on YouTube. Of course, the Church of Almighty God said this person was not a member, just a mentally deranged person who beat someone to death. It’s hard to judge because there’s no way to verify it – everyone involved was either executed or arrested. But in general the government is still very sceptical of Christianity, which I think it’s fair to say is the most socially engaged religion in China, given its gospel of helping the poor.

Another reason not to go into a McDonalds in China. Let’s move onto Bill Porter, one of my favourite writers, with his book Zen Baggage.

Porter is best known as a translator of poetry, which is mostly published by Copper Canyon Press. But he has also written several travel books about his experiences in China, and has become a kind of cult figure here, because Chinese are very interested in how foreigners view China. Another book of his, Road to Heaven, is about encounters with Chinese hermits around 1989, when he visits them in the Shaanxi area, south of Xi’an, and the Zhongnan mountains.

My recommendation, though, is Zen Baggage, because it is a bit more systematic and current. He goes to all the main Zen temples in China, right from the first patriarch of Zen. It’s like an ethnographic book but it’s not written with the theoretical baggage of sociology. Along the way he meets people and observes them closely, interspersing it with a practitioner’s knowledge of Zen. He is also a funny storyteller. At the end of the evening, no matter where he was, he would try to find an hotel with a bathtub so he could have a good hot bath, sit there with a beer and think about what happened. The best parts of the book are in the bath, or about his bowel movements, how you have to start the morning with a cup of Nescafe to make sure your bowels are moving before you get going.

So he’s a free-flow traveller. Zen is something people tend to associate with Japan, but its origins are in China?

Absolutely. Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the character 禅, which in Mandarin Chinese is pronounced chan. It’s something that the Japanese through clever marketing have been able to steal from China and sell to gullible westerners as some sort of aestheticized Asian religion that any amateur can practise. But it was founded in China and in many ways is a sinification of Buddhism, which originally came from India. Zen has the idea that through meditation you are able to achieve instant enlightenment. A lot of religions around the world have a heavy ritualistic component – you have to worship and worship for years, and eventually you might be able to go to heaven. But Zen in a way is similar to Protestantism: you find your own way to God, or you find Zen through meditation or through koans — which is the Japanese pronunciation for the characters 公案 or gong’an in Mandarin – enigmatic sayings supposed to shock you into enlightenment.

Zen has, as you say, become very popular abroad. So too have other originally Chinese or Asian practices, often stripped of their cultural context – Buddhism without the sutras, Daoism without the demons, and so on. Are these bastardisations of Eastern religion, or evolutions of them?

I can recommend another book about how Daoism gets translated in the West, Dream Trippers, by David Palmer co-authored with Elijah Ziegler. He follows two people: one is a new age practitioner and teacher named Michael Winn; the other is Louis Komjathy, a professor at UC San Diego who is also a spiritual practitioner.

Palmer’s take is that we should not look down on people’s spiritual practices in general. Of course that’s the politically correct thing to say, but he also means that these aren’t simplified or somehow inauthentic versions of a  ‘real’ religion. Many religious reform movements have started with people trying to strip religions of their culturally specific practices. One of the problems with Daoism is it’s so embedded in Chinese culture that it’s hard to say how Daoism is practised without all of that. But I think all religious have a huge spectrum of belief and practice.

Take Catholicism: if you only knew about Catholicism through St. Augustine and then went to, say, a Sicilian church 100 years ago, it would be full of illiterate people from the countryside who are all “hail Mary full of grace” with rosary beads, but don’t know many profound teachings from the Bible. From today’s vantage point, there would be exorcisms and all sorts of superstitious mumbo jumbo. But religion is a spectrum, and in the modern world perhaps the only accepted religious practice is the more intellectualised version or something that’s somehow considered “pure” and “spiritual,” something involving searching for the meaning of life, like the guru in cartoons.

So I think that these westernised forms of Chinese religion, if they’re meant in good faith, are okay. Yet if it’s simply from a colonialist mentality – I fancy an African mask here and a Chinese statue there, I don’t know anything about the culture but it matches the colour of my sofa – or out of vague spiritual notions, then there is something exploitive to it. I think it depends on intentions.

Let’s finish your book recommendations with Democracy’s Dharma, jumping across the straits to Taiwan. How does the renaissance of Buddhism and Daoism there reflect on their process of democratisation?

People often want to know, does China’s religious revival have any political implications? How is it going to change China? Richard Madsen is one of the pioneers of Chinese religious study in the West. He has looked at many different practices, and written a lot about Catholicism, but in this book he looks at Taiwan’s political democratisation in the 80s.

“Richard Madsen is one of the pioneers of Chinese religious study in the West”

He shows that Buddhist groups like Fo Guang Shan, Tzu Chi and Dharma Drum Mountain were all part of a rise of civil society – somewhat similar to the Catholic Church in Poland during the Cold War, helping to undermine authoritarian control, but indirectly. There wasn’t a figurehead like Pope John Paul II, but they did help to pluralise society, and to spread ideas of equality. When I was in Taiwan in the 80s and 90s, people were starting to complain that the government shouldn’t be able to park their cars illegally, or to embezzle money. Some people in China think that, but they don’t speak out as openly about it as people in Taiwan did.

Yet in mainland China the abuses of power are even more overt.

Corruption was out of control, and is only being brought under control through Xi Jinping’s top-down administrative measures. But this will only last as long as he keeps on the pressure – then corruption will come back. Obviously, in Taiwan there were many other factors that led to democratisation, but religion was part of the pluralisation of society, in a classic modernisation paradigm, and spread important ideas that are fundamental to democratic processes.

Samuel Huntington’s classic book Political Order in Changing Societies argues that authoritarian governments can work when society is simple, and you just have a few actors like peasants, workers and the military. But when you have many competing interest groups, then they begin making demands and become harder to control. Religion can be one such force. It is hard to control because it is so close to people’s hearts. So it does have the potential to do for China what it did for Taiwan, in making society becoming more pluralistic — just not to the same degree, because Taiwan is a much smaller country and was more influenced by American pressure. But in China today there are calls for social action and for changing society, and Chinese religions support this because they offer value systems that are higher than any political ideals.

You said earlier in our conversation that because no one really believes in Communism anymore, they need something new to believe in. But in many respects the Party is the only God to worship.

They want it to be like that, but churches and mosques are still open despite the crackdowns. Most recently, the government removed the crosses off 1500 churches in Zhejiang province. But even there, we have to keep it in perspective. Only one church was demolished, but all the others are still functioning. So the faith and the ideas are still there. We have to be careful when we’re looking at any country, especially China, not to get caught up too much in the headlines, but to see past the crackdowns to how the pendulum has swung over the decades predating Xi Jinping. After the Olympics they thought things were getting out of control and they tried to crack down, but it will always be there.

Religion is a double-edged sword for the government. They think they can just embrace a few religions, or certain aspects of it, like the part of Confucianism that is hierarchical, while conveniently overlooking the idea of the mandate of heaven or the right to rebel, which are also key parts of Confucianism. But they can’t really ignore these parts of these faiths; they will always be there and always influence people. Religion will be part of pluralisation of society in China, but it’s not going to lead to democratisation overnight. Probably not in our lifetime.

But perhaps in the next.

You never know. It’s easy to think that things will continue forever. 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. When we think of a billion-plus country with communal violence, we probably think of India. But it could be in China’s future too.

Interview by Alec Ash

January 16, 2018

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Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer working out of Beijing, focusing on society, religion, and history.

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer working out of Beijing, focusing on society, religion, and history.