Dalai Lama and his rebel troops, 1959
Last week we looked at the Indian half of the Dalai Lama’s claim that China had a lot to learn about religious harmony from its neighbor to the southwest. Try to find stories about recent events in China similar to India’s Gujarat massacre, India’s burnings of Christian churches, India’s Muslim bombings, India’s continuing religious warfare in Kashmir, India’s heavy-handed Puritanism of Hindu Taliban thugs. You won’t find much. In a country of 1.3 billion people there is a little bit of almost everything, but “infinitesimal” would be a good word to describe the level of religious violence in today’s China.
The 20th century revolutionary movement in China started at about the same time it did in India, but against a historical backdrop of theocratic violence that young intellectuals were determined not to repeat. In the 1850s, a lunatic Christian named Hong Xiuquan persuaded followers that he too was the son of God, sent to save the East as his brother Jesus had saved the West. The tale of what became known as the “Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping” is far stranger than fiction; Hong conquered most of southern China, ruled as its emperor in the old imperial palace at Nanjing for many years, and was ultimately overthrown only at the cost of some 20 million lives. That’s a lot of bodies, even for China.
On top of that, the communists saw that their rival, Chiang Kai-shek, had converted to Christianity, and that the corruption of his government and his perceived sellout to Western interests were inextricably entangled with foreign efforts to Christianize and colonize China. If there was one thing the often-bickering Chinese communists agreed on, it was that religion was not going to undermine their campaign to modernize the nation.
That never meant banning religion per se. It did mean bringing religion under firm control of the state, so that it could not pose a political threat. The approach is quite different from that of India and America, where religion is respected as a power in its own sphere equal to that of the civil government. China has five government-approved religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Taoism. Anyone can worship in any of these faiths to his heart’s content. Catholics, for example, are free to believe in Purgatory, indulgences, and the magic power of relics; free to attend Mass whenever they want, sing their hymns, and receive all seven sacraments. So why do the Vatican and its American Christian allies complain about China all the time?
They complain because the government insists on a role in the appointment of bishops, on oversight of matters like church finances, and on making sure that the content of preaching does not turn anti-government. In other words, an arrangement not unlike that of European Catholic churches for nearly all of Christian history. As recently as 1953, the Concordat signed between the Vatican and the violently pro-Catholic government of Spain provided for government controls over the appointment of bishops.
The Chinese government didn’t really need a reminder of what uncontrolled God experts can do, but it got one anyway when the Catholic Church played a central role in bringing down the communist governments of Eastern Europe. The repression that exists in China – and there is quite a bit of it – concentrates on the “house churches” that insist on functioning outside of the oversight structure. From the government’s standpoint, the main reason anyone would ever want to operate outside that framework is precisely to facilitate conspiring against the government, which it simply will not tolerate. So we see the stream of headlines about arrests of house church leaders, which are played in the western press as a crackdown on religion itself. What we don’t see are articles about the hundreds of millions of Chinese who quietly practice their faith in state-approved churches; there’s nothing newsworthy about that. Even the Bush administration removed China from its list of the worst human rights violaters.
What about religions not on the approved list? Though officially illegal, they are tolerated in practice, so long as they don’t make political waves. For example, there is a small Jewish community in China. Jews have thousands of years of practice in keeping out of government’s way, and thus get along just fine. At the other end of the scale is Falun Gong, which the government exercises every means in its considerable arsenal to suppress. There is historical background here too: at the turn of the 20th century, the “Righteous Harmony Society” combined mysticism, martial arts, and political dissidence in a potent brew that resulted in the Boxer Rebellion, wreaking all kinds of havoc before it was finally suppressed. The government describes its spiritual descendant Falun Gong as an “evil cult,” which among other things promotes faith healing in opposition to modern medicine.
I do not know whether that charge is true or not, but suppose for a moment that it is, because that puts the contrast between the Chinese and American approaches to religion in sharp focus. In America, we tolerate anyone who goes around claiming that prayer is a better approach to disease than medicine, and then we quietly bury all the people who die as a result. When the victims are children, we sometimes (but not always) prosecute the parents after the fact, but we never go after the true villains, the God experts who earn their living spreading these vicious lies. In China, the government says “No! You cannot go around brainwashing people not to go to doctors. We will just not allow that.” Which approach is better? Well, if you’re a professional God expert, the American free-for-all is better; if you’re a sick child, the Chinese model holds a certain appeal.
Then there is the particular beef of the Dalai Lama, the personal grudge that leads him to do bizarre things like praising the “religious harmony” of a country with the second-worst hostility to religious minorities in the world.
Pre-revolution Tibet had a caste system much simpler than that of India. At the top were the Buddhist monks, led by the Dalai Lama. At the base were hundreds of thousands of serfs, owned by the monasteries, who wore themselves out in the fields to support the monks’ indolence. After the communists took complete control of the central government in 1950, the Dalai Lama solemnly promised that he would be a loyal citizen of the new regime, which in turn allowed him the continued freedom to preach his particular flavor of Buddhism. The government did, though, free all the Tibetan serfs, and break up the vast landholdings of the monasteries so the former serfs could earn a decent living, reducing the monks to the poverty in material things they urged on everyone else.
In 1959, during the chaos of China’s “Great Leap Forward,” the Dalai Lama took the bait of millions of dollars being dangled by the CIA. In an effort to win back his lands and his status, he abandoned his people by fleeing to the safety of India and then inciting those left behind to an armed revolt, supported by massive airlifts of American weapons and money to the insurgents. The problem was that most of Tibet’s peasantry didn’t look on serfdom as being the good old days, so the rebellion never got anywhere. Ever since, the Dalai Lama’s lifestyle has been supported by the largesse of the CIA, and he has dutifully responded with outspoken backing for other dictators like Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet. Today, China allows Tibetan Buddhism to promote every spiritual belief that has developed over the last 1500 years; it just won’t allow a political rebel and traitor to run it.
I am not a propagandist for the government of China. It does a lot of things that are simply despicable. But when it comes to its attitude toward religion, if we open our minds, we just might learn something. Enormous freedom of worship, with almost no religious violence or God expert interference in politics or policy making. There’s a lot to like about that.
1. Leader in religious intolerance: India vs. China, Part 1
2. In Brief: Are all religions the same?
3. Congress Should Reject Conservative Religious Groups’ Call For Taxpayer-Funded Job Bias, Says Americans United
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