As President George Bush’s visit to China draws closer reports coming out of China talk about an interesting change in Beijing’s official attitude toward religion. Whether the change will be for the better or for the worse for Tibet is yet to be seen, but commentators have gone so far as to say that this could be the forerunner of China’s change in attitude toward the Dalai Lama. Here is an analysis in Asia Times of February 19, 2002.

It may not be a coincidence that this new Chinese outlook on religion comes at a time when the Bush Administration is projecting religious freedom as one of its priorities while dealing with China. In his weekly radio address on February 16, 2002 President Bush had the following message for China. “And I will express my hopes that as China moves forward, it, too, will embrace the universal demands of human dignity, freedom of conscience and religion, and the rights and value of every life.”

China’s leap of faith

Francesco Sisci

Asia Times, February 19, 2002
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BEIJING – People admit it, although it is not official, yet. In the southern province of Zhejiang, officials discovered a strange phenomenon: a drop in crime along with a growth in the number of religious believers, particularly Christians. It is not final evidence, but the indication is that the spread of religion helps social order, an idea that the Communist Party is examining. This is behind a story produced by the official Xinhua News Agency on February 8 (“China’s religious groups contribute to modernization”) that gave a new spin on the issue of religion in the country.

The heads of China’s five official major religious groups (Protestant, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist and Catholic) were quoted as saying: “Religion constitutes a positive force to the progress of modernization.” Shi Zesheng, vice chairman of the official Protestant Church of China, said: “President Jiang Zemin’s speech at the national conference on religion last December was encouraging. We feel our endeavors are not only recognized by the country and people, but are also well received.”

Furthermore Chen Guangyuan, chairman of the Islamic Association of China, said: “One should not associate terrorism with any specific ethnic group or religion. Islam upholds peace and friendship. Religious groups in China respect each other and contribute to the country’s stability.”

A few days after the Xinhua story, the People’s Daily published an article that attacked cults, of which Falungong was an example, but was careful to draw a line between cults and religions. The story (by Liao Wengen, “The dregs of superstitious movements are resurfacing”, People’s Daily, February 11) denounced the revamping of some cults so that they “waved the flag of religion”.

Some days earlier, in “Islamic community condemns ‘East Turkistan’ terrorist force” (January 26), Xinhua reported that Zunong Abula, a member of the Islamic Association of Xinjiang and the imam of the Nongjichang Mosque in the regional capital, had realized the nature and background of the “East Turkistan” terrorist force.

In sum, after Jiang’s speech we have been told that religion is a positive force not to be confused with cults or terrorist activities.

The exact contents of Jiang’s speech on religion are still unknown but the gist seems to be a revaluation of religion in positive terms, as a contribution to modernization. This is a long way from the persecution of religious activities during Mao Zedong’s time. The new attitude, while still not tolerance of religion, rejects the old atheist principle that religions are bad. And, although it is far from being a green light to total freedom of religion, this development opens a new chapter in the process of change of China and could be a first step toward the eventual normalization of ties with the Vatican and restarting a dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

These signs did not escape the attention of Catholics. Father Angelo Lazzarotto, in a forthcoming article in the Hong Kong review Tripod, points at what he called “the great opportunities of China’s modernization”. Despite hopes in the Vatican, however, normalization of ties will not occur in a short period of time.

But the Communist Party has embarked on a complex quest for the improvement of standards of morality in China, which could help stem corruption. Last year the party launched a subtle campaign on morality as a part of an anti-corruption drive.

On the foreign front, a re-evaluation of religion also would help relations with the United States, and also with the Islamic world. The latter is extremely important. China wants to gain a free hand in dealing with its own terrorists without offending Islamic countries or its own influential domestic Islamic community.