Beijing eases Buddha bar

by Saibal Dasgupta, Times of India, May 22, 2010

Beijing, China -- Though the Communist Party is counting on the ‘safety valve’ of faith to reduce social tensions, it will not allow religion to weaken its command and control system.

The officially atheist People’s Republic of China — built on the communist belief that religion is a dangerous opium of the masses — is beginning to walk the Middle Path. Though there has been no official announcement , the Communist Party is clearly prepared to give the Buddha and Buddhism a bigger role than it has played since the mass destruction of monasteries during the Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

One of the first signs of the changing policy was witnessed by millions of Chinese on the small screen after this year’s deadly earthquake in Qinghai in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The normally terse state-run news channels broadcast images of Buddhist monks chanting and praying for the victims and survivors. In another step, Indian President Pratibha Patil is scheduled to inaugurate a Buddhist temple modelled on Sanchi Stupa in Bhopal in Luoyang, Henan province, later this month.

The authorities’ relaxed attitude towards Buddhism was also evident at the Chinese pavilion in the recently concluded World Expo in Shanghai. The Buddha’s image and aspects of the Buddhist legacy were on display for millions of visitors in the Tibet and Yunnan pavilions of the cultural fair. The provincial government of Zhejiang has also launched an ad campaign that uses the image of monks praying at a Buddha temple to lure tourists.
The government seems to be experimenting with a limited amount of religious liberty as part of its “safety valve” approach to manage public sentiment. Rising prosperity among a section of the Chinese people has also resulted in higher turnout at Buddhist shrines and the government cannot ignore the trend.

The big question, however, is whether these moves will actually result in greater religious freedom anytime soon. The Communist Party will not allow religion and Buddhism to weaken its command and control system. Chinese leaders have used this kind of “safety valve” approach on other issues — they have allowed the internet to grow while being quick to crackdown whenever someone used it to spread dissenting ideas.

Monks played a key role in the relief and rescue efforts immediately after the quake and these scenes were shown on official television. Soon, the presence of monks in affected areas began to lessen and there were reports of officials ordering them to go back to their monasteries . On the other hand, the official media published statements from two ‘living Buddhas’ — as some senior monks are called — praising the government’s rescue operations. It seems clear that the authorities found the quake a good opportunity to drum up support among Tibetans and counter the efforts of dissident leaders and monks among them.

It is likely that the Red nation will seek its own blend of Buddhism and socialism — just as it handled the ascendancy of capitalism three decades ago by giving it ‘Chinese characteristics’.