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Religious revival fills a void in China

By ERIC TEO CHU CHEOW, The Japan Times, Dec 27, 2005

SINGAPORE -- As constitutional debate gathers steam in Japan over the separation of state and religion, the Japanese may want to consider China's efforts to resuscitate participation in religion.

<< Tibetan Buddhism, akin to Lamaism, is making a comeback in China

In mid-October, the 5th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the announcement of China's socio-economic blueprint for the next five years signaled fresh debate on the country's future. Beyond this, an important socio-ideological shift appears to be taking place within China's leadership and elite.

More importantly, as President Hu Jintao consolidates his power over the party, government and military, China appears to have nudged toward the left. China has lowered growth forecasts while emphasizing Hu's "harmonious society" and Premier Wen Jiabao's three agricultural policies.

Yet, as economic growth presses ahead and Chinese society embarks on its most rapid transformation ever, there seems to be an urgent need to fill an ideological void. Indications of revived religious fervor are growing just as a new debate on the future of Marxism in China appears to be emerging.

Although signs that Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and even Christianity and Islam are taking off in what has been considered an atheistic society, banned sects such as the Falun Gong and "underground churches" face persecution.

Still, a contradiction is growing between the ideological tenets of the CCP (though real communist content has been much reduced in daily practice) and Deng Xiaoping's "to grow rich is glorious" philosophy. Therein lies the crux of a hot debate that is resurfacing -- calls for greater social equality (and hence a return to "religious roots") vs. further economic growth (amid a wealth-accumulation ethos and widening social disparity).

Confucianism is being actively promoted, according to recent reports, to ensure that Chinese society stays on a stable course as it modernizes. The CCP's devastating and systematic destruction of religion over the past 56 years has left the Chinese bereft of ideological, moral and religious "balance" at a time when Chinese society is probably undergoing one of history's most critical experiments in social engineering.

Confucianist temples are now opening up with official blessings -- from Beijing and Nanjing to Tianjin and Shanghai. Confucianist ceremonies are being re-introduced to glue Chinese people together with cultural pride and religious "self-renewal." Taoist temples and cults have followed suit, after being branded as "bourgeois" and "decadent" during the Cultural Revolution.

In September the World Buddhism Congress was held at one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains, Wutaishan or Wu Tai (Five Peaks), in Shanxi Province, west of Beijing. Not only did Chinese authorities welcome the Buddhists who flocked there from India, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Japan, South Korea, and from the West, but they also encouraged Chinese Buddhists to spend time there to reflect on their temporal life. Many Chinese lay people volunteered as official guides for visitors, taking time off from mundane jobs to stay for a few months at mountain temples.

Groups of Chinese were seen scaling various temples (94 remain today from a peak of some 360 during the Tang Dynasty 1100 years ago) to pray and offer incense.

Even Tibetan Buddhism, akin to Lamaism, is making a comeback, as a political settlement is being negotiated with the exiled Dalai Lama. Beijing and Tibetan emissaries are trying to find ground to agree on the eventual return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet one day, just as the Beijing-supported Pancha Lama is getting more publicity in the Chinese media. "Lama" temples in Wutaishan bustle with activity.

Moreover, according to one official, there is a frantic revival of Christianity, probably China's fastest-growing religion. Underground churches have proliferated in China's urban areas and appear to be tolerated to a certain extent as long as they don't contravene the authorities. For this reason Pope Benedict XVI is said to be keen to normalize relations between the Vatican and Beijing.

China also has begun to pay more attention to the rise of Islam in society, after having quashed Islamic Uighur separatist movements in Xinjiang in the 1990s. After Sept. 11, 2001, collaboration with America helped weed out radical elements. Today, though, Islam is allowed to flourish as a religion in Xinjiang and across China, while China increases its own ties with the Muslim world, especially the Central Asian republics, in order to check separatism and religious terrorism.

This religious revival must be understood in the context of the continuous ideological decline in China and the current philosophical vacuum. Beijing's leaders fear that society may be veering toward increasing social unrest and other forms of instability -- due in part to the growing rich-poor gap -- if there are no effective alternatives provided to the wealth-chasing mentality consuming China today.

Eric Teo Chu Cheow, a business consultant and strategist, is council secretary of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs.

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