Religion now shaping China politics
China cannot create a politically modern and truly free society without Christianity, said Chinese journalist Promise Hsu in his presentation to the Course on Religion and Politics in Washington, DC.
Hsu, a former TV journalist and the founding Senior Editor of Fortune Times, has seen much more openness come to China’s public life just since 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization. Though much is made of China's recent opening up to the outside world, the country was never really closed to foreign influence. Christianity has had a presence in China for centuries, but Hsu contends that it is only within the past decade that it has begun to find footing among intellectuals and business professionals.
Statistics on religion in China are unreliable, but the Chinese government estimates 16 million Christians in the country. Government figures count only Party-sanctioned places of worship, however. USA TODAY reported non-governmental estimates as high as 150 million*.
Even if the higher figures are accurate, the number of Christians in China remains a small proportion of the total population, and its influence on mainstream culture is weak. The growing number of influential Christians coincides with China’s growing social and economic openness.
Political openness is slower in coming, but Hsu insists it is inevitable. He also believes that Christianity will have a part to play in this process.
“The government’s attitude toward the Church is complicated and changing,” Hsu observed. “In their mind, Christianity has come from the West and from American culture. Many of them think very highly of Western culture, mainly science and technology, economy and governance.”
Hsu comments on religion and politics
Yet Hsu warns that there are powerful government factions that see the Church as an instrument of Western control over China. Others are intrigued. For them, “Christianity is still sort of a superstition, perhaps a kind of psychology,” said Hsu. “It could be a stabilizing force in society.”
Hsu explained that this manner of thinking about religion is very natural for Chinese leaders.
This pattern of seeking maximum control and fearing chaos dates back thousands of years. The irony is that Chinese intellectuals spent much of the 20th Century desperately trying to leave the “old” China behind and create a new society.
“Traditional Chinese society is, in the eyes of many intellectuals, a failure,” said Hsu. The effort to remake Chinese society brought dramatic social experiments, like the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the period of reform that followed. These processes led in turn to the Tienanmen Square democracy crackdown.
Hsu argues that these failed experiments became cultural crises for the ruling intelligentsia because they revealed the limits of human reason. Some intellectuals lost faith in their own capacity for reform. Thus, the door has opened for new ideas from new sources. And since 2001, things have changed quickly and favorably for Christians.
In Hsu’s view, a vital contribution that Christianity can make in this environment is its support for the rule of law. The rule of law has lagged in China’s modernization. Hsu is hopeful that as more government leaders become Christians, the vexing problem of Party leaders being above the law will even begin to change.
Hsu comments on trends in Chinese society
Hsu sees Christianity as being essentially useful to Chinese society, a view that some of his colleagues in media have come to share. For a society that has traditionally looked to government for new ideas, Christianity can now offer something much more trustworthy.
“The Church is the only hope in China to establish really new organizations which are not of the government nor of anti-government. The Church is independent. It is of civil society,” Hsu concluded. “Among business organizations, government organizations and some secular organizations, only the Church has truly clear vision.”
*MacLeod, Calum. (2005, November 17) “Christians in China Persevere Despite Religious Restrictions.” USA TODAY. www.usatoday.com.