Is religion baffling?
China controls religion strictly, very strictly. This is unfortunate and the first thing that CPI would like to change if it could. When it comes to what Chinese government officials think about the topic of religion, the situation seems like the meeting of two completely different worlds. Aliens. Religion must baffle them. They can appreciate and respect religion as culture (food, dance, dress, ceremonies) and as rules (Muslims do not eat pork) but as a personal, life-changing encounter with God, not at all.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) embraced atheism from its earliest days and continues to do so. Views about religions are shaped by many things and are not unsophisticated. Through the course of 5,000 years of imperial rule, each successive emperor and dynasty deemed themselves the “Son of Heaven.” In other words, they made it up.
Religion and beliefs–from earliest humanity and in nearly every culture—have been used as a tool for governance. The word for religion in Chinese is “zongjiao.” “Jiao” here means teaching and “zong” means ancestor or clan. In other words, religion is a sort of group identity thing. One of the things that the CPC says about Christianity is that it is Western (even though the West is not where it originated) and therefore not Chinese.
Fervent belief of one form or another has often been at the heart of anarchy or overthrow, in China and elsewhere. Cults have abounded in China.
Underlying all of this is China’s own nativist religion (Daoism) which expresses itself across a broad spectrum and the line between superstition and any theology is a challenge. Before the CPC, when many different religions flourished in China, commentors noted that Chinese believers were not orthodox. They dabbled in a bit of this and a bit of that and mixed religions together. Before the Revolution it was not uncommon to have elements of Buddhism, Daoism and foreign religions all mixed into the ceremonies of life’s momentous events (marriages, births, deaths). After the Revolution, the CPC came to the conclusion it was all superstition, Party members cannot be believers, and that running China would be better without faith and religion at all.
Fast forward to modern times and the CPC witnessed (1) the West’s abandonment of much of its faith-based underpinning and the resulting rudderless evolution of pop culture, which some officials believe will end in the West’s social implosion and (2) religion’s role in extremism and terrorism. This only reinforced the dangers.
Therefore, China controls religions strictly.
The problem with this is that huge swaths of humanity believe that the purpose of living is not material, but spiritual. That this life is only a foreshadowing of what is to come beyond death. That what their faith does in their life is far more important than anything political, economic, or even life itself.
So that, when they see the Chinese government controlling religions and injecting themselves into the lives of believers, they find it unbelievable. “If the only way the Chinese government can manage the country is to lock up a Buddhist monk or a Catholic bishop, what does that say about the Chinese government?” It is an intractable problem.
Stories to Read
China and Canada—
The title of the South China Morning Post editorial said, “Across the political spectrum, Beijing has already lost Canada.” The meaning is that nobody, of any political persuasion, in Canada is positive about China. That seems accurate. In the past relations between China and Canada have followed a similar trajectory with other Western nations. Ups and downs, conflict and détente, repeat. That has all changed.
China hates sanctions. The idea that one nation (or even the UN) can declare something illegal between two other nations and then arrest anyone who participates in the sanctioned activity when they pass through their territory really irritates China. Ms. Meng Wanzhou is the CFO of a telecoms company called Huawei. She was alleged to have participated in business with sanctioned countries and was arrested for that when passing through Canada and held there. China views this as a wrongful detention and responded by arresting two Canadians in China and charging them with various offenses. A stand-off ensued and terms like “arbitrary arrest” and similar became commonplace in conversations related to China. The matter was ultimately resolved with everyone returning to their home countries, but not without causing a lot of damage.
The US would later issue a travel advisory to US citizens urging them to think carefully before travelling to China because of the rising occurrence of passport confiscation and arbitrary detention. China then responded with cautions to Chinese citizens travelling to the US saying that they should be extra careful and concerned about falling into traps to arrest them. Dualling advisories!
Expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to further align against the Western Order—
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is an intergovernmental organization founded by China in 2001. It is meant to be an alternative to other multi-national groups that nations like China, Russia, and Iran are not invited to, like the G7. Membership currently includes China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and four observer states–Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia. Iran will soon become a full member. There are all sorts of ideas about what to do with the SCO to further distance member nations from a Western-dominated world.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visit to China—
China and Western nations disagree on many things but all agree on the importance of money and the things that create growing economies and wealth—trade, investment, commerce. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was the second senior Biden Administration official to visit China after the spy balloon incident de-railed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit. Yellen stayed in China for four days and had a wide range of meetings, including many with senior Chinese officials. China requested that the US remove Chinese companies from sanctions lists, that trade tariffs be lifted, and hoped that the US could see China’s development as an opportunity and not a risk. The US side did not seem to ask for anything specific, only to keep talking. If the US were to make a specific request, it would likely be something like “we really wish you would behave differently in pretty every way” but one nation cannot really request that of another. Yellen made clear her view that “de-coupling” with China (i.e. seeking to end all economic interaction) would be disastrous for both nations and the world.
South China Sea—
China insists that it is seeking only a peaceful rise. That all the resources it is expending on military development are for defensive purposes only. China’s immediate neighbors and other nations around the world are not convinced. Some of the reasons for doubt are China’s territorial claims to areas in what is known as the South China Sea. There are different approaches to determining which nation “owns” what. Some are commonly accepted international norms. Others are rulings by international courts. China has put forth their own approaches. One of China’s approaches is to refer to a map of China’s Qing Dynasty borders and say that if the map included it in China, then it belongs to China. Another approach is to look at which nations paid tribute to Imperial China. Another approach is to look at Chinese influence (through archaeological evidence) over the centuries. The US and other nations—but particularly the US—patrol the waters of the Indo-Pacific (including the South China Sea) to protect the “freedom of navigation.” This very much irritates China and China likens it them patrolling between Cuba and south Florida.
People to Know
Ms. Susan Shirk—
Author of “Overreach: How China Derailed its Peaceful Rise,” published in 2022.
Mr. Sima Nan—
Sima Nan is a nationalist blogger in China who at one point had over 40 million followers on China’s various social media channels (WeChat, Weibo, and Douyin). He is sometimes referred to as the “anti-US fighter.” He and other blogger-nationalists were banned from their accounts in the run-up to the National People’s Congress in 2022, presumably simply to keep the peace. Sima Nan is well known for his almost personal attacks against the Chinese company Lenovo. In 2004-2005, Lenovo purchased the PC business division of IBM. After 2005, every PC that “looks like an IBM, runs like an IBM” was actually a Lenovo. This troubled Sima Nan for a number of reasons. He felt that it was China state funds that had been sued and he opposed this. He also thought that China did not need to buy PC designs from abroad but could instead develop them on their own.
Terms to Ponder
When the Communist Party of China won the civil war over the Nationalists and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, they set about establishing true communism. It took a few years to work out details but they eventually separated everybody in the entire country into two groups—people in the countryside were assigned to a commune (gongshe) and people in the cities were assigned a work unit (danwei). Most of the work units were factories and therefore in urban areas. Each commune and work unit had their own dining hall (meals were eaten in common—this was true communism), schools, clinics, etc. All social services came from where you were assigned and you had to stay there.
When the Reform and Opening Policy began to roll out in 1978, many things changed. Huge changes! One of them is that people began to migrate within the country. They could leave their assigned commune or work unit. The process was called “xiahai” or “jump into the sea.” For those who jumped, it untethered them from social services. Hukou means “household registration.” The hukou is the bureaucratic mechanism which documents where your assigned place is supposed to be. Even to now, it dictates where you are supposed to get your social services. The hukou system has been and will continue to be talked about a lot. It is a major factor in economic development. The movement of people with rural household registration to urban centers produces a lot of needed economic activity but it also puts a burden on urban social services that requires management.
Things that the US Never Experienced but China Did—
The world is hoping to see American and Chinese leaders change the way they interact. Each side frustrates the other. From the Chinese side, there are things that deeply impact the way China views things but that foreigners, especially Americans, never think about because they never experienced them directly. Here are some examples:
- Invasion, subjugation, foreign occupation, famine.
- Population density such that if all available resources were shared evenly, there would still not be enough. Enough to eat, to wear, to live.
- No unused land. All of China’s land has been fully occupied and used for centuries. All of it. Some plots of land in China have been farmed continuously for thousands of years.
- When the world began to experience intense technological development around the 1800s, all Western nations entered this period with new forms of government to better dovetail with the new technologies. Except China. Government is difficult everywhere, but especially in China. The old way of governing in China was simply too entrenched, too conservative, and too difficult to change.
- Every nation has political elite but the Chinese have been frustrated by their political elite because—until the CPC—they could never pull together. There was no framework that would allow ambitions, different views, and Power Politics to work themselves out. America was founded on just such a framework so that from its earliest beginning, American political elite only had to fight about “what to do.” In China, though, elites had to fight about everything—”what kind of system, how are we going to get along…and about what to do.”
Video of US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen bowing to Chinese officials when meeting them was perhaps altered to show many repeat bows and sped up to give the impression of subservience. The images were used for domestic political purposes in the US as an attack against the Biden Administration’s approach to China. Implying that it is too soft. At a Democratic Party fundraising event, US President Joe Biden called China’s President Xi Jinping a dictator. According to Biden, Xi was angry about the spy balloon incident because he had not previously know about these balloons and to not know would make “any dictator angry.” When John Kerry was preparing to leave for his trip to China to discuss climate, some tried to box him into a corner about whether Xi is a dictator. Mr. Kerry refused to play the game. Good for him!
The reason this section of the CPI newsletter is called “Glorious” is because China does indeed have a glorious documentary past. There are ancient and beautiful texts on philosophy, history and politics. There are poems from the Tang Dynasty that nearly every Chinese person can recite. It is these things that make Chinese people…Chinese. The Catholic missionary to China, Jesuit Matteo Ricci, went to China during the Qing Dynasty. It is said that he had a photographic memory and could not only recite long passages from ancient Chinese texts but he could then also say them backwards. That may or may not be true, but Ricci did meet the Qing emperor of his time, Jesuits were allowed into the imperial court, and they were granted plots of land in Beijing that to this day remain Catholic churches. President Xi Jinping also loves to recite and use the ancient texts. Pulling the minds of a nation back to a time of greatness is inspiring and not a new approach to politics (“Make America Great Again”). Whether America will ever be great again or China recover its ancient glory will depend completely on its leaders, and their wisdom.