It’s not only Christianity and Islam the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is cracking down on and asserting its control over; homegrown religions like Daoism and imported belief systems like Buddhism now face more measures aimed at curbing and rolling back their commercialization.
Many of China’s most popular tourist attractions revolve around centuries-old Buddhist and Daoist temples. For example, the 1,500-year-old Shaolin temple in central Henan Province has long been under the scrutiny of authorities.
The state’s program against rampant money-making activities was stepped up in late 2017 when an 11-point directive was issued by the State Administration of Religious Affairs, which was subsumed into the powerful United Front Work Department of the CCP in March 2018.
All commercial investments in Buddhism and Daoism are prohibited under the new directive, while any temples deemed non-profit are banned from investing in the operations of other religious venues, according to a recent report in the South China Morning Post.
Local cadres have also been banned from promoting and profiting from religious activities in the name of fostering economic development.
Temples in scenic spots have been ordered not to overcharge tourists who must pay for tickets to enter. They are have also been banned from building large religious statues outdoors under edicts issued in May.
According to these, existing statues will come under scrutiny while religious groups have been warned to follow proper accounting practices.
Meanwhile, party cadres have been explicitly reminded time and again over the past 12 months that they must not practice any religion.
By the same token, the pressure on China’s local and localized religions continues, as it does with Christianity and Islam.
During the (1966-76) Cultural Revolution, Buddhists were forced to practice their faith in secret while the less formal rites associated with Daoism took a pummeling under chairman Mao Zedong, who died in 1976.
The temples and statues of both religions were routinely shut down and destroyed.
In recent decades, as religious practice has experienced a remarkable revival in China, both Buddhism and Daoism have crept and then surged back into favor. By some estimates, their combined active adherents now number well into the hundred of millions.
The CCP officially granted religions space to breathe when it released an edict called Document 19 in 1982 as part of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s program of reform and opening up.
What made this document so striking was that the officially atheist CCP decided to recognize five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism.
Central to Document 19 was the edict that religion be banned and suppressed under various programs instigated by Mao, including the idealized role of the state toward religion.
Freedom of religious belief is guaranteed under China’s charter but human rights lawyers have battled mostly in vain to uphold this constitutional guarantee.
Like anything that is even remotely controversial or politically problematic in China, religion is administered by the state with the aim, as always, to promote the “stability” of a “harmonious” Chinese society.
This process has waxed and waned in recent decades.
In recent years, however, religion has come under fresh scrutiny from Beijing, particularly imported “Western” religions such as Christianity and Islam, both of which are experiencing their toughest time in decades on the Chinese mainland.
This has caused many people who follow these religions, both of which are growing in popularity in China, to mutter that all religions are not equal and that the administration of President Xi Jinping is giving localized religions a far easier ride.
That is understandable given that Daoism is indigenous while Buddhism has been subjected, to various degrees, to “Sinicization” for at least the last 1,500 years.
That same process is now being applied to Christianity and Islam in China.
Still, all is not as simple as it looks, as there are important distinctions between the three broad strands of Buddhism in China: “Chinese” Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism.
The latter is mainly practiced in the large southern province of Yunnan (especially among the hill tribes there), which borders Southeast Asian nations including Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
China also borders Cambodia, where Theravada Buddhism is the religion of choice for an overwhelming majority of the public.
Tibetan Buddhism is practiced in provinces such as Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu, which border Tibet, as well as in other parts of the country that remain loyal to the self-exiled Dalai Lama, a figure loathed with uncommon intensity in Beijing.
Monks and nuns have been jailed for their loyalty to the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against communist rule.
Moreover, hundreds of Tibetans have set themselves alight in protest against Chinese rule since 2008, when riots over Beijing’s suppression of Tibetan culture were violently quashed by its armed forces.
Whichever way one cuts it, the goal of Xi’s campaign is clear: To put religion back into a box by forcing worshipers to promise as much fealty to the CCP as they do to their chosen faith.
After four years of running such a campaign, Xi spelt out his intentions at the party’s five-year Congress last October, when he was elected to another term as party chief.
For Buddhists (especially those practicing the Tibetan or Theravada strains) and Daoists, the message is the same as the one being sent to Christians, Muslims and anyone practicing an unofficial religion on the fringes of Chinese society: Sinicize and fall in line, or else.
Michael Sainsbury, Hong Kong
September 7, 2018