China's Religions Retrospect and Prospect

Addressed by Mr. Ye Xiaowen at
Chung Chi College of Chinese University of Hong Kong
19 February 2001

Many of you are interested in the evolution of China’s religious policies in the past 50 years. There is indeed an evolution in this respect. But two key policies remain constant -- that of respect for freedom of religious belief and that of independent running of religious affairs. Some friends here may ask: does the ruling Communist Party, a party that advocates atheism, really respects the freedom of religious belief? Is it still necessary for China to continue to run its religious affairs independently when the whole country is embracing ever-increasing openness to the outside world? In order to answer these questions, we cannot but spend some time talking about the 50 years that had preceded the past 50 years, which may have served as a historical background or a preparatory stage for the latter. Similarly, we cannot but study how religions in China (not including those in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan) have traversed their century-long journey amid the Chinese nation’s sufferings and humiliation, resistance and liberation, reform and development, and the ongoing rejuvenation, and how they have completed their respective transformation under new social conditions. An assessment of the merits or demerits of China’s religious policies against such a backdrop may prove to be fairer and more objective.

Two Distinctive Features

There were certainly more than two features with regard to China’s religions over the past millennium. Let me give you a few examples. Among the four major world ancient civilizations (Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese and Indian), Chinese civilization is the only one which has never been interrupted by any alien culture. China’s religions took pride in being patriotic. Throughout Chinese history, there was never a theocratic national regime and all Chinese religions were accustomed to putting the country’s interest first. Given the Chinese nation’s multi-ethnic nature, all Chinese religions naturally took harmony and peace as their cherished values. China was well known for its rites and etiquettes, and most religions in China stressed ethical cultivation.

But if you look at the past 100 years when China was once reduced to a semi-feudal and semi-colonial society, you would find two striking features of Chinese religions -- the “patriarchal” nature deriving from its semi-feudal status and the “foreign” nature deriving from its being a semi-colony of many foreign powers.

Traditional Chinese religions at the threshold of the 20th century had a patriarchal-feudal character. China’s patriarchal clan system, based on blood lineage in both political and social realms, had a long past. In feudal China, patriarchal-feudalism became the dominant ideology and political mainstay. At the political and institutional level, it helped secure the “divine power” of feudal rule. And at the ethical and cultural level, it helped preserve the rites and customs in social relations. John King Fairbank believed that such an institutional and cultural continuity might have generated a powerful inertia that adhered to the established rules. Max Weber described China as a “nation based on patriarchal clans”, Confucianism a “sober religion” and the Chinese a “people not yet intoxicated”. He saw Chinese religions as basically present-world oriented. Liang Shumin was of the view that in China, “society was organized along patriarchal lines and ethics took the place of religion”. It was in such a powerful inertia that the Confucianism-centered Chinese culture emerged, and that Chinese religions -- Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism influencing one another -- all adopted the teachings of honoring the heaven, the ancestor and the country, stressing the preservation of the present world and adapting to it rationally. The Chinese culture based on patriarchal-feudalism proved capable of assimilating many alien cultures. Religions coming from elsewhere must respect and adapt to such Chinese character before they could gain a foothold in China.

When Buddhism was first introduced into China, it continued to pursue its proud tradition of shunning the rich and powerful. Before long, it found it could not get anywhere if worship of the sovereign and of the ancestors was not practiced. Later, Buddhist followers were encouraged to be loyal to the emperor and practice filial piety.

Christianity had been a long-standing factor in the shaping of Western society and culture, but it had a rough time adjusting in China. During the reign of Emperor Kangxi of Qing Dynasty, a “controversy of rites” erupted. The Pope’s forbidding Chinese Catholics to venerate Confucius and ancestors led to a “century of ban” for the religion in China.

Why is it that, being both foreign religions, Christianity could not take root in China but Buddhism could? In the words of Professor Pan Guangdan, “This is all because of the agreement with the soil; the plant can grow and prosper naturally if it can benefit from the soil. This is not to suggest that Christianity is in itself a curse. This is merely to say that a seed, a good seed at that, can still bear ominous fruits if it fails to suit the soil it is sown in.”

Patriarchal-feudalism was culturally significant in that it compelled religions to get involved in the world, stress secular values and practice ethical cultivation. But it also made religions the guardian of feudalism, and in that sense, it was not all positive. In Tibet, there was for a long time a brutal theocratic system that combined Tibetan Buddhism with a feudal serfdom. In Northwest China, there was once a hereditary Menhuan system that combined the Islamic faith with the landlord system, resulting in the emergence of a number of “imams” who held absolute power over the life and property of the believers.

With China becoming a semi-feudal and semi-colonial society, some religions in China began to assume a character of “foreignness”. China entered the 20th century with a deep sense of national humiliation. In face of unprecedented challenges, all the Chinese wondered where they could find a way to save their country. At this time of national disaster and intensified clashes between indigenous and Western cultures and as the traditional Chinese religions struggled for survival, Protestantism and Catholicism made large-scale inroads into China. A religion that was supposed to spread the words of the Gospel had become the tool of the aggressors. In the words of Jiang Menglin, Lord Buddha came to China riding on the back of a white elephant whereas Jesus Christ flew in on cannon shells.” Under the protection of extraterritoriality, this religion, that had taught one to love others as oneself, turned to its opposite. In the words of Baud White, all missionaries benefited from the Opium War and the treaties signed by China after its defeat. Indeed, some missionaries went so far as to participate in opium trade, loot land property and perpetrate serious misconduct. Some Chinese converts took advantage of their status to openly prey on the weak and vulnerable. When the injured parties brought the case to the officials, they were told that foreigners were beyond the jurisdiction of the Chinese court (according to Gang Hengyi). As the missionary always protected the believers and the consul always protected the missionary under any circumstances, believers always won and non-believers always lost. With believers acting more arrogantly and out of control, people’s anger and frustration mounted and eventually led to revolts (according to Zeng Guofan). As a popular rhyme at the time goes, “There is no rain and the paddy is dry, because the church shut out the sky.” When the abuse became unbearable, instances of “religious cases” increased. There were more than 600 such cases in modern time. By the 1920s, Chinese resistance to foreign churches, notably among Chinese intellectuals, took on a more organized and more rational approach, in the form of the Non-Christian Movement, the Anti-imperialist Alliance and the movement for the recovery of education right, etc.

In old China, religions with the above-mentioned two features were often put to negative use by the ruling classes. The feudal landlord class, the estate-holding class, the reactionary warlords and bureaucrat-capitalist class controlled the leadership of Buddhism, Taoism and Islam, while forces of foreign colonialism and imperialism controlled the leadership of the Protestant and Catholic churches.

Attempts at Changing the Status quo

Challenges against patriarchal-feudalism came from progressive intellectuals in the wake of the Reform Movement of 1898. The political and institutional aspects of the patriarchal-feudalism became the first and foremost target. In order to refute what was propped up as the “divine right of kings,” they introduced natural sciences and humanities from the West, including enlightened religious teachings, to analyze China’s feudal system, its traditional culture and traditional religions and initiated “new studies” of one kind and another. They realized that to save China from national demise, it was essential to reform; and to remove feudal monarchy, one must first remove feudal religious authority. Cai Yuanpei, a forerunner of the May 4th Movement, called for replacing autocratic monarchy with humanism and religious authority with science and knowledge. But his zeal went largely ignored. Still, cries for national independence and rejuvenation never died down. Buddhist Master Hongyi’s admonition of never forgetting national salvation, Taoist Priest Maoshan’s preaching of repulsing the aggressors, and the heroic deeds of the Anti-Japanese Muslim Brigade were reflections of Chinese resistance and patriotism.

Challenges to the “foreignness” of Chinese religions came from enlightened personages of Chinese Catholic and Protestant churches. During the May 4th Movement, patriotic clergymen, believers and students of missionary schools in Tianjin, Shanghai and other cities called for changes to the colonial structure of the Chinese Catholic Church. Ma Xiangbo and others proposed that Chinese bishops be allowed to preside over diocese affairs and tendencies to despise Chinese culture in seminary education be rejected. Later the Vatican was forced to approve some sinicization measures in the Chinese Church.

The Protestant Church launched the localization movement, calling upon Chinese believers to shoulder their responsibility on the one hand and carry forward the inherent oriental culture on the other so as to rid the church of the tag of being a “foreign one” (Cheng Jingyi). Also raised at the time was the slogan of “self-administration, self-support and self-propagation” (Wu Yaozong). In 1903, Yu Guozhen, a Protestant clergyman in Shanghai, proposed that believers of noble aspirations should seek self-standing, self-support and self-propagation and not subject themselves to the control of foreign churches. He set up an independent Christian Association of China in 1906. Response from Protestant believers across the country was enthusiastic. “We want esteem -- for the country, for the Church and for fellow Christians.” (Life, issue no. 9, Volume V, 1925) Even ordinary believers expressed the strong feeling that at a time of national crisis, anyone with a sense of patriotism should seek independence from foreign control (Chinese Protestant Church Yearbook 1928).

The sinicization of the Catholic Church and localization of the Protestant Church were, from a cultural point of view, all aimed at seeking a meeting point with China’s traditional Confucianism so as to remove their “Western taint” in a quest for “Confucianized Christianity.” These innovative attempts, however, made little difference to the overall situation. The times would not allow such movements to succeed even in a token way (Wu Yaozong), the Chinese people’s hatred for the “foreign” religions, which they saw as colonialist appendages, remained deep-seated.

It would take a stupendous, earth-shaking transformation of the entire society for the Chinese religions to turn over a new leaf.

A Rebirth

In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, putting an end to the period of semi-feudalism and semi-colonialism. The long-awaited self-renewal of Chinese religions took place in a changed country and changed society.

China’s Protestant and Catholic Churches embarked on the road of independent administration. After Luoyang in Henan Province was liberated, local believers were so excited that they quickly demanded for the establishment of an independent church. (Tianfeng, issue no. 242,1950) Shortly after Shanghai was liberated, believers wrote to newspapers demanding expulsion of “religious peddlers” who, under the cloak of preaching religions, were committing aggression against China. They urged Chinese believers to organize their own independent churches by democratic ways (Shanghai Ta Kung Pao, 17 June 1949).

In the spring of 1950, Wu Yaozong and others, after visiting churches around the country, together with some clergymen from Beijing and Tianjin, went to see Premier Zhou Enlai. They had three long conversations. When Wu told Premier Zhou about the ideal of self-administration, self-support and self-propagation, the premier was very supportive, saying that Chinese Christian churches must eliminate from the remnants and influence of imperialism, restore religion to its original color and attain a healthy development. Only by doing so, said the premier, could the Christian faith present a new image to the Chinese people. The Chinese Protestant Church seized the historical opportunity and made a correct choice. In July 1950, an open letter entitled The Way for Chinese Christians in Building New China was issued. It made it clear that self-administration, self-support and self-propagation, an ideal that Chinese Christians had always cherished but failed to realize, would be carried forward. In the following four years, 400,000 or two-thirds of China’s Protestants signed the open letter. The “Three-Self” Patriotic Christian Movement unfolded throughout the country, which was described by Wu Yaozong as a rebirth of Chinese Christianity.

The clergy and members of the Chinese Catholic Church were not to be left behind. In November 1950, Father Wang Liangzuo of Sichuan Province issued the “Three-Self Patriotic Reform Declaration”, the first of its kind. In January 1951, Catholic believers in Tianjin were the first to set up the Preparatory Committee for the Promotion of Catholic Reform Movement. In February 1957, the Chinese Catholic Church held a Conference of Fellow Believers for more than 40 days, which laid down the principal guideline for self-administration of church affairs.

Democratic reforms of the religious systems of Islam and Tibetan Buddhism were carried out. Such reforms called for the abolition of all feudal prerogatives enjoyed by religions, such as monastery-run tribunals, prisons and punishment, interference with civil litigations, appointment of tribal chieftains and clergymen, unlawful possession of weapons, interference with marriage freedom, oppression and discrimination against women and meddling in education. The ownership of means of production by monasteries and mosques was abolished, so were the practices of usury, corvee and other exploitative systems. The feudal way of running the monasteries, and the Islamic “Menhuan” system characterized by the monopoly of power in issuing religious instructions, appointing clergy and practicing hereditary succession of religious chiefs, were also abolished. These reforms were, on the whole, conducted in a peaceful and cautious manner. The Government made a clear distinction between ethnicity and religion and went about the changes in a step-by-step way so as to stop confusing the two. Also, the Government made a clear distinction between religious belief and religious system, pointing out that the former is in the realm of thought while the latter is a matter of social system whose feudalist nature should and could be gradually reformed. In the case of Tibet, reform took a particularly cautious approach. In the beginning, the policy stressed peacefulness and six years of absence of any reform. It was only until 1959 when the reactionary upper clique of the Tibetan local government launched an all-out armed rebellion that the policy was modified to carry out reforms while quelling the rebellion. Still, those who had not been involved in the rebellion would not be subject to immediate reform. On the basis of reform and consultation, monasteries in Tibet set up their democratic management committees and formulated a tentative Charter for Democratic Administration of Monasteries.

Reform of the Han-Chinese Buddhism and Taoism was also carried out. Elements of patriarchal-feudalism in their creed, system and property were removed. Old rules and habits that put the lower clergy’s physical and mental health in jeopardy were abolished and harmful phenomena of feudal superstition widely practiced in temples and shrines were eliminated.

In eliminating the nature of patriarchal-feudalism in the democratic reform of China’s religious system, the key was to do away with the stamp of the feudalism in the system, namely, prerogatives of oppression and exploitation by the feudal rulers and the mental bondage they imposed on the people. On the cultural level, however, the reform followed an approach of confirming the system’s emphasis on ethics and discarding dross of the feudal morals. As to Confucianism, its traditional emphasis on virtues, including the importance given to one’s responsibility towards one’s country and family and self-cultivation was not to be negated offhandedly. Just as Ding Guangxun said, “China has a long-history civilization and is well known for its morals and rituals. The Chinese intellectuals, in particular, are more interested in listening to messages on ethics than stories about paradise and hell, and they want to know if religion has got something to tell them.”

Thanks to the democratic reform and their new independence in church administration, Chinese religions stopped being an appendage of imperialism or tools in the hands of the former ruling class. Instead, they were restored to their original color -- following their fundamental beliefs, keeping to their distinctive institutions and rituals and having the capacity to independently carry out normal religious activities. They became genuine embodiment of godly love and carriers of cultural traditions.

- The Protestant and Catholic Churches, having removed their “foreignness” tag, became genuine Chinese institutions. China declared for the first time that its religious organizations and religious affairs would henceforward be subject to no foreign domination and control.

- Having abolished patriarchal-feudalism and eliminated feudal superstitions from its traditional religions, China declared that no one should use religion to carry out activities that undermine public order, impair the health of citizens and hamper the education system of the state.

These two statements, together with the principle of freedom of religious belief, were written into China’s Constitution (Article 36).

In his speech to the National Conference on United Front Work in 1993, President Jiang Zemin said, “The reforms we carried out to the country’s religious system -- removing imperialist manipulation and control in the Catholic and Protestant Churches and starting independent administration of church affairs, and removing feudal oppression and exploitation in Buddhist and Islamic establishments -- were entirely necessary and justified. They enabled China’s religions to take an important step towards adapting to the socialist society.”

Policies and Concepts

Just as the realization of the rights to subsistence and development is a prerequisite to the full enjoyment of human rights, restoring religion to its original color and making them sound and healthy is crucial to the genuine enjoyment of the right and freedom of religious belief. These rights were first defined by the bourgeoisie and are now widely recognized as fundamental human rights.

The question on a lot of people’s mind is this: can New China, whose ruling Communist Party does not believe in any religion, and can the new society it has created, whose mainstream ideology cannot possibly be any religion, accommodate religion and treat it well? With misgivings and misunderstanding, some religious personages left for overseas in the early years after liberation. Some of these people, I must say, were of outstanding quality and integrity, and they have made important contributions to the development of religion and culture overseas. Yet the majority preferred to stay on their homeland. Master Yuan Ying, for example, had received air tickets with advice for a quick departure on the eve of liberation. He said, “Though I have no idea whether the Communists would abolish religion or not, I am clear about one thing -- I am a Chinese monk and I love my country.” He decided to wait and see.

As a matter of fact, the Communists also took a “wait and see” stance. It kept reminding itself of Lenin’s teaching that religion in a socialist society is a question that calls for “special care, exceptional prudence and thoughtful consideration”.

Indeed, there have been mistakes and profound lessons in our experience. Our conviction to principles have become more steadfast and our understanding of the question more lucid because of these setbacks. With 50 years of thinking and practice and through positive and negative experience, we now have a deeper, clearer and more resolute grasp of the issue.

First, there is no conflict between our respect for freedom of religious belief and our advocacy of dialectical materialism.

According to dialectical materialism, matter is primary, and in that sense, it runs counter to the idealism advocated by religion. Yet, by matter being primary, we mean that existence and objectivity is primary. This implies that the existence, development and changes of all objective matters follow their inherent laws, and any outside interference with their objective existence and inherent laws or any handling of complicated questions in a simplistic way, is therefore harmful. Religion is an objective social phenomenon and develops according to objective law. To respect freedom of religious belief is to respect objective existence, objective process and objective law. In this sense, our advocacy of dialectical materialism does not run counter to our respect for freedom of religious belief.

The question, then, is whether or not we should recognize religion as a long-term objective existence in the socialist society. This question looks simple in appearance, but it determines our basic policy orientation. It is a question that we have given a lot of thought and constant review.

- In 1952, a report entitled Summary of the Main Experience of Party Work among Ethnic Minorities in the Past Few Years was issued by the Central Government which said, “Some comrades in certain areas have committed impetuosity and rash advance because of their failure to appreciate the long-term, ethnic and international nature of religions in ethnic minority areas.”

- In 1957, while speaking at a meeting at the National People’s Congress, Premier Zhou Enlai said that religion would exist for a long time. “What we should worry about is not whether religion will continue to exist, but whether our ethnic minorities will prosper.”

- In 1982, the CPC Central Committee document entitled Basic Views and Policies on Religion in Socialist China, pointed out, “To think that religion would quickly wither away because of the establishment of the socialist system and the progress in our economic and cultural development is unrealistic.”

- In 1998, the report of the National Conference of Bureau Chiefs of Religious Affairs said, “During the primary stage of socialism, not only will religion continue to exist, it is quite possible that it might develop to some extent and in some aspects.”

- In December 2000 at the National United Front Work Conference, President Jiang Zemin pointed out, “As a social phenomenon, religion has a long history and will continue to exist for a long time under socialism. The ultimate withering away of religion, to be certain, will be a long historical process, perhaps longer than that of the class and state.”

- The point cannot be clearer. In the view of historical materialism, by the time the class and state wither away, political parties themselves will have no need to exist. But religion may still be around. Given the limitation of life and limitless horizon of knowledge, is there any reason for the Communists not to live peacefully with religion and treat it amicably?

Second, respecting the freedom of religious belief and keeping to our basic purposes are entirely compatible.

The Communist Party is dedicated to realizing and protecting the fundamental rights of the broad masses. These rights cover many aspects and certainly include the right to freely choose one’s own religious belief. The difference between theism and atheism should not lead to antagonism between theists and atheists. To unduly highlight such a difference even to the point of making it a question of top priority, to discriminate against the religious believers and to overlook their identity with the non-believers in fundamental political and economic interests can only lead to bitter estrangement between the two groups. Their difference over whether there is a heaven in afterlife should not keep them from working hand in hand to make this life a good and worthwhile one. Respecting citizens’ freedom of religious belief will help rally more people around the cause of national rejuvenation and serve the grand goal of building a better world.

Third, respecting the freedom of religious belief has a deep root in our cultural heritage.

It is in China’s cultural tradition to value peace and harmony. Imperial buildings were named after harmony. Commoners also saw harmony as an ideal state for their families, businesses and friendships, and they wish each other that way. Throughout China’s history one sees few if any massive conflicts between religious believers and non-believers, or between believers of different religions, let alone prolonged, repetitious and brutal religious wars such as the crusades during the Middle Ages and those between the Protestants and Catholics during the Christian Reformation in the West. If anything, ancient China was more akin to what John Locke hoped for in his thesis On Religious Tolerance -- understanding and tolerance of all Christian sects and other religions. China’s dynastic rulers, thanks to their Confucian belief, treated all religions evenhandedly and pursued a relaxed religious policy.

It is also in China’s cultural tradition to seek common ground while reserving differences and draw on different ideas and cultures around the world. Religion here was taken as a form of culture. The late Zhao Puchu often talked about an anecdote involving Mao Zedong during his Yan’an years. One day, Mao passed by a temple and wanted to enter. “What is it good for”, said a companion. “After all, it is just superstition.” “No,” Mao disagreed. “It is culture.” Religion is a form of culture -- this is an obvious yet profound concept, a concept that has a long tradition and immediate significance. For those in the government, such an understanding will prevent a simplistic handling of religion as if it is an alien ideology and help them realize that its positive and meaningful contents could play a constructive role in real life. For scholars of religions, such an understanding embodies greater emancipation of the mind, conceptual renewal, broader vision and a more vigorous academia. For religious believers, such an understanding means greater stress on the cultural aspects of religion and greater demand for culture-conscious believers. And for the society as a whole, such an understanding means respect for culture as well as respect for freedom of religious belief.

Fourth, respecting the freedom of religious belief enjoys the protection of the Constitution and laws.

China’s Constitution stipulates, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities.” China’s Criminal Law, Civil Procedure Law, Regional National Autonomy Law, Compulsive Education Law, Electoral Law of the People’s Congresses, Organic Law of Villagers Committees and others all contain specific provisions on the protection of citizens’ freedom of religious belief. In China, the state treats all religions equally and the law protects the equal rights of all religions. While stressing the protection of the freedom to believe in religions, the law also provides for protection of the freedom not to believe in religions. All are equal before the law. Citizens enjoy the right to religious freedom. On the other hand, they must assume corresponding responsibilities. Violation of such a right entails legal responsibility. Anyone, believer or non-believer will be held accountable if he is found to have broken the law. Protection by law ensures the continuity and stability of the policy of religious freedom. It will not be altered by such human factors as a change of mind by the leaders. Thus, the rights of citizens to religious freedom will be firmly guaranteed.

The above understanding and practice show that our respect for the freedom of religious belief is sincere, profound, firm and consistent. For it is determined by our basic views and fundamental interest, it has both immediate cause and historical basis, it represents both a rational choice and a subject of protection by law. What is happening here -- an atheist political party, a government that practices separation of politics from religion, a country where the overwhelming majority of population do not believe in religion -- is a very special contribution China offers to the world in the area of protecting human and religious rights.

The above understanding and practice are also derived from some negative experience of ours. We do not deny that after 1957, the Chinese Communist Party made “Left” mistakes. Take the translation of the “two ruptures” in the “Communist Manifesto” -- the Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional relations; no wonder that its development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas. Both the translation and understanding of the word are mistaken. The “ueberliefertern” as was in the original text was just a modifier for the specific object, referring to the criticism of Communism at the time, whereas its translation “traditional” conveys a much broader reference to everything heretofore. An extra step from truth, thus, lands us in absurdity. That single word later gave rise to both cultural radicalism and cultural nihilism. The “cultural revolution” of the 1960s was turned into a “movement against culture,” which included campaigns to end all religions. It was a profound, costly lesson. Since the country embarked on reform and opening up, thanks to efforts to redress the wrongs, tens of thousands of temples, mosques, churches and monasteries have been rebuilt. If the absurdity of “wiping out the religions” is unprecedented, the effort to return to our religious policy is also soul-stirring. With all these ups and downs and between all these sorrows and joys, the Chinese people as a whole have heightened their awareness of the right to religious freedom, their respect for the right ever more steadfast and profound.

Of course, this understanding and practice merely reflects our rational knowledge and the overall situation. We have no intention to hide the fact that prejudices and misunderstandings still linger and need to be redressed. In fact, the Communist Party has constantly educated its members to enhance their understanding of religion and relevant policies. Modern religious studies in China have already displayed a renewed prosperity with diversity in theories and research methods. Given the country’s sheer size, it is almost inevitable that problems occur here and there. Government departments of religious affairs are charged with the responsibility to administer and supervise the implementation of the country’s religion-related laws, decrees and policies in accordance with law.

There are people in the West who, for the purpose of “demonizing” China, cooked up lies and played up certain individual problems to make them appear systematic and widespread. They even cited China’s ban of the Falun Gong cult as evidence of “religious persecution.” Prejudice is farther from truth than ignorance. Geographical distance, however great, is nothing compared to prejudice when it comes to blocking the understanding and exchanges between peoples.

The Facts

What is important, as some friends may say, is not so much talking about respect for freedom of religious belief but looking at the hard facts.

Let us look at the facts. Right now, China has over 100 million believers of various kinds of religions. The number of Protestants, now standing at over 10 million, has grown more than a dozen times in the past half century than in all the previous century and half. The number of Catholics has grown to 4 million, up by 1 million from 1949. The population of the 10 ethnic minorities believing in Islam totals 18 million. According to statistics, by 1996, there were 85,000 Buddhist, Taoist, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic religious sites in the country, over 300,000 clergymen, 3,000-plus religious organizations and 74 religious seminaries and schools. Chinese religious circles maintain contacts and exchange programs with religious organizations in over 70 countries and regions across the world. Religious personages participate extensively in China’s political life, and 17,000 of them have served as deputies to the People’s Congresses and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference at various levels.

Let me give you some examples.

- On Beijing’s busiest Wangfujing Street, people can find the Oriental Plaza and the New Dong’an Market, investment projects of Hong Kong tycoons Li Ka-shing and Kwok Ping-sheung. It is a highly prized real estate zone in the city’s commercial center. Yet, next to the market is a Catholic church, first built in 1655 and burnt down twice in the past. The Beijing Municipal Government, braving tremendous pressure from developers, insisted on refurbishing the church and expanding the square in front of it.

- The White Cloud Taoist Temple in Beijing had been in a state of disrepair since the end of the Qing Dynasty until China’s Taoist Association had it thoroughly renovated a couple of times after liberation. Thanks to repeated negotiations to implement the religious policy, a piece of its land in the vicinity, which was once occupied by a factory, has been returned to the temple.

- The Amity Printing Company in Nanjing attached to the Chinese Protestant Church has printed to date 25 million copies of the Holy Bible.

- The number of Chinese Muslims able to make a pilgrimage to Mecca was extremely small before New China was established. In the past decade and more, thanks to flights chartered by the Chinese Islamic Association, over 50,000 Chinese Muslims have smoothly and safely completed their Hajj.

- The changes to the Jokhang Monastery in Tibet after renovation are there for all to see and judge.

- The Great Buddha at the Temple of Heaven in Hong Kong is a great attraction. Quite a few similar sites have been built on the mainland, including the Lingshan Buddha in Wuxi. In Sanya, the southernmost city of China, a massive, elegant Buddhist temple has been erected. On a nearby man-made island, a statue of Southern Mountain Avalokitesvara, 108 meters tall, will be built. It will be able to rival the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

- Last August, seven national leaders of China’s five major religions attended the Millennium Summit of World Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the United Nations. Priest Min Zhiting, Chairman of the Chinese Taoist Association, chanted prayers at the opening ceremony for the well-being of all mankind. In his speech, Bishop Fu Tieshan, head of the Chinese religious delegation, put forward the proposals of China’s religious circles for the preservation of world peace.

People from China’s religious circles often speak of the “golden period” in referring to the religious freedom they fully enjoy today under the protection of the Constitution and relevant laws.

Harmony without Sameness

As we reflect on China’s past experience regarding religious affairs and look ahead into the new century, I can not but emphatically mention two key policies: respect the freedom of religious belief and persevere in running religious affairs independently.

- Respect for the freedom of religious belief is based on our sincere respect for the choice made by large numbers of religious believers and the objective law of religion’s existence and development.

- Perseverance in running religious affairs independently is based, too, on our sincere respect for the expressed will of the Chinese people and the historical facts of China’s prolonged suffering under imperialist aggression and exploitation.

The will and choice of the people cannot be changed, nor can objective law and historical facts. These two policies are made not randomly, but after careful consideration. They are not shallow and simplistic, but thorough and profound. They are not for show but will be conscientiously implemented. They are not subject to willful alteration, but will enjoy a prolonged stability and continuity. Absence of any of the two will threaten the very existence of China’s religions, and overlooking any of the two will cause confusion and unnecessary losses. Practice shows that these two principles, once adhered to properly, will effectively protect the human rights of the believers, maintain state sovereignty and help the religions to adapt to the socialist society.

To run religious affairs independently does not mean running it in isolation or seclusion. With continued economic globalization and WTO membership, China will open wider to the outside world, and so will its religions.

We are ready to join the international community in safeguarding the religion-related human rights. Bearing in mind the basic principles on religious freedom in the World Human Rights Declaration and our own experience in maintaining freedom of religious belief, we wish to submit a five-point proposition as follows:

- In response to the distortion of and trampling on religious freedom, we call for more effective legislative, judicial and administrative measures for the realization and guarantee of freedom of religious belief.

- In response to the rising threat of religious extremism, carried out in the name of religion, we call for concerted international efforts to combat it in defense of world peace.

- In response to the bullying of and intervention in other countries by hegemonism and power politics, which uses religious issues as pretexts, we call for dialogue in lieu of confrontation and full respect for the sovereignty of all countries and their practice of protecting religious freedom.

- In response to the local conflicts and crises caused by ethnic and religious factors in the post-Cold War era, we call for mutual respect and tolerance on the part of all religions and religious sects.

- In response to the interaction and convergence of the world’s diverse civilizations, we call for enhanced understanding and exchange on the basis of seeking common ground while setting aside differences so as to promote common development of the human civilizations.

Countries in the world differ in history and tradition, cultural background, and social system, and certainly in value systems. Their religious situations are as different as they can be. This is the result of many factors, past and present, at work, and no one can judge which is better or worse than the other, which is right or wrong. Our world, after all, is a diverse and colorful place. Understanding of religious freedom may vary from one social system to another. This is why we need to be culturally conscious, striving for harmony but not sameness (Fei Xiaotong). To be culturally conscious means that we should realize the limitations of our own culture and be prepared to accommodate other cultures, thus attaining the state of “harmony without sameness.” “Every nation treasures its own merits and respects those of others. When merits and merits are shared, there will be great harmony in the world.” All that is true, good and beautiful are on the same wavelength, be they religious or secular in form and be they measured with the values of the East or the West. A narrow-minded soul would view any difference as opposition and diversity as adversary. But to a broad-minded one, difference means richness in colors and postures, and diversity embodies unity and harmony.
( October 11, 2002)

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