International Herald Tribune
For Beijing, a little religion goes a long way
SUNDAY, MAY 28, 2006
HONG KONG For China's Communist Party, religion may still be, in Marx's words, "the opiate of the people." But far from being the adversary of atheistic materialism, the Beijing leadership is recognizing that the opiate can come in handy in helping sustain the party's hold on power and furthering China's national interests. Indeed, Beijing may be more successful in using the soft power of religion than are the Christians influencing policy in Washington.

The government recently administered two large doses of opiate. In April, China hosted a World Buddhism Forum, bringing together more than 1,000 Buddhists from around the globe. This month the government-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Church appointed new bishops without Rome's permission and enthroned them with much ceremony and publicity.

The bottom line of all this is that the party recognized that the appeal of religion is growing rapidly in a nation where millions are being alienated by the single-minded pursuit of money and materialism and whose ruling party long ago has given up even the pretense of an egalitarian ideology. Leaders have read enough Marx at the party school to know that he also wrote: "Religion is the soul of soulless conditions."

The party cannot abandon the materialist goals and capitalist achievements that are now its claims to legitimacy. But it can try not to make an enemy of the forces of religion, or at least those that can be channeled into politically harmless directions.

Buddhism is seen as particularly attractive because it has been established in China for more than 2,000 years, has a loose organizational structure and limited record of engaging in politics. It is estimated to have 100 million adherents but in China has a wider presence as it is also often intermixed with Taoism and folk deities. Its non-Chinese adherents are mostly to be found in East Asia and Southeast Asia, among nations that Beijing is courting diplomatically as it seeks to supplant U.S. influence in the region.

Buddhism may be of Indian origin but is claimed to be largely compatible with Confucianism, the specifically Chinese system now being encouraged as a prop to party rule. Both, it is now claimed, emphasize benevolence and tolerance. Finally, being outwardly friendly toward Buddhism can help take the edge off the global appeal of the Dalai Lama and his association with Tibetan separatism.

The Christians are another matter. The party would clearly prefer Buddhists to the highly organized and Western-derived Christian groups. But Christians have now largely escaped from past associations with Western imperialism and their numbers have been growing apace. Catholic churches, in particular, have been springing up all over China. This movement cannot easily be contained, but it can be tolerated so long as it is clearly not beholden to a foreign power - the Vatican.

Beijing's appointment of the bishops has delayed the China-Vatican rapprochement that had been expected under Pope Benedict XVI. But China clearly preferred to make a stand on episcopal appointments rather than push for an early deal with Rome.

Beijing was also clearly annoyed by the elevation to cardinal of Hong Kong's vigorously pro-democracy bishop, Joseph Zen. For Beijing, Catholics may be tolerated so long as they acknowledge the veto powers of the secular state.

The appearance of tolerance of all religions is important as China seeks friends, particularly in the sensitive mainstream Muslim world. It sustains the loyalty of most Chinese Muslims and helps tar the troublesome Turkic separatists in Xinjiang with the Al Qaeda brush.

China can thus quietly emphasize to Muslim nations that despite an official atheism it does not demonize Islam, as the West is alleged to do. It also realizes that most governments, Muslim or not, prefer to keep clerics out of politics and not to see national interests overridden by doctrinal ones.

Religion that is above ground and subject to government oversight is viewed as preferable to Falun Gong, which Beijing sees as suspicious and secretive, with foreign links, vague content and an appeal to potentially huge numbers of China's people - including army and party members - who yearn for nonmaterialist goals and identity.

Beijing has been showing skill in neutralizing religion's domestic appeal while harnessing it to promote Chinese influence - particularly in Asia, where many are suspicious of the fundamentalism emanating from America, whose status as the global bastion of religious pluralism and the secular state has been eroded.