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RELIGION AND COMMUNISM IN MODERN CHINA

Clash or Synergy of Ideologies?

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The Montréal Review, April 2011

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Religion and religious institutions in Europe and over the world have been under attack since the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Since then the place of religion in organization of society, its importance and influence over the individual and state, has been questioned as never before.

How did the demise of the traditional systems of belief happen? How did the secular revolution begin? It began with politics in the heart of Europe, with a revolt against the old political and social order of privileges and birthrights. In his book "The Old Regime and the French Revolution" Alexis De Tocqueville noted that in 1789-92 the revolutionary bourgeoisie did not revolt against the Christian faith, but against the Church institution, which was seen as a part of the "Ancient Regime". The revolutionaries treated clergy as "landed proprietor," as a "parasite" on the body of the French nation. At this time, science was still unborn and religious skepticism was heard only from a handful of voices. But in the nineteenth century, the enmity against the Church shifted or rather expanded against the religious faith in general. New secular prophets emerged that were not scientists in the modern sense of the word, but political thinkers and philosophers. They established new and powerful ideological narratives, based on politically colored Darwinism, supported by "scientific" arguments, and attractive promises for successful social(ist) engineering. Although their teachings were only theories, they defended them with religious zeal. The "scientific method" was their Gospel, and in the ferment of the Industrial Revolution, with the exploding progress of science and technology, they claimed ownership over every human achievement, waging a war for the hearts and minds of people, arguing that science and religion are two implacable opposites. The flaw and tragedy of their worldview was that they looked at science and religion politically.

In 1917, the communists in Russia took over the power. Religion and Church were suppressed, because they, similarly to France of 1789, were seen as a part of the old regime and thus a threat to the new power. But unlike the French revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks had on their disposition the legitimizing ideology of Marxism that rejected both the necessity of religious institutions and religious faith itself.

In the twentieth century, almost all post-colonial national movements adopted the secularist Marxism as their ideology. And if we ask why did a theory that deals with the industrial societies and their social classes become the central ideology of almost all national movements in the pre-indusrtial societies of the twentieth century, the direct answer is that these new nations were not enough mature, not enough historically developed, to create their own modernist message. They borrowed and modified the Western Marxism, their new revolutionary elites found in it a convenient ideology for their ambitions to hold power and rule. The religious institutions in these societies were naturally seen as a part of the old political order (and colonial past) and thus automatically declared as political enemies of national independence and self-determination.

In the twentieth century, Marxism was a dominant although not always winning ideology in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The new national elites that fought against the grip of the old colonial and feudal powers adopted and transformed it according to their own political goals. China was among the states that embraced Marxism and its revolutionary Bolshevik strain - Leninism, as a flagship for its modernization and lost independence. (1) Today, China is the only large state in which the Marxist-Leninist ideology continues to exist, ostensibly untouched by the communist demise of the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

The reason for this resilience is that the Marxist ideology has never been the true matrix of the Chinese political order. A few hours of random reading of Mao's most popular books and pamphlets, (2) where he supposedly exposes his "Marxist" belief, would hardly reveal a speck of pure Marxist thought. Mao's works were anti-imperialist, nationalist, explaining the tactics and philosophy of revolutionary war against the imperialists, the feudal lords and the enemies of the communist regime, extolling the supremacy of peasantry, but rarely discussing the problems of proletariat. His writing was feverish and exalted, dressed with Marxist-Leninist rethoric, resembling Marxism, but in fact non-Marxist. Marxism was a teaching, before all, about the capitalist exploitation, alienated labour, economic relations and Western political order-- things not prevalent in China in the 1930s and 40s. Marxism is about the emancipation of the working classes, which until the 1980s were still an insignificant part of China's mostly agrarian society; and it is about the logic of a historical process of ultimate change that follows strict historical patterns - feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and communism - patterns that applyed neither to the pre-Soviet Russia, nor to the pre-"communist" China.

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Behind China's communism there is nothing but central power. China's communist ideology exists only "on paper," it is a typical authoritarian (in the age of Mao--totalitarian) state propaganda without real and meaningful content. Its real messages are either commands and directives of the central power or education in loyalty to the Party. Its only goal is to keep the state under the control of the ruling elite.

The Chinese communism, like every radical political ideology, has religious nature. (3) Such is the nature of every totalitarian state. Marxism-Leninism is an ideology that, in the name of a utopian promise, promotes the dictatorship and supremacy of one social group (or party) over all others. The Marxism of Bolshevik type does not tolerate political or economic pluralism, which makes China's communism today an interesting "hybrid." It had a classical non-pluralistic period in the XX century that has developed into a XXI century proto-communism combining elements of different political and economic orders--state capitalism, Confuciansim, and Maoist Marxism.

The totalitarian (and authoritarian) political elites that adopt Marxism as their ideology are neither constrained by transcendent God nor by democratic institutions. The Party and its ideology and Leader is their God and source of legitimacy. The presence and will of this secular "God" are visible, it can punish quickly and reward generously. It is an active, immediate power. The Party leaders are its bishops, the political activists-- its priests and deacons.

Every totalitarian state has its own mythology and system of worship. China has the legend of the Long March, the iconic pictures of Mao, descending from the mountain keeping the scrolls of his pamphlets or walking among his worshipers; it has granite, gargantuan monuments of comunist leaders and revolutionary martyrs, evoking awe and respect; it also has annual commemorations, festivities, and calendars; it has "scriptures," dogmas, and sectarian differences; the symbols of the communist party dominate the Chinese public space - they are unambiguous sings of the religious nature of the regime in Beijing.

Having an institutionalized political religion, the central power in China does not tolerate traditional religions and beliefs. Yet, Article 88 of the first Constitution of People's Republic of China states: "Citizens...of China enjoy freedom of religious belief."

Here is how the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party explains Article 88:

• People who believe in a religion have freedom.

• People who do not believe in a religion have freedom, including the freedom to be against religion.

• People have freedom to change religious belief. (4)

Two things make impression here: the overusage of the word "freedom" and the different rights of the believers and non-believers: the atheists have "freedom" to be against religion, which means that they might attack and ridicule religious people, but believers have no freedom to be against atheism, nor defend their faith if threatened. The central power encourages anti-religious actions and propaganda and skillfully constarins religious activity.

People in China have freedom of religious belief, but according to the government, it should be manifested only in the compounds of religious sites. The "fair deal", according to three Japanese pastors who visited China on a peace mission late in 1964, is as follows: "There has been mutual agreement that atheists do not come into the churches to propagate their atheistic concepts, and religious people do not go out to public places to propagate their religion." (5)

Mao knew very well peasants' character, he was a pragmatic man, son of wealthy and conservative farmer, and he knew that the Communist Party should not openly attack peasants' religion and superstitions. In traditional Confucian way, his approach of dealing with peasants' beliefs and superstitions was practical and subtle. "The idols were set by the peasants, - Mao says in a popular early writing - and in time they will pull down the idols with their own hands; there is no need for anybody else to throw away prematurely the idols for them. The agitational line of the Communist Party in such matters should be: "Draw the bow full without letting go the arrow, and be on alert." (6) Mao used a saying from Mencius, the Confucian sage, and as we will see CCP's policy to religion of the masses has never lost its Confucian traits.

The Chinese communist state has never been very different from the traditional imperial state in its philosophy of governing. Confucianism is interwoven in the communist ideology in curious ways. For example, in his short book "How to Be a Good Communist", the member of Politburo Liu Shaoqi writes, "All those who have succeeded in becoming very good and experienced revolutionaries must certainly have done through long years of steeling and self-cultivation in the revolutionary struggle... Confucius said: At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decree of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow my heart's desire, without transgressing what was right. Here Confucius was relating the process of his steeling and self-cultivation. He did not regard himself as a born "sage."" (7) Liu Shaoqi's book was staple reading for Communist cadres in the 1940s and 1950s.

No wonder that Confucianism, which was the ideology of imperial state, was used and is still used by the Communist Party. Communist China is more Confucian than Marxist, and it is equally religious and secular. Antony C. Yu noted in his book "State and Religion in China", "Despite the adoption of a constitution that allegedly would transform [China's] socio-political body into a modern, secular republic, it has yet to scrutinize and query the legitimacy of its enduring form of political religion - the worship of absolute power invested in the state." (8)

Confucianism was a compendium of ecclesiastic wisdom without the support of true religious system; it was pragmatic, moralistic, demanding both loyalty to authorities and respect to rituals and ceremonies. The goal of rituals was not prayer and worship, but education and channelling the energy of population. "Lead them by means of virtue and regulate them through rituals and they will have a sense of shame and have standards," (9) is written in the Confucian Analects . "A ruler directs his ministers through established protocols. A minister serves his ruler with loyalty," (10) is another example from the Analects, which is also applicable to the principles of communist party organization and government.

Chinese communism, like Confucianism, bears a strong moralistic message; it prises state approved education and revolutionary self-improvement in a Confucian way; it demands loyalty and promotes secular ritualism of communist worship. In Confucianism, the emperor had Mandate from Heaven. In Chinese communism, the ruling party has the infallible scientific theory of Marxism, or some kind of "Mandate of Heaven."

Confucianism is a philosophy of government and "gentlemen's" behaviour, there is no mysticism in it, yet it encourages superstition and religious belief as far as they are in the regulated framework of state approved rituals and beliefs. "Why does it rain after a prayer for rain?" asks the Confucian sage and continues with sincerity, "I say, for no reason. It is the same as raining when you had not prayed. When there is an eclipse of sun or moon, you "save" it; when there is a drought, you pray for rain; when an important decision is to be made, you divine. It is not that you can get anything by doing so. It is just decoration (italics are mine). Hence, the gentlemen considers them ornament, but the common people think spirits are involved. To consider them ornament is auspicious; to consider them as spiritual acts is inauspicious." (11)

The dual nature of Confucianism, its secular and pragmatic usage of religion (or faith) for the goals of the state power is particularly visible in the following tale: "Zigong inquired about governing. The Master said, "Make food supplies sufficient, provide an adequate army, and give the people reason to have faith." Zigong asked, "If one had no choice but to dispense with one of these three, which should it be?" "Eliminate the army." Zigong continued, "If one had no choice but get rid of one of the two remaining, which should it be?" "Dispense with food," Confucius said. "Since ancient times, death has always occurred, but people without faith cannot stand." (12)

The quoted tale is a method and principles of governing that the Communists follow naturally. Their political ideology is a utopia and they rely on peoples' belief in the Communist promise. They offer faith to the people; faith in the Communist Party, its leaders and ideology. Ideological indoctrination is the focal point of the communist rule in China. The other staples of good governing, mentioned in the tale, - the army and nursing state - are also key components of Communist rule.

After the anti-communist rebellion in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Bloc, the Communist Party in China has started two general campaigns: economic reforms to ensure that the "supplies of food are sufficient" (as should be according to the Confucian wisdom) and educational campaigns, the building of so called "socialist spiritual civilization", that meant to straighten the faith in the Communist Party and its messianic mission.

In its propaganda and policy, the Party has always used the traditional Confucian approaches. For example, the post-Mao regime propagates the "Four Cardinal Principles," a phrase that immediately evokes associations to the popular Confucius's five principles of relationship. Surely, the majority of Chinese people do not know what the Four Cardinal Principles are, but the important thing here is that this propaganda phrase appeals to the traditional psyche, to the collective memories. It is a huge manipulation; it is another example of the psychological war that the central power wages for controlling the minds and beliefs of millions of people. Indeed, The Four Cardinal Principles are not principles at all; they are commands of the state rule: Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, the socialist road, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the leadership of the Communist Party. And the character of the Confucian Five principles of relationships is not less imperative than those we have seen in the Communist Party cannon: king to subject, father to son, husband to wife, older brother to younger brother, friend to friend. Both Communist party and Confucianism demand loyalty and rest on hierarchy. These are the organizing principles of society.

The Communist party treats religion and religious practices - Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, etc. - in the same way as the Confucian imperial elites treated them: sometimes with an iron fist in velvet gloves, and sometimes with open hostility. When Buddhism entered China in third and fourth century AD, the opposition against it was severe. The Buddhist religion was undermining the basic structure of the old Chinese society that was hierarchical, demanding loyalty to king, elders, and ancestors. The traditional Chinese worldview sees the cosmos as a three level structure: Heaven, Man, and Earth. Man was the link between Heaven and Earth - that is why his actions could disturb or facilitate cosmic harmony. But man was not just every man, king was the Man who held the biggest responsibility for the smooth functioning of cosmic order. Confucianism entrusted the king and state officials with moral responsibility, it taught that if the center is corrupted, so the chaos is near. Buddhism did not care about the ancestorship and king's power. "Although various schools of thinking in classical China had sought to diminish the power and vice of the princes through criticism, none of them had ever thought of re-envisioning the bond of society in anything other than kinship terms," Antony C. Yu writes in his book State and Religion in China. "The Buddhist Sangha, on the other hand, represented a radical re-definition of human community by eliminating the biological factor, and with it any valorization of kinship ties." (13) Yu cites a few writings from the period of Buddhist-Confucian polemical conflict that clearly show that the traditional Confucian society was alarmed by the undermining effects of the Buddhist faith on traditional Confucian concepts such as filial piety, lineage maintenance, and ancestral sacrifices.

One might say that communism has nothing to do with the problems of Confucian state, but that would not be true. Chinese Communism was a child of the national movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. "With the rise of revolution and republicanism and the fall of the Qing, the link between cosmos and ruler was served. Sovereignty was meant to originate not from the balance of Heaven, Earth, and Man but from human agency alone," 14 Rebecca Nedostup writes in her book " Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity." "The 1911 Revolution had broken the link between state and cosmic power. When this failed to produce a strong Chinese nation-state, unified and able to negotiate its interests on the world stage, critics blamed lingering elements of the cultural past... New culture critics began to absorb other influences ranging from the atheism of the late Qing anarchist movement to the writings of Friedrich Engels, and linked religion to autocracy and imperialism... Intellectual debates posited that aesthetics, philosophy, or science would replace religion in modern civilization." (15) Nedostup argues that nationalism did the first large-scale experiment in Chinese history - it created the first secular government stripped of rituals linking sovereignty to cosmic authority; built quasi-democratic nationalism theoretically premised on popular mobilization, but ultimately dependent on political control; created secularized civic ceremonies; and replaced customary models of social arrangement, including religion, (16) but it failed to unify the country and to offer a cohesive system of belief or ideology that could accommodate the majority of Chinese population. The Communists made the last; they preserved the "secular-nationalism" while offering the religious promise of the communist paradise. They succeeded in accommodating the majority of Chinese population, because their political base was peasantry and they knew well the peasants' psyche. They not only built their regime on the back of the nationalist movement, they succeeded to "modernize" and apply classical Confucianism in their own political strategy. Actually, they did something amazing. They absorbed Confucian ideals, National ideals, and Marxist ideals, while building a modern state on traditional totalitarian pillars. They used everything that existed in past to create Modern "Communist China", even their harsh laws with wide range of death penalties resemble the legalist tradition of Qin dynasty.

But the Communist rule in Beijing has the same problems as the old Confucian state had. It has to stay alert for any sign of religiously or ideologically inspired opposition; it has to work tirelessly on education, indoctrination and engagement of society in state rituals and beliefs; it has to demand loyalty and punish the "traitors" mercilessly; it has to care for everything, because it is the Party that is responsible for everything as the emperor was for the cosmic harmony in the past. Perhaps, today's communist leaders are good Confucians and they know that history is a cyclic movement, not progressive as Marxism teaches. They know that there would be a demise of their modern communist dynasty, surely they do a lot to battle the corruption in their ranks and to grow the prosperity of the ordinary man hoping that inevitable collapse would not happen soon. The problem is that neither the Chinese leaders, nor the world know what would happen in a future democratic (or anarchic) China: would it be a prosperous and peaceful place or a zone of war and tragedy.

This text is not political. It doesn't aim to say what is good or bad in China, it only suggests the idea that Chinese communism is a synergy of old and new, an unusual "secular religion" (not oxymoron) that serves the power of political center as it was in old imperial China.

T.S.Tsonchev

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1 In the late nineteen and early twentieth century, anti-imperial, anti-colonial revolutionaries did not know Marxism. Their ideology was still a formless compendium of unsettled ideas. For example, Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People - anti-imperialist nationalism, democracy, and socialism - although a motto of the revolutionary movement in the early twentieth century, were still an unclear grouping of vague ideas. Nationalism was the real ideology of early twentieth century China, but after Bolshevik revolution in Russia, withdrawal of Russian concessioners and the activity of Russian political emissaries in China, nationalism merged with Marxism that offered the example of Soviet nation building. For more historical references see Jonathan D. Spence's " The Search for Modern China" , Part III, "Envisioning state and society" (Norton, New York, 1999) pp. 265-375, also Arif Dirik's " The origins of Chinese Communism " (Oxford University Press, 1989) and Benjamin I. Schvartz's " Chinese Communism and the rise of Mao " (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951).

2 We can easily find how far from the orthodox Marxism Mao's thought is if just compare his writings with the writings of communist leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht. For instance, in one of the most popular, international texts of communism, "A Call to the Workers of the World " (See " The Communist Manifesto and other Revolutionary Works " (Courier Dover Publications, 2003) pp. 232 -235) the word "imperialism" is mentioned only once, while the "proletariat" appears seventeen times. When Mao says, "the main socialist transformation has been completed with respect to the system of ownership", he meant that the communists eliminated "landlord and comprador classes". ( On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People (February 27, 1957), 1st pocket ed., pp. 51-52 ) The landlord is a feudal, the "comprador" is the person who trade with the Western companies. But both have nothing to do with the working class in its traditional Marxist sense. See "How Communist is China?"

3 Richard C. Bush expresses the same opinion in Religion in Communist China, (Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) , (p.15)

4 "From the Other Side of the Desk" China Notes (September, 1963), pp. 3-4, quoted by Bush (Richard C. Bush, Religion in Communist China , ( Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) ,), p.18

5 Richard C. Bush, Religion in Communist China, ( Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) , p.19

6 Richard C. Bush, Religion in Communist China, ( Nashville: Abingdon Press. c1970) , p. 30

7 Quoted by Jonathan D. Spence in " The Search for Modern China", (Norton, New York, 1999, p. 495)

8 Antony C. Yu, State and Religion in China, (Open Court Publishing, 2005), p. 145

9 Patricia Ebrey, "Chinese Civilization. A Sourcebook " (Simon and Schuster, 1993) p.21

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid. p.24

12 Patricia Ebrey, "Chinese Civilization. A Sourcebook" (Simon and Schuster, 1993)

13 Antony C. Yu, State and Religion in China, (Open Court Publishing, 2005), p. 97

14 Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious regimes: religion and the politics of Chinese modernity, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2009 ), p. 9

15 Ibid.

16 Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious regimes: religion and the politics of Chinese modernity, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2009 ), p. 279

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