Disoriented by economic growth, China has gone from 100 to 300 million believers. But religion is still held on a tight leash by the authorities.
If you ask Ma Ying the reasons for her recent immersion in Christian faith, don't expect some lyrical speech on illumination. It all started in a cold and dank Beijing café during a winter morning in 2009. The 29-year-old woman was depressed. "I had just left my job as an assistant because my boss was very brutal," she confesses. "I couldn't take it anymore, being under-employed withmiserable pay, despite my college degree."
At home, things weren't much better. Her parents kept blaming her for still not being almost 30, and still not married. "Human relations are too brutal in China today; things are going too fast, no one cares about anyone," she sighs. When a waitress in the café told her about her prayer group and the warmth she found there, Ma Ying listened carefully and was soon on board. "For the first time in my life I found people who were really interested in me, who treated me as their equal," she says today.
Lu Xia turned to a different religion, but her journey was similar in its search for meaning and a little bit of luck. "I didn't know anything about Buddhism and always saw it as a sort of superstition," says the 34-year-old sales director. "I was completely wrong." After a trip to the Lama Temple in Beijing, she bought a book in the gift shop. "Now, in my professional and personal life, Buddhism helps me deal with my problems with people. It has brought me peace of mind."
Although it remains hard to define, there is a real renewal of religious sentiment in China today. Reverend Chan Kim-Kwong, based in Hong Kong, has been following Protestant communities on the mainland. "There is an obvious spiritual Renaissance," he says.
He sees two waves in this process. The first wave, in the 1980's, was limited to rural and coastal regions. Then in the 1990's, the movement reached the cities, especially among youth and intellectuals. "The biggest expansion involves Buddhists and Taoists and all traditional faiths that honor local divinities."
Broadly speaking, Taoism succeeds mostly in the countryside and in medium-sized cities, Buddhism in the middle class and Christianity for the well-to-do. Until recently, the official number of faithful in China hovered around 100 million, less than 10% of the population. But recent studies, which were published by the state media, now talk about 300 million people of faith. In another study, 85% of respondents said they had religious beliefs or at least believed in the occult.
"Today the (Communist) party is much more about functionality than ideology. It gives people the possibility of making progress, of getting richer, but it is no longer creating meaning or values," says Rev. Chan. "Society has changed a lot. From an egalitarian Communist model, we have moved to a complex, multilayered, non-egalitarian society with no clear social values telling people how to behave." According to Chan, faith helps these "disorientated people" deal with the future's uncertainties. "They're looking for something permanent, to guide their lives." Hyper-materialism, which could once be explained by decades of hardship, is no longer enough to fulfill people.
Comforting "social harmony"
This religious quest "is only one aspect of the spiritual and cultural search going on in China today," explains Benoit Vermander, a Jesuit sinologist who teaches at Shanghai's Fudan University. "Authorities themselves like to separate material civilization from spiritual civilization. If they still claim a monopoly on the latter, they know this monopoly is now contested." According to Vermander, the religious market probably belongs to a broader market of meaning, which includes others elements like nationalism, sports and arts.
Religion is still on a tight leash in China. Five religions are officially recognized: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism (Christianity being counted as two separate faiths.) Each one is overseen by a national organization, led by high-ranking party officials. In that sense, Communist China inserts itself in the line of imperial tradition. The emperor gave himself the right to determine whether a religion was orthodox or not, and to appoint its leaders.
More than a religious question of course, there's the issue of the control of society. "We can accept many things in China, as long as they're done under the party's supervision," explains a young "underground" priest. As soon as things make too many inroads or gain too much autonomy, the secular arm strikes.
Although religious freedom is still limited, it has made real progress in the past 30 years. The authorities realized that practicing religion did not necessarily threaten the party and could even be useful. In 2007, and many times after that, President Hu Jintao said that religion could help consolidate "social harmony." Last year, an international Buddhist forum was organized in Wuxi, near Shanghai. And in June, the Yunan province organized the first Chinese "religious games'. During three days, some 1,000 Buddhist monks, Taoist nuns, imams, ministers and priests challenged each other in various sports like track and field, table tennis, badminton and tug-of-war.
Because of its "western" or at least foreign connotation, Christianity has a special place in this religious awakening. In the 1980's and 1990's, being a Christian was "modern," less so today. However, what is attractive is the emphasis on the community of brothers and sisters, a notion that both Buddhism and Taoism lack. It is a precious support system for those whose families have been dispersed by the tumult of China's runaway economic growth. "The economic boom has divided people into social ranks, and religion restores a feeling of equality," says the young priest. "Catholic faith also appears like a means to ease the strong tensions and contradictions of Chinese society."
Highly active protestant networks
There are officially 5.7 million Catholics, but the real number could be closer 12 million. Official statistics say there are 16 million Protestants but there could be as many as 35 to 40 million (some even cite up to 90 million). Christians might therefore comprise between four and five percent of the Chinese population. One thing is for sure, in the past decade, the Protestant community has expanded faster. "They are more active, more dynamic and their organization in smaller groups is more efficient," says Anthony Lam, a researcher at the Hong Kong Holy Spirit Study Center. "They emphasize training laymen and then on their involvement in big cities, around groups of 30 to 40 people. These networks fit today's Chinese society."
For government leaders, Catholics and Protestants present different challenges. Evangelical missionaries, who travel with bibles and dollars, are a problem for the authorities. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church makes it easier to control, but its centralization in Rome maintains the threat of "foreign interference."
The tension with the Vatican remains a hot topic. The most recent example was the appointment of a bishop in Chengde without the Pope's approval, despite a 2006 compromise on the issue. The national meeting this week to appoint new leaders to the Bishop's Conference and the Patriotic association – the organization that oversees the official Catholic Church under the party's control – won't improve relations between the Vatican and Beijing.
Anthony Lam likes the comparison with figures of China's civil war. "The Catholic Church is like the Kuomintang, with a strong hierarchy and leaders," he says. "Protestant churches are more like the Communist Party, with small groups of are self-sufficient, highly mobile guerillas." Reflections on transcendence aside, we know which of the two was more efficient.
Read the original story in French
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