A Religious Awakening As China Booms

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.

Ancient faiths are surging back (Laurel Fan via Flickr)

BEIJING - Ask Ma Ying the reasons for her recent immersion in Christianity, and you won't get some lyrical speech on illumination. It all started at 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 cruel," she recalled. "I couldn't take it anymore, being under-employed with miserable pay, despite my college degree."

At home, things weren't much better. Her parents kept blaming her for 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."

Local divinities

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."

Protestant surge

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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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