3. Religious Control


Organized religions, with their power to mobilize large numbers of people for potentially rebellious activities, have long been suspect to the Chinese state. Thus, the first ruler of the Ming dynasty, Emperor Taizu (r. 1368–1399), himself catapulted into power by a religious rebellion, decreed a number of administrative measures of control. Most of these remained in place until the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 and serve as ancestors of religious control today.

For example, he made all religious affairs subject to approval and control by the Ministry of Rites. Within this institution, all affairs were supervised by the Bureau of Daoist / Buddhist Registration, which had branch offices in each province, each prefecture, and each district. In this way, even the most remote religious activity occurring in the empire could be monitored and controlled by an arm of the central government.

Among other things, these offices were responsible for issuing and monitoring ordination certificate, official passports for monks and nuns. Also, only specially designated monasteries were allowed to hold ordinations, ceremonies were limited to once in three, five, or even ten years, and the number of monks and nuns was restricted to serve the government’s needs.

Ordained monks or nuns not only had to carry their certificate at all times but were also subject to the so-called All-Knowing Register, an official list that contained the names of all practitioners who had ever spent any time in a monastery. Private temples, owned and sponsored by local aristocrats, were severely curtailed and had to have an official stamp of approval from the government. The overall effect of these measures was twofold: it reduced enthusiasm for the religious path among the population, and it effected a high level of standardization among institutions and practitioners.

The modern equivalent of the Ministry of Rites is the Bureau of Religious Affairs. It acknowledges five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism—defining religion along Western models rather than indigenous qualities and strictly limiting approved forms. For example, it does not accept the leadership position of the Pope, so that the official Chinese Catholic Church is separate from Rome. Only groups and organizations properly accredited can run places of worship and make use of their land, goods, and income. Whether a Buddhist monastery, Daoist temple, Muslim mosque, or Christian church, all are subject to state regulations—which they have to post in their reception area—and their inhabitants are state employees who receive a monthly stipend from the government.

This limitation has resulted in the flourishing of large numbers of so-called underground churches or temples—of all denominations—which are monitored by the Ministry of State Security, aka the secret police, and for the most part left alone, with periodic bouts of harassment.

The heir of the Bureau of Registration, moreover, is the Religious Association, a kind of counseling committee made up of religious representatives, prominent lay followers, scholars, and local officials that serves as the administrative link between the Bureau of Religious Affairs and the people on the ground. Just like in the Ming dynasty established in a hierarchical pattern that reaches throughout the entire country, these Associations intensify the interference of the government in religious matters. Thus, for example, all Buddhist temples are controlled by the Chinese Buddhist Association with headquarters in the Guangjisi 广济寺 (Temple of the Wide Salvation) in Beijing. All advanced practitioners are subject to its guidance as they train at the Buddhist Academy, housed at the Fayuansi 法源寺 (Source of Dharma Temple) of the Chan school and the Yonghegong 雍和宫 (Palace of Peace and Harmony, i.e., Lama Temple), of the Tantric school.

Watch:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YvtrM5j3lE

2. The Party

The driving force behind the great China experiment is the Chinese Communist Party, founded with Soviet help in 1927 and rising to prominence during the anti-Japanese war, when its members cooperated with the peasants rather than suppressing and exploiting them as the Nationalists did. After the Japanese withdrew in 1945, the Communists gained control in a bloody civil war and founded the People’s Republic in 1949.

Closely following the Leninist and Stalinist model, the Party under Mao developed into a centrally ruled, authoritarian organization that today has 85 million members or one in every fifteen citizens. The core of power lies with the Party Secretary, selected among nine members of the Standing Committee of the 25-member Politburo. It in turn sits at the center of a vast and largely secret system, controlling both the military and civil administration through Party committees on all five levels of government—provinces, cities, counties, townships, and villages.

The Party is the legislative arm of Chinese governance, setting all policies, making all rules, and creating all laws. The government proper is its executive, entirely dependent on the Party. The Party staffs all ministries and agencies through an elaborate and opaque appointments system; it instructs them on policy through behind-the-scenes committees; and guides their political posture and public statements through the propaganda network. The officials working in public institutions are trained, and retrained, at regular intervals, through the Party’s extensive nationwide network of 2,800 schools, now called Civil Management Training Centers, before they are eligible for promotion.

The judiciary branch, too, is firmly in Party hands. All decisions and punishments meted out by the courts occur at the behest and direction of Party organs, which ultimately control the judges directly and the lawyers indirectly through legal associations and licensing.

As well as sitting above state-owned businesses and regulatory agencies, Party departments oversee key think-tanks, the courts, the media, approved religions and other organizations, as well as all universities and educational institutions, and maintain direct influence over many private companies. To maintain power, moreover, the Party has eradicated political rivals, eliminated the autonomy of the courts and press, restricted religion and civil society, denigrated rival versions of nationhood, centralized political power, established extensive networks of security police, and dispatched dissidents to labor camps (MacGregor 2010, 15, xxii).

No other central party of a similar nature has survived this long—they either collapse into different forms of authoritarian government (as in Russia) or give way to democratic institutions (as in Taiwan and the former East Bloc countries). The Chinese Communist Party, too, shows signs of an end-stage Leninist institution. Most leading members have either property or citizenship abroad, ready to jump ship at a moment’s notice. To shore up its power and rally the people’s support, the Party today engages in wide publicity campaigns and makes major efforts to curb corruption. Still, protests are numerous, typically centering around real estate, health care, and pollution, and any number of incidents—natural disasters, terrorist acts, economic failure—can potentially set off cataclysmic changes.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHOkhAplfn0

Read: Shambaugh, David. 2016. China’s Future. Cambridge: Polity Press.

McGregor, Richard. 2011. The Party: 1.3 Billion People, 1 Secret Regime. London: Penguin.

1. The China Experiment

Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been engaged in the most immense and radical social experiment on the planet: the remaking of an entire civilization, culture, and society in the direction of a utopian, socialist, and modern ideal.

It has done so through a series of campaigns and organized structural changes, beginning in the 1950s with the Land Reform that redistributed all privately owned land, taking it away from established landowners, nationalizing it in the hands of the state, then handing it over to poor peasants to farm. This led, by the middle of the decade, to radical collectivization, where everyone was assigned to a work unit (danwei 单位) and each family had to obtain a local household registration (hukou 户口). All property and all activities became communal, to the point where people’s houses did no longer have separate kitchens as everyone ate in collective dining rooms, or spaces for children since all infants were raised in communal creches.

The Great Leap Forward in 1958 enhanced this development through centrally assigned farming directives combined with a nationwide effort to produce steel from all kinds of metals, including farm implements, in backyard furnaces. The result was a massive crop failure that led to three years of famine, during which nearly 45 million people died. The death toll increased during the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 when Mao Zedong 毛泽东called upon young people, the Red Guards, to destroy everything old—culture, habits, artifacts, even people. Millions of city dwellers were sent into the countryside to learn from the peasants, while innumerable artifacts and cultural treasures were defaced or destroyed. It only ended with Mao’s death in 1976.

The Four Modernizations under Deng Xiaoping 邓小平, starting in 1978 with a focus on agriculture, industry, defense and science, embodied a more modern vision of socialist China. Being rich was no longer frowned upon nor were private initiative or individual differences. Opening China to Western investments, first in several Special Economic Zones on the southeastern seaboard, Deng guided it to become the workshop of the world and a major export power. Instituting the one-child policy in 1980, he engineered new family structures and limited population growth. As a result, the Chinese economy tripled over the next thirty years and a third of its 1.2 billion people rose into the middle class.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics, as it has evolved since then—interrupted by a period of four more repressive years after a widespread pro-democracy movement was violently suppressed in June 1989—envisions a modern, industrialized, urbanized society made up of well-educated, healthy, and prosperous people who work and live together in great harmony and spread peace and abundance everywhere. Hu Jintao 胡锦涛, who led China from 2002-12, formulated it in terms of the Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces:

Love the country; do it no harm.

Serve the people; never betray them.

Follow science; discard ignorance.

Be diligent; not indolent.

Be united, help each other; make no gains at others’ expense.

Be honest and trustworthy; do not sacrifice ethics for profit.

Be disciplined and law-abiding; not chaotic and lawless.

Live plainly, work hard; do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.

His successor, the current leader Xi Jinping 习近平, while working hard to extirpate corruption in government and industry, describes it in terms of the China Dream, again endorsing the ideal of social justice and overarching harmony. He also proposes the One Belt, One Road (yidai yilu一带一路) initiative that supports major infrastructure projects in developing countries all around the world, opening them to commerce while enhancing Chinese influence and securing raw materials.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNVBqskxXd8

Read: Benson, Linda. 2016. China Since 1949. London: Routledge.



Daoist China Blog




In May 2018, in conjunction with the 12th international Daoist conference to be held at Beijing Normal University (http://daoistconference.info), I plan to run a 2-week tour called “Daoist China.” This is an expansion of my various Japan tours, which started with the first “Kyoto Hike” in 2004 and have been both successful and enjoyable ever since.

An early venture into China in 2011, using my Daoist expertise to guide a trip following the footsteps of Laozi—from birth through Daode jing transmission to Western emigration—was a mixed experience. With the help of my friend and colleague Robin Wang, I connected to a Chinese travel agent to make all the local arrangements. This worked fine but had the drawback of being in buses a lot of the time, working with local guides whose knowledge of Daoism was negligible, and costing a rather large amount of money.

With the great improvements in Chinese infrastructure, the overall easing of tourist access, and the availability of online booking of hotels, flights, and trains, touring in China has fundamentally changed over the past few years. It is now possible to run a tour along the lines of my Japan trips, focused on themes and places of my preference, relatively inexpensive, and eminently flexible.

To prepare for the tour, when giving lectures at Beijing Normal University in July 2017, I went to various places both in Beijing and Xi’an to explore accommodations and the accessibility of various key tourist sites. Taking the train between the two cities (about 4-5 hours each way) and walking about in the searing heat, I observed continued unbridled construction of huge, megalithic high-rise complexes in vast stretches of the country, complete with the untrammeled despoiling of nature and intensification of pollution, as well as the ever increasing vibrancy of the Chinese people, glued to their cell phones and actively connected online, always moving about and hustling for yet another deal.

At the same time, using the internet without a VPN and talking to colleagues at Beijing Normal University, I was struck by the massive increase in repressive measures by the state, the tightening of the intellectual control of both content and expression, the fluctuating inaccessibility of information sources that used to be perfectly fine. What, I asked myself, is going on here? Where stands China today and where is it headed from here? And what, in all of this, is the role and place of Daoism?

After returning home, I dove into an intensive exploration, reading anything and everything I could lay my hands on regarding the politics, economics, culture, and religion of China today, focusing particularly on works published in the last two years. I have come to see the Chinese situation in a new and rather disturbing light, and am now ready to share my observations in the following vignettes.