Conversation Charts China's Shifting Religious Landscape

By Alan Wong – In twentieth-century China, religion was suppressed, often violently. Today, the country is experiencing an explosive spiritual revival. On May 2, 2017, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson and historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom discussed the CCP’s approach to that revival at an event hosted by East Asian Studies, entitled "The Presence of the Past in a Future-Facing China".

Ian Johnson, who lived in China from 1994 to 2001 and recently published The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, has witnessed the development of religion in China first-hand. By his account, phenomena such as ‘Qigong Fever’ in the 1980s and 90s reflected a desire among many Chinese people to practice religion and spirituality, even when doing so was officially discouraged.

While the CCP actively condemned religious practice in the past, denouncing superstitious beliefs (迷信 míxìn), the state’s stance toward religion has recently become more sophisticated. As Chinese people continue to seek experiences and meaning beyond the material world, the state, rather than uniformly disparaging people’s extra-material beliefs and practices, is responding more flexibly.

Selective acceptance

Nonetheless, Chinese leaders still perceive tension between the utility of religion and the threats it can pose to stability and peace. For while religion may be beneficial for public morality and the personal fulfillment of citizens, it can also undermine governmental authority—especially in the case of large, global religions such as Catholicism.

With Wasserstrom (Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and author of Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies), Johnson discussed how China has favored some types of spirituality over others. On one hand, religions perceived as being more ‘Chinese’ (e.g. Chinese folk religions and Buddhism) are considered acceptable. On the other, the CCP under Xi Jingping continues to mistrust religions that are less ‘indigenized’ and that encourage allegiances to charismatic foreign leaders—the Pope, say, or the Dalai Lama.

Evoking George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, while also suggesting that religion in China need not be framed in dystopian terms, Johnson and Wasserstrom covered much interesting ground. Their conversation revealed the complexity and inconsistency in the CCP’s ongoing attempts to address a shifting spiritual landscape.

Learn more about Ian Johnson and Jeffrey Wasserstrom.