It seems that I suffer from a condition not yet included in the list of officially recognized psychiatric maladies: Manic Associational Syndrome (MAS). This is the irresistible urge to perceive things—like news items—as belonging together that are normally perceived as having little or nothing to do with each other. In the last few days MAS led me to associate religious and political news from China with a vanished statue of Confucius, and with the proposition that religious freedom is the first freedom—that is, the freedom that provides the foundation of all other freedoms.
Scattered news items suggest a hardening of government policies on religion in China. For a while it had seemed that these policies were liberalizing, particularly with regard to Christianity. Chinese law only recognizes religious institutions that are officially recognized, registered and regulated by the fearsome State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA). Both Protestants and Catholics are required to be organized in such government-supervised “patriotic” churches. All others are illegal. For many years the Communist regime fiercely persecuted such illegal entities, but more recently, while there were regional differences, these entities were widely tolerated. Protestantism, most of it Evangelical and/or Pentecostal, has been exploding. Most of this growth has been outside the recognized churches, in so-called “house churches”—groups of people meeting for worship in homes or other private venues. Some of these groups, while still called “house churches”, have been publicly conducting services for large numbers of people in large buildings (some of them openly identified as churches). While Protestants, both registered and unregistered, have had many contacts with foreign coreligionists, there is of course no international Protestant center of authority. The fact that they have such a center has been a major problem of Catholics. The officially recognized “patriotic” Catholic church is supposed to be free of foreign, that is Vatican, control. The Vatican of course has never accepted this and has considered the bishops and priests of the “patriotic” church to be schismatic. There has continued to be an “underground church” which accepts the authority of Rome over its clergy. Here too the regime has relaxed its policy of repression, and Pope Benedict XVI has encouraged the two wings of Chinese Catholicism to enter into a dialogue with each other.
Three years ago I was in Beijing, laying the groundwork for a seminar on global religious developments for young Chinese academics (conducted since then by our Boston University research center). I had an audience (no other term to describe it) with the official who at that time was director of SARA. The reception was very friendly. To my surprise the director mentioned Max Weber as having shown the usefulness of religion for economic development (I doubt whether he had read Weber). In the event we got a green light to proceed with the seminar. But I tried to put myself into the heads of these party officials. They are of course aware of “Christianity fever”, the term used in China to describe the growth of Christianity. They must look on this as ambivalent. Unlike Buddhism (in Tibet) and Islam (in the northwest), Christianity is not related to any separatist movement endangering the unity of the country. And it may even be useful for modernization, a major goal of the regime. That is the good news. The bad news is that Christians may start agitating for democracy. Taiwan and South Korea must induce nightmares in the minds of party officials.
It seems that this liberalizing trend is being reversed, at least temporarily. “House churches” are again being harassed. Some Protestant leaders have been arrested. A bishop was solemnly consecrated in the “patriotic” Catholic church without Vatican approval. Other bishops were required to attend the ceremony. It is too early to say whether these recent incidents are opening a new phase in the regime’s policies toward religion. At least for now, the nightmares seem to have superseded the Weberian fantasies.
One may surmise that these changes in religion policies are related to another development, also reported in scattered news stories—the ascendancy of a new generation of party leaders—which in turn may be related to an overall hardening of the domestic and foreign policies of the Chinese regime. In a curious analogy to what has occurred in generational change in ethnic and religious groups in America, here too individuals go back to the ways of grandparents which their fathers have rejected. Thus these youngish party leaders, the children of the reformist generation, look back to the Maoist ideas of the generation that achieved the Communist victory. These ideas are once again propagated in publications and the electronic media. This seems to go well with a new sense of national power, which has no longer to defer to foreign notions of democracy and human rights. It is not just Christian clergy who are again feeling the fist of the state on their neck. So do journalists, intellectuals, artists. The foreign policy of the regime also shows a new hardness and a disdain for the opinions in the (alleged) “international community”. The coming super-power is flexing its muscle—economically, diplomatically, militarily. As old Maoist songs are again taught in schools, and as Chinese enterprises are penetrating more and more countries, the first aircraft carrier of the Chinese navy will soon be launched.
I doubt very much whether this means a return to a full-fledged Maoist ideology, let alone a socialist economy on Maoist lines. The entire political elite, no matter of which generation, has a much too large interest in the flourishing capitalist economy. I don’t think that these people read the Little Red Book, any more than they read Weber—or, for that matter, Marx. What they do believe in is their own power and the authoritarian system which sustains that power. They may still use the phrase “harmonious society” to describe their ideal, but the “harmony” has newly sharpened teeth. They are much less likely to speak of a “peaceful rise” in describing the role of China in the international arena. It is rather doubtful whether China can continue to enjoy its phenomenal rate of economic growth and the social stability which this growth makes possible. But not many Chinese politicians think beyond their interests at the next party congress (any more than many politicians in a democracy think beyond the next election).
Early this year a 31-foot statue of Confucius was erected on Tiananmen Square, within sight of the gigantic picture of Mao Zedong over the entrance to the Forbidden City, which has been hanging there for years. When I first saw it, it appeared as an irrelevant relic of the past, at best a symbol of the paradox of the red flag of Communism fluttering over a ruthless capitalism. (I knew the picture was there, but I was shocked all the same. I thought what it would feel like to see a huge picture of Adolf Hitler hung over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.) In any case, in April of this year the statue was mysteriously removed overnight. No one knew what happened to it. But it was seen, almost certainly correctly, as a significant event. Confucianism had been loudly condemned as a bourgeois ideology during the Cultural Revolution. In recent years it was rehabilitated by the party and the government. Confucius was celebrated as a teacher of social harmony, ethical behavior and, above all, respect for authority. The Chinese regime was following in the footsteps of what for a while was the government-sponsored Confucianism of the so-called “Singapore school”, another case of an authoritarian government presiding over a robustly growing capitalism. Chinese cultural centers abroad were called “Confucius Institutes”. Well, Confucius and Mao no longer look at each other across the vastness of Tiananmen Square. And the picture of Mao may once again be more than a relic.
What does any of this have to do with religious freedom? There is a First Freedom Center in Richmond, Virginia. (An appropriate location. Thomas Jefferson pushed through the Virginia legislature the first law in America guaranteeing religion freedom.) The Center carries on an educational program in high schools and elsewhere. Its founding idea is that freedom of religion undergirds all other freedoms—it is indeed “the first freedom”. Empirically, this proposition may be questioned. It is possible to have limits on religious freedom voted in through democratic processes. Freedom of speech does not necessarily include all religious propaganda. But the “first freedom” proposition is correct in a more fundamental way: Religion most emphatically proposes that there are limits to the legitimate power of the state. This, I think, is especially true of the three Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—with their history of prophets confronting rulers in the name of God—an endless reiteration, if you will, of the prophet Nathan confronting the king David and denouncing him as a murderer. All other freedoms depend on the primal assertion of the proper limits of state power (an assertion, by the way, that may be embraced on other than religious grounds by agnostics—but they too should be able to understand the contribution of religion to this assertion).
Confucius cannot be plausibly interpreted as a forerunner of modern democracy or ideas of human rights. Although it is noteworthy that the virtue of kindness, rem, is enjoined upon rulers as an important ingredient of their legitimacy—the “mandate of heaven”, which can be withheld from unjust governments. But modern authoritarian rulers have understood instinctively that uncontrolled religion can be a threat. By the same token, violations of religious freedom frequently foreshadow other measures of tyranny. Thus Chinese Christians today may resemble canaries in a coalmine, their fate sending out an alarm. Thus the removal of the Confucius statue may also serve as a warning of tyrannical actions to come—of policies bereft of few if any degrees of kindness.