Officially, the People’s Republic of China advocates atheism on the part of its citizens, and you might think that as an atheist myself, I would approve. I do not. My atheism is a personal matter, not one arrived at as a result of any governmental involvement and I intensely resent governmental encouragement that I adhere to an “approved” belief. In America, that means Christianity, or at least Jehovah-worship of some sort, as represented in paeans to Jehovah on the money, repeated efforts by governmental officials to put Jehovaic religious icons in public structures, accommodations to the ancient superstitions of Jehovah-worship interfering with the teaching of science and history in public schools, and incorporating references to Jehovah in various mandatory oaths, whether correctly or incorrectly administered.
But in China, the government wants its people to be atheists. Seems to me that if I have the right to be an atheist in America, a Chinese person has the right to be a Christian in China if that is the way her beliefs and conscience guide her. Technically, she can be, but the pressure to conform to the party line is strong: the Communist Party of China continues to maintain that membership in the party and adherence to a religion are incompatible. So if advancing in one’s career requires involvement with the Communist Party, one must choose between religion and party membership.
Worship in China is now allowed (by non-Party members and foreigners) but only five religions are recognized: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholic Christianity, and Protestant Christianity. The Chinese do not differentiate between differing sects of Buddhism, Islam, and Protestant Christianity. This bad news for Jews, Mormons, Baha’i, and Orthodox Christians, both residents and visitors. It is also bad news for followers of “folk religion,” as the state refers to it — the worship of traditional and ancient gods and spirits, and ancestor-worship, which has a long tradition in eastern Asia.
However, it is technically illegal for parents to teach their religion to their children until they have completed at least nine years of school, although children may hold religious beliefs on their own if they wish to.
Muslims, particularly the Uighurs in the western regions of China, have had to face many mosques being closed in recent years as part of the state’s efforts to “fight terrorism.” While we in the western world have yet to hear of a singly Uighur engaged in any kind of terrorist activity, this is a matter of some concern for the leaders of the PRC, particularly since Uighurs tend to speak Turkic rather than Chinese languages* and are therefore subject to additional official chauvinism on that basis. Muslims in China may not go on a Hajj to Mecca without obtaining state approval first, which typically involves posting a return bond of a very large amount of money or leaving one’s family in state custody.
All houses of worship are owned and operated by the state, and clerics (particularly those with administrative authority) must meet with the approval of the state before they may assume any kind of duties whatsoever. This is a matter of particular tension to the Catholic Church, which must stand by and rubber-stamp as the PRC and not the Vatican appoints bishops the same way the kings of old arrogated that right to themselves. (Henry VIII would have nodded in approval.)
Visitors to China may bring in religious materials only “for their own use,” but they cannot bring in anything that the censors believe to be “harmful to the public interest.” They may not evangelize, assist religious schools, or otherwise engage in missionary activities without explicit sanction by the government, which is rarely, if ever, given. The government actively restricts religious activities that are considered to be harmful to “national unity” or “social stability,” or which goes beyond “normal” religious activity and crosses a deliberately-undefined line into “religious extremism.”
To that end, religious doctrines are edited and revised by state censors to make the religions acceptable to the government — in particular, to control the evolution of religious teachings so as to make religions encourage loyalty to state powers and the acceptance of material suffering on earth in favor of rewards to be granted in the afterlife. Religious texts must bear stamps of official state approval and possession or publication of unauthorized religious texts will get you arrested. Religious groups conforming to the laws earn the right to be called “Patriotic Religious Associations.”
Large-scale gatherings of religious people, like big masses or services on high holy days, earn heightened scrutiny by the minders. An entire Sunday school training class, consisting of a Protestant instructor and 35 students, was arrested in Xinjiang. Also, because a number of practitioners of Protestant Christianity sometimes gather for Bible study in church members’ houses, they have violated the rule of religious activity taking place only in official houses of worship and thus been arrested for reading the Bible in private homes.
But the three biggest targets for religious repression in China are, without question, Tibetan Buddhism, Falun Gong, and Xian Tian Tao.
Xian Tian Tao, loosely translated from is an accretion of Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and is alternatively translated as the “Way of Former Heaven” or the “Way of the White Lotus.” Practitioners number about five million and claim their religion traces its roots back to the thirteenth-century Yuan Dynasty. They believe that the Mother Goddess created the universe and about 9.6 billion souls, and something has gone awry to prevent their return to heaven. Thus, the Mother Goddess has sent various prophets to Earth to save souls, including several Buddhas, Mohammad, Confucius, and Jesus, to teach the way back. Because followers of the Way of the White Lotus believe that the supreme power of the universe is the Mother Goddess and that the guides to right conduct and salvation come from a study of the teachings of these various prophets, they deny the authority of the PRC to dictate moral and legal conduct and are therefore traitors. Since the Cultural Revolution began in 1949, millions of Lotus-followers have been rounded up and punished, either in re-education camps, labor camps, or by execution. The religion is officially banned, and membership in it is considered treason.
Better-known, at least here on the west coast of the USA, is the cult of Falun Gong. Adherents to the cult insist that it is not a “religion,” but rather a “teaching tradition” or a “mind-body cultivation practice” similar to certain sects of Buddhism. (Their symbol incorporates the use of swastikas, but this should not be seen as relating to Nazi Germany in any way; the swastika pre-dates the Nazis’ hijacking of that ancient symbol of good luck and prosperity by several thousand years.) Practitioners believe that the fundamental forces of the universe are truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance from wrongdoing, and these attributes can be found in all parts of space and matter. By behaving truthfully, with compassion, and avoiding wrong acts, one puts oneself in harmony with the universe and thus achieves various goals of personal and spiritual health, including the ability to transform personal death into an activity that transmutes the soul. Seems harmless enough, but in 1999, Falun Gong was declared an “illegal religion” and its leaders accused of “spreading lies” to common people, lies which had “nothing in common with the socialist ethical and cultural progress we are striving to achieve.” So great was the threat from Falun Gong that a special, extra-constitutional commission was created to root out its practitioners and extract from them promises to not participate in Falun Gong activities (like meditation and a form of group exercise resembling Tai Chi or yoga) anymore, and if such promises were not made or were found to have been broken, the offenders have been jailed, tortured, sent to re-education camps, and executed. Falun Gong practitioners account for two-thirds of all torture victims in Chinese prisons, and one-half of the millions of people in labor camps, according to a U.S. State Department report issued in 2007.
Tibetan Buddhism contends with Falun Gong for the status of “most repressed religion in China. “Tibetan Buddhism” refers to that branch of Mahayana Buddhism that is widespread in practice in the areas we know today as the Tibetan plateau within China, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Himalayan states of India. The teachings of this school of Buddhism are that through meditation, enlightenment, and good works, one may attain Buddhahood, which is a kind of omniscience and inner peace, which bestows great mystical powers to the newly-enlightened Buddha. The tradition involves a great deal of introspective meditation and a high degree of loyalty and devotion to a guru or “lama.” A proper lama is one who is seen as carrying a high degree of legitimacy and authenticity of teachings going back to the original Buddha and Padmasambhava, a child prodigy of Buddhism from central India who carried the Tantric traditions over the Himalayas into Tibet and who manifested himself eight times over the centuries in various forms. His successor and oracle is believed by most Tibetan Buddhists to be the Dalai Lama.
The title “Dalai Lama” means “Great Teacher” and it traces its origin back to Genghis Khan, who may have been the first person to use it as a political title. Traditionally, the Dalai Lama is both the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, and a line of thirteen Dalai Lamas were the effective heads of state of Tibet since 1391, and who succeeded in unifying the region into a single political entity in the late sixteenth century. A Dalai Lama is always a Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist monk, chosen by the high-ranking monks of the tradition gathering under the Panchen Lama (the second-highest ranking Mayahana Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition) who each write a name on a golden ball of possible choices of the reincarnation of Padmasambhava’s oracle, and the Panchen Lama picks one of those balls at random in a lottery which is supposed to be guided by the divine spirit of Padmasambhava himself.
Because of the connotation that the Dalai Lama is both a political as well as a spiritual leader, obviously the existence of such a person is anathema to the PRC. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is considered to be the fourteenth man to bear that title (not counting Genghis Khan and his political successors) and was considered the political head of state of Tibet from right around his fifteenth birthday. The Chinese invaded shortly before he was acclaimed the Dalai Lama and he was the figurehead of Tibetan resistance to the Chinese invasion in 1950-1951. Under intense military pressure, he signed an agreement “liberating” Tibet and for about eight years tried to work with the Chinese Communist Party, rising as far as Vice Chairman of the National People’s Congress. However, he was used as the figurehead of Tibetan rebels again in 1959 — his complicity in that rebellion is far from clear but he was clearly suspected — and he fled to India. He has been in exile ever since, having set up a government in exile and made many proposals for realizing Tibetan autonomy, if not outright independence from China.
With that in mind, it is actually not so difficult to understand how China might see Tibetan Buddhism as a political threat to its control over the territory of Tibet — there is a competent, tangible, and charismatic leader to the Tibetan independence movement, one who claim claim a mantle of religious authority and an ancient tradition of political power over that region of the planet. Adherence to the religion means having to address and ultimately adopt the political leadership of the Dalai Lama, and the Dalai Lama himself has a personal history which caused him to (from the point of view of the Party’s leadership) betray the Communist Party and the People’s Republic and actually set up a proxy government in exile.
So, Tibetan Buddhists still in the People’s Republic get treated terribly by their government. Most mildly, all Buddhist monks and nuns are required to read Party-sanctioned manuals advocating for atheism and warning against teaching about the supremacy of the Dalai Lama before their ordinations are approved by the government. Repeat offenders of teaching non-party approved doctrine, or those who minister to children age 16 or younger, will find their monasteries on the wrong end of bulldozers. High-ranking monks and other heads of houses of worship who held a memorial service in honor of the people killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident found themselves stripped of ecclesiastical office and imprisoned. There are also two Panchen Lamas, one appointed by the PRC and the other appointed by the Dalai Lama, so there is a dispute about which one is the “real” Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama named by the Dalai Lama and his entire family vanished without a trace shortly after he was named, and he would be eighteen years old today (assuming he is still alive, which is not known by anyone but his jailers). Read more about this missing boy-prophet here. Hundreds of other monks were vanished without a trace from the more picturesque monasteries along the route of the Olympic torch near Lhasa last month; they apparently have yet to be returned to their nearly-empty monasteries which are being converted into tourist attractions rather than working houses of mediation and teaching.
So the monks are vanishing, the ability of the remaining monks to teach a new generation of clerics is being sharply curtailed, and the ability of the Buddhist tradition to name a new generation of leadership is being folded into Communist Party control.
Query — is it more evil for the PRC to imprison and kill the practitioners of Falun Gong outright, or is it more evil for the PRC to co-opt and try to seize control over the Tibetan Buddhist tradition?
As an atheist, let me add that the PRC’s acts are arbitrary in addition to being violent, cruel and anathema to core values which lovers of freedom and liberty should hold dear regardless of their religious belief. It makes no sense to me to condemn Falun Gong or Xian Tian Tao for “spreading lies” while allowing Taoism or Islam, which have equally fanciful claims to being “the truth” in any objective sense. But of course a tyranny bent on controlling the very thoughts of its subjects should not be expected to tolerate meaningful religious freedom.
* As you probably know, there are several different of languages in the family of tongues referred to as “Chinese”, the most common of which is Mandarin but which also include Wu, Cantonese, and Min. So too are there many different Turkic tongues, with Turkic-language speakers ranging from Greece to Siberia.