This is the third of a series of five articles on understanding China today. The articles cover politics, economics, culture and religion, since all of these are important for making some sense of what is happening. Each topic is approached from the Marxist tradition, for this is a key that is too often ignored. The articles provide a framework for how one might approach political theology in relation to the Chinese situation. The author teaches for a semester each year at Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing.
Christianity may well be the real loser in the Hong Kong protests of the last few months. It has become clear that some Christian groups were at the forefront in organising and supporting the protests and that they continue to plan further unrest. The groups are mostly of a protestant evangelical variety, but they include some Roman Catholic leaders. Others are opposed, producing sharp divisions within the churches. But those who foster the protests have also been providing a dimension of the theoretical justification for the protests, especially through biblical interpretation. This is not a recent development. These groups have been active since the restitution of a stolen Hong Kong to China in 1997. Over almost two decades they have engaged in low-level protests, brought in outside advisors, engaged in extensive organisational efforts to link the various organisations, and sought to develop a theological framework for their efforts.
Their efforts may arguably have been detrimental to Christianity, particularly in a Chinese situation. There are three main reasons.
The Hong Kong protests have confirmed the connection between Christianity and colonialism. In Chinese collective memory, Christianity is primarily seen as a colonial ideology (yang jiao). It is associated with the humiliation of China in the nineteenth century, at the hands of European colonial powers. The gunboats of the British Empire, which imposed a semi-colonial status on China, also carried with them Christian missionaries. The opium wars, the destruction of the summer palace in Beijing, the imposition of unfavourable economic conditions, and the religious ideology of a foreign empire – these and more became signals of that humiliation.
Some missionaries did much good, seeking to understand China, to introduce its culture and history to Europeans, and undertaking translations of classical Chinese texts. Yet most were seen as ideological agents of British colonialism.
This memory has overlaid other and more beneficial dimensions of Christianity. Thus, the efforts by Matteo Ricci in the sixteenth century have been eclipsed. His efforts to develop a form of Roman Catholic Christianity – ‘with Chinese characteristics’ – no longer determine the perception of Christianity. Further, very few are aware of the development of a Chinese Christian materialism. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a number of leading Chinese Christians – W. T. Wu, W. T. Chu and Wu Leichuan – sought to engage with Marxism. They developed unique formulations that were specifically concerned with a Chinese situation. Forgotten too is the significant assistance given to the Red Army during the Long March (1934-1935) by Christian groups.
Instead, the colonial connection dominates Chinese perceptions. And the Hong Kong protestors have reinforced that impression. The active support of the protests by the UK and the USA – by means of statements and the presence of personnel to advise and assist the protestors – makes that impression difficult to deny.
Threat to Social Harmony
A central plank of Chinese government policy is a harmonious society. It may not aspire to the near utopian Confucian image of the Datong, the Great Harmony in which social strife gives way to a harmonious mediation between opposites. But the government has expressed quite clearly the desire for xiaokang, the less ambitious aim of general prosperity, peace and relative harmony. Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese dream’ is a more recent development of this theme.
However, it is a great mistake to see this ‘harmony’ in terms of other traditions, such as Eastern Orthodoxy. In Chinese traditions, the harmony in question is not the erasure of oppositions and tensions, but a learning to live with them. Here we begin to see how Marxian dialectics is transformed in a Chinese situation: the dialectic has its distinct place, but now understood in terms of its mediation to a state of liveable tensions.
To return to xiaokang: recent statements concerning the different religions in China have emphasised this desire for harmony. The China Committee on Religion and Peace regularly encourages religious leaders and believers to contribute to ‘building a moderately prosperous society in all respects’. This entails both religious freedom in accordance with Chinese law, and guiding religious groups to adapt to a socialist society. Tellingly, this policy also explicitly seeks to withstand ‘the infiltration of overseas-based hostile forces that make use of religion’.
Christianity and Liberal Democracy
Above all, the Hong Kong protests have reinforced the perceived connection between some forms of Christianity and liberal (or bourgeois) democracy. A key slogan of the protests is ‘one person, one vote’, which sounds innocent enough. They also demand no restrictions on the candidates for elections in Hong Kong. Again, that sounds to an outside observer reasonable enough.
The catch is that most Chinese are not interested in liberal or bourgeois democracy. Again and again, I hear from people in China that they have seen how liberal democracy works, with its in-built corruption, its advertising campaigns, its policy inertia, its blocking out of real alternatives, and its significant restrictions as to who may vote. Thus, when President Xi Jinping says that liberal democracy is not appropriate for Chinese conditions, he is expressing a generally held opinion and not some evil desire by the Communist Party to retain its hold on the reins of power. China has tried various approaches, he points out: ‘Constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarism, a multi-party system and a presidential system, we considered them, tried them, but none worked’. And if they were to try liberal democracy, it would lead to chaos and catastrophe. Instead, what works in China is the long tradition of socialist democracy.
As Suzanne Ogden points out in her study of Chinese governance, for the Chinese leadership and most Chinese people, ‘the insistence on democratization for all, and right now, has led to a clichéd intoning of the words freedom, human rights, and democracy, which provide ever more ragged clothing for the export of formulaic Western political values throughout the world’.
After the Hong Kong protests, the Chinese government may well view some forms of Christianity with renewed suspicion. The connection with Western colonialism, the threat to social harmony, and the linking of Christianity with bourgeois democracy, may ensure that this is the case. I hope this does not happen. I hope there are enough wise heads in the Chinese government to see that research centres and projects on Christianity and the Bible should continue to be funded, that churches should continue to be approved and be built with government funds, and that the Christian churches should continue to explore creative ways to be part of the Chinese project.