The Relation Between Religion and Government in China

China is again in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Highlighted by the detention of artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel-laureate Liu Xiaobo, the past few months have seen what Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner recently called a "serious backsliding" of human rights.

Even with China's growing clout on the world stage, human rights abuses do have consequences. Reports of secret detentions, censorship of the Internet, and intimidation of foreign journalists continue to harm the image of China's "peaceful rise," and stoke fears of what a rising China means for the world.

Nothing damages China's image more than its suppression of religion. The Dalai Lama wields greater international influence than any of China's domestic critics, due in no small part to his image as a spiritual figure. China's persecution of "house churches," underground communities of Christians that gather in small home meetings, remains a significant irritant to relations with the United States. Sometimes the policies themselves backfire spectacularly. In 1999, China moved aggressively to suppress a relatively obscure new age movement called Falungong. But rather than destroying the group, this campaign ended up launching Falungong to global prominence.

Why does China pursue a policy towards religion that costs it so dearly in terms of international image? Some observers assume that the governing regime is simply ideologically fragile to the point of paranoia, and too accustomed to taking a sledgehammer to any and all public security problems. There is certainly some truth to such an idea, particularly as far as its political critics are concerned. But China's leaders certainly know that throwing the weight of the state security apparatus against Tibetan monks or elderly Christians makes for fairly awful public relations, and it is worth our time to think about why they would consider such actions worth the bad press they inevitably bring.

What is easily forgotten when considering Chinese policy today is that for millennia, China was a profoundly religious state. Two centuries before Rome became an empire, China's Han dynasty had already tied itself to the idealistic rhetoric of Confucianism -- the idea that personal morality is the ultimate source of political authority. For six centuries -- from the 1300s until the last emperor was dethroned in 1911 -- the texts and ideals of Confucius were not only synonymous with civilized culture, they were also the foundation of actual government -- court ritual, the official bureaucracy, and the extensive code of laws were all grounded in Confucianism.

China conducted diplomacy with neighboring courts in Korea, Siam, Vietnam and Burma through the language of Confucian moral hierarchy. Officially at least, the Chinese emperor was unique in the world, and regarded lesser kings of neighboring states as something akin to junior partners. Foreign diplomats were to approach the Chinese emperor as humble servants coming to pay tribute to a cultural and moral superior. China took this aspect of diplomacy very seriously. A severe breach of protocol could spark a real crisis. Japan severed diplomatic contact with China for most of two centuries rather than accepting even the appearance of subservient status. Disagreements over terminology and protocol repeatedly derailed the crucial moments of diplomacy between China and Britain in the years before the Opium War.

But some of these same Confucian emperors also carried on a double life as Buddhist monarchs. The Qianlong emperor, who ruled for most of the 1700s, took this Confucian hierarchy deeply to heart, and without question saw his own august self as the greatest of the world's rulers. At the same time, Qianlong was also the center of a distinct but equally coherent system of Buddhist diplomacy, one based on the ideal of enlightened "wheel turning" kings who would advance the progress of the Buddha's teaching throughout the world.

During China's middle ages, a time when Confucianism had fallen out of political favor, it was Buddhism that served as the language of international relations. Buddhist exchanges created and strengthened alliances between kingdoms across northern China, the Korean peninsula and Japan. Even after Confucianism had supplanted political Buddhism in East Asia, political Buddhism remained vibrant in Central Asia, where incarnated Buddhas and lamas held real power, and supported a succession of Mongol khans who ruled as wheel turning kings. Later dynasties, especially the territorially vast Qing, spanned these two worlds. Emperors like Qianlong ruled their Chinese subjects as Confucian monarchs, but in their dealings with the lamaist belt of Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria, they skillfully employed the idiom of Buddhist kingship.

The point is that for centuries, Chinese politics were deeply grounded in religion -- sometimes more than one at a time. Religion was part of the government -- it was never intended to be independent. Religions that were not tethered to state control were banned by law, and persecuted without mercy.

It is not difficult to see the influence of this long history on religious policy in China today. While Communist Party members are themselves supposed to be atheist, ordinary citizens are allowed to practice religion within certain strict parameters. The Chinese government recognizes Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity and Islam (it does not consider Confucianism a religion), but these official religions are essentially branches of the government, rather than independent organizations. As the successor of the imperial state, the current Chinese government claims for itself the authority to name religious leaders, including the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. Conversely, it rejects the authority of the Vatican to appoint bishops for the Catholic Church in China (which has anywhere from six to twelve million members, depending on who is doing the counting). As a result, both Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Catholics have two sets of leaders, one set appointed by Beijing, and another shadow clergy chosen outside China's borders. Unsanctioned religions -- like the house churches or Falungong -- are still perceived as a direct threat to public order, and treated accordingly.

What many international observers who call for China to embrace religious freedom fail to appreciate is that religion in China has never been treated as a matter of personal choice. It's hard to imagine that the current regime would suddenly start to view things differently.