China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2017/Jul
Sinicisation is a double-edged sword
The present trend in China concerning religions is the request for their Sinicisation (Chinese officials prefer the term Chinasation) as the only way for survival in the country. Chinese President, Xi Jinping spoke for the first time about Sinicisation of Religions in May 2015 during the Central Conference on United Front Work and repeated the same appeal in the National Conference on Religions and Religious Work in April 2016. From then on, all those dealing with religious issues repeat the refrain.
According to Xi Jinping,1 Sinicisation of Religions consists of and is carried out by managing religious affairs according to the rule of law; by retaining the principles of independence and self-administration; by adjusting to the requirements of the socialist society; by working to unite believers and non-believers, and guiding them to love the country; to protect the unification of the motherland and to serve the overall interests of the Chinese nation.
Religious groups must also adhere to the leadership of the Communist Party and support the socialist system and socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Consequently, the request for Sinicisation is based upon the official emphasis on patriotism and nationalism, and turns out to be a policy and a process of integration. It derives from the strong concern of the Chinese authorities to assure a stable position of the Communist Party and its full control upon all sectors of the life of citizens.
On the other hand, opposite to the patriotic concern and the nationalist orientation, China is facing the process of globalisation and wants to play an important role, if not a central one, on the world stage.
Wang Xiangwei, the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, wrote on May 28:
“China is trying to project its economic influence overseas and pursue a leadership role in global affairs. But nationalism is a double-edged sword, as China is trying to project its economic influence overseas through mega investment projects like the Belt and Road initiative and pursue a leadership role in global affairs. The very emotionally charged nationalistic sentiments could make people in neighbouring countries and beyond wary of China’s rise and its intentions…
“Even more worryingly, as the Chinese leadership has increasingly relied on stoking nationalism to bolster autocratic controls and maintain stability at home, the country’s youth have become increasingly intolerant and belligerent. This has much to do with the country’s massive propaganda machine and the education system, which omits or distorts facts of history to fit the narrative of the Communist Party.”2
The dilemma appears evident: China is torn between patriotism and nationalism on one side, and transnationalism or internationalism on the other. The contradiction is clearer in the religious sector: if the Sinicisation of Religions is understood only in its political dimension and is equated with nationalism or patriotism, then that is closing oneself in upon one’s own country and the total control of its government.
It will hinder China’s quest to find out and learn about its rightful place on the global stage.
Only if the trend of Sinicisation is considered in its cultural dimension does it show a positive value, since it encourages each religion to pay more attention to the local cultural and social context, in order to find ways and expressions that are easier understood and accepted by the people.
Such a need has been felt for a long time. Just a look at the past and present history of religions in China can show the efforts done along this line.
However, local believers should be further encouraged to live their faith deeply and find more inculturated ways to express it in the different sectors of their religious life, such as worship and liturgy, painting, architecture, theology, music and so on.
This is a duty which springs from a deep understanding and practice of faith and would require much more thoughtful formation.
On the contrary, the political interpretation of the new policy of Sinicisation of Religions is quite reductive and restricting.
He Guanghu, a professor at Beijing University, pointed out:
“On the one hand, we can easily detect many manifestations of nationalism in politics, economy, culture and other fields of social life in China, even in the religious institutions.
On the other hand, we must not forget that a non-nationalist religious spirit still exerts some influence upon millions of people in China today, and that the religious spirit behind the various religious institutions, if understood rightly, no doubt has, though to varying extent according to different religions, been cultivating transnationalism, rather than nationalism.”3
The universal openness and concern of all religions are quite strong and evident. All the five officially recognised religions in China have followers outside the country. All of them propose universal moral values of goodness, compassion, harmony, justice and peace.
All of them, including Daoism and Confucianism (once official the imperial religion), teach about being one family under heaven, one communality, Great Union or Great Harmony, equality of all things (Zhuangzi), all peoples are brethren, and so on.
The universal dimension of Christianity, and in particular the Catholic Church with the pope as the sign of world unity, is quite manifest. All Chinese Christians are fully convinced that God is the Father of all human beings and Jesus Christ is the saviour of all nations.
Therefore, religions can provide not only many occasions for Chinese people to deal with international exchanges and cooperation, but also help them find the right balance between inward concern and outward openness, harmony and peace both in the country and in the world.
Moreover, one of the reasons that attracts scholars to research on religious issues, according to Zhuo Xinping, the director of the Institute of Research on World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is the worldwide concern and openness of religious believers, especially Christians. Jorgen Skov Sorensen summarised his position on the reasons for the interest of the researchers, in the following terms:
“The final (reason) is the Christian notion of oikoumene, the worldwide fellowship of Christian believers and an urge and a call for closer cooperation and mutual cross-cultural and transnational recognition in today’s global village. This is, according to Zhuo, badly needed in Chinese culture and society with its traditional tendency of nationalism and inward orientation in international affairs. China should no longer be the Middle Kingdom but a participant and partaker in the international society, the global oikoumene.”4
The role of the intellectuals and thinkers, both in and outside of religious circles, becomes quite important on the issue.
He Guanghu continued in the same article, “Although many scholars of religious studies have argued for and repeated some conclusions in favour of a nationalist orientation, some scholars have appeared who recognise that there are common elements among different religions and some of them have realised some kind of universal spirit of religions.”
It is a great challenge for all religious thinkers. Unfortunately, they seem to have been left behind by secular scholars.
In recent years, members of all religions went abroad to study and to get academic degrees. If they take good advantage of their education, they will help people to understand the value of the universal dimension of their own faiths and, also, become moral and ethical witnesses to universal religious values.
Their contribution to Chinese society and their encounters with people from different walks of life, both abroad and in China, will encourage China to understand how to properly deal with the present globalisation trend, to take the right place on equal terms with other countries and to avoid the grave consequences of the self-absorption of the whole nation.
Wang Xiangwei, the above quoted writer, concluded: “China’s future leaders will be ill prepared to become world leaders if they are not imbued with the right sense of history and the global outlook to embrace diversity and inclusivity.”
1. For further details, see S. Ticozzi, “Xi Jinping’s Meaning of ‘Sinicisation of Religions’”, Tripod, 184, Spring 2017, pp.99-105.
2. South China Morning Post, This Week in Asia, 28 May 2017, p.14.
3. He Guanghu, “A Religious Spirit: The Hope of Transnationalism in China Today”, Christian Theology and Intellectuals in China (University of Aarhus, Centre for Multi-religious Studies, 2003), pp.73-83.
4. J. Skov Sorensen, “Christian Theology and Intellectuals in China”, Christian Theology and Intellectuals in China (University of Aarhus, Centre for Multi-religious Studies, 2003), p.20.