Atheist state errs in setting limits to religious belief

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 April, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 April, 2002, 12:00am

Last month, in what has become something of a ritual, the United States issued its annual report on human rights all over the world except, of course, the United States itself. And, as expected, the State Department report accused China of a wide array of human rights violations. These included religious persecution and suppression of ethnic minorities, in particular the Uygurs of Xinjiang.

China, in response, unveiled its human rights report on the United States, focusing primarily on the country's social problems. Ironically, perhaps, the criticism of China's religious policies comes just as China appears to be planning more tolerance in that field.

However, more tolerant religious policies will not solve the problem. Although Article 36 of the Chinese constitution says 'citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief', in practice, this freedom is limited to the five religions officially recognised by the Government - Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism.

Even so, the leaders of those religious organisations have to pledge to support the leadership of the Communist Party and the socialist system. So we have a situation whereby an atheistic party decides which religions are legitimate and which ones are to be labelled 'evil cults', and religious leaders must support atheists as the country's leaders.

This unedifying spectacle is a reflection of the Communist Party's determination to control all groups in the country so as to ensure that it remains in power permanently. So religion, in addition to serving the people's need to worship, also serves the party's need for control.

Similarly, ethnic minorities are controlled by the party through the leaders of each of China's 56 minority nationalities. Each Chinese citizen carries an identity card that gives his or her ethnic status. While the Han, or ethnic Chinese, make up more than 90 per cent of the population, the party makes sure the minorities, many of whom live in sparsely populated border areas, are controlled by minority leaders who also support the leadership of the Communist Party.

Many of these minority leaders, like religious leaders, are co-opted by the party and given high-sounding positions in the National People's Congress or the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top advisory body. In fact, many individuals are simultaneously both minority and religious leaders. For example, Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai, a living Buddha and vice-president of the Chinese Buddhist Association, is a vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. In fact, something like 17,000 religious figures are deputies to the NPC and the CPPCC at various levels.

To be sure, China has reason to be fearful of ethnic and religious strife. Its history is full of examples of rebellions led by pseudo-religious figures, such as Hong Xiuquan, the 19th-century Taiping leader who claimed to be the brother of Jesus. Similarly, China has witnessed ethnic wars, some of which saw ethnic Chinese being subjugated by warlike nomadic peoples, including both the Mongols and the Manchus.

The Communist Party should end the system of attaching an ethnic label to each citizen. For one thing, there are Chinese citizens who don't belong to any of the 56 groups. Moreover, the party should also abandon the practice of limiting religious belief to five official religions. This, too, is no longer in accord with reality, if it ever was.

It is certainly incongruous to insist that China has only five authorised religions when, in Hong Kong (which has been part of China now for five years), there are Jewish synagogues and Hindu temples as well as adherents of other religions, such as Bahaism.

Moreover, even within the mainland, there are Chinese citizens who do not fall into any of the recognised ethnic groups or the five authorised religions. One example is Israel Epstein, a Polish Jew whose parents took him to China as an infant. Epstein studied and worked in China as a journalist before going to the United States in the 1940s - where he also worked as a journalist - before deciding to return to China, where he became a Chinese citizen and joined the Communist Party.

Of course, there are only a handful of people like Epstein. However, China's nationality law, adopted in 1980, does allow foreign nationals to become naturalised as Chinese citizens. And it says nothing about limiting applicants to adherents of one of the five official religions, or to members of one of the recognised ethnic groupings in China.

That being the case, China must assume the trappings of a pluralistic society, where individuals can decide for themselves whether they want to be considered to be a member of a minority group and whether they wish to be part of an organised religion. The state should not be in the business of telling its citizens which religions they are free to believe in.

Frank Ching ( is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.