China: Religious freedom vs the old guard

2002-06-13Asia Times

BEIJING - Mr Wang had walked nearly two kilometers from the bus stop to the entrance of one of the most notorious labor camps in Jilin province, in China's northeast. It was cold and Mr Wang was wrapped in a blanket. He had been released a few weeks earlier from that camp after he had written a full confession on his activities in the banned Falungong cult.

After long months of treatment and re-education he had felt good again and had seen that he had been deceived and hoodwinked by the Falungong, so he admitted his activities as co-organizer of many expeditions to Beijing to demonstrate against the government ban of the cult. He saw that many of the beliefs held by the cult were just mixin, superstition, that no end of the world was in sight and that, contrary to Falungong's teachings, when someone got ill he must be cured in the hospital.

The guards were very pleased with him and considered him a good example of their success in re-education. The battle on the spiritual front against Falungong could be won, commented the leaders reviewing Mr Wang's case. So Mr Wang was released and went back to his home, and to his life.

But there he found himself alone, without friends, as the Falungong sympathizers shunned him and the others considered him still a Falungong. With a poor-paying job, his family drifting around, the society around him battered by the economic crisis in China's rust belt, and the new wave of Americanization, which clashed so much with the old Chinese values, roughly interpreted by Falungong - within days he was at a loss again, and the old Falungong beliefs came back into his life, as they seemed to make more and more sense in a daily life that was so different from the tough but purposeful labor camp. So one day he bundled up his few belongings, took all his money and went back to the camp.

At the entrance he asked to be readmitted, explaining to the guard that he had relapsed into his old Falungong beliefs, and needed to be cured again. The guard was shocked by the request, as he had never witnessed anyone volunteering for a period in a labor camp. He called his superiors, and they were even more frightened. They saw the political danger of Mr Wang's request: the treatment was not so effective after all. Or perhaps Mr Wang had been feigning a recovery in order to get out, and now had come back to the camp to deliver messages to his Falungong comrades. Or perhaps he wanted to come back to start proselytizing among non-Falungong inmates. It was bad whichever way they looked at Mr Wang's story, and there was no way they could explain this to their own superiors. They didn't know what was happening, they had no provision for it. So they decided to turn Mr Wang away and refuse to let him back into the labor camp.

The name and place are made up, but the story is not. It reflects the latest stage of Falungong's never-ending saga in China. Although decimated by arrests and defections, scattered throughout the huge Chinese territory, and split into camps of moderates, willing to practice their faith quietly at home, and militants, risking their necks to jam TV programs with counter-propaganda, Falungong is still alive and kicking. Its members are no longer a threat to security and political order, as when they confronted the government in 1999, they no longer stage large demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, although the police there are always on alert. They have proved resilient and impossible to eliminate.

A growing voice in the Chinese Communist Party is recognizing this predicament, that Falungong believers are not some kind of drug addicts to be detoxified and then restored to society. They are a more complicated breed of people, who are looking for spiritual satisfaction while the society in which they live has completely given up on that. Some in the party therefore favor encouraging the traditional religions - Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism - to fight Falungong on their own turf.

President Jiang Zemin himself appears to approve of this approach. Last December he delivered a speech in which he for the first time declared that religion had played a positive role in the process of reform by bolstering people's morality. During US President George W Bush's visit in November, Jiang said he was personally interested in religion and that he read religious books. And then, in December, the vice director of the influential commission for reform of the state, Pan Yue, published a lengthy article arguing for more liberal policies on religion. The underlying idea was that the party needed the help and assistance of traditional organized religions in bringing under control potentially seditious cults and sects, such as Falungong.

The party in other words gave up officially, as it had done unofficially for the past 20 years, any claim of total spiritual control of the people. This was part of protracted effort to transform the party from revolutionary to governmental. Bluntly put, the argument goes as follows: A revolutionary party has to fight religion because it assists the present order and, by providing hope of an afterlife, diverts people's attention away from grievances in this life. However, once the Communist Party has taken power, its policies must change in order to keep power. Therefore, it needs religious faiths to help minimize or subdue social protest. Even more bluntly, religion may well be an opiate for the masses, as Karl Marx said, but an opiate for the masses is precisely what any government needs in order to stay in power. And a communist government is no exception.

The argument is less cynical than meets the eye, and in fact could open the floodgates for deep ideological revision of the communist state, allowing more freedom of religion and thus also more cultural and democratic freedom. It could be a whole different world - a world that some old Communist Party comrades bitterly despise, for more than one reason. Many elderly retired party cadres are growing dissatisfied with Jiang's fast-moving reforms, which last July opened the party to capitalists in what they feel is a total betrayal of the communist ideals for which they fought. Many of these people had been close to Falungong ideas, enticed in their late age by promises of long life and lasting health. (See the Asia Times Online series "The Falungong phenomenon" ( Jan 27-31, 2001).

Some senior party cadres, retired and in service, conceived a reactionary xenophobic maneuver to use the Falungong to stop or slow down reforms and what they saw as Westernization. Many of those old Falungong sympathizers are, or are close to, those now grumbling against opening up to traditional religions, which they see as a move aimed against the spread of Falungong, and one that could destroy the old party tenets.

But they do not provide any alternative ideas on how Falungong should be tackled and how the government should deal with cases like those of Mr Wang. Hopes for a return to old Marxist materialism are wishful thinking. Therefore many of these elders, perhaps reliving the dreams of their youth, in effect help the new self-proclaimed revolution of Falungong and other destabilizing forces. To put it bluntly, some of those elderly people could be an obstacle to the party.

But they cannot be simply snuffed out. They represent the party legacy, and in many ways the legitimization of the party to rule, as they contributed to the communist victory in the revolution, and some are relatives of present rulers. Some of them contribute ideas and wisdom to the political process - it is hard to tell the loony ones from those who are still sensible.

Making the problem even more difficult is the fact that the party is totally engrossed in preparations for the 16th Congress, and it is still not clear who will join the growing ranks of the elderly retirees and who will move up the ladder. Economic success and social welfare provide new reasons for stability. The new middle class, the ones who own homes and have bank accounts thanks to the reforms, are against economic volatility, and although they may grumble and certainly want more, they would hate to see a revolution take away what they have acquired. If this sector of Chinese society could be brought to support the present order and its drive for reforms, the influence of the reactionary elders would be eliminated.

The problem is that China needs time to conceive and implement a structure for this purpose. After the 16th party congress, the issue of Mr Wang and his conversion back to Falungong will need to be put on the table. (2002-06-13 Asia Times)


+MoreOther Commentary