China's Great Awakening

China's Great Awakening

More on:



Politics and Government

from Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop

Elizabeth C. Economy, Ian Johnson, and Fenggang Yang, with Andrew J. Nathan moderating, discuss the current political climate in China, and the rise and role of religion in the country, as part of the 2017 CFR Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop.

Learn more about CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative. 

NATHAN: Well, it’s great to see you all here. I’m Andy Nathan. I’m a professor of political science at Columbia University. And I want to introduce our—we have three wonderful panelists.

Liz Economy, who is a senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Very, very well-respected specialist on Chinese politics, Chinese environmental affairs. She’s not specifically a religion specialist, but she will help us to understand the broader political and social context of the religious awakening in China. 

Then we have Ian Johnson, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, and really both a reporter and a scholar because he has published academic work as well as journalistic work. He writes for—now for The New York Times and for The New York Review of Books. He recently published a book called the “Souls of China,” right, which is just a super book—if you haven’t read it, I recommend it very highly—on the topic of this panel, the religious revival.

And then Fenggang Yang from Perdue University, who is a sociologist, who has written wonderful books and articles on religion in China and religion in the Chinese and other immigrant communities in the United States. 

So this religious revival, we’ll talk about what it is, but I just want to remind you that there are five officially sanctioned religions in China that the Chinese Communist Party controls: Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Islam and Taoism. But there’s a lot of other stuff going on as well. So that’s what we’re going to be talking about.

I want to say that this panel is on the record. There might be some journalists present. I don’t know if that’s the case or not. And it’s being videotaped.

ECONOMY: It is the case.


ECONOMY: It is the case.

NATHAN: It is the case. And however, the breakout—and that’s true of all the panels during the conference. But the breakout sessions are not on—they are off the record.

I’d like to start by—and I’m going to moderate a conversation for about a half an hour, and then we’re going to go to Q&A and ask you to pose your questions to the panelists. But I want to start with Liz, to give us a sense of the political situation in China today, under which this religious revival is taking place. 


ECONOMY: Thank you, Andy. It’s great to be here. Is my mic working OK? OK. Great to be here and be part of this fantastic conference that Irina arranges every year, and to be on this panel with two such distinguished scholars, as well as with you, Andy.

So the broader context for what’s going on in China politically. So just to start off a little bit broad and then I’ll narrow it down. Xi Jinping is basically finishing up the fifth year of his five-year tenure as general secretary of the Communist Party and president of the country. And so a transition’s going to happen in China this October or November for the general secretary position and then in the spring for the president. But I think we all fully expect that Xi Jinping will be selected to both positions once again for another five-year tenure. I think he’s really the first Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping to hit the ground running and articulate a vision for where he wants to take China. 

And that vision is pretty well encapsulated in this Chinese dream, or the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation. You know, what does that mean in concrete terms? I think it means he has a number of specific things, but I think broadly speaking it means a robust Chinese Communist Party at the forefront of the political system. It means a modern and innovative Chinese economy that is capable of competing with the U.S. and Japan and Germany. And it means a China that is moving from being an emerging or regional power to one that is a major and global power. 

So I’m just going to focus on the first of those, the robust Chinese Communist Party at the forefront of the political system and say a few things about the way that Xi Jinping has approached governing. And then I think it’ll provide at least some help in terms of a construct for talking about how religion fits into sort of the broader political scene in the country.

So I think when we’re talking about legitimizing the Communist Party, which is really, I think, the number-one concern he had when he came into power. What he said as he took office in his very first speech that corruption could be the death of the Chinese Communist Party and, indeed, the death of the Chinese state if it were not addressed. The Chinese Communist Party had come to rally be a stepping stone for personal political and economic advancement. It lacked a coherent or a compelling ideology around which the 89 or 90 million Communist Party members would gravitate, much more than the, you know, 1.4 billion Chinese people. What did it mean to be part of the Chinese Communist Party? What was that ideology?

And it was buffeted by a lot of external forces. Voices from the outside, civil society was expanding in ways, there were a lot of alternative authoritative political voices on the scene. The internet was exploding. And so he came into power, I think, with this sense that he really needed to recentralized and take control, both of the Party and more broadly of society and how it was organized. So I’d say, you know, quickly, that there were four things that he focused on. 

The first was to develop some kind of compelling ideology. I don’t think he’s done that yet, but we can see sort of the outlines of something that begins with legalism through Confucianism, includes Marxism, Leninism, some Maoism, Dengism, and, you know, ultimately will result in Xi Jinping thought. And so we don’t really know what it is, but I think what’s important to recognize is that it will blend elements of all of these things to develop some kind of Chinese essence, right? So it will be fundamentally a Chinese/Communist kind of organizing ideology or principle.

The second thing is to ensure that the Communist Party is the sole authoritative political voice. And if you looked at the period of time when he came into power, and you looked on the internet, you would see that there were people—you know, billionaire businesspeople, like Pan Shiyi or Renzhu Chan (ph), who were commanding 20 million, 30 million, in the case of Lee Kai-Fu maybe even 50 million followers on their blog for their blog posts. And a lot of these guys were pretty politically reform oriented. 

And when you’re dealing with numbers like 20, 30 and 50 million people, and a Communist Party that’s maybe 90 million people, you’re beginning to develop a kind of authoritative alternative source of political voice and power. And so pretty quickly in his tenure, first five years, he moved to squash those voices. And so we find now that the internet has become much quieter—(laughs)—when it comes to these big-name voices voicing sort of alternative perspectives.

A second thing I think that he looked to do was to have the Party penetrate more deeply into Chinese society. And I think that he’s done this in a number of ways. It begins with the sort of social credit system. We can talk more about that if you’re interested. But I think trying to put the Party more deeply into the nongovernmental organizations, ensuring that every NGO has a Party committee, that’s a new policy under Xi Jinping. A new law that’s going to manage the foreign NGOs and their relationships with domestic NGOs. So trying to ensure that as civil society develops, as it evolves, that the Party is very deeply embedded in that process of evolution. 

And the third thing I would say is trying to limit or control the role of external voices or foreign voices coming into China. And I think you’ve seen that in terms of the educational system, right? So we’re talking about banning foreign textbooks, or at least giving them a very thorough review. We just as in the Times I guess about a month ago limiting, you know, foreign children’s literature. Certainly, in television trying to diminish or even just cancel programs from the West. So really trying to say: We don’t want, we don’t need these foreign views and these foreign ideas coming into the country.

So last point I’ll make, is if you look at religion in China, it basically tics each one of these challenging boxes for Xi Jinping. There are authoritative, independent voices with religion. It is an organized form of social organization, right, there’s an organization to it that can command people. And there’s foreign influence that comes, because these religions are really foreign religions. And so on all these boxes of what Xi Jinping considers to be of greatest concern to him, I think religion sort of plays into all of them. So I’ll stop there.

NATHAN: Thanks, Liz.

Fenggang, I want to ask you—I mentioned at the beginning there are five officially sanctioned religions. But the religious picture is very, very complex in China, and there’s a question what is religion and what isn’t religion. This is—the five official religions is something very clear, but as you spread out—and, Fenggang, you know, it gets confusing. And he has written an article—a very important article on the red, black, and gray, as he calls it, religions. And maybe it would be helpful to everybody to sort of map the scope of what we’re discussing.

YANG: Mmm hmm, yes. So the five religions, as you mentioned, they are—if they are part of the patriotic association they are legal, they are recognized. And those five religions recognize—the portion of them—what I call in the red market, in religion as a supply demand, using the market metaphor. But there are also over a dozen religious groups banned. They are actively suppressed. Those, I would call in the black market. These would be like the Falun Gong. And there are several sects related to Christianity but not accepted by the government. They were actively—they have been actively suppressed. Those more than a dozen groups—most of them are related to Christianity, but also some related to Buddhism, related to new religious movements in the West or from Japan or from Korea. So this is the black market.

Then there are—I call a gray market of religions. These are anything—you know, the five religions that are not part of the patriotic association, they are not considered really legal because they are outside of the legally approved organizations. There are Christians, there are Muslims, there are Buddhists. They have their own activities without participating in the patriotic organization. And there are also cultural activities that some people would consider religious, some others would not. So those are in the gray market. You know, it is very hard to tell whether they are legal or illegal. Sometimes they are both legal and illegal in different aspects. 

Like Ian writes about the ancestor worship part of it. You know, there are some religious elements in it, but it’s hard to define as religion. Confucianism has a long Chinese tradition, but it’s not officially defined as religion. But there are Confucian temples, Confucian rituals, and people burn incense—those incense sticks in front of the Confucius statues and praying for their children’s school examination, right? So it’s pretty much religious as normally seen, but they are not defined as religion. So can you do that? Yeah, you can, but not really officially approved. So there’s a massive gray market of religion in China that covers all kinds of religions, activities. Recently, someone reported there are even Hare Krishnaers, those practicing yoga, and so all kinds of religions are reviving in China. 

NATHAN: Yeah, and of course, as you know, the ruling Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist. If you’re a Communist Party member, you’re required to be atheist. But many Party members engage in various practices and that we would probably classify as religious. And the Party allows people who are not Party members to believe in religion, but not to proselytize. So it’s a very complicated picture.

Now, we talk about—the panel is called the great awakening religious—what is the name of our panel—(laughter)—and there’s that phrase. Is this the panel on religion or—(laughter)—but, and there’s also this phrase, the religious revival. These are the two clichés, awakening, revival. Ian, what are we talking about, awakening, revival? And in your book, I think you borrowed this term “great awakening” from—

JOHNSON: As the journalist on the panel, I’m responsible for clichés. (Laughter.)

ECONOMY: Exactly. I was going to say, all the clichés.

NATHAN: Make this simple, man. (Laughter.)

JOHNSON: All right. Yeah, simplify and then exaggerate. (Laughter.) 

So, well, it—revival—I think what’s happening is not that the old things that had disappeared are all coming back. It’s more like a recreating of past traditions. But I think there’s this broad feeling in Chinese society that the past century, this brutal modernization that China went through—the wars, also the invasions—that so much was lost that people are looking back to some idealized back—some people are, not all. But and that is why you get this idea of revival. And people are hoping to find some center of gravity in society that’s missing. And they see that maybe in these old—some of them see this in these old traditions, like broadly you can call Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism. 

Folk religion, which used to—the Party used to call superstitious and, up until the ’90s, this kind of folk religion was persecuted and people were arrested for practicing superstitious activities. Now the government doesn’t really use that term anymore. And these practices are, indeed, often encouraged by the government under the guise of culture. So the government has borrowed a term from UNESCO, intangible cultural heritage, and they have redefined a whole swath of things that were previous called superstitious, you know, folk religious worship of historical—deified historical personages and so on. And they’ve just called this intangible cultural heritage, and even subsidized it.

So it’s quite a change, I think, especially over the past decade or so. I think the government, the Party recognizes that there is this search for meaning, for values, and is trying to play a role, as Liz said, for rejuvenating the Communist Party, but also by appropriating some of the traditional ideas, imagery, symbols of the political religious system that used to rule China for centuries.

NATHAN: Can either of you give us a kind of quantitative sense of this revival? So China, as Liz said, the Communist Party is 90 million people. The Chinese population is 1.4 billion people. What are we talking about? And which are the biggest movements that are growing?

YANG: Well, I think it’s very difficult or risky to put on members here, because in China doing research on religion is often considered politically sensitive. Many researchers cannot really get published. But there are estimates based on some surveys or censuses. So, in general, if you talk about organized religion, perhaps the largest is Buddhism. There are 18 to 20 percent of people self-identify as Buddhist. But that does not mean they are committed Buddhists. Many of them really do not do any rituals. They just have some beliefs that relate to Buddhism.

I guess if you really consider folk religion as a religion, or religions, perhaps that’s the largest. Most people do something that is somewhat religious. But they do not consider it religious because it’s folk religion. But the fastest-growing religion, as people often say, is Christianity, particularly Protestantism. Protestantism started with 1 million when the Communists took power in 1949. And for more than 10 years all religions were banned during the Cultural Revolution. From 1966 until 1979 all religions were banned. In the world, there are only two countries who have ever done that, ban all religions, China and Albania.

But after the ban, when they relaxed the regulations, they discovered that Protestants have increased three times from 1 million to 3 million. And that’s around 1980. Then by 2010, you know, the conservative estimates, that’s the Pew report published in 2011, Christianity—global Christianity. That was 58 million Christians—or, 58 million Protestants and 9 million Catholics, together 67 (million) Christians. So that’s—you can see the growth is very fast. It’s more than 10 percent every year from 1980 to 2010. But that actually is a conservative estimate. There are estimates put a much higher number. I think by now perhaps it’s close to—or around to 100 million. It’s very possible. So if this continues, this will lead to a dramatic change. I have said this before. But 2030, there will be more Christians in China than in the U.S.

NATHAN: So the reason for each of these religions to grow or to persist may be different. Folk religion is one—is a practice, is a cultural practice. Islam is something into which certain communities are born. But I think one of the core puzzles is this rapid growth of Protestantism, and not Catholicism but Protestantism. So I wonder if maybe Ian, you know, has—in his book—has done some very deep reporting on this. And Fenggang’s family members and friends and himself had had the experience of converting to Protestantism. 

What drives it? Is it—is it anti-communism? Is it—I mean, this is a foreign—is this perceived as a foreign religion, in fact? Is it a rejection of Chinese identity? Is it a search for community? Is it—you know, what is driving this as a particular—for those of you who are Protestants, I’m not trying to say that it doesn’t make sense to be one. I’m not saying that. (Laughter.) But I’m trying to get into the minds of, you know, millions of people converting at a particular point in history, what is driving that. And of course, it may be more than one particular thing. Ian, what was your observation on that?

JOHNSON: Yeah, the interesting comparison is Protestantism versus Catholicism, because Catholicism had—there were 3 million members in 1949. And today, yeah, 9, 10 (million), whatever. I think the upper, upper end is 12 million. But it’s roughly tracked population growth in that period. I think that one clear organizational issue is Catholicism being a hierarchical religion, you cannot just set up a church or have a priest or a bishop without approval from above. So, in Protestantism, what you often find, people will get together and just—somebody will have, you know, memorized the bible or something like that. And say, OK, that person’s the pastor. We all meet in my living room. People start joining. We get bigger and, bingo, a church is born, with 50 or 60 people, or hundreds of people as is often the case now.

In Catholicism, that’s a lot harder, from an organizational standpoint. And there are other reasons as well, that go back to the early part of the 20th century. But I think that’s sort of one clear, organizational reason. I think the—and Fenggang can speak to this clearly probably also—but for a lot of young, urban white-collar people who have a spiritual yearning, Protestantism is seen as more appealing. There’s still the idea that the traditional Chinese religions might be, you know, superstitious or somehow backward, not compatible with modernity. But Protestantism is not. And I think that that’s maybe another deeper reason. 

I think that Protestant groups—of course, they also missionize. Buddhism has some missionary movements. Taoism does not. Folk religion does not. And the Protestants are out there at the university campuses with groups of people, English corners, drawing in people. And I’ve been to many events—the churches are really well-organized. They have hikes and—you know, I went out with one church to pick cherries in the springtime, or whenever it was—summer? (Laughter.) Obviously, I don’t come from an agricultural background. (Laughter.) And, yeah. You know, it was just also a lot of fun. And people were all together. 

And it forms an instant sense of community. And I think this is a key point that China’s urbanizing so quickly. People are thrust into these giant, alienating cities. And religious groups of all kinds provide an instant, ready-made community for people. But Protestantism is just sort of better at it, because that’s part of its DNA.

NATHAN: Well, is it—Fenggang, is it really a kind of a club that people join, or is it truly in some sense spiritual?

YANG: Well, I think both, or multiple. For some people, it’s really Christianity, Protestantism offer a set of values that is more compatible with traditional Chinese values, like work hard. You know, the Protestant ethic, that work hard and empathizes the family, emphasizes education, emphasis on being successful. So, you know, many Protestants—the missionaries, evangelists often emphasize that this Protestant way is very compatible with modernity. And that’s also compatible with traditional Chinese values that we appreciate. That’s at the individual level.

But many people are attracted to Christianity because of the fellowship. You form a small fellowship that, you know, strangers and after you covert you become part of a community, that you carry each other. You know, for some time people say, oh, you know, people believe in God because of the healing power. In the rural areas, when the medical system was broken down and so people pray for miracles. But miracles happen to all religions. Why Christianity grow faster than others? It’s because once you are brought into the community, the congregation, the fellowship, you stay—even if you do not get healed physically—because of the love, because of the fellowship. 

I think that’s very attractive, especially with this rapid urbanization. There’s so many villages are torn apart because, you know, China build this highspeed rail within a few years, extended all over China, all the major capitals—provincial capitals have highspeed rail. And many of those rail were laid out across villages. Those villages overnight became high rise apartment. And once you have apartments, how do you interact with other people? No longer the traditional communities anymore. You have to form new ones. And Christian congregation offer this kind of community.

NATHAN: Liz, in your remarks did I understand you correctly that the regime sees this growth as a political threat, or did I misunderstand? Do you think that it’s a political threat to the regime, and that they see it as such?

ECONOMY: I think that there are probably gradations of political threat based on different kinds of religions. So if you’re looking at, you know, Islam and you’re looking at Xinjiang, which is sort of, you know, an autonomous region where many—about, I guess—slightly under—slightly more than half of the population is Muslim, that that’s a great concern. And I think in part that’s because there’s—it’s a concentrated group of people in a regional—in a regional context.

NATHAN: And they’re an ethnic minority, and they look different.

ECONOMY: Right, they look—and they have a whole set of a cultural values that are associated with it, right? And they have different practices. They have a language that is quite different, so—and they continue to teach, or try to teach at this point, their language. So I think that that is a specific source of concern. Plus, there’s been a lot of violence in Xinjiang. You know, Tibet is another area of concern. You know, there’s a charismatic leader, certainly, in the Dalai Lama, who is a constant thorn in the side of the Chinese leadership. And here too you have a language, you have an entire culture, you have people in both regions who would like to separate from China, even if it’s not the majority of the people. So I think both of those pose very distinctive threats to the Chinese government.

I think Catholicism is an interesting case. It seems to be in transition at this point. So I would welcome your thoughts on this, but in just my reading, right, we’ve seen, I think, the new pope make overtures, and Xi Jinping both—you know, overtures going both ways, to try to find some kind of accommodation, right? Because, of course, the pope in some ways is like the Dalai Lama, right? Very much a charismatic figure who represents an alternative source of power. So conceivably Catholicism could pose a real threat to the Chinese government. But now they seem to be trying to work out a way of selecting bishops that will, you know, accommodate both. But, you know, I’m not as deeply steeped in this as both of you are.

So I think different religions pose different kinds of challenges. For me, the way I look at it is, does the religion have the possibility of becoming something like Solidarity, you know, in Poland, where it is a uniting force among the people that could push for something broader, like Democracy. And I think those are the—that’s the biggest challenge, I think, that the Chinese leadership feels.

NATHAN: And one of the phenomena is that these civil rights lawyers—the so-called rights protection lawyers in China—many of them are Protestant Christians. And that is true of a lot of the dissidents—the liberal, you know, pro-democracy dissidents became Christian. So does the Protestant—and there is the tradition of the Taiping Rebellion, you know, in the 19th century, which was a huge mass movement—I forget how many tens of millions of people—which almost overthrew the Qing dynasty in the 19th century, where the leader of it considered himself to be—claimed to be the younger son of Jesus—the younger brother of Jesus. So—yeah, so do you think that the Protestant movement in particular is perceived, Fenggang, by the regime as a threat—political threat?

YANG: The simple answer is yes. I think, you know, first of all, any organized groups are considered a political threat—not only religious ones, even secular ones that become well-organized is a challenge to the political order. Christianity in particular, or Protestantism in particular in this case, is because so many new converts are highly college educated young professionals, including lawyers. So many lawyers became Protestant. And many of those are civil rights lawyers or human rights lawyers. And when they jailed over 100 people—100 lawyers two or three years ago, and many of them are Christian. So this perhaps gave them a new sense of the threat.

But actually, I would say the threat has been exaggerated by the authorities, because these are lawyers who fight for justice within the system, use the existing laws, rather than saying we should have a new system. You know, they are not revolutionaries. They are not rebels. They are trying to work within the system. But they have been treated really very badly. 

But let me say a little bit about others. You know, Catholics—for so many years in China, Catholics were suppressed so severely—more so than Protestants—in part because it has the stronger organizational hierarchy—you know, the bishops and the priests. They are so professional and they are considered real leaders challenging the moral authority of the local communities. So they are suppressed even more severely. And officials even say, look at Poland, what happened to Poland. Really, the Catholic Church to blame. But in China, Catholics are—the number of Catholics, they are less than 1 percent of the population. How could that be subversive to the government? It’s not possible.

Muslims, yeah, there are—in Xinjiang there are separatists who wants to separate country. And in Tibet, some Tibetan Buddhists want independence or more autonomy within China. But those are—how big is the threat? It’s—you know, as a sociologist, we often see how widely representative those movements are. Not really that big a threat. For the Muslims, they became a little bit more complicated because Uyghurs in Xinjiang, yeah, they are the largest minority in Xinjiang, but there are other ethnic groups. 

But the real, big problem since last year, it became clear, the Muslim problem in China is no longer primarily Uyghurs. It’s the Hui Muslims, the Hui people. Hui is the largest Muslim minority in China. There are 10 ethnic minorities Muslims, because last year during the People’s Congress there was a consideration of a halal law. And when it was considered, many people felt real threat, saying: Are we getting sharia law in China in certain regions? And so suddenly, there are dramatic leadership change within the Ethnic Affairs Commission, because the threat is not really separatism, but the other threat.

So it’s getting complicated. And the authorities, like in Xinjiang, I think they try the best to maintain stability. Not so much about maintaining atheism or religious freedom, because in Xinjiang the severe punishment is actually on Christian evangelists, rather than on Muslims, I would say, because there was one Uyghur convert to Christianity, and he became evangelist. He was sentenced for at least 15 years. Alimujiang is a Uyghur Christian. You know, the local authority says, you know, you Christians, keep out of this community. We are traditional Muslim community. You do not—you should not come to stir up things.

ECONOMY: But, Fenggang, I mean, I would say that the restrictions that the government has placed on the Uyghur people have only intensified, and have become, you know, quite extreme. I mean, they just were hauling back all of the students—the Uyghur students who were studying abroad—whether they’re studying in Egypt of the United States—telling them they had to come back and come in for political questioning. And if they didn’t, then their families would be subjected to, you know, their own form of interrogation. 

And, I mean, banning beards and veils and, you know, putting GPSs in their cars and taking away all their passports. I mean, it’s pretty extraordinary what’s going on in that province, and only become more challenging with, you know, the new Party secretary there, who came from Tibet, who has really cracked down. So, I mean, it may be the case that this person was punished quite severely. But I would say what’s going on in Xinjiang in terms of the Uyghur population, the Muslim population, is pretty intense, pretty awful.

NATHAN: I’m going to ask Ian the last question, and then I’m going to come to you all for questions now. Ian, this is one I really need you to simplify this, and then vulgarize it for us, if you would please. (Laughter.) What you’re so good at. (Laughter.)

JOHNSON: Vulgarism. (Laughter.)

NATHAN: That New York Review book articles are just an exemplar of vulgarism. No, OK. (Laughter.) No, but the government policy on this—now, we’ve just been talking about the government policy on Islam among the Uyghurs. But of course, they have a variety of policies toward different religious communities. So that’s why I’m making the joke about simplifying, because it’s so complicated. But I mean, what I’d like to get a sense of is, you know, what is the government’s strategy? 

Is it, for example, eventually to eliminate religion from China by modernizing everybody, or by repression? Or is it to coexist over the long term with—you know, with the fact that people who are not communists have spiritual beliefs. So incomprehensible as that may be to the ruling party. Or, you know, what is the government’s strategy? And we’ve talked about whether religion is a threat to the regime, but are there some ways in which perhaps the regime regards religion even as an asset? I realize that I’m asking several different questions in one package, but.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I think the—it was interesting, after religion was banned and then it made its reappearance in the early 1980s, the government issued a document which is still kind of the founding document for the religious revival, Document 19. And it said that religious would disappear over time. As we move into socialism and then communism it will go away. In the past, we’ve made the mistake of trying to smash it, and destroying it with force. But now we’ll take a different policy. We’ll be more patient. And we’ll allow these groups to disappear.

Now, that was the policy 35 years ago. I think now the government realizes this may not happen in the foreseeable future. So essentially, it’s pointless to dream about that as good communists. Instead, they have to deal with religion, much like the communists did when they were—during the war with Japan in their base areas in northwestern China, where they were holed up in the caves. They had to deal with Islam. They had to deal with folk religion. And they had a fairly moderate policy. As long as you’re not antigovernment you can continue to do what you want to do. And I think that’s probably how they see it now.

I think they see some religions are partially co-optable. Xi Jinping has made a big show of meeting senior Buddhist leaders. He’s made a show of going to Confucius’ hometown and praising the analects of Confucius. He spoke at UNESCO a few years ago and praised Buddhism and said, well, even though Buddhism came from India, that was 2,000 years ago. (Laughter.) And subsequently it’s indigenized and now it’s done a good job. And I think the message for Christianity is indigenize. Of course, what they mean, probably, is fall under our rule or our control, and then there will be no problems. 

But I think they see that some of the religions, the old values, the hierarchical, or at least in some vulgar view of the past traditions that it was relatively hierarchical, ways of running families, respect for elderly, filial piety. These are all concepts that the government can use, and uses in propaganda campaigns that you can see in the streets of China today. I think the red line for all religions—and all social organizations, NGOs included as we were indicating—is foreign ties. If you have foreign ties, foreign money, foreign missionaries, know-how, or anything like that, you will get in trouble. And most of the—a lot of the religions have figured that out. And they don’t really want a lot of the foreign ties. Those people do come in and they do spread knowledge and information. But I think that’s the main thing the government is concerned about, is foreign influence.

NATHAN: Thank you. Great.

OK, so, yes, now if you would turn on your mic when I recognize you and state your name and affiliation and then turn off the mic afterwards. Wow, there are a lot of people. I saw you first. I’m sorry. Go ahead. And then I’ll come to you in the back. Yes, go right ahead. I got this gentleman right here first, and then I’ll come to you second.


SINGH: Hi. I’m Satpal Singh from Sikh Council for Interfaith Relations.

My question relates to one of the points that Liz made, with the drive to emphasize the party and to promote it and bring it up in almost all spheres of life and environment. Now, with such a big homogenous party to start with, more than 100 million in a year or two, eventually would there be a tendency to develop divergent aspects within the party? Maybe it’ll start, like, you know, red, black, and gray shades and then eventually, you know, separate. Like, you can see that even in this country. The Republicans versus the Democrats, each of the parties then develops into separate strong voices. So once that happens, then it basically becomes not one Communist Party, but a set of parties.

ECONOMY: That’s a very interesting question. I would say that is exactly what Xi Jinping is trying to avoid. And so, in addition to the anticorruption campaign, he has had any number of mass line campaigns. He has had self-criticism. They have gone, you know, door-to-door to people’s homes to say, you know: Did you say this? Did you say that? That sounded, you know, vaguely challenging to the Communist Party or seemed to represent some kind of Western ideal. So, I mean, much of the thrust of his, you know, first three years, I would say, for sure, has been to try to ensure ideological rectitude. You know, China already has a number of alternative parties. I mean, I think it’s 10 democratic parties that exist within the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. So, if you were looking for divergent views to actually take hold and grow in China, there is a very natural place for them in these, you know, parties that exist.

Now, they don’t hold a lot of power and I don’t think they’ve emerged in any way as a—as a real force for change, but—and let me just say, there are divergent views within the Communist Party. And there are divergent views on religion. I mean, I just was reading that in Xinjiang, in fact, there was a party cadre who was punished because he wouldn’t smoke in front of some religious leaders. So he wasn’t effectively enforcing a law, right? And so—

NATHAN: Because in Islam you’re not supposed to smoke. And he—and so this guy was respecting Islam. You’re not supposed to respect Islam.

ECONOMY: Right. So, I mean, there are people who do, you know, different things and have different perspectives already. But I think, you know, Xi Jinping really would like to enforce a much tighter control on the range of views.

NATHAN: So, this gentleman. Oh, go ahead.

YANG: Let me just add one sentence. You know, but the reality is, most of the Communist Party members are some kind of religion believers. Eight-five percent of them either believe in some religions or practice religion. Only 15 or 16 percent can be considered pure atheists. So that’s according to a survey we did. (Laughter.)

ECONOMY: There you go.

KIRKPATRICK: Yes. I’m Cliff Kirkpatrick with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

And I’ve had, at a couple of international organizations, a number of relations with the churches in China in recent years. And the concern I guess I have—as I have watched obviously a growth in that community, at the same time, it’s been painful. And I think those communities feel it’s painful to have a sense of division between registered and unregistered churches. I’m fascinated with your—I want to read it—black, gray, and white—whatever the colors we’re talking about. (Laughter.) 

But I am interested in the panel’s take. Are we—I mean, part of what government policy in China has done is to build divisions within, like, the Christian community, within, you know, Protestant and Catholic, within other religious communities. Do you see those being overcome? Or are we likely to see a kind of dynamic in China maybe somewhat like we have here, with church groups at odds with each other? Or is there a coming together that might seem possible? 

NATHAN: Fenggang.

YANG: Can you do that? Can you do that in the U.S., to have all the Protestants—

KIRKPATRICK: No. No, right? That’s the question, yeah. (Laughter.)

YANG: You know, the government, of course, the Communist government is interested in divide and control. That, of course, has it. But perhaps the divisions, the pains that you talk about often talk about Protestants themselves, because there are already—with such a big number, you know, approaching or around 100 million, you’ve got to have people have different ideas, prefer Episcopal or Presbyterian, or Congregational form of organization, for example, prefer Arminian or Calvinist theology. So I think China is—at the moment is becoming denominationalized, that people are dividing themselves into different denominations. It’s inevitable. 

Of course, there is the political divide. If you join the Patriotic Associations approved by the authorities, you have some privileges of doing things. But many people refuse to join because they do not want to, you know, have a watered-down preaching message to people. They want to maintain the independence. But those not joining the Patriotic Association, they are criticizing each other. The Pentecostals, the Calvinists, and all kinds. 

NATHAN: Thank you. Yes.

ISAAC: Jews have a long history of coming to China. And there is a province called Kaifeng where they are supposed to be a huge minority. I have personally at the University of Peking when I was visiting China a very distinguished professor and his family, who claimed to be Jews. Is Judaism recognized as a religion? And how many are there in Kaifeng, or how many Jews are there, are they regarded as a religion?

YANG: Judaism or Hinduism, those big religions that even the Chinese authorities say they are religions, but they are not Chinese religions. They are not in China. So Judaism is not approved as a religion in China. But expatriates in China, the Jews who are foreign citizens in China, they do have gatherings in different places. The descendants of Jews in Kaifeng or in other places for a long time, actually, they were considered similar to Muslims in China, because they share one custom, that’s not eating pork, right? But those Kaifeng Jewish descendants, they were called the Lanmao, they are a blue hat Hui people. And the other Hui are—you know, wear a white hat.

But in recent years, yes, there are—is a movement. Those Jewish descendants trying to revive Judaism. Actually, quite a number of them—several dozens of them already went to Israel to relearn—to learn Judaism. And not only Jewish descendants. Actually, in Israel—in Jerusalem I met a guy from Guangzhou in southern China. He has no Jewish connection at all, but he was studying at a yeshiva, studying in a—in a seminary, trying to be a real Jew. So, yeah, any religion is appealing in China today.

JOHNSON: I would just add that the state of Israel has investigated the claims of the people living in Kaifeng and found that they are not, officially, considered to be Jewish. That they—the last rabbi died in the early 19th century. And it’s considered to not—because, you know, a lot of people around the world think it’s not a bad idea if you’re living in Kaifeng, hey, I’d prefer to live in Tel Aviv. And so they claim Jewish—and I don’t mean to make light of people’s beliefs. But there is certainly a link also between the tourism industry in Kaifeng and people going there and then, you know, people claiming to be Jewish and so on and so forth, and offering tours and so on. But, I mean, they’re not officially recognized as Jews. And of course, people can convert, but.

ECONOMY: But wasn’t there also a recent crackdown in Kaifeng, I believe?

JOHNSON: Yeah, on these groups that are—

ECONOMY: Right, and—

YANG: It’s a politically sensitive issue in Kaifeng, because after a particular year—perhaps the Professor Nathan knows—after a particular year there’s no more ethnic minorities being recognized. We are—we have 56 ethnic minorities, or 55. That’s all. So the Kaifeng Jewish descendants trying to say, you know, we are not Hui-Hui. We are Jews. So we want to be recognized as ethnic minority. But that’s a political issue. So they are very well-watched over them.

NATHAN: Thank you. OK, and way in the back. You guys are all so far back there. OK, you can see what—

GUTOW: Is it me you were talking to?

NATHAN: I guess so, yeah. Whoever. Whoever. (Laughter.)

GUTOW: I don’t know. My question is more to focus—because I’d love to hear a more generalized understanding of the strength of Islam in China. Is it—I mean, I get in certain provinces, from what you all have said, it’s strong. But is it strong throughout the country? And when Islamic leaders come, do they want to go to mosques, you know, in the big cities? Are they—is it something frowned upon or is it something that’s doable, because it just interests me. And first of all—and I’d love to hear a number, since we’ve given numbers of Protestants and Catholics, what’s the number of Muslims in China in terms of estimates?

YANG: Yeah, sorry, I—

NATHAN: Go ahead.

YANG: Yeah, it’s a 23—22, 23—it’s by counting everyone in the 10 ethnic minorities, even if you are not practicing your estimate is—

NATHAN: Ten minorities that are considered to be Muslim minorities?

YANG: Right. But I would say the vast majority of them do not practice Islam. There are a few new converts—Han Chinese, the majority Chinese, converting to Islam—a few. I know some. In my hometown in Hubei province, there are at least 10 mosques, and belonging different theological traditions. Actually, in terms of mosques, for instance, that’s the largest—how do you say it—there are more mosques than any other kinds of religious venues, churches or temples. There are more mosques today than mosques in 1949, for example. But none of the Christian churches of Buddhist temples have restored to the level of 1949. But Islam mosques are.

JOHNSON: This is, I think, because Islam’s the only religion that’s defined as an ethnicity. 

YANG: Right.

JOHNSON: And the Communist Party has always said, ethnic minorities can be religious. We Han Chinese, we ethnic Chinese, we’re not religious. We’re moving toward communism. But these minorities off in these parts of the country—

NATHAN: Because they’re backward?

JOHNSON: They’re kind of backward. They’ve got these religious ideas. They can go ahead and have that. And I think that’s sort of why. Yeah, the actual numbers re fairly limited, but they’re—

NATHAN: And we talk about the house churches of the Protestants and Catholics, but you don’t—as far as I know—have house mosques. In other words, all the mosques are officially recognized. They are in the, what you call, red category that the government OKs them and supervises them. Is that right?

YANG: Yeah, pretty much so. There are some maybe Islamic Koran schools that are not recognized, but in terms of mosques many of them are officially recognized.

ECONOMY: But isn’t also—Islam is growing quite quickly, I think, among the youth, though, right? I seem to recall reading an article from people, like, 19 to 30, it’s a very fast-growing religion in China, right?

JOHNSON: I think that’s because of the demographics. Because the minority groups don’t have the same family planning limitations as the Han Chinese.

ECONOMY: But that’s been for a long time true. 


ECONOMY: I’m just talking recently—this is a recent phenomenon. Anyway.

NATHAN: OK. This lady here, yeah.

TUCKER: Mary Evelyn Tucker. I teach at Yale and direct the Forum on Religion and Ecology, but studied Confucianism with Ted de Bary at Columbia. 

So I wanted especially to bring Confucianism back into the discussion, and get your take—both from a government level. Xi Jinping has referred to it many times and so on, as you’ve said. But also many of the departments of philosophy are reexamining Confucianism as new sources of ideas and so on—as Marxism is not as intellectually vibrant for many of the academics. And this is also within a context of ecological civilization, where the revival of these traditions are being invoked for a new sense of what are we going to do with this incredible environmental problem. So there’s a series of questions here, but I just wanted to reinvoke from each of you, actually, the role of Confucianism. Thank you.

NATHAN: Let me ask Ian to address that. We don’t have time for everybody to do so.

JOHNSON: Well, you know, interestingly when China was—in the early 20th century, there was a movement to make Confucianism a national religion in China. And it failed. It was too closely linked to the old system. But, yeah, Confucianism, broadly put, is often called national studies or guoxue, that’s become very popular in China as a kind of catch-all phrase or traditional values and ideas that, for some people, have a religious component. For others, it’s maybe more spiritual or cultural, sort of a continuum of ideas and practices. So it’s come back. But the government is not officially going to embraced Confucianism.

I mean, as Liz was saying, the Party wants—Xi Jinping wants the Party itself to be strong, and does not—I think the Party is not so weak that you have a situation like in Russia with Vladimir Putin, where he’s sort of embracing the Orthodox Church so explicitly. I think Xi is not—doesn’t feel like the Party is so weak in China that they have to go that far down that road.

NATHAN: Thank you. Yes.

MOLINE: I’m Jack Moline. I’m president of Interfaith Alliance.

And we are focused primarily on institutional concerns domestically. But, Liz, something you said really struck me, first of all about the favored religious parties, the Patriotic parties that contribute to the support of a very strong president with a dominant party, and his desire, I think you said, to—for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which sounds an awful lot to me like make China great again. Is there something we have to learn from this, to think about? Or is this just a cute rhetorical flourish on my part?

ECONOMY: You mean, rejuvenation of the Chinese nation—

MOLINE: I mean the parallels between making China great again, making America great again.

ECONOMY: Oh. (Laughs.) Yeah, well—

NATHAN: Trump is a good student.

ECONOMY: I kind of don’t want to go down this particular path.

NATHAN: We’re on the record in this one.

ECONOMY: Yeah. I think actually, in some respects, it’s quite different, because in Xi Jinping’s concept of making China great again, it’s really about things like the One Belt One Road. It’s really reconstructing China as a middle kingdom, right, with a very outward expansionist perspective of China in the world, right? Linking China to 65 nations. I think in the Trumpian conception—(laughs)—its seems it’s much more, you know, focused on the internal make America great again, build up a wall around us, and, you know, focus—not understanding that what happens externally and internally are completely linked. And sort of trying to focus, you know, at home, as opposed to recognizing that we’re in a globalized world and that’s not the way things work.

NATHAN: The 10 parties she mentioned aren’t religious. I thought I heard—


NATHAN: The five religions are religious. Yes.

ECONOMY: Sorry. Maybe I misunderstood.

CHAMBERLAIN: I don’t know how to turn it on.

NATHAN: Help her turn on her mic.

CHAMBERLAIN: Oh, that button. Thank you. (Laughter.) I’m Peg Chamberlain with the Council of Churches. And I’m a Protestant.

We’ve already established that there’s a bit spectrum of Protestantism in this country, and that there is some of that same difference in China. But let me come back to three points that have been suggested that have relationship to civic life here and perhaps in China, and get whatever feedback you can. It’s a broad, broad question.

The question of Protestant work ethic success has been linked to capitalism. I’d like to have some perspective on how you see that playing out in China. I think the notion of community or what we sometimes call koinonia, also is sometimes very privatized in the U.S. in Protestantism and sometimes is a kind of universal koinonia, universal community. Those of us in the ecumenical movement might claim that. And then I think the division that is not a stark division always, but sometimes, between personal salvation and community salvation. How do you see those playing out in the Protestant community? And what does that say about civil life in China?

NATHAN: Ian, Fenggang, either of you want to?

YANG: About Protestant ethic and capitalism, you know, one example is in China, on the coast, there is the Wenzhou city. And the Wenzhou people are very well-known as very entrepreneurial. They have been not only very active all over China, there are more than 100 Wenzhou chamber of commerce in China, more than 100 in different cities. They have also gone to different parts of the world. in Italy, in France, in Germany, in Spain, and I encountered many of them. This Wenzhou people, that’s also where Christianity has a big presence and the higher proportion of Christians in Wenzhou area. Actually, that’s where what happened two of three years ago, severe suppression on Christian churches, taking down the crosses on church rooftops. So, yeah, there’s some connection. Looks like those Protestant entrepreneurs show some signs of the Protestant ethic, as Max Weber talked about.

About the community thing, let me just—that’s what I remember. Personal salvation versus community, I would say you find all kinds of Christians in China. Some are theologically liberal. Their mission is more social mission, serve the society—not just the Christians but the larger society. But there are also very Evangelical or fundamentalist Christians who think that all social programs are useless, really personal salvation is the only thing you should do, you should devote to. So you see all kinds.

NATHAN: Ian, I’m curious your comment on this idea of individual salvation. I mean, whole theological root of that—the sin, grace, salvation is not very Chinese, if I may essentialize a little bit here. So, in your encounters with Chinese Christians, do you find people who really absorb that whole basic theological concept, and in that sense are motivated toward—and the individualism of it as well is kind of un-Chinese—who are really motivated to that idea of salvation?

JOHNSON: Well, I think you do find—like Fenggang said, there’s a variety of people. The church that I used as a case study in my book, it was interesting because by many measures it would be considered quite conservative. It didn’t allow women leadership roles in the church. It was against—actively against abortion, and had other policies like that. But they were also extremely socially active. And they had supported homeless shelters. They had a support for the families of political prisoners. So it’s a—you see a wide variety of ideas in terms of social engagement versus the personal aspect as well. So I have a hard time generalizing. I think there’s still—as you said at the beginning of your comments—there’s so little research done, survey work and so on, that it’s hard to make overall generalizations.

YANG: Yeah, there are the traditional house churches. They are more pietist. They are like Wang Mingdao, Ni Tuosheng, those people, more emphasis on individual salvation. 

JOHNSON: Yeah, small groups.

YANG: Right, small groups. You know, sectarian type. And some of them are really Lutheran pietist-type. There are complete separation of the secular and the sacred. So the church thing is the sacred thing. You should not care much about the secular institutions.

But the new urban house churches have a tendency of reform theology, trying to say it’s all under the sovereignty of God; you know, not only the church, but even secular institutions under the sovereignty. So they—like Wang Yi, the church you profiled in your book, highly, you know, emphasized this reform theology; we have to serve the whole society, not only Christians.

NATHAN: Thank you. Yes. We’re going to be out of time momentarily.

ALEXANDER: Scott Alexander. Catholic Theological Union. I teach Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations.

I want to just pick up on something you said, Fenggang, about service. It was the only time I’ve heard that word mentioned in the entire panel. And the reason I want to pick up on that is because, from my understanding, the Chinese government probably understands through a Marxian lens that religion is a lot about social control. But many of our traditions are also about social service. Mark Sidel has pointed out in his work on the growing interest in philanthropy in China, right, and what the Ford Foundation is trying to do, that the government is very interested in philanthropy, because it’s very interested in different groups and private citizens taking some of the pressure off its own budget to serve people in China and to provide basic needs. So my question is, to what degree is the discourse about kind of enabling religious communities to flourish in China focusing on the potential of these communities to partner with the government in a greater service to society by meeting the basic needs of the citizens?

YANG: Yes. There is a gradual change in terms of the government attitude toward religious charities. Early years, really very suspicious, trying to suppress. But even back in the 1980s, there was the Amity Foundation by the Protestants. Around the year 2000, there was the Beifang Jinde, the Catholic charities. And of course, there are the Buddhist Tzu Chi association from Taiwan also doing work in China. So the attitude change in—I would say in the last 15 years or so toward religious charities. Began to see they are contributing to society. And can be partners with the government to serve the people. That’s clearly as this changed.

In recent years, I think—in the last year or so, they have this new charity law or regulation—I don’t remember clearly—they’re trying to give greater space for religion organizations to do charities.

JOHNSON: But the key is that they just provide services. So the idea of changing deeper problems in society that give rise to these issues is off-limits.

ALEXANDER: Well, one step at a time. (Laughter.)

NATHAN: I’m afraid we have to wrap up. I want to thank the panelists. I think you guys were terrific. (Applause.) I’m sorry I couldn’t call on everybody.