A recent article in Reuters seems to suggest that the Chinese government is concerned about China’s social harmony, and thinks organized religion could be the key to success. Here are a few key passages:

The ruling and officially atheist Communist Party, which values stability above all else, has tried to co-opt religion in recent years as a force for social harmony in a country where few believe in communism any more…

President Xi Jinping wants the party to be more tolerant of traditional faiths in the hope these will help fill a vacuum created by the country’s breakneck growth and rush to get rich, sources told Reuters in September.

Believers should be allowed to “earnestly practice what they advocate” and “form a common consensus on promoting social stability and harmony … under the leadership of the party and the socialist system,” [Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, wrote in the Communist Party's official People's Daily...]

I confess I don’t know much about Chinese politics and history, but from what I do know, I think I can trace somewhat of a post-Communist revolution policy trajectory:

1. Mid-20th century: Centralize and plan all social and economic activity. Masses will fall in line. Forced industrialization beats working in the fields anyway.

2. Late-20th century: Need to loosen up. Can’t stay economically competitive this way. Liberalize markets while still maintaining firm political control.

3. Early 21st century: Well, this is working quite well for us. Robust export market and ~10% annual growth.

4. Present day: Inequality is rising. People are becoming corrupt and greedy. Workers are demanding better pay. Economy is slowing down – need to compensate. Nobody believes in the religion of the state (i.e. Communism) anymore. All of this threatens social harmony. What should we do? Is promoting organized religion the answer? Might be worth a try, as long as these believers know they’re still “under the leadership of the party and the socialist system.”

In some ways, I respect the Chinese government’s thinking here. Religion as a positive force for social harmony is decidedly not the prevailing narrative in academic and policy circles. It is true that there have been too many wars fought in the name of religion, but at a grassroots level, religious institutions and teachings can often do quite a bit of good. As I have pointed out a number of times on this blog, it is the politicization of religion that leads us down a path of conflict. Those in power recognize that religion can be a powerful motivating force, for good and bad. But more often, it is a force for bad when it is used to achieve political ends.

So, I am reluctant to endorse China’s policy here. On the one hand, I agree in principle that religious teachings can indeed serve to promote more empathy and selflessness – qualities needed for better social harmony. While this is not a theology or philosophy blog, I do think there is a good case to be made that belief in God or a higher power is essential to promoting true selfless behavior, which leads to more kindness, charitable acts, and so on.

On the other hand, the fact that the Chinese State Administration of Religious Affairs maintains that religious communities in China will still need to operate within the confines of the “system” makes me concerned about whether or not this is a move to politicize religion (i.e. bring it more out into the open in order to better control it). I do not think this would serve to bring social cohesion, but rather lead to further division along religious lines.

In the end, I could be wrong, and this could be a great move for advancing Chinese society. However, one cannot help but feel suspicious of the underlying motivations of China’s authoritarian leaders. It may be true that they are genuinely concerned about social cohesion, but would they ever do anything that could potentially undermine their legitimacy? Releasing the power of religious communities may just do that – and Chinese leaders should know their history in this regard (see: Samuel Huntington and “Third Wave” Democracy). So that tells me there could very well be political motivations behind this move, which Chinese religious communities should be wary of.