China's Government is Using Religion
for Social-Ecological Transformation
by Zach Walsh
Widespread awareness of the social and environmental costs of China’s economic miracle is causing high-level bureaucrats to enlist the help of Chinese religions in a national effort to develop an ecological civilization. Between 1990-2000, the average Chinese person became less happy, in spite of rapid economic growth, and to a large extent, China’s growing prosperity has detracted from people’s moral and spiritual well-being. The dramatic rise in consumer lifestyles, social inequality, and government corruption has left “a huge vacuum in the spiritual lives of the Chinese people, especially among the younger generation.” The ruling Communist party is well aware that several decades of sweeping societal changes and mounting environmental pressures challenge its ability to effectively manage the country. It also recognizes that Marxism-Leninism has lost its former appeal, and so it has encouraged religion to play a greater role in contributing to China’s development. To meet China’s moral needs, President Xi Jinping has thus called for a “material and spiritual civilization” that encourages the expansion of traditional culture, based on Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism (San jiao wen hua, 三教文化).
Although China is home to an atheist government and the largest population of religiously unaffiliated people, Chinese religions are much more widespread than officially documented. Religious beliefs associated with Confucianism and Chinese folk religion are discounted by traditional definitions of religion, and recent estimates indicate that, in fact, around three-in-five Chinese have religious beliefs. Unlike most countries, there are no generational differences among Chinese people interested in religion, which indicates that the younger generation is already searching for meaning.
In response to this revival of interest, China’s leadership has begun to cautiously support the development of Chinese religions. Critics of the Communist party suggest that the government’s shifting attitude is motivated in part by an attempt to retain ideological supremacy, mitigate social unrest, and maintain one-party rule. They note that historically, China's dynasties have collapsed as a result of social revolutions fomented by religious objections to the government's right to rule. They therefore claim that the Communist party recognizes that antagonism toward religion may be counterproductive. According to Evan Osnos, “Nothing has caused more upheaval in the last hundred years of Chinese history than the battle over what to believe. Today, the Party is not allowing the growth of faith as much as it is trying to keep up with it.”
Observers of China see the Communist party trying to stay ahead of the curve by supporting religious freedom and allowing religions to develop within the bounds of its own political interests. The fact that China’s sponsorship of Chinese religions is occurring simultaneously with a crackdown on foreign religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, testifies that China’s overarching goal is to retain control of popular ideology. Nevertheless, China’s increased willingness to sponsor traditional Chinese religions marks a progressive shift away from Maoism’s staunch opposition to all religion. Among China’s religious traditions, Confucianism has certainly been the greatest benefactor of this dramatic policy shift. Already, it has undergone a major revival across many areas of civil society, and in 2014, Guangming Daily declared the “interpretation of Confucian political philosophy” to be the third most trending academic field.
Recently, some of China’s religious scholarship has focused on proposing a Chinese alternative to Western-styled modernization. Ecological civilization constitutes the most broadly supported Chinese model of development supported by religious values, and there is consensus that Chinese religions should play an increasingly important role in developing an ecological civilization. In 2007, Hu Jintao conceived of ecological civilization at the 17th Party Congress, saying that it “reflects an important change in the Party's understanding of development.” He explained that ecological civilization is not restricted to environmental protection. It also describes the cultural dimensions of development that contribute to social equality and a “right relationship between man and nature.” As such, ecological civilization emphasizes the role of traditional culture and religion in shaping the ideals of development, and it encourages the future development of ecological thought in traditional Chinese culture.
In 2003, the former vice-minister of China’s EPA, Pan Yue, echoed these sentiments in an earlier speech on “Environmental Culture and National Renaissance,” in which he advocated for a green capitalism supported by an environmental culture that draws on ecological thought from traditional Chinese culture. He argued that environmental culture’s function is to extend appropriate concepts of environmental protection to education, industry, science, technology, law, and morality, so that government restricts development in ways that harmonize the economy, society, and environment. He also argued that countries which establish environmental culture as the basis for an ecological civilization will safeguard themselves and exert moral, economic, technological and cultural superiority on the world stage.
At a time when many scholars criticize the role of Christianity in contributing to the modern West’s domination of nature, Chinese religious traditions may provide alternate resources for sustainable development, because they recognize “the significance of the natural world for human wellbeing.” According to Pan Yue, Confucianism’s emphasis on the harmonious relationship between humanity and nature (Tian ren he yi, 天人合一), Daoism’s emphasis on the natural law of the Dao (Dao fa zi ran, 道法自然), and Buddhism’s emphasis on Buddha-nature (Fo xing, 佛性), all provide ecological concepts for harmonizing social relationships with the natural world. Today, many religious scholars are optimistic about the potential of Chinese religions to motivate sustainable development, and several volumes have already been published outlining the rich repository of ecological concepts in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.
China’s leaders believe Chinese cultural traditions can also play an increasingly important role in shaping Chinese Marxism. Recently, Xi Jinping has stressed the importance of dialectical materialism in resolving societal contradictions posed by the conflict between economic growth and ecological civilization, and he has highlighted the need for theoretical developments to help resolve these conflicts. Currently, however, there is a dearth of scholarship that successfully integrates Chinese traditions and Marxism. “The most significant recent school in Marxist studies, Ecological Marxism, rarely mentions Chinese traditions.” To fill this gap, Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr have synthesized traditional Chinese culture and process philosophy into a new school called organic Marxism. In the future, this new school promises to be a powerful new stream in Chinese thought, because it combines Marxism with the two most influential movements in China today— “the zeal for traditional culture” and “constructive postmodernism.”
Despite the increased support and ecological re-envisioning of Chinese religions in government and civil society, there remain obstacles facing their rise to prominence as moral philosophies undergirding China’s ecological civilization. On the one hand, there are positive indications that climate change is viewed by people as a moral issue and that “intrinsically oriented worldviews correlate positively with pro-environmental attitudes and lifestyles.” However, on the other hand, there are mixed indications that religion does not significantly impact ecological behavior. In America, for instance, “just 6% say their own views on the environment are shaped primarily by their religious beliefs,” and “fewer people prioritize environmental protection over keeping energy prices low.”
Thus far, it’s too soon to tell whether the recent shift in China’s social and political environment will allow China’s religions to play a sustained role in guiding the country’s development. First, the rise of secularism and materialism which often accompanies economic development may limit the popular appeal of religion in China, and second, cynics may argue that socialism has coopted harmony as an ideal which serves the political status-quo, instead of religious concerns for social and ecological justice. Historically, the concept of harmony has been used as an ideological weapon pitting humanity against nature, especially under the guidance of Maoism, which had a powerful and devastating impact on the human-nature relationship. It has yet to be demonstrated whether China’s religions will fare any better politically, but it is at least clear that they provide increasingly important resources for challenging state-led environmental degradation. Chinese religions have a unique opportunity to become leading voices for social and ecological transformation. Whether or not China adopts a sustainable model of development will depend in large part on their capacity to mobilize political action.