Change in the face of foreign devils
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - Libraries are filled with thousands of volumes explaining all the problems and intricacies of the momentous passage from agricultural to industrial society, from rural to urban life, from a world marked by huge gaps in time and space to another in which communications and telecommunications immensely narrow time and distance.

These changes still puzzle us and seem largely unexplained. Yet the changes, occurring over a span of 200 years, are minimal if compared to what has happened in China in the past 30 years.

The changes have been concentrated in a little more than a generation. But this is just a small part of a larger phenomenon: in the past 150 years, China's complex cultural values have been under constant attack, forcing revision. That is, not only did China have to undergo the same structural changes as the West in a shorter period, at the same time it also underwent dramatic cultural changes.

The only similar development took place in Japan in the late 19th century. But to put it very briefly, Japan was at a much earlier phase of cultural evolution, so the breadth of the structural change was not as huge. It was in a society that claimed it had already absorbed and digested a foreign culture, that of China about a thousand years earlier. So the present digestion of Western culture was within the Japanese tradition and it could do so with great confidence because in the first phases of the reform it had military victories over the regional superpower China, in 1894, and a Western power, Russia, in 1905.

China, conversely, arrived to the fast phase of modernization pretty late, with a larger gap to fill in less time. China also didn't have much confidence, as it had been defeated by foreign powers, invaded and almost totally conquered by Japan, and had won only a small war against India. It managed to gain an almost honorable draw with America in Korea in the 1950s (with Russian support) and with Vietnam in 1979 (with some American assistance).

Furthermore, China had no affirmed tradition of digesting foreign culture into its own mold and changing itself in the process. It had the opposite tradition, of making anything foreign "Chinese", which occurred several times in Chinese history. The last time was with the minority Manchu invaders, who eventually were completely Sinified (or Hanized). One could argue that Buddhism vastly changed China, but the current perception is that, in fact, China changed Buddhism even more. Now, the situation is completely different, and there is no doubt that China is changing to adapt to a Western values-dominated world, rather than the contrary.

The country that faced the "foreign devils from the ocean", yang guizi, during the Opium Wars in the mid 19th century dramatically changed in the following century and a half - to the point that contemporary China can be regarded as only superficially similar to the country it was during the Opium Wars. In fact, the whole social and personal context, which defines and influences ideas, ambitions and world-views, has been totally transformed in these 150 years.

The new family
The change started with the family, the cell and basis for society and the state. The ideal family in the 19th century was unchanged from the times of Confucius, some 2,000 years before: three generations under one roof. The older man had many wives and even more children. Each male heir also had many wives and children, all living together in a large courtyard, resembling a small village of dozens of people.

In the courtyard, there were also many servants. The females of the clan were betrothed to neighbors, who then gained a closer relationship with the family. In this way, whole villages or even towns were under the control of one family. Each relative had a name indicating his precise relationship to the speaker. There were no vague appellations like "aunt", "uncle" or "cousin". There were terms such as "uncle, first younger brother of my father" (da shufu) or "uncle, second brother of my mother" (er jiufu), and so on. Cousins also bore different names, accordingly.

It was an intricate cobweb of relations in which each individual had his or her precise place. A male child grew up thinking that if he studied hard and if he were virtuous and filial, he would pass official exams, become a successful mandarin, inherit the family fortune and establish his own large family home. Then, he would pick the brightest of his heirs and support that child through his studies, continuing the glorious family tradition.

That was an ideal. Most men had only one wife, as they could not afford more. Some men, poor, had no wives; and some, just a little less poor, had to share a wife with their brothers. Yet, the ideal family was one man, many wives and many, many children.

For the emperor, this was an issue of state security. The emperor had many wives to make sure he had many children and could choose the fittest from them to succeed him. The successor had to be male, but not necessarily the first born from the first wife, as was the situation in Europe. The Chinese system tried to make sure the emperor was not incompetent, which could be the case with the European system where God chose the successor - namely, the first-born.

The issue of family and keeping only one wife was the stumbling block in the conversion of a Qing emperor to Catholicism. The Wanli emperor might have entertained the idea of converting to Catholicism, as many of his closest advisors were Jesuits, but he could not accept the idea of having one wife, as this would alter the rules for succession in China. However, the Jesuits in the 17th century knew that they could not compromise on the rule of succession: the king's many wives and their children had been the very issue that had caused a split between England and Rome the century before with Henry VIII and Elizabeth. Elizabeth died in 1603, seven years before Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci's demise in Beijing in 1610.

This ideal of the family persisted until the communists took over in 1949. After the May Fourth movement in 1919, the idea of one wife was introduced as progressive and modern. However, Kuomintang (KMT) leader Chiang Kai-shek had more than one wife, as did many senior KMT officials.

Conversely, the Communist Party broke the old mold and introduced puritanical rules imposing just one wife. This was already a major break with tradition, but an even greater break came in the 1980s with the one-child rule. This completely reversed the old pyramid of relations. A hundred years before, a grandfather could be served by scores of grandchildren all vying for his favor.

In 1980s, one couple, some of them being two single children of single-wife marriages, could have as many as four grandparents all hovering around their single child. Then, there would be six adults spoiling one child. This is the phenomenon of the "little emperors". The children were spoiled, but also under enormous pressure. They had the responsibility to succeed for their family's glory.

In larger families, this responsibility was spread among scores of siblings who first had to learn to live with each other. The one child born after 1980 had to be number one in his class to be sure to get into a good high school, which, in turn, guarantees a place at a good university in the extremely selective Chinese education system.

But this, of course, is impossible. What happens, then, in most families, if the one child fails to get into a good university and has no hope for a good job? How do the children reconcile themselves with their lot? Will they be frustrated and angry? They are no small number - millions of children fall into this generation. How will these people impact society, the state, the world and culture in the next 20 years?

One thing is sure, China has never experienced a generation like this, and neither has any society in the world, so it is difficult to forecast trends. Because the situation is so widespread, the Chinese government has realized the problem and is trying to address it. But before turning our attention to the answer, first we have to look at how the Chinese government itself has dramatically changed.

End to the emperor
Since unification in the late 3rd century BC, China was ruled by an emperor, a supreme head of state, ultimate source of power and decision-maker. Possibly, there were "emperors" even before then, such as the son of heaven (tianzi) of Zhou times, but he was likely more of a religious and ceremonial figure than a real political monarch.

The imperial system really started with the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-207 BC) - Qinshi Huangdi. The system underwent many changes, but there was always one constant: the emperor did not run the administration of the country. That duty was largely entrusted to a body of ministers and officials who were selected on the basis of merit. The emperor embodied the interests of the state, as the state was his. It was a mechanism similar to that of modern companies differentiating property and management. The owner, or major stock-holder, sets the goals and decides the broad direction and the interests of the company, such as its stability and welfare. The emperor's interests coincide with the interests of the population, or in our comparison, the employees in a company. The citizens want to lead comfortable safe lives, and creating this environment ensures a stable hold on power for the emperor.

In the middle, between the emperor and the people, there were officials who had the job of running the country and maintaining stability. It is easy to see how people recognized their interests as coinciding with those of the emperor, and as a result both the emperor and the people blamed officials if something minor went wrong. If something major was wrong, it meant the emperor had lost his marbles, he did not understand his and his people's interests, or heaven did not want him to rule - and that was the end for him and the dynasty. They would be replaced by a new  emperor and dynasty, setting new standards for the old stability game.

In the 20th century, Chiang Kai-shek and communist leader Mao Zedong also followed this pattern. Although they did not call themselves "emperors", they were the ultimate embodiment of the interests of the state and the ones who set the grand directions. Deng Xiaoping's rule (1978 to the early 1990s) was softer, but he still commanded great respect. Jiang Zemin (president from 1993 to 2003), was something in between.

However, the real radical change occurred at the beginning of this century, with the smooth transition of power from Jiang to Hu Jintao, the current president. That transition confirmed that both men were not emperors. They are Communist Party officials promoted because of merit to become head of state, but they do not embody the ultimate interests of the state. They cannot make the ultimate decisions alone - they have to reach a consensus among top leaders.

And they cannot even choose their own successors: Hu's post was decided by Deng (Jiang might have preferred Zeng Qinghong), and Hu's successor Xi Jinping was not decided by Hu alone (who might have preferred Li Keqiang). Both Jiang and Hu are top managers, but this raises a new question: who embodies the interests of the state and of the people?

In democracies, those interests are represented by the electoral body, which votes for the head of state and other representatives. In modern China, there are no elections and the "legitimization" offered by the leaders is simple: we are in power because we are in power. If nobody topples us, then we are legitimized to stay. We can stay in power by granting economic growth and development that spreads welfare to the whole population, although unequally.

However, legitimization is only part of the issue. The larger issue is: who decides the broad direction for the country to take? What are the criteria and standards to judge the performance of officials and top managing-rulers? Here, there are two arenas that have a greater and lesser voice in deciding on performance and setting goals.

The less powerful arena (whose voice is growing) is public opinion, which is conveyed by a number of channels, such as local media, blogs on the web, social surveys and local elections. This does not form a black and white picture, but reveals in which direction general interests are moving, or not moving. For instance, on the issue of environmental protection, 10 years ago people were less responsive to it, now they are more receptive.

A more powerful arena influencing China's leaders is a pool of experts, old party cadres called on to discuss different policies. The opinion of experts is solicited when considering any given policy, and the opinion of retired cadres, who now have no vested interests, is also tapped to consider the promotion of party officials. Tens of thousands were consulted to set the program for the Communist Party Congress in 2007, and 5,000 helped write the draft.

Even after retirement, officials have access to some levels of internal news bulletins and maintain privileged channels of communication with the top leadership. Therefore, they influence the broad decision-making process.

But the system is not transparent, opening many avenues for corruption. For example, middle- and low-level party officials who are backed by companies can try to climb up the official ladder by distributing presents and favors to higher-ranking officials. Companies, especially if they are state ones, can try to move policies by offering gifts and favors to officials.

It was to counter this that the party moved toward appealing to academic experts, with no personal interest in the issues involved, and retired cadres, also without personal interests.

The whole process is secretive and thus not open to wide interference. But even this is not watertight, and the leaders know it. For this reason, they are now pushing for some form of democratization, although they are concerned about the shortcomings of that system as well.

The party faces a major dilemma over how to move forward, especially as, for many people, the ultimate goal is to be "emperor".

A crowd of emperors
At the southern end of Tiananmen Square in the capital Beijing, next to Zhengyang Men ("The Midday Gate") and about 200 meters from Mao's mausoleum, there is a spot where people take pictures of their children dressed as little Manchu emperors, sitting on a throne.

The place is symbolic: the ancient gate once opened on the nei cheng (inner city) and the buildings of the imperial government. Every day, there is a line of parents, mostly from the countryside, holding their children by the hand and waiting to take pictures as a sign of good luck. Each parent wants his or her only child to be successful - to become an emperor.

For centuries in ancient times there were only two ways to be successful. The first was to lead a rebellion or follow one - to topple a dynasty and become the emperor, or part of his circle. This was the method of Liu Bang (the founder of the Han Dynasty, 206 BC-220 AD), Zhu Yuanzhang (founder of the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644 AD), and Mao Zedong ( founder of the "communist dynasty"). The path is extremely dangerous - one could easily lose his head - and the possibilities of success are very slim.

Second, an ambitious young man could pursue a career as an imperial official. He could take the challenging exams, and if he passed become even the top official of the empire. This path had no risk - nobody would kill the youth who did not pass his exam. And it was relatively easier. Although the official bureaucracy was tiny compared to the population, hundreds of officials were promoted every year, giving the average person a much better chance to succeed this way than by rebelling against the system. For this reason, most people first tried to become an official.

However, the exam system was not perfect, and many rebel leaders began as students who had failed the imperial examinations, like the famous Hong Xiuquan, who started the Taiping rebellion that in the middle of the 19th century almost toppled the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). If these brilliant people had earned a post, perhaps there would have been no rebellion, or a much more modest one.

There is a less common path to try to make a fortune for oneself - clever people could go into business. This path, however, was not as glorious as the choice of being an official, the top of the social hierarchy. And although not as risky as being a rebel, it was far from secure. Officials could easily concoct all kinds of excuses to seize the property of rich merchants. Business, concentrated in cities, was tolerated but not exalted, and businessmen had to be careful not to eclipse the wealth of local officials, who had to remain officially the richest in the area.

Businessmen could protect their assets in two ways: befriending officials or having their son pass state examinations and become an official. The second choice was safer and considered more socially respectable than the first. The remainder of the people, the vast majority of the population, were peasants who were bound to the land and had all types of constraints to leaving their place and moving on.

Furthermore, officials and peasants were the stronghold of stable power, the guarantors that nothing would change and the imperial power would be unchallenged. Business, with its drive to accumulate wealth and invest in new ventures, was a force for instability and change. This had to be tolerated for several reasons, but the imperial power could not allow business and enterprise to grow to threaten the emperor's stability.

This situation has changed in the past 30 years. Officials are still selected through a complex party system, with courses and exams, but now business is exalted for the first time in Chinese history. Business is central to the drive for fast development, which is the paramount task for the nation to recover its former might and glory. This has many consequences.

On a personal level, being a businessman is now as glorious as - or perhaps even more than - being an official. When the best kids at university are chosen to join the party and have an official career, they feel it is an honor that they must accept. But this career is long, very difficult, full of traps and rewarding only at the end - if, at about age 50, one has managed to survive the political selection and become a senior official.

Most young people prefer to try to become businessmen. They can be successful early in their lives, they are freer since they are not subject to strict party discipline, and they can enjoy themselves with the money they make. A businessman can have his own enterprise and decide what to do with minimal official interference. In other words, each young person can become the little emperor of a small empire, a possibility that did not exist in the imperial past.

Besides, trying one's hand in business is easier and far less risky than trying to start a revolution to become emperor.

On a social level, the changes brought by business and enterprises must be "digested" at every level by the system. Formerly, the imperial system could stop businesses from threatening the status quo. Now the nation wants to improve the status quo, and therefore it has to push for new businesses and then factor in the constant changes to the social and political fabric of the nation. Moreover, business-driven growth means urbanization, depopulation of the countryside, decimation of the peasant class, the end of ancient rural China and the birth of a new, urbanized China. This course will follow the only existing pattern for urbanization - the Western one.

Most importantly, the overall system has discarded the ancient notion of stability and embraced the notions of change and development. This is a deep cultural change, confirmed by the official Chinese rhetoric about stability. When the leaders stress the need for stability, they are looking for some balance in a situation that has inherently rejected it. And if everything fails, the government thinks, there must be something to appease the public. In the West, those appeasements were traditionally sports and religion.

A sporting life
Public sporting events, attended by both aristocratic and common people, have been popular since ancient times in the West. The tradition of the Olympic Games was that all Greek cities would suspend activities so that the entire population could enjoy the events in the spirit of uniting all citizens through common cultural and mutual interests.

The spirit of the Roman circus was the same. Patricians and plebeians would attend to share in the common enjoyment of the show, in the process renewing the cultural bonds linking the two sections of society. The games had also a link with war, the other crucial occasion on which the high and the low stood side by side, this time to shed blood in defense of the common motherland. In Greece, war was suspended during the games; in Rome, games were a recreation of war with fights between gladiators.

Sports thus played a crucial political and ritualistic function in creating a sense of common belonging. This was extremely important as both Greek and Roman societies were split into separate strata on the basis of birthright. In Greece, the aristocrats were concentrated in the upper portion of the city, the Acropolis, and the common people had the lower square of the "agora".

A similar structure could be found in Rome, where the aristocrats were centered on the senate and the plebeians would live in the lower strata of the "urbs". Upward movement was possible, but very difficult and uncommon.

This social difference, determined by birth, was very hard to overcome and created a huge social gap that the common attendance at games or participation in war helped to bridge.

The system was highly effective. Even now, there are families in Rome claiming a lineage back to Julius Cesar, living in the same area and the same buildings for millennia, despite many changes in the ruling elite of the land. The concept of aristocracy, of blue-blood privileges, was very strong for centuries in the West. Apart from the many crowned heads of state in Europe, Britain's House of Lords in London is a modern vestige of the old Roman senate: a group of grandees - largely chosen by the merits of their forefathers - ruling the nation of common people.

In ancient China, there were no games or circuses to bond the upper and lower stratas. However, there were also no birth-determined social divides, and upward mobility based purely on merit had been encouraged and idealized since very ancient times.

The Mozi (Mocius), by the philosopher Mozi (470 BCE ca - 391 BCE), possibly the earliest text of systematic philosophy in China, begins its earliest part (4th century BC) by discussing the importance of promoting capable people as high officials (Shangxian pian, or to venerate the wise). It is claimed this is an ancient tradition from the Shang Dynasty (2nd millennium BC), which in turn was taken from the most legendary ancient Chinese emperors - Yao, Shun, Yu and Tang - who selected their successors on the basis of merit, regardless of origin. Shun and Yu had very humble origins.

Confucius, about a generation older than Mozi but referring to the earlier cultural tradition of Zhou (starting around 1,000 BC), also stressed the paramount importance of education and upbringing over birthright in the promotion of officials.

The original and enduring Chinese cultural belief is of a self-made man - the senior official born out of a peasant family or the top general starting off as a foot soldier. In this sense, social mobility was encouraged, and this may have created a strong bond in society.

In fact, as we have seen, there were two channels for upward mobility: the selection of officials, which was open to all, and the revolution (geming). The second is particularly important in comparison to Western tradition. Since the early first millennium BC, there has been a tradition of change (ge) of the Mandate of Heaven (ming).

Essentially, the idea was that the dynasty would rule until it was overthrown. The toppling was seen as legitimate when it was successful, evidence that heaven had withdrawn its graces from one emperor and granted them to another. The emperor, Son of Heaven, had to hold onto its power. His success in so doing proved his ritual and religious legitimacy. Large natural disasters and social uprisings confirmed the waning of heaven's favors.

Besides selected officials, each dynasty had its court of aristocrats - relatives of the emperor or descendents of the closest comrades of the founder of the dynasty. They, and the relatives of the senior officials, had varying influence. But this influence faded with the decades, as the generations grew away from the original connection. Furthermore, each change of dynasty completely wiped out the former aristocracy and established a new one. The Mongols eliminated the Song aristocrats, so did the Ming with Mongols, the Manchu with the Ming, and the communists with the Manchu.

This created a situation in which there is no aristocratic continuity stretching back hundreds of years, as there is in Europe. At most, Chinese aristocrats can claim a lineage of 300 years. Presently, there is no official aristocracy, but the siblings of senior leaders are called taizi dang (princelings). However, even they can claim an aristocracy that is less than 100 years old. This means that social mobility is strong, and aristocracy has not played as conspicuous and continuous a role as it has in Europe.

Now the communists have started looking to sports - especially mass gatherings like the Olympic Games that are attended by both common people and senior officials - to create a new social bond. There are more occasions for the people to feel a sense of unity. There are also new and old systems for social mobility: promotion of officials, career opportunities in business, a weak aristocracy, and more occasions of coming together for sports.

The present attention to sports is still weaker than in the West, often because of extreme corruption in local tournaments. But there is also a phenomenon unknown in Western societies: great attention to sports from abroad. Chinese people love football (soccer) played in Italy, England, Germany and Spain, as well as basketball from the United States. This appreciation of foreign sports has also created positive attention for developments in the countries in which the favored sports are played, almost creating a kinship with the people of those nations.

Religious to a point
China traditionally has not had a religious system that is comparable to the monotheistic religions of the West or the polytheistic religions of India and other countries. There was Buddhist-Taoist lore full of metaphysical explanations for various phenomena. In addition, there was a system of civil values without any metaphysics, which we may call Confucian ethics.

Both of those systems were criticized by modernist intellectuals during 1919's anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement and were then smashed in Mao's times and replaced with an atheist religion that idolized Mao Zedong. In the early 1980s, at the end of the Maoist era, China was without any kind of values system, either religious or civil.

Since then, China has seen a marked return of the traditional Taoist semi-religious respiratory practice of Qigong (deep-breathing and meditation exercises). Chinese leaders eagerly practiced this discipline, which promises an earthly long life. They arranged the return of Qigong masters (who sometimes were just self-taught), organizing them as sports trainers and registering them under the Sport Federation. Many Qigong schools flourished all over the country.

Their popularity increased after the Tiananmen crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1989, when many young people became disillusioned with politics and went into meditation. Furthermore, in early 1995, Deng Xiaoping had a stroke and almost died. He was saved, according to Beijing's rumor mill, by the intervention of revered Qigong masters. This episode obviously helped increase the popularity of Qigong.

By the mid-1990s, police, soldiers, officials and students were all practicing various forms of Qigong. Among them, the most successful were members of the Falungong, a spiritual practice introduced to the public in China by Li Hongzhi in 1992.

It was well organized with cells, a central committee and a politburo modeled after the Communist Party. Its set of beliefs was a mish-mash of old and new: faith in the coming end of the world, the idea that extraterrestrial beings are among us and have taken the shape of men, the denial of modern science and medicine, and a strong xenophobic attitude. The last sentiment well suited the many aging leaders who had joined the party in their youth with nationalist sentiments.

The Falungong movement grew so strong that it demanded recognition as an official religion and to no longer be classified as a sport. When it failed to obtain that classification, followers organized a series of demonstrations in early 1999, with the support of senior Chinese intelligence and military officers. The government saw these demonstrations - backed by crucial officials - as a powerful threat, an attempted coup d'etat, and commenced a gradual yet merciless crackdown.

This moment was crucial in China for the return of religion. The whole Falungong episode convinced the party that what was formerly believed - that there had been too much opening up - was not true. In fact, there was too little opening up. This had made it  possible for millions of people to believe absurd theories about extraterrestrials or to refuse modern medical treatment.

Yet, it also revealed that Chinese people wanted religious values, and the government had to be open to them. Buddhism was favored: it was a religion that had been in China for hundreds of years, Chinese people were very familiar with it, and Buddhist monks had been among the first to denounce the dangers of the Falungong in 1998.

Furthermore, the Chinese leaders realized that the much-feared Christian faiths were not so dangerous after all. In 50 years of communist rule, despite ruthless oppression, Christian Protestants and Catholics had never staged demonstrations in Tiananmen, as Falungong followers had. In 1989, during the Tiananmen demonstrations, then-bishop Zen from Hong Kong told students in Chinese seminars not to get involved with the demonstrations.

This created renewed goodwill among the Chinese leadership for traditional religions and made possible official overtures to the Vatican in 2001 for the normalization of ties with China. In 2001, senior party official Pan Yue wrote an article [1] that redefined theoretical concepts. He argued, essentially, that Karl Marx had said that religion is the opiate of the people, and thus religion is bad for revolution. But once revolution is successful, the government needs religion as an opiate to avert new revolutions. The reasoning is crude but fitting for Chinese political thought. It also changed the meaning of revolution from the original Marxist one, entailing a total change of political order, to the Chinese geming, a simple traditional Chinese change of political power. This brought the momentous change of 2007.

On December 18, the party's politburo, the highest ruling body in the country, held a plenary collective study session. It was the second one since the 17th Communist Party Congress that ended in October last year. For the first time in the history of the People's Republic, the party's top echelons met to discuss a once-taboo subject - religion.

The Chinese Communist Party, like many other communist parties, is patently atheist, to the point that religious affiliation is forbidden for party members. However, right in Congress there was the first sign that things could be moving in a different direction.

Broadcasting from the cavernous Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where the 17th Party Congress was in session, TV screens showed the slim and attentive face of the young Panchen Lama (the second-highest ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama), who was following the speech of party general secretary Hu Jintao. The badge on his chest said "guest".

Although there is dispute over the present (11th) incarnation of the Panchen Lama, with Beijing and the Tibetan government in exile favoring different people, the presence of the important religious dignitary from Tibet, supportive of the Beijing government, indicated that the party was reconsidering its stance on religion. Now religious personalities were invited guests; perhaps, in the not too distant future, they could become fully fledged delegates to the party congress. That is, the party could drop its ban against religious figures joining its ranks.

Indeed, Hu's keynote speech devoted a paragraph to religion [2]. He said religious people, including priests, monks and lay-believers, played a positive role in the social and economic development of China. Furthermore, Hu did not talk about religions as such, thus establishing a form of respect and non-interference in purely religious affairs. That is, the party is not interested in religion per se, but it values the positive social contribution of religious people.

At the study session on December 18, the politburo explored the issue. Two experts introduced the subject. One was Zuo Xinping, a specialist on Christianity from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the other was Mou Zhongjian, a scholar on Confucianism from the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing. It seemed the party wanted two perspectives, one about new Christian faiths coming from abroad and one from the country's own native traditions.

Hu presented some introductory remarks, reported in a Xinhua article in Chinese [3], and it was indeed an historic event. Two facts are extraordinary.

It was the first high-level meeting of the party fully devoted to religion. That was a sign that party leaders recognized the great political significance of religion in building a "moderate, affluent and harmonious society". Religion is no longer an issue of public security that can be handed over to the police - it is a top social and political issue involving all aspects of society, and therefore all politburo members must be aware of it.

Secondly, in all of the Xinhua reports, there were no negative, derogatory remarks about religion, as one would expect to find about the "opiate of the masses". There were not even "ifs" or "buts" to indicate that the party would handle religion with diffidence. The English version stresses that there must be freedom of belief, and in the Chinese version, Hu is quoted as saying that the party must mobilize the positive elements of religion for economic and social development. Thus, religion can play an important role in realizing the "harmonious society" that is the new political goal of the party.

Furthermore, Hu spoke at the session, meaning that he and the party deemed this issue of top importance and not simply something to be delegated to the United Front Department or the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the two bodies that deal with religious affairs for the party. His speech, which can be expected to circulate in internal meetings, will set the direction for handling religious affairs.

This does not mean the party has converted to some religious belief or is going to do so. Religion is an instrument for governance. As Pan Yue bluntly put it in his essay, the party wanted to learn how it could use religion to appease people, to enhance social stability, and to avert rebellions and revolutions.

The party understands this is a complex issue, but one with many potential positive social outcomes. In the late 1990s, an investigation carried out in some costal regions found that the areas with more people converted to a religious faith had a lower rate of criminality - more religion meant less crime.

However, Chinese history tells party leaders that religion is also an extremely volatile element. Major uprisings in the past were organized by religious groups. For instance, the Taiping, who almost brought to an end the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, were pseudo-Christians. Similarly, extreme radical Islam now mobilizes millions worldwide. Religion has to be handled with care, but it cannot simply be ignored or looked down on like some kind of feudal leftover.

Notes
1. Pan Yue: "Marxist view on religion must keep in step with times", Huaxia Shibao, December 15, 2001. 2. Here is the entire passage, according to the official English translation: "4. Expand the patriotic united front and unite with all forces that can be united. Promoting harmony in relations between political parties, between ethnic groups, between religions, between social strata, and between our compatriots at home and overseas plays an irreplaceable role in enhancing unity and pooling strengths. Acting on the principle of long-term coexistence, mutual oversight, sincere treatment of each other and the sharing of wealth and woe, we will strengthen our cooperation with the democratic parties, support them and personages without party affiliation in better performing their functions of participation in the deliberation and administration of state affairs and democratic oversight, and select and recommend a greater number of outstanding non-CPC [Communist Party of China] persons for leading positions. Keeping in mind the objective of all ethnic groups working together for common prosperity and development, we must guarantee the legitimate rights and interests of ethnic minorities, and strengthen and develop socialist ethnic relations based on equality, solidarity, mutual assistance and harmony. We will fully implement the party's basic principle for its work related to religious affairs and bring into play the positive role of religious personages and believers in promoting economic and social development. We encourage members of emerging social strata to take an active part in building socialism with Chinese characteristics. We support overseas Chinese nationals, returned overseas Chinese and their relatives in caring about and participating in the modernization drive and the great cause of peaceful reunification of the motherland."
3. There are some differences between Xinhua's reports in English and in Chinese about Hu's speech at the politburo study session on December 18, 2007. For the English version, click here. For the Chinese version, click here.

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Francesco Sisci, Asia Editor of La Stampa.

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