There are more Muslims in China than in the whole of Europe. There are more practising Protestants than in Britain. More practising Catholics than in Italy. And an estimated 100 million or more people who consider themselves Buddhists.
I was in a province of China recently where I met the governor - a Muslim - who openly asked about, and was interested in, my Faith Foundation activities. Official Chinese surveys show that nearly one in three Chinese describe themselves as religious. This is not where they were 30 years ago.
In addition, the Chinese government is deliberately sponsoring a revival in Confucianism and other ancient Chinese ethical philosophies. They have recently supported national fora on Daoism and Buddhism. Such government approval is a sign of modern China’s return to pride in its ancient history and culture. The arrival of Islam and Nestorian Christians in the 7th century, and the famous Jesuit adaptation to Chinese culture during the 17th century, thwarted by an intransigent Vatican, are part of it.
Confucianism in particular shows how the boundary between faith, philosophy and morality can be blurred. This is faith as values, as the denial of self in the wider interests of others. Where faith has given rise to acts of great mercy or courage, it has nearly always been of this nature. It has been not about ritual, doctrine, or abstract theology, important though these can be. It has been about human feeling, compassion and mercy.
The Chinese government’s complicated but increasing openness to religion is also a sign of something no less important: China’s expanding international relations and the problems created by its own extraordinary economic growth and global outreach. Last year I spoke at the Beijing Forum which had as its theme ‘The Harmony of Civilizations’ and as part of its discussion, ‘Faith and Responsibilities: Spiritual Reflections on Global Issues.’ It gave me the opportunity to congratulate Peking University on its course, developed in partnership with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation on Faith and Globalization. The preparations for this course were remarkable and a great tribute to the university and to its role in interfaith dialogue. It heralded, as well, yet another dimension of the way China is opening up to the world, engaging in the issues that matter, and providing leadership.
This religious aspect of the rise of China as a global power does not often get into the headlines. But in my experience you don’t get to understand a country just by reading its political speeches, studying its economic statistics, measuring its output. You understand it best when you understand its culture, its history and traditions, its family life, the special characteristics that have influenced its society, and most of all its people.
China’s growing willingness to engage with religious ideas and institutions will greatly assist East-West relations. China has sixty different ethnic groups. As I have indicated, its religious diversity is obvious. So how China charts its path to a harmonious society will not only matter to the world, but will be something from which we can study and learn. Likewise, how in different parts of the world, religious faith impacts stability and harmony, will be a vital Chinese interest.
It is above all this quest for a harmonious (we would probably say fair or just) society that engages the Chinese leadership with religion. The rapid influx of huge numbers of people from rural areas into the great seaboard cities, their social dislocation, the problems of migrants whose moral compass has been set to navigate family life rather than the multiple challenges of the industrialized city, pose an enormous challenge. The immediate questions are: in this stage of capitalist development, how to cater for the housing needs of recent migrants, who will provide social services for a vast new uprooted population serving China’s manufacturing industry, what will happen to the elderly as the demographics of the one-child family and improved health care work their way through the generations?
Churches and Christian communities provide wider networks of trust than the limited confines of the nuclear or extended family. They offer the recent migrant an instant community in which to cope with the new hardships and isolation of urban life. So the charitable social action of churches is seen as an important potential cement in a mobile society under considerable strain. The moral formation offered by catechesis and Christian teaching is a valuable resource for a new generation of youth without a moral compass.
There is a fit between what religion has to offer and what Chinese society needs in this stage of its economic transformation. This does not mean that the ruling party is not interested in control and regulation of the different religions. Religion can be powerfully motivating, and when allied with ethnicity, threatening. The conflict with the pope over the appointment of bishops and the complex reality of the state sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is an ongoing symptom of nationalist sensitivities. Even these tensions are gradually easing. But the large donations given by middle-class urban Christians to the Szechuan earthquake victims, the role of Christian entrepreneurs in Wenzhou with cradle-to-the grave care for their workers in Cadbury style enterprises, religions as a source of social goods and opposition to corruption, speak to the concerns of a new Chinese nationalism.
The rise of interest in religious studies and their proliferation in China’s universities is bi-product of religious revival. Thomas Aquinas’ concept of the organic society and the need for virtue fits well with aspects of Confucian ethics. There are a lot more budding Thomists in China than in Britain and a genuine intellectual excitement with themes in Christian thought.
Although constitutional changes in 1982 led to greater freedom of religion, all this is very sudden. It was barely 25 years ago since the Amity Press, the official press for the Patriotic Church, started printing Chinese Bibles. Only three years since Hu Jintao, president and general secretary of the Communist party told the Chinese Politburo:”We must strive to closely unite religious figures and believers... to build an all-around...prosperous society while quickening the pace towards modernization and socialism”. These are sentiments supported in public statements by Premier Wen Jiabao.
So where is this all going? “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself,” Confucius counseled. We may have a lot to learn from China’s evolving experience of religion, just as we are learning from its spectacular purchase on the global economy.
Tony Blair, Founder and Patron, Tony Blair Faith Foundation.