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China's Leader Puts Faith in Religious
Hu Sees Growing Spiritual Ranks as Helpful in Achieving Social Goals

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 20, 2008

BEIJING, Jan. 19 -- There was Hu Jintao, head of the Chinese Communist Party, warmly shaking hands at a party-sponsored New Year's tea party with one of the country's main Christian leaders. To make sure the message got through to China's 68 million party faithful, a large photograph of the moment was splashed across the front page of the official party newspaper, People's Daily.

Hu's display of holiday courtesy to Liu Bainian, general secretary of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, was one in a series of recent signals that China's rulers, despite the party's official atheism, are seeking to get along better with the increasing numbers of Chinese who find solace and inspiration in religion. The shift in tactics does not mean the Politburo has embraced religion, specialists cautioned, but it indicates a desire to incorporate believers into the party's quest for continued economic progress and more social harmony.

The move away from traditional Marxist attitudes evolved from Hu's campaign for what he calls "a harmonious socialist society." The concept, in effect an appeal for good behavior, was designed to replace the moral void left when the party long ago jettisoned historical Chinese values and, more recently, loosened the zipped-tight social strictures of communism under Mao Zedong. Religion, the party has decided, can also be useful in encouraging social harmony because it urges its followers to hew to a moral code.

"We must take full advantage of the positive role that religious figures and believers among the masses can play in promoting economic and social development," Jia Qinglin, a member of the Politburo's Standing Committee, told a meeting of government-connected religious officials Wednesday.

Hu presided over a special Politburo study session last month on the expanding role of religion in China. Two of the party's religion specialists were called in to explain the phenomenon to China's 25 most powerful men, most of whom grew up with the Marxist idea that religion is a hostile force and, in China, foreign infiltration with ties to the colonial past.

In a speech to the group, Hu seemed to break with that tradition, suggesting the moral force of religion can be harnessed for the good of the party. "We must strive to closely unite religious figures and believers among the masses around the party and government," he said, according to the official account, "and struggle together with them to build an all-around moderately prosperous society while quickening the pace toward the modernization of socialism."

Liu, the Christian leader shown in the photo with Hu, noted that the president also for the first time included discussion of religion in the party's 17th National Congress in October. Religion should no longer be considered sabotage of the party's economic and social plans, Hu told fellow party members, but rather a positive force that can be enlisted to help put the plans into effect.

"This tells people what the party's attitude toward religion is," Liu said. "The party is now more concerned about the active role that religion can play in society."

The number of religious believers in China has long been difficult to determine. Faced with the party's traditional hostility, many believers have kept their faith hidden. But a government-sponsored survey last year found the number may reach 300 million, nearly a quarter of the population.

Most of those professing belief said they identified with China's traditional religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Islam. But those identifying themselves as Christians accounted for as many as 40 million, the survey found, most of them Protestants. Specialists have estimated the number of Catholics at 12 million, divided between those in Liu's government-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Association and those in informal churches who look on the pope as their leader.

"Religion has become such an important concept in China that the party can no longer try to understand it in the traditional Marxist framework," said Chan Kim-kwong, executive secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council.

Part of the problem, Chan said, is that government decisions have traditionally been based on reports from the State Administration for Religious Affairs and local-level religious affairs bureaus, which often have their own interests in land or other issues connected to churches. In addition, many bureaucrats in the religion administrations ended up there after being demobilized from the military with little to go on other than Marxist doctrine.

"It's a dumping ground," Chan said.

Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, who has studied the church in China for two decades, warned that the current warming is a tactic that could easily be reversed. "For me, it's a good thing, but it doesn't mean very much," he said.

Over the years, he added, the party's treatment of believers has varied, but its overall attitude is that religion, particularly Christianity and Islam, is a portal through which foreign ideas and loyalties can make their way into Chinese society.

In the same vein, Ren Yanli, a religion specialist at the government-sponsored Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, noted that the party's recent overtures were aimed at enlisting religious beliefs as a force for economic and social progress. Nowhere did the party acknowledge faith and religion as ideals to be pursued in their own right, he said.

Nonetheless, government controls over religious activity have loosened markedly in recent years. Political connotations, such as those attached to Buddhism in Tibet or Islam in the autonomous Xinjiang region of northwestern China, have become the major targets of police surveillance in most areas.

Despite the trend, China and the Vatican have been unable to renew diplomatic relations, with China holding firm to the power to name bishops. Hu himself led a special committee in 2005 to end the hostility; at that time, progress was so rapid that a bargain seemed within reach. Those hopes fell through, however, with the appointment of several bishops who did not have Vatican approval.

In recent months, the momentum toward friendly Vatican ties seems to have revived. Two bishops were ordained with papal approval last month, following on the appointment of a Vatican-approved bishop for Beijing in September. Regular quiet contacts have been made between Vatican and Chinese diplomats.

But behind the scenes, Patriotic Catholic Association churches and local religious affairs bureaus have proved to be formidable obstacles, according to a knowledgeable religious source. Their positions -- often including state salaries, apartments and prestige -- would be endangered if the church fell under Rome's authority. Moreover, the source added, some local jurisdictions have been involved in land deals with compliant bishops in arrangements that might be disturbed by Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI displayed eagerness to mend the split soon after taking over the Vatican. But his zeal seems to have waned, Lam observed. Meanwhile, conservatives in the Chinese party leadership, backed by local bureaus, have prevented a final deal because they are hesitant to abandon the doctrine that the Vatican is a foreign power that should have no authority in China.

Only a strong Chinese leader willing to take a bold initiative could shake the situation loose, Lam predicted, and Hu has never been noted for that kind of leadership. The handshake in the tea-party photo, he noted, was with a leader of the government-run patriotic church, not a Vatican-approved bishop with loyalty to Rome.

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