Beijing (AsiaNews) – In late September 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed that culture is the soul of a nation during a ceremony held in Beijing to commemorate the 2,565th anniversary of the birth of Confucius. In his address, the Chinese leader noted, “If a country or nation does not cherish its own ideology and culture, if it loses its soul, no matter which country or which nation, it will not be able to stand on its own”.
This represents a departure from Xi’s much-vaunted “Chinese Dream,” a switch often seen in dictatorships forced to silence the masses through new and exciting proposals whose purpose is to control people’s minds as did China’s leaders during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
The new campaign is called ‘sinicisation’. In order to promote it, President Xi found an ally in Confucianism and traditional Chinese culture, as the only way to keep alive certain values and reference points after the Communist Party, once Confucius’ archenemy, lost that role in the past few decades. Thus, as paradoxical as it may seem, opposites now seem to attract, as sweet and sour do in Chinese cuisine.
In November 2014, President Xi visited the Confucius Temple in Qufu, where he did not spare his praise for the sage’s Analects and Dialogues. In May 2015, during a visit to Beijing University, he delivered a speech praising the efforts of renowned Confucian scholars and thinkers, and highlighting their contribution to society.
Previously, at Beijing Normal University, on 9 September 2013, he expressed concern for the absence of Chinese classical poetry and essays from school textbooks. "The classics should be set in students’ minds so they become the genes of Chinese national culture,” he said on that occasion.
Afterwards, schools and universities hurriedly included the classics in school curricula. In Beijing, educational authorities announced that textbooks would give more room to classical Chinese poetry as of September 2015.
This reaction underscores concerns among mainland authorities about the growing infatuation among younger Chinese for things Western. One of the area that felt this fear immediately was religion.
Just before Christmas in 2014, guidelines were issued for universities to ban Western-style Christmas celebrations. Consequently, in places like Yuci (Shanxi), a university town, and Xian (Shaanxi), some students have become afraid to celebrate Christmas as in the Western.
Last Christmas was no different. In some cities, shopping malls chose not to play Christmas music. Many churches were placed under police surveillance, a not-so-subtle way to show that Christmas carols are not the only thing the authorities fear.
Western cultural influence highlights a certain moral vacuum in today’s Chinese society, caught between widespread corruption and the worship of money, where the Communist Party has lost its pivotal role. Thus, sinicisation is meant to provide society with “other values”.
Certain worrisome signs underlie this campaign, which tends to speed up at specific moments like Christmas or Confucius’ birthday. Under the auspices of the government’s Religious Affairs office, the University of Zhengzhou – which is located in the capital of Henan province, central China – offered a two-month indoctrination course (12 October-3 December) to promote the "sinicisation" of religious life. This included the history of religions in China and their role in Chinese society.
Five university professors taught the intensive programme with a focus on the role of religion under the Qing Dynasty. More than 50 people, including four Catholic lay people, three nuns, and three priests, enrolled in the course, which focused on respect for Chinese culture, and the role of religion in society.
The lecturers did not hesitate from attacking the Catholic religion, “highlighting” its flaws, going so far as to claim that the expansion of Protestantism in China is due to its openness to sinicisation. In their view, Protestants successfully adapted to Chinese culture, unlike Catholics, who still hold onto foreign beliefs, which are alien to the local culture.
More importantly, the lesson was clear: sinicisation involves not only the appreciation of China’s culture, but also service to the interests of Chinese socialism.
The government covered the expenses for the two months indoctrination with participants drawn from the country’s five official religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism – were present. After the course, they had to take a final examination.
The question now is whether the initiative will be extended to other provinces. However, for Catholics, the campaign raises even more concerns. In fact, the exercise appears to be a way for the authorities to prepare a high-level meeting of the Catholic Church in China. No date has been set, but there is some speculation that President Xi Jinping might attend.
Patriotism plays a major role in Chinese society. In playing this card, Xi wants to mould the masses to the party’s will, which is to control people’s minds, something that the Communist Party has done since the Mao era.