Beijing (AsiaNews) At least one-third of the 60 million members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) belong to a religious organization and half of these, some 10 million members, participate regularly in religious services. But the Central Committee is not standing by passively and is prohibiting party cadres from participating in religious activities and is promoting Marxism and atheism, but many members are defending themselves: "Faith is a personal matter and we will never sell ourselves to the Party."
According to statistics of the CCP's Disciplinary Commission, the number of cadres involved in religious activities in cities stands at 12 million and among them, 5 million are regulars. In rural areas, 8 million CCP cadres attend religious events, and 4 million among them are regulars. There are those whose whole families are involved, and there are cases where local CCP organizations participate as a group. Various mid- and high-level cadres have set up a room in their home for use as an underground domestic church in order to avoid problems with their leadership.
Mrs Xue (all names have been changed for security reasons), a CCP member who works for the national security bureau in a big city, was baptized in the Catholic Church 13 years ago. Since then, she had always attended Sunday Mass in an official church, until her colleagues found out. Her superior warned her not to attend religious activities openly. Now she attends Mass in an unofficial house church that belongs to underground Church.
It seems in fact that the increase in religious practice among Party members is a phenomenon that has gone beyond the Party's control. A Central Committee notice issued at the end of the CCP's fifth plenum last October prohibits cadres from participating in religious activities. The document, excerpts of which appeared in a Epoch Times report on November 12, 2005, quotes comments of concern made by Hu Jintao and Vice-President Zeng Qinghong: "The corrosion of religious ideas into the Party organizations and members has transformed from subtle influence to open contention. It will change the mindsets of Party cadres and lead to a collapse in their faith in the Communist Party, exacerbating the decline in Party principles and further plunging the Party and state into various political and social crises."
The notice threatens to expel those who do not respect the policy on religions.
Members involved in religious activities seem unperturbed however by such threats. Some weeks ago, a Catholic by the name of Han was at a dinner with his friends, Mr Li, a factory director, Mrs Wang, communist secretary at the factory, and Mr Yang, communist secretary of Shanghai Fuel Corporation, one of Shanghai's largest companies. During the meal, Mr Yang asked Mr Li if he goes to temple to burn joss sticks and worship Buddha to which Li replied, "Of course I go!" Mr Han prodded Yang, "But you're a Party member and are supposed to be atheist". Li laughed at what would appear to be an out-of-date question. Han insisted that the Communist Party does not allow its members to join religious activities, but Li said: "Nonsense! To worship Buddha is a private matter; we shall never sell ourselves to the party."
There are various fundamental causes for the growth of the religious phenomenon within the ranks of the CCP: the first is the collapse of the strengthen of Communist ideology and its ethics, which has stimulated many people to look to religions for a meaning to life.
Mr Zhang used to be a member of the Communist Standing Committee in a big state-owned company but, since his retirement, has begun studying the Bible and other religious books. He said he was fascinated by the figure of Buddha, but also by the concept of a single God. He told AsiaNews that he had doubted Communism's atheist teachings for many years before his retirement and now he has plenty of time to investigate religions.
Another reason for the spread of religion in the CCP derives from the opening of the country's economy. With the increased importance of private companies and the decreased value of public enterprises, many people are freer to pursue their faith without having to barter it for job security.
Especially in the south of China, where private economic development is stronger, Party members make no secret of their faith. It is not unusual to see religious images representing Buddha, Jesus, Our Lady or other symbols, posted on the front door of their home to mark the new year.
Such manifestations of religious symbols are also prohibited by the Party. The Central Committee document already mentioned labels as "superstition" all activities or blessings related to "position changes, the home, childbirth
and other life events" and foresees "disciplinary and administrative measures" for transgressors.
A third reason for the increase in religious affiliation among Party members derives from a crisis within the CCP. The people of China are no longer enamoured with the Party, which is suffering a collapse in membership. In the countryside over past years, membership has dropped by as much as 80%. For this reason, checks and approval of members have become less stringent from an ideological view point.
Very often, people sign up with the Party for the benefits of membership. Mrs Sun, a Catholic, is a nurse at the Beijing Friendship Hospital. When the hospital began to reduce its staff, she joined the Communist Party, knowing that the hospital would fire non-Communist members first. Still today, in many public enterprises, Communist membership is still considered a symbol of a good employee.
The presence of high-level cadres with a religious faith has made for greater tolerance in various Communist party sections. Mr Jin, a Catholic, signed up with the Communist Party to be able to join the army. Now that he has retired, he became Party secretary for a village in Zhejiang province. At the same time, he is an active member of the underground Church and, through his position, has often sought to preserve his community from persecution. The local government and the whole village know about his religious involvement, but this has not affected his position as Communist secretary.
In the attempt to counteract the wave of religious faith within its ranks, the CCP initiated a campaign two years ago to promote atheism through radio and television programmes, internet and university seminars. As of a few months, it as also invested 20 million euros in a campaign to revitalize Marxism.
A part of Party membership still believes, however, that religions can contribute to social harmony, stability and development. For this reason, it is necessary to not stand in the way of their growth, allowing Party members to participate in religious activities.