03/12/2014, 00.00
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Only religious freedom can ensure China's social and economic stability

by Brian J. Grim
For one of the world's foremost social scientists, repression of religions and identity-based groups leads to social violence, not harmony. China's own economic development would not have been possible under the draconian measures imposed during the Cultural Revolution.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - The Kunming massacre, which was attributed to ethnic Uyghurs, has reopened the debate on religious freedom and ethnic pluralism in China. As Chinese authorities and public opinion turn against the Turkic Muslim minority, analysts and experts discuss the best ways to eliminate the threat of religious extremism and separatist movements. Some argue that the only way forward is total repression of religions and their members; others propose opening channels of dialogue.

Immediately after the massacre on 1 March (29 dead and 110 injured), police launched a campaign of arrests and internet censorship. Ilham Tohti, economics professor at Beijing's Minzu University of China, was arrested on charges of separatism. Dozens of bloggers, including ethnic Han Chinese, were interrogated for hours after posting comments in favour of the Uyghurs. Several Uyghur stores in Beijing were forced to close after they became the target of violent acts and "warnings".

Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, tried to calm things down. "Most Uyghurs," he said, "are with us in the fight against separatism and violent terrorism.

Brian J. Grim, director of the Pew Research Center on religions for many years and now president of the Business & Religious Freedom Foundation, is convinced that only greater freedom for religions and other identity-based groups can lead to social harmony.

Recent studies in fact have shown that religion-related social hostilities rose four-fold between 2007 and 2012 in China. For Grim, only allowing religious believers to contribute to society will the country ensure its economic stability, something that could not have been possible had greater repression been applied. An analysis of the situation, courtesy of the author, follows.

According to data from the ongoing 'Pew Research global restrictions study,' social hostilities involving religion in China increased fourfold between 2007 and 2012.

This weekend's attack at the train station in Kunming, one of China's largest terminals, is the largest attack outside of Xinjiang. The predominantly Muslim Uyghurs used to be the majority population in the far northwest Xinjiang region of China, but due to immigration from other parts of China, they now represent less that 50% of the region's population.

Separatists have mounted a series of attacks even as security restrictions in the region have tightened. In response to the separatist movement, the Chinese government has also tightened restrictions on religion in the region.

In fact, data from the same Pew Research study finds that overall restrictions on religion in China, which were already very high, have also increased during the same time period.

Chinese authorities argue that such restrictions on religion are needed to maintain security, promote social harmony and keep religious hostilities in check. However, the data suggest that rather than reducing religious hostilities, added restrictions on religion may add to the grievances.  

The Religious Violence Cycle

Social science research has identified this as a religious violence cycle. For instance, Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke in The Price of Freedom Denied show that, contrary to popular opinion, ensuring religious freedom for all reduces religious violence and conflict. While it may be that some restrictions on religion are necessary to maintain order or preserve a peaceful religious homogeneity, the research shows that restricting religious freedoms is associated with higher levels of violence, not less.

Answering this question is particularly important in China because it has the largest religious population of any country besides India, according to Pew Research demographic studies.

The Yin & Yang of Religious Freedom in China

In a recent Religious News Service interview, I noted that while China may have some of the highest restrictions on religion in the world, there have nonetheless been great strides in the past 50 years.

I noted that during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, all religions were suppressed. People who identified with a religion were subject to beatings, relocation and even execution.

"You'd have been hard pressed to find anyone willing to admit they were religious in that time," I said.

But today, almost one-in-two people in China follow a faith. 300 million Chinese are affiliated with folk religions. Globally this means that more than seven-in-ten (73%) of the world's folk religionists live in China.

China not only leads the world in the number of folk religionists, but also in the number of Buddhists. Some 244 million people in China adhere to Buddhism, making China home to half (50%) of the world's 488 million Buddhists.

Moreover, China's 68 million Christians make China home to the world's seventh-largest Christian population. China's approximately 25 million Muslims constitute the world's 17th largest Muslim population, right after Saudi Arabia (# 16) and before Yemen (#18).

And China has the world's second largest shares of people who belong to faiths in the "other religion" category (16%), many of whom are adherents of Taoism. The World Religion Database estimates there are more than 8 million Taoists worldwide.

China's economic success would not have been possible had the country kept religion and other forms of identity completely suppressed. [In the interview, I] said, "I'm not making the argument that religious freedom was what launched the country's economic success, but if draconian restrictions on religion and other things had not been lifted, the level of success we see today would not have been attained."

Indeed, solving China's religious hostilities problem not only will pay dividends for social harmony, but also in helping to consolidate and mature the economic advances of the past decades.

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