04/03/2018, 15.27
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White Paper on Religions: Beijing defends itself

by Bernardo Cervellera

The 8 thousand character text  was printed in Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish and Arabic. Presented today at a press conference. Many intellectual acrobatics on the defense of believers and ban on Party members from following a religion; restrictions for foreigners; believers “choice” for independence and self-management. Unlikely statistics: faithful of the official communities only ones considered. Little "objectivity" and "scientificity".

Rome (AsiaNews) - The State Council Information Office today released a "White Paper" on religions, or rather on "Chinese policy regarding the practice and safeguarding of religious freedom". The 8 thousand character text was printed in Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish and Arabic. It highlights "important progress in guaranteeing religious freedom" in the country, highlighting the implementation of policies, legal guarantees, the "orderly manner" with which religious activities are expressed, the role of religious communities in society.

The text was presented at a press conference, attended by Chen Zongrong, former deputy director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA); Xiao Hong, former SARA spokesman; Xia Yanchun, spokesperson for the State Council Information Office.

The presentation of the White Paper came a few days from SARA’s demolition and absorption into the United Front, allowing for a closer control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of religious affairs.

At first glance, there seems to be no major change in policies or religious control. Following the press conference, one can note however a certain tone of esteem from Chen Zongrong, in defining China "a multireligious country since ancient times" and religion in general as "a universal social phenomenon in the human society", without the Marxist idiom of tradition that defined religious experience as "opium of the masses", to be eliminated and overcome.

The White Paper states instead that China maintains the principle that "religions must be Chinese in orientation" and that "active guidance" is provided for them, so that they "can adapt to socialist society". The "active guidance" is a slogan of Xi Jinping, reiterated at the CPC Congress last October and at the National People's Congress in March. It is also a principle of the new Regulations on religious activities which make this "active guide" the tool for total control of every action of believers at every level of the state organigram.

For the rest, the text is full of soft intellectual acrobatics that fail to hide the hard reality. For example, there is the naive (?) Statement that "no State organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion, according to the Constitution". But the first discriminating factor is precisely the CCP, which for years has been preaching that members can not adhere to any religion even in private not even after they retire. Not to mention the "preferences" for the recruitment of Party cadres, rather than good professionals, without a CCP id.

Another form of intellectual acrobatics is found when it comes to the religious freedom of foreigners in Chinese territory. Foreigners have freedom to go to temples, churches, mosques, but within "Chinese laws and regulations". This means that they are not free to meet any religious person, but only those who participate in official and registered communities.

The religious expression of foreigners must be "authorized": they shall not establish religious organizations, set up religious offices and sites for religious activities, run religious institutions, or recruit foreign students studying in China without authorization; nor shall they recruit followers, appoint clerical personnel from among Chinese citizens or engage in other missionary activities.

Finally, there are the intellectual acrobatics - a bit ridiculous - that religions in China have always been "peaceful" and "in harmony". The White Paper states: "Religious conflict and confrontation have rarely been seen in China since the introduction of Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism over the past 2,000 years... The state and society have kept an open mind towards the different religions and popular beliefs".

 It is important to remember that often the emperors - from the Tang to the Qing – pitted one religion against the other, using one or the other for political reasons or alliance with foreign states ... Without forgetting the period of Mao and the Cultural Revolution in which the Party attempted to annihilate every religious expression.

Another "historical forgery" is when the White Paper says that "the principle of independence and autonomy is a historic choice made by believers of Chinese religions in the struggle that the Chinese people have engaged for national independence and social progress". In fact, all religions have resisted the control and rupture with the communities of other followers worldwide. And in the Catholic Church of the 1950s, dozens of bishops agreed to spend long years in the concentration camps, rather than adhere to the Party's "patriotic and independentist" claims.

However what elicits most skepticism is the list of statistics on religions. And this despite Chen Zongrong claiming an "objective" and "scientific" view of religions and believers.

According to the White Paper, there are five (recognized) religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. They gather 200 million faithful and are served by 380 thousand priests, imams, pastors, etc.

The statistics that the White Paper gives regarding Catholics and Protestants (6 million and 30 million, respectively) reveal the defect: it bases its calculations only on official communities, although every religion in China has an unofficial dimension. For Catholics, there are estimated at least 6 million underground faithful; for the Protestants about 60 million.

If you add underground Buddhists - many groups and associations that hide under "cultural" appearances - or Taoists, the number of believers in China should exceed 500 million, not counting those who believe in some supernatural element.

Hence the flaw in the White Paper is clear: it is not an attempt to draw up a map of religions, but to convince the world that the only religions that exist in China are the official ones, allowed by the CCP. For it, religion is a concession from the top of political power, not an innate dimension of man, Chinese or foreign.

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