JI Zhe: “In China, religions are again stigmatised. »

- through Fabrice Groult

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Despite a relative liberalization of its policy towards religions, notably Buddhism, the Chinese state continues to want to subject them to the power of the Communist Party. The tightening of its control has accelerated further since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, explains JI Zhe, professor of sociology at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations (Inalco) and specialist in Buddhism in contemporary China. .

What percentage of the Chinese population claims, today, a religious affiliation, all religions combined?

Surveys carried out in recent years among the population point out that approximately 30% of adults declare that they have a religious belief. That is about 300 million believers. Nevertheless, some traditional religions do not require a clear and exclusive identity. In addition, some individuals, although engaging in practices, do not claim religious affiliation. The recognition of a religious identity remains, even today, something delicate. I am convinced that a larger proportion of the population than those revealed by these surveys is influenced, both in its practices and spiritually, by religions.

The Buddhists would be the first religious group?

This is indeed what these surveys show. There would be between one hundred and two hundred million Buddhists in China. Buddhism ranks, in terms of numbers, at the top of the five institutional religions recognized by the State, namely Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. Since Taoism is less institutionalized and less denominational than other religions, it is difficult to know the exact number of its followers.

Can we speak of a revival of Buddhism in China?

There has indeed been a revival of all religions in China since the 1980s. After the repression of the Maoist period, the country proceeded, in the 1980s, to a relative liberalization of its religious policy. The population then began to have more freedom to affirm its beliefs and practices.

These developments are due in particular to the fact that the State has become aware, with the gradual discrediting of the utopian “grand narrative” of communist society, that individuals need to find meaning in their lives in a society in transition. The institutional environment, politics and economics also played a role in making this religious revival possible.

The political power chose, in the post-Maoist era, to use religions – Buddhism in particular – rather than repressing them. Economic growth allowed the clergy to benefit from donations which assured them economic autonomy and independence. Due to globalization and the circulation of people and information, we can now observe a significant movement of exchanges between the Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean Buddhist communities in particular, which has contributed to ensuring additional legitimacy for the Buddhists.

This revival of religions has also resulted in the reconstruction and reopening of thousands of monasteries and temples and in the increase in the number of members of the clergy. Official statistics, published in 2016, show 140 authorized religious sites in which 000 religious provide service. Religious festivals have, for their part, reappeared in the form of folklore since the beginning of the 360s. We finally observe a diffusion of Buddhist religious symbols and discourses in the individual sphere through literature, television programs and cinema.

The year 1989, after the repression of the demonstrations in Tian An Men Square and of the democratic movement, seems to mark a turning point in the way in which the power apprehends the religious phenomenon...

1989 was indeed a historic turning point. The communist ideology having completely lost its credit, economic growth and nationalism then became the two main points of support for the regime to maintain its legitimacy. However, it turned out that Buddhism could play an important role in these two domains. On the tourist level first since most of the religious sites of this tradition correspond to the most frequented destinations. The state no longer hesitates to use religion to promote its economic and political interests as long as its social mobilization does not threaten the stability of the regime. This, especially since the Buddhist authorities have shown that they willingly agree to collaborate with the regime. These are now often called upon to show their support for the regime, in international dialogues in particular, but also on the occasion of agreements concerning Taiwan and Hong Kong, for example. Buddhism thus became economically and politically very useful to the regime. This evolution generated a new form of secularization of this religion which resulted in the appropriation and the use of the symbolic capitals of Buddhism by the political power.

Has Buddhism become an instrument of population control?

No, not really. But certain bodies, such as the official association of Buddhism, can nevertheless be perceived as a tool of control over Buddhist populations.

What has changed in religious matters since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012?

Politics has changed on all lines since he came to power. There is less and less space dedicated to public manifestations of religions. An example: since the 1990s, Buddhist monasteries and temples frequently organized summer camps and summer camps for the benefit of different social groups and age groups, young people in particular. It was an effective way of spreading Buddhist thought. In 2019, almost all of these summer camps and summer camps were banned. Religion – Buddhism like other traditions – is like this again. stigmatized. In universities, teacher-researchers are now finding it difficult to publish their research in this field.

“The objective of the World Forum on Buddhism is to create a Buddhist universe under the control of the Communist Party by excluding all forces deemed hostile, the faithful and allies of the Dalai Lama in particular. It is a manifestation of the soft power of the communist regime. »

The government is also trying to strengthen its control both over the personnel of the monasteries and over their financing. New accounting measures have been implemented to control the use made of this financing. The monasteries, moreover, are now unable to send their money abroad. A very strict control is also exerted on the personnel. While appointments of abbots are always subject to government approval, in recent years the government has carried out an extensive program of identification and registration of all clerics.

What is the role of the World Forum on Buddhism which is held every three years under the control of the Chinese Communist Party?

The objective of this forum is to create a Buddhist universe under the control of the Communist Party by excluding all forces deemed hostile, the faithful and the allies of the Dalai Lama. It is a manifestation of the soft power of the communist regime. It is also a diplomatic tool aimed at somehow “buying” certain participants. The Communist Party thus adopts a “united front” strategy, making a temporary alliance with the second enemy against the first enemy. “Domestic” Buddhists are not friends of the Communist Party. But they are not their most feared enemy either. Once again, Buddhism is considered as being able to be “used” on the political level by the power.

What is the objective of the so-called policy of sinicization of religions put in place by Xi Jinping?

This terminology is very strange. How can we further sinicize Buddhism and Taoism? I think that this policy rather targets Christianity, Islam and Tibetan Buddhism, which are considered by the Xi Jinping government as foreign religions. However, this cannot directly and specifically target such and such a religion. The rules must apply to all religions. This so-called sinicization policy took the form of ridiculous practices. We can now hear monks and nuns sing communist songs, and also observe national flag raising ceremonies in many monasteries. This alleged Sinicization has nothing to do with Chinese culture. It is rather a question of a politicization of the religious sphere, of a desire to submit religion entirely to the control of the Communist Party.

Article 36 of the Chinese constitution, however, evokes a freedom of religious belief. Should we not rather speak of tolerance than of religious freedom?

We still observe, despite repression, a form of tolerance towards religions. A total ban on religions would create problems that are impossible to solve given the millions of believers in China. This tolerance is not linked to the application of the Constitutional Act. The Communist Party manages the country with the primary objective of stability of the regime and the permanence of the Communist Party's monopoly on power. In truth, the policy towards religion is based neither on law nor on ideology, but on the will of power and on pragmatic and utilitarian calculations. A simplistic reading of the religious situation based on legal texts or any other type of formal norm must be avoided. Relations between state and religion remain extremely complicated in China. There are conflicts, as evidenced by the 1999 crackdown on the Falun Gong movement (a religious movement that grew out of the craze for Qigong, a popular practice promoting health and well-being), following a protest that he had organized in front of the Chinese Communist Party headquarters in Beijing. But there are also negotiations and mutual uses.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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