Don't Blame Communism
In recent years, Western media and scholarship have been ablaze with criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) oppressive ruling tactics, particularly of religious organizations. Unfortunately, much of this Western analysis fails to contextualize the CCP’s behavior—the current reporting is ahistorical to a fault.
The AP reported this week that the Beijing authorities detained “illegal church members” on Easter as part of a widespread clampdown on unregistered religious organizations that “could challenge Communist authority.” While this is all true, it leaves most readers with the mistaken impression that Communism is responsible for the periodic crackdowns, government manipulation, and general harassment religions in China face. Last month, The Huffington Post’s Michael Levy confused the issue even further by blaming the CCP-written Chinese Constitution for advocating state meddling in spiritual affairs. On the prominent religious-issues website religioustolerance.org, the entry about religious intolerance in China begins: “The Chinese government has relentlessly suppressed religious groups since achieving power in 1949.”
To blame the anti-religious stance of the Chinese ruling class on Communism, however, is simply to ignore history. The Nationalist government (1928-1949) had many similarities with its Communist successor. Chinese historian Rebecca Nedostup’s recent book, Superstitious Regimes, details the Nationalist government’s brutal campaigns against “superstition” and various “religious institutions” during the Nanjing Decade (1928-1937).” Just as an example, Buddhist and Daoist temples were shut down while monks were attacked for being “unproductive” members of society. The monk lifestyle was widely seen as economic exploitation of gullible peasants and a sign of national “backwardness.”
Even before the Nationalists came to power, mainstream Chinese elites were strongly anti-religious. Religion scholar Wing-tsit Chan writes that this anti-religious wave reached a “climax in 1922 in the activities of the Great Federation of Anti-Religionists.” The “Great Federation denounced religion as poison” and mobilized anti-religious protests by students and professors in Shanghai and Beijing. Most of these anti-religionists were not Communists. As we can see, much of China’s ruling class has viewed religion as inherently threatening to state power for at least a century. Some scholars would argue for longer.
None of this history is groundbreaking for China scholars, but I certainly raise eyebrows among my classmates (including the Chinese ones) by suggesting Communism is not the source of all of the Chinese state’s ills. Given the constant stream of negative articles about the CCP’s brutality in the past few years, it is not hard to see why this is the prevailing view. Instead of teaching readers something new about Chinese society, news articles about religion in China hammer in misperceptions. People tend not to remember the details of how many Christians were arrested in which province and for what reason; all that sticks is the misleading notion that Communism is continuing its assault on religion in China.
The ideological source of this anti-religious stance is not Communism, but the modernizing drives of the early 1900s. Elites expressed deep-seated dissatisfaction with the faltering Qing Dynasty’s response to encroaching imperial powers and demanded fundamental change. While some of the early 1900s modernizers and reformers were Communists, others identified with Nationalism, Confucianism, or something else entirely. What they shared was the belief that Chinese society had to be ideologically and spiritually revolutionized to compete with Western powers. It was this intellectual impulse toward modernization that consolidated into the anti-religious stance of the 1920s.
I understand, of course, that every New York Times article cannot have a 700-word op-ed at the bottom explaining how readers should historicize the CCP’s violent tactics. Much more, however, can be done. I think that a great journalist not only reports the news, but also strives to identify and challenge misperceptions the public has about the world. This mission is doubly important for issues of intercultural understanding where one society is understood through the culturally-tinted lens of the other’s media. This is not a defense of the Chinese Communists, but a plea that we understand why they behave the way they do.
Chris J. Carothers’11 is a Social Studies concentrator in Eliot House. He wrote his thesis on religion in China.