The State and the faith

In contravention of its constitution, China does not encourage ‘freedom of belief’

G Parthasarathy
former diplomat 

CONDEMNING the role of religion, Karl Marx proclaimed: ‘Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless creature, the soul of soulless conditions, it is the opium of the people.’ While echoing Marx, Lenin claimed that religion is used for the ‘protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class’. The State structure that Lenin created in the Soviet Union was ultimately a Russian-dominated oligarchy, which collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. While Soviet leaders, from Lenin and Stalin to Brezhnev and Gorbachev, decried religious beliefs and practices, the Russian Orthodox Church, patronised by Putin, today plays an important role in Russia’s national life. The Muslim-dominated Soviet Central Asian republics are today members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), each with its own distinct Muslim identity. 

Beijing’s political evolution has been different from that of Moscow, ever since Mao’s Communist Revolution. Mao’s beliefs in ‘Proletarian Internationalism’ and a brotherhood of communist states was shaken when he was cold-shouldered by Stalin, who met Indian envoy Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in December 1949, even as Mao was waiting in Leningrad to meet the Soviet supremo. The two ‘fraternal’ communist giants soon developed serious differences, resulting in clashes across a disputed border. Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and others later exploited these differences. Even fellow communist countries like Vietnam and Cambodia were on opposite sides of the Sino-Soviet divide. 

While China clamped down on those it considered as separatists in Tibet, it adopted more sophisticated and nuanced policies on religious beliefs than the Soviets, especially after Mao’s  Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Any credible claims that China had about being a Communist State monopolising the levers of business, trade and industry ended when Deng Xiaoping dumped all pretentions of being Marxist. Deng opened China’s doors for both private and foreign investment in business and industries. He ended years of Maoist dogma, while empowering a new Communist Party elite with its own share of millionaires. Deng’s reforms led to four decades of economic growth unparalleled in history, even while remaining a one-party state, dealing harshly with dissent.

China controls religious activity and has dealt ruthlessly with separatism. There has been a massive effort to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist shrines, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. But this approach was missing in the cruel approach China adopted, when it trampled on the rights of followers of Semitic faiths, Islam and Christianity. Its predominantly Sunni Muslim population is estimated at around 22 million. It is spread across the country, but is principally in its western regions like Xinjiang, bordering Central Asia. The intolerance shown to Muslims has evoked international outrage. More than a million Uighur Muslims have been detained and herded into camps, as part of China’s policy of rooting out ‘extremists’. This action followed a series of terrorist attacks commencing in 2014 by radical Uighur separatists. 

There are also reports of attempts by China to ‘de-Islamise’ its Uighur population by a ban on women wearing veils, Muslim names for babies and on long beards for men. People are compelled to listen to state-run television stations. There are also reports of Muslims under detention being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Such reports are reaching the outside world from countries like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Large numbers of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, forced out of Xinjiang, have carried details of such persecution. 

The deafening silence of the 53-member OIC, which pontificates regularly on incidents of alleged persecution of Muslims across the world, has been noted internationally. This silence is not surprising. Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan have looked the other way, evidently out of fear of adverse Chinese reaction. While the US Congress and some European powers have drawn attention to these developments, not a single Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development member has called for any action. One can’t help noticing the contrast between such silence on Xinjiang and the rhetoric on the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

The situation that Christians face in China is somewhat different. Their population is estimated to be 65 million, while the Muslim population is 21.67 million. The Christian population has grown substantially after the Mao era and the adoption of the 1982 constitution. While church worship continues (under surveillance), the Pope has been given limited authority on issues concerning appointments, practices and services.  Though the constitution guarantees ‘freedom of religious belief’, the freedom is severely limited. While millions in China adopt and respect historical Taoist practices and Confucian edicts, China also has a large Buddhist population, estimated at around 260 million. Curbing religious freedoms is going to become more difficult with the passage of time, as even now about 130 million Chinese undertake visits abroad as tourists annually. 

The global population of Buddhists is around 540 million. The majority of Buddhists live in East, Southeast and South Asia. Tourists from East and Southeast Asia are regarded as high-spending visitors. The time has come for India to seek political, spiritual, cultural and economic dividends by virtue of being the land where the Buddha was born and attained nirvana. Sadly, our tourism facilities are regarded as unsatisfactory. Is it not time for us to work together with China, Japan and others interested to develop better tourist facilities in the land of the Buddha, where they can fulfil their spiritual aspirations?

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