China is again in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Highlighted by the detention of artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel-laureate Liu Xiaobo, the past few months have seen what Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner recently called a “serious backsliding” of human rights.
Even with China’s growing clout on the world stage, human rights abuses do have consequences. Reports of secret detentions, censorship of the Internet, and intimidation of foreign journalists continue to harm the image of China’s “peaceful rise,” and stoke fears of what a rising China means for the world.
Nothing damages China’s image more than its suppression of religion. The Dalai Lama wields greater international influence than any of China’s domestic critics, due in no small part to his image as a spiritual figure. China’s persecution of “house churches,” underground communities of Christians that gather in small home meetings, remains a significant irritant to relations with the United States. Sometimes the policies themselves backfire spectacularly. In 1999, China moved aggressively to suppress a relatively obscure new age movement called Falungong. But rather than destroying the group, this campaign ended up launching Falungong to global prominence.
Why does China pursue a policy towards religion that costs it so dearly in terms of international image? Some observers assume that the governing regime is simply ideologically fragile to the point of paranoia, and too accustomed to taking a sledgehammer to any and all public security problems. There is certainly some truth to such an idea, particularly as far as its political critics are concerned. But China’s leaders certainly know that throwing the weight of the state security apparatus against Tibetan monks or elderly Christians makes for fairly awful public relations, and it is worth our time to think about why they would consider such actions worth the bad press they inevitably bring.
What is easily forgotten when considering Chinese policy today is that for millennia, China was a profoundly religious state. Two centuries before Rome became an empire, China’s Han dynasty had already tied itself to the idealistic rhetoric of Confucianism — the idea that personal morality is the ultimate source of political authority. For six centuries — from the 1300s until the last emperor was dethroned in 1911 — the texts and ideals of Confucius were not only synonymous with civilized culture, they were also the foundation of actual government — court ritual, the official bureaucracy, and the extensive code of laws were all grounded in Confucianism.
China conducted diplomacy with neighboring courts in Korea, Siam, Vietnam and Burma through the language of Confucian moral hierarchy. Officially at least, the Chinese emperor was unique in the world, and regarded lesser kings of neighboring states as something akin to junior partners. Foreign diplomats were to approach the Chinese emperor as humble servants coming to pay tribute to a cultural and moral superior. China took this aspect of diplomacy very seriously. A severe breach of protocol could spark a real crisis. Japan severed diplomatic contact with China for most of two centuries rather than accepting even the appearance of subservient status. Disagreements over terminology and protocol repeatedly derailed the crucial moments of diplomacy between China and Britain in the years before the Opium War.
But some of these same Confucian emperors also carried on a double life as Buddhist monarchs. The Qianlong emperor, who ruled for most of the 1700s, took this Confucian hierarchy deeply to heart, and without question saw his own august self as the greatest of the world’s rulers. At the same time, Qianlong was also the center of a distinct but equally coherent system of Buddhist diplomacy, one based on the ideal of enlightened “wheel turning” kings who would advance the progress of the Buddha’s teaching throughout the world.
During China’s middle ages, a time when Confucianism had fallen out of political favor, it was Buddhism that served as the language of international relations. Buddhist exchanges created and strengthened alliances between kingdoms across northern China, the Korean peninsula and Japan. Even after Confucianism had supplanted political Buddhism in East Asia, political Buddhism remained vibrant in Central Asia, where incarnated Buddhas and lamas held real power, and supported a succession of Mongol khans who ruled as wheel turning kings. Later dynasties, especially the territorially vast Qing, spanned these two worlds. Emperors like Qianlong ruled their Chinese subjects as Confucian monarchs, but in their dealings with the lamaist belt of Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria, they skillfully employed the idiom of Buddhist kingship.
The point is that for centuries, Chinese politics were deeply grounded in religion — sometimes more than one at a time. Religion was part of the government — it was never intended to be independent. Religions that were not tethered to state control were banned by law, and persecuted without mercy.
It is not difficult to see the influence of this long history on religious policy in China today. While Communist Party members are themselves supposed to be atheist, ordinary citizens are allowed to practice religion within certain strict parameters. The Chinese government recognizes Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity and Islam (it does not consider Confucianism a religion), but these official religions are essentially branches of the government, rather than independent organizations. As the successor of the imperial state, the current Chinese government claims for itself the authority to name religious leaders, including the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. Conversely, it rejects the authority of the Vatican to appoint bishops for the Catholic Church in China (which has anywhere from six to twelve million members, depending on who is doing the counting). As a result, both Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Catholics have two sets of leaders, one set appointed by Beijing, and another shadow clergy chosen outside China’s borders. Unsanctioned religions — like the house churches or Falungong — are still perceived as a direct threat to public order, and treated accordingly.
What many international observers who call for China to embrace religious freedom fail to appreciate is that religion in China has never been treated as a matter of personal choice. It’s hard to imagine that the current regime would suddenly start to view things differently.
The Himpunan Sejuta Umat (Himpun), or Gathering of a Million Faithful, is being organised by various right-wing groups such as Perkasa with the backing of both Umno and PAS Youth in what appears to be a coming together of conservative Muslims.
The planned rally against Christians “challenging the sovereignty of Islam” this Saturday could raise religious tension that has intensified in recent months after allegations of proselytism of Muslims by Christians.
Today, Selangor PAS deputy commissioner Khalid Samad said his party was “worried” about the true purpose of the gathering, and stressed that it should focus on addressing real threats faced by Muslims instead of pitting the country’s main religions against one another.
“We are not happy with the noticeable trends and directions (of the gathering). We want an assurance that it will not be used to incite religious, racial tension,” he told The Malaysian Insider.
The Shah Alam MP added that Selangor PAS has not decided whether to take part in the event.
“We’ve not said yes, we’ve not said no. We’ve set some conditions in which we will agree to participate — [such as] if the gathering truly focuses on problems affecting the Muslim faith, and not blaming another faith,” said Khalid.
He said Selangor PAS will make a decision in a few days’ time, and that the national leadership will also discuss the matter during the party’s political bureau meeting tomorrow night.
About 1,000 Facebook users have confirmed their attendance to the event
With ethnic tensions already rising in the years following the 2008 general election, it could raise already simmering fears of growing Islamisation among non-Muslims and more liberal Malays.
In a video promoting the gathering, Himpun said “There is no other choice but to rally Muslims”.
Distrust between Muslims and Christians peaked when the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) raided the Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) in Petaling Jaya on August 3, claiming there was ongoing proselytisation of Muslims.
This came after repeated disputes between Christians and Muslims, such as the legal battle over the use of the word Allah to refer to the Christian god.
A December 31, 2009 court ruling allowing the Catholic Church to use the term Allah in its newspaper had led to places of worship being firebombed in January last year.
The government also buckled under pressure and ordered the release of Malay-language bibles seized before Sarawakians, half of whom are Christians, voted in the April 16 state polls.
Before the Jais raid, Umno’s Utusan Malaysia and Malay rights lobby Perkasa accused the DAP of conspiring to turn Malaysia into a Christian state.
Although DUMC has denied Jais’ claims, Utusan Malaysia fanned the flames with allegations that Christian groups in Kuala Lumpur and Johor were actively trying to convert Muslims.
Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah appeared to close the case last week when decreeing that although Jais had found evidence of attempts to subvert Muslims, it was “insufficient” for further legal action.
But Himpun has insisted on following through with its plans to “measure the level of unity and spirit of togetherness among Muslims especially towards Christianisation efforts including the August 3 incident.”
Recent years have seen communal politics being stirred up after the landmark Election 2008 — the stiffest contest in Malaysian history.
With Barisan Nasional (BN) losing its customary two-thirds hold on Parliament and five state governments, several political leaders have retreated into racial silos to drum up support.
A Merdeka Center poll in June found that only 66 per cent of respondents said ethnic relations were “good” — a 15 per cent decline from the 78 per cent who said so five years ago.
The opinion researchers also found that just over a third believed that there was “sincere and friendly ethnic unity,” down from 54 per cent five years ago.
On a recent 1,800 km cruise down Russian rivers and lakes to Moscow, visiting churches and historic sights (sponsored by various university alumnae), the most persuasive of several distinguished lecturers on things Russian was Larry Black, a Carleton University professor and founding director of the Centre for Research on Canadians-Russian Relations.
Appealing about Prof. Black was his realization that “experts” on Russia’s (and before that, the Soviet Union’s) politics and future were often calamitously wrong. Black is cautious, informal, immensely knowledgeable and acutely aware that until something actually happens in Russia, it’s best not to make categorical assumptions.
Those with memories might recollect that until the Soviet Union imploded and crashed, “experts” thought it was invulnerable. Before that, on the eve of Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964, experts were proclaiming that “his mantle of power was never more secure…”
In Russia, parliamentary elections are due on Dec. 4, with the presidential election in March. There is even a move in Russia to make it a parliamentary democracy, which may be the future, but not quite now. The big news in Russia, for those who care, is that Vladimir Putin is again running for president — a role he’s held twice before, until the constitution declared twice was enough. He then switched to prime minister for a term, and is now eligible for two more terms as president, with each term extended to six years.
That means Putin is likely to be in the job until 2024.
The present president, Dmitry Medvedev, (who has a more distinguished administrative record than Putin) is likely to be the PM. The pair have a sort of Tweedledum and Tweedledee relationship that works well.
(Blog continues after slideshow)
It’s hard to see Putin losing in the election — 315 of 450 seats in the Duma are held by the conservative United Russia party which supports Putin and Medvedev. Although the popularity of United Russia has dropped from 64 per cent in 2007 to 40 per cent last May, there’s no other party that is likely to govern.
Oddly, as described by Black, the president of Russia belongs to no party — but United Russia is (or has been) his. As something of a macho, dynamic individual, the great achievement of Putin after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was to restore the rule of law amid the economic and political chaos that afflicted liberated Russia.
One never knows, but it’s unlikely Medvedev will challenge Putin’s bid for the presidency. And Dmitry Rogozin, leader of Russia’s extremist nationalist party, Rodina, seems on the verge of throwing in with United Russia to ensure Putin’s return to power — with possibly himself destined to be deputy speaker.
We in North America tend to forget (if we ever know) that Russia is Europe’s second biggest economy. It’s also the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas — probably more than the rest of the world combined.
China now buys all its gas from Russia. It has more hydro power than the rest of the world combined, has the largest land space and 25 per cent of the world’s unfrozen water. Russia has 31 nuclear reactors and a severe labour shortage. Its potential is limitless.
What Russia has that we haven’t to the same extent, is Islamic terrorism.
We hear little about Russia’s continuing war against terror — maybe a thousand terror incidents a year, most of them by Chechen extremists. Our media tends to the view that Russia (and before that the USSR) is oppressive and at fault in Chechnya.
What isn’t widely realized that after the first Chechnya war (1992-96), Russia agreed to a treaty and to study the question of separation. Russian people didn’t give a damn. Chechnya was at the bottom of then country, and who cared? Something could be worked out. Chechnya won.
The second Chechnya war was started in 1999 by an Islamic terrorist called Shamil Basayev — a homicidal jihadist who was against the existing Chechnya government and wanted Sharia law imposed, favoured foreigners being killed and, indeed, has hoisted heads impaled on pikes.
Shamil was responsible for the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage incident that resulted in 170 deaths; he engineered the Beslan school massacre in 2004 of 380 people — 190 of them children; his people were behind the suicide bombing of a hospital that killed 33.
Basayev was apparently killed in an explosion, but another terrorist, Doku Umarov is carrying on the terror program — killing 46 in a Moscow metro bombing last year, and 36 killed earlier this year when Chechen jihadists shot up Domodedova airport. (Security at that airport is still nervous and intense — three sets of electronic scannings for passengers).
Today most Russians would gladly see all Chechens killed.
The first Chechnya war was nationalistic, the second was Islamist, involving Saudis.
Russia’s war against Islamic terrorism begs the question why it seems to side with Iran against U.S. interests, and opposed the air war against Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi. Why is Russia sympathetic towards Hamas and Hezbollah?
Who knows? Maybe it’s another example of Churchill’s observation that Russia is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma… perhaps the key is Russian national interest.”
Perhaps indeed — one the Larry Black and others constantly probe.