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Country of Gods

Mar
29
2007

There are whisperings among elites in the capital that China’s top Communist, President Hu Jintao, has closet Buddhist leanings. Hu’s vast cast of sagacious advisors have included a Living Buddha or two, according to the rumor, and he’s consulted sacred texts. Some colleagues whom I’ve run the rumor by laugh it off as just that – rumor. It does seem a contradiction in terms; this stiff a believer?

Then again, though, much about China, historically and today, can appear to us contradictory. These are topsy-turvy times as well. Everywhere. America, for all its buffering between church and state, is only now faced with its first Congressperson to own up to aestheism (Rep. Pete Stark, D-California, a Unitarian in fact). Wouldn’t it be would be a dandy moment for a “rising China” to be steered by cadres of a higher faith? Beijing says it’s far from ready for democracy. But in some ways it’s engaging a boom in spirituality – both the old world kind and the new-age. This comes at a time when Hu’s party could use a moral lift, to sustain its authority.

Hu personally doesn’t seem the soul-searching type, mind you. He lets on so little about his life that lifelessness has become a signature trait. Molded by the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, he’s a stickler for order and discipline. Having severed himself from family roots among the exploiter classes, some accounts allege, he’s been a no-show for years at his ancestral graves. The corruption purges and censorship of his administration make him look quite the control freak. Oh, and speaking of control, Hu put down a pro-democracy uprising in Tibet while posted there in 1989. All of which would make him seem unlikely to bask in the Light of the Buddha.

Hu’s emergent political thinking is more enlightened, however. As a strategist he pursues the zhong yong zhi dao, the “middle-road” or “happy mean” (中庸之道) of ancient Chinese statecraft, building consensus among potential adversaries and counterbalancing vastly divergent interests in the country’s path to preserve the central government’s stable grip. His ideological platform, meanwhile, has taken a truly evangelical tilt. Hu has commanded society to abide by “eight virtues and eight vices”, an ascetic code of old-school Party ethics (Number Four: “Be diligent; not indolent”). And Hu has pinned his theoretical legacy on the “harmonious society”, which invokes both Confucian and dharmic ideals of a utopian “Great Harmony” (大同).
So for a party idealogue, Hu’s ideological tent is very big. Under it, the government hosted an international Buddhist forum in Hangzhou last year. And the state’s flagship TV network has made a spectacle of deaf-mute dancers called the “thousand-hand Bodhisattva” – after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – a hit of their carefully choreographed Chinese New Year’s gala. Token gestures, yes, but key clues as well perhaps as to Hu’s sympathies.

So says a well-connected family friend. “Look at his face, how emotionless it is,” she said, referring to Hu’s visage on TV during annual legislative meetings held earlier this month. “How else do you think he withstands all the pressures?”

And perhaps she ought to know. She once published puff pieces about party elites at a Chinese magazine. Now in business, she does work on the side as an intermediary between the authorities and rich businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan. They come to her urgently seeking help: to secure deeds to land in central Beijing, say, or to honorary guanxi posts in the consultative body to parliament. For her troubles she receives substantial compensation, plus bottles of truly vile red wine with the exclusive label of the Great Hall of People.

Regardless of what Hu is or isn’t, it’s important to ask how, pray, could a Chinese leader today think of rising above the world of Red Dust. The party’s only acknowledged faith remains Communism, of course, its cousin “-isms,” and Chinese leaders’ spins of applied Thought and Theory. But officially, no faith can supersede that in the Party rule itself, which is really an act of Darwinian reasoning: The Party evolves to survive whatever challenges may arise (making it relatively nimble, as autocracies go).

And to unify pre-1949 belief systems under its rule, the party religious policy has long accommodated official churches and other religious orders and tolerated a few small air pockets of free worship. Despite the Mao years and campaigns against spiritual pollution, plain folk and officials alike have clung to kitchen gods and neighborhood temples, ancestral rites, fortune-tellers and fengshui. Former leader Jiang Zemin, for one, reportedly has. But anything big and organized beyond the party’s oversight is prone to being struck down. House churches are illegal, proselytizing to non-believers forbidden. For a lay Chinese leader to come out as an open “theist”, in short, would be political heresy.
Still, the same has always been said of the designation “capitalist”. And over the past couple decades, the Party has tacitly converted the country to capitalism. The passage of a law to protect private property rights during an annual legislative meeting this month, in the minds of party critics and western analysts, has made the conversion official.

Why not a similarly coded and coy spiritual conversion? Fact is, China’s newfound pursuit of wealth over the past quarter century has never been as blind as it’s come off. From the early days, it yielded massive demand for forms of salvation, a market only slaked by the lack of political and legal guarantees. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, as the initial shift to market forces of competition and corruption presented an ice-breaking shock to people’s social and economic values, the calls of almighty forces rang loudest with the have-nots who most jeopardized social stability. Poor peasants put faith in underground church movements. Members of the proletariat, including some civil servants, took up Falun Gong. Officialdom, unable to deal nicely, brutalized and brainwashed them.

But that was then. Now, according to a recent poll by academics at Shanghai’s East China Normal University, China may be home to as many as 300 million religious adherents – far more than estimated in recent times, and over four times the membership of the Communist Party. They are predominately Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims and Christians – including the uncounted tens of millions of underground Jesus followers.

The question is whether the mushrooming of these communities represent a net loss of socioeconomic stability to the party, or rather – as with capitalism – a net gain in power and authority. Persecution and harassment sadly persists. But in mainstream society, tolerance and respect are growing too. Recently, a TV icon from the 1980’s named Chen Xiaoxu gave up running the multi-million dollar advertising company she founded and took herself to a nunnery (rumors have it that she’s had breast cancer). Her husband followed, making off to a monastery. And the couple’s decision was dinner talk across the country. On a provincial TV talk show one night this month, I watched with fascination as the guests, like much of China’s raucous entertainment media, showered compassion upon the apparent act of faith.

Even the house church movement, while a tight-knit support system for the repressed, usually appears to be more a bunker of withdrawal than a launching pad of confrontation. Its fastest growth market might not be the peasants or dissidents you hear so much about but white-collared urbanites, for whom the Holy Son is source of weekend solace. I’ve attended a couple of elegaic white weddings, replete with Chinese Christian choruses.

Call it “Enlightenment 2.0,” if you will. It’s a greater spiritual mix for a more pluralistic, materially advanced, urbanized society. The upper crust are now turned on as easily as the under-classes. It may be another moral reaction to a socio-political order, but it is not exactly a crusade against that order. In its basest form, it is just taken on a commercial component.

This is most evident in the revival of the great Chinese traditions of moral philosophy: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Such tools of cultivation once conferred moral authority upon China’s emperor-sages, the sons of Heaven, and in turn were also tools of hierarchical control. For this the Communist Party branded them “feudal”. But today, in a “harmonious society”, they flood the market in gimmicky packages. So-called “Confucius Institutes” sponsored by the government are cropping up at high schools and universities worldwide, teaching foreigners Mandarin and perhaps bit of Chinese culture. State television talk shows are reinterpreting the canon of Chinese philosophy and literature with a post-modern twist. China’s biggest intellectual pop sensation at the moment is a Beijing Normal University media scholar named Yu Dan, who references Confucius, Laozi and Zhuangzi in expounding how people can work together and accept one another. Confucius says: androgyny is okay. So says Yu Dan. Many intellectuals have since denounced her a crackpot. But with books, DVD’s, lecture tours, and prime-time show on national TV, she’s become a one-woman empire in a matter of months. Authorities have yet to express serious concern.

Per capita, the most well-off faith in China might be the Baha’i, whose following is very small but in Beijing includes some well-known muckety-mucks of high society. They obviously take literalist view on Hu’s internationalist gospel of a “harmonious world”.

Sort of at the other extreme, well-to-do city folk are dabbling in holistic therapies aimed at unlocking the individual. (Full disclosure: my wife is a serious customer). Helping people find themselves implies releasing them from the daily pressures of commercial society; from the constraints of traditional family values; and from the repressed pains and anxieties left by the Cultural Revolution, the one-child policy, and so on. The outspoken rhetoric and underlying issues sound quite sensitive. But the classes are well-couched in a pre-existing market for “coaching” and self-improvement. They attract house wives and businessmen. People keep them private and emerge pacifists. Here is a shortlist of the course offerings: Neuro-linguistic programing, Enneagrams, the gestalt of Bert Hellinger, the family mapping of Virginia Satir , the Dynamic Meditation of Osho, yogic-infused seminars in bio-energy, Colorpuncture and of course, Positive Psychology, the hottest thang at Harvard. Contact your local guru.

In short, if Hu did have Buddhist leanings, he’d only be the enlightened man of the masses he claims to be. He would be “keeping up with the times”, as he so loves to say. And what high-pressure times these are. Opiates for the masses? Sure, pass the pipe.

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