A True Belief

Tom from Seeing Red in China pointed out some China Quarterly essays and one of them is the inspiration for this essay …

Few of China’s problems seem so intractable as the issue of the Chinese soul and what morals are available to guide it in the 21st century. The whole concept of a soul and of morals is intangible and esoteric, making it difficult to find stable ground in a society currently in the throes of a pragmatic emergence onto the world stage. The struggle in China over what is right and wrong intensifies each day, as news reports flood the web-waves with callous, indifference to human life – no matter how innocent – and the unscrupulous, unpunished actions of the greedy elite.

This struggle is not just vital for China and its rise out of Cultural Revolution anarchy, but the moral compass that China re-invents for itself will be the core from which China’s cultural power emanates. Right now Chinese culture is referred to tongue-in-cheek as one of the deepest, broadest, riches and oldest cultures in the world, source of countless great works and great thoughts. Yet in China today the cultural wars over the soul of Chinese people is tilting in favor of materialism and a patchwork of Western and Eastern values woven together haphazardly – easily ripped apart by the winds of stress and strife.

There are parallels between China’s struggle and the struggles of other peoples all across the world, especially in the West, where the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition has receded in the face of growing apathy toward religion and the rising numbers of those who believe in a patchwork of their own: Christian beliefs melting into pagan speculation mixed together with modern universalist appreciation for all religions and beliefs … political correctness flipping itself into defiant, antagonistic stances … we too are a magpie culture in the West, but for different reasons.

China: A History of Control …

China has a long tradition of dealing with religions and diversity through the lens of social stability and ultimate central authority. The Tang Dynasty was a renowned multi-cultural empire with state-sponsored Buddhism helping to quell regional dissonance and Imperial largesse placating the many Nestorians and Muslims who flooded the empire from the borders with Persia, India and modern-day Afghanistan.

A caretaker at the Great Mosque in Xi’an once took great pains to point out the harmonious relations between the Emperor and Allah. He showed me the verses of the Quran carved into the wooden walls of the interior mosque – one of the greatest works in the Islamic world – and then took me to the massive, stone double-dragon carved into the steps leading up to the interior.

“The Emperor gave this mosque to the Muslims of Xi’an,” he said. “So that they might have the freedom to worship Allah in their own way. He did not fear Allah, he loved Allah and this great gift demonstrates that.”

“He did not want them to replace Allah with the Emperor, he only wanted them to live happily and productively in Xi’an.”

As generous as this gift might be, the mosque was still “a gift” from the ruler. It was a benign and wise way of expressing the dominant theme that has governed the interaction between Chinese rulers and religion: Obey the laws, and you are free. Struggle against me, and we will go to war.”

Rulers also made great pains to distinguish between religions and sects, treating the former with respect and generosity (as long as stability reigned), but ruthlessly crushing sects who operated in secret, with unknown agendas. This system of  “the carrot” for accepted, co-opted religious practices and “the stick” for unaccepted, independent religions has changed little in 2000 years.

Communist Liberation in 1949 and the years that followed ushered in a major break from the old tradition of carrot and stick. Everyone got the stick during the Mao years except hard-core Maoists and atheists – and even they got the stick once the revolution started devouring itself in the 1960s and 1970s. (this graph added Jan. 1st)

An excellent essay in the New York Times touches on the question of morals in China and concludes that the spectre of Mao is preventing Chinese from moving forward, spiritually. A cursory look through China’s mainstream media, state-sponsored political discourse and basic curriculum for every child shows that the state itself is perpetuating the spectre of Mao. Why is that?

In an essay for Cambridge’s China Quarterly entitled, “Belief in Control: Regulation of Religion in China,” Pitman B. Potter illustrates the fundamental balance between autonomy and loyalty struck by Chinese regimes concerning religion. The essay was written in 2003, but as things have changed little in 2000 years, we might assume that the last eight years have had little impact …

Potter focuses mostly on the period starting in 1980, when the Maoist policy of outright suppression was replaced with the idea of “zones of indifference” that allowed economic, social and cultural chains to be shed independently, as long as loyalty to the state remained paramount. The Party recognized five major religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, and tacitly forbade other sects or religions from growing. In practice, this meant that all religious institutions would have to register with the government, swear loyalty to the Party, undergo Party supervised religious education and agree to not conduct “abnormal” activities that ran counter to the interests of the state. Potter points out that,

The Party was also committed to unremitting propaganda to support atheism, and to using its control over the educational system to marginalize religious belief.

The crises of 1989 – 1991, when Tibetans rose up to protest interference in religious affairs and students and intellectuals across China called for reforms to the government, convinced the government to take a more hardline, invasive approach to control over religion. Li Peng in particular – also the architect of the “April 26th editorial” that made conflict between the students in Tiananmen Square and the government inevitable – argued for strict control and helped draft Document 6, providing the framework for state policy toward religion to this day. Potter again:

Document No. 6 directed public security organs to take forceful measures to curb those who use religious activities to “engage in disruptive activities,” “stir up trouble, endanger public safety, and weaken the unification of the country and national unity,” or “collude with hostile forces outside the country to endanger China’s security.” Apart from their utility in justifying restrictions on religious activities in Tibet and Xinjiang and prohibitions against Christian practitioners from Taiwan, these provisions also limited proselytization, recruitment, fund-raising and other activities in support of organized religion.

The document codified what had become a scattered set of regulations during the heady 1980s and brought the full bureaucratic, regulatory and enforcement power of the state into play concerning the religion issue:

Authorized by the Constitution and informed by CCP policies, China’s regulatory provisions on religion include measures of general application as well as edicts that apply to specific conduct or beliefs.

Regulatory restrictions extend to places of worship, which must be formally registered and undergo annual inspections, and may not be used for activities that “harm national unity, the solidarity of ethnic groups, social stability or the physical health of citizens, or obstruct the educational system. Religious education academies must implement CCP policy and submit to Party leadership, and their curricula, programmes and personnel are subject to approval by the Religious Affairs Bureau.

The officially approved curricula incorporate state policy into religious instruction. Activities such as recruiting believers among primary and secondary school students, propagating religious ideology in school, establishing illegal (that is, not properly approved and registered) religious schools and enrolling young people, and travelling abroad to attend seminary are considered in violation of the provision that religion may not obstruct state education.

This set of regulations is what China’s leaders refer back to when unrest brews in Tibet or Xinjiang, when Protestant house churches overstep their bounds, or when foreign missionaries ply their trade on the Mainland. The system is not only in place to control the possible anti-State potential of a religious movement, but to also replace religion with atheism according to Marxist theories on dialectic materialism. The Party does not want a morally bankrupt society per se, just a society that adheres to the one set of morals the Party approves of.

But this insistence on moral and spiritual conformity actually increases the distance between the Party and the people. Potter describes a situation in which the state’s regulation of religion eventually exceeds the people’s tolerance for invasive, oppressive tactics and when that point is reached, all the state’s efforts backfire exponentially.

The Party’s reliance on outdated policies to control the religious fervor fomenting in China today could lead to a question of legitimacy as strong as, if not stronger than, the questions economic stagnation might pose. This fact does not seem lost on Chinese leaders, who are acutely aware of the power of secret societies with a religious bent, such as the White Lotus Society that toppled the Yuan Dynasty. Unfortunately, instead of changing to meet the demands of a new world, the Party is intent on suppression and isolation.

The West: A Future without Faith

There is no risk of overgeneralizing when I say that “Western countries” face a very different lack of faith. Across Europe and in most of the United States, the power of religion is fading. Even in the US, where the religious right is powerful and active, the numbers tell us that the majority of Americans are ambivalent at best about God and Judeo-Christianity as a healthy and sound source of morality. Whereas Chinese are attempting to find something they never had, Westerners are actively repudiating the values that form the foundation of much of Western civilization.

Last August Der Spiegel ran a story entitled, “Does Secularism Make People More Ethical?” This is music to the CPC’s ears, but unfortunately for them, the answer is unclear. Polls and the research of one man come up with great headlines like: “secularists know more about religion than the religious,” but that isn’t the point. The issue is the massive movement away from organized religion into a realm of patchwork beliefs, not one of which can stand alone. From Der Spiegel article:

Secularists make up some 15 percent of the global population, or about 1 billion people. As a group, this puts them third in size behind Christians (2.3 billion) and Muslims (1.6 billion). Despite their large numbers, little is known about this group of people. Who are they? And if not religion, what do they believe in?

The answer is anything and nothing. In themselves. In a mixture of Taoism and Hippy values; in self-reliance and freedom; in small communities, organic produce, riding bikes to work and pagan wisdom. In the market and capitalism and the power of private property. Westerners have been shattered by their un-anchoring to a common faith into a million different perspectives that constantly morph through experience, interaction and self-analysis.

Only a small portion of secularists are as radical as the “strong atheists” championed by British evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins. The majority are more likely to be indifferent to religion or mildly agnostic, according to Kosmin’s analysis. There are also secular humanists, free thinkers and many other factions. “One problem of atheism research is that we simply can’t agree on a unified terminology,” notes Kosmin. “Every researcher thinks he is Linnaeus and invents his own labels.”

Not just every researcher, but every man and woman coming of age and raising children today in the West has an individual label and guards it jealously. Privacy, individuality and the journey of the soul through life have brought great freedom, intellectual power, empathy and creativity to Western cultures.

I hear it in the conversations I have with the people of my generation: A rootless tribe of brilliant individuals attempting to light the fire of a new culture with a handful of random traditions and ceremonies, inside jokes and memes, twists of speech and shared wonder. Even those who live the sedentary lives of the traditional family are often not religious and unclear as to what guides their ethical behavior besides an innate humanism that should “naturally know” what is right and wrong.

Writers like David Goldmann believe that the shift away from the classic religious morals of 2000 years ago contributes to low birth rates and, eventually, the dying of a culture. Youth culture, as he calls it, is not culture at all, but instead disparate, flimsy beliefs that will falter and die. Occupy Wall Street is a look into the world of youth culture: brave, naturally aware of injustice and brilliantly able to deconstruct the arguments they face. But they are disjointed, unorganized and easily dispersed by the forces of tradition. They lack a unifying ethos.

I think we are the next stage in development, we “secularists” who are unclear what exactly the true belief should be called, but know it when we feel it. This phase of Western development is precarious because I do agree that the intellect of the non-religious coupled with the skeptic perspective on “life after death” can lead to an apathy, or a devil-may-care hedonism, that places the Self highest. Many of my peers truly believe that 2012 could be the end of the world, and they welcome it in a strange, feverish way – this is the resignation of a dying culture that religious Westerners rage against.

What they don’t understand is that there is a cure, just not the one they’re thinking of.

Lord save the Seekers

This whole essay is predicated on the belief that a change is coming. For I too, of course, am a product of my times and my ethics resemble a magpie’s nest of phrases salvaged over time and experiences that I found too precious to part with. Any new phrase or experience could very well snatch my fancy. As such, I believe that the world is headed for big changes ahead in a spiritual way, not just the geopolitical emergence of a new, Asian nation that can compete with the recent rulers of the world, but the deep profound consequences of two billion souls seeking solace in nations governed by fearful bureaucrats and rapacious plutocrats.

The stakes are high and the two “sides” are actually much more amorphous than “East and West”. One one side are those seeking a new code of ethics that can lead the whole world into a new era of prosperity and growth; on the other are those who believe that the code already exists and any struggle toward a new one will result in chaos and pain and loss of self.

I believe that, despite all the social, cultural and political problems that beset Chinese today, the battle for which ethos rules the world – the New or the Old – will take place here. The marriage of East and West will produce the Love Child we have all been waiting for; I believe that like a zealot believes in the Immaculate Conception. The war, on the other hand, will produce just the opposite.

Is it any surprise that I see the fate of the world resting in the hands of expats in China interacting with Chinese? This is the youth culture the old guard loves to hate, but it is the truth and it is not going away. The problem lies not in me being a megalomaniac with WordPress, but in the fact that in this world with its new societies and new seekers, “here” is wherever you are right now and the Savior is within. You reading this hold the key to the paradigm shift required to free the Chinese, soothe the Arabs, invigorate the Europeans, embrace the Africans and unite the Americans.

If we are truly going to make a difference then we have to acknowledge the core of our own beliefs and define them for ourselves and for others so that the ethos we “feel” can be translated into a way of living that can be taught.

Here are some of the patches on my cloak:

I believe that I, Sascha, am special and a Child of God. I am subservient to no one. I rule no one. 

I was born with Original Love. My sins are my learning process, not my burden to carry or the cross upon which I am burned. I was born to love. 

All men and women are my brothers and sisters. We all have souls and our souls long to be together. 

The world is a testing ground. We are here to perfect our love for each other and nothing more. 

I can commune with the Divine and it is my soul’s greatest desire to do so.

Like Annakin, I feel there is little hope for me … but for my son … All culture is inherited from parents. I now know that this is the greatest, most important task we as humans undertake. And for us specifically, the 25-35 living on the cusp of 2012, our task is to make silk robes out of patchwork cloaks.




Picture of Sascha Matuszak
Sascha Matuszak

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sascha Matuszak© Copyright 2021. All Rights Reserved.