Ian Johnson: Are China’s Rulers Getting Religion?

In the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson looks at the debate over morality in China following the death of toddler Yue Yue on Foshan, and whether Daoism may be one option to fill the spiritual void in Chinese society:

The concern appears quixotic, but China is now in the grips of a moral crisis. In recent months, the Chinese Internet has been full of talk about the lack of morality in society. And the problem is not just associated with the very rich or the political connected—concerns shared in western countries—but with the population at large. This has been precipitated in part by a spate of recent incidents in which people have failed to come to aid of fellow citizens caught in accidents or medical emergencies. A few weeks ago, a two-year-old girl in Guangzhou was hit by a car and left dying in the street while eighteen passers-by did nothing to help her. The case riveted China, causing people to ask what sort of society is being created.

So, no sooner was the plenum over than the party indicated that it would limit the amount of entertainment shows on television and possibly set limits on popular microblogs. While it is easy to read this move simply as censorship, which it certainly is, it also reflects the new preoccupation with morality: many of the banned shows are pure entertainment—the party now wants more news programs—and Chinese microblogs have long been a forum for anonymous character assassination. Meanwhile, though it has been far less noted, Beijing is giving new support to religion—even the country’s own beleaguered traditional practice, Daoism.

After decades of destruction, Daoist temples are being rebuilt, often with government support. Shortly after the plenum ended, authorities were convening an International Daoism Forum. The meeting was held near Mt. Heng in Hunan Province, one of Daoism’s five holy mountains, and was attended by 500 participants. It received extensive play in the Chinese media, with a noted British Daoist scholar, Martin Palmer, getting airtime on Chinese television. This is a sharp change for a religion that that was persecuted under Mao and long regarded as suspect. What, exactly, is gong on here?

On his blog, Useless Tree, Sam Crane argues that the lessons of Daoism actually run counter to those the government wants spread among the population:

Long story short: there’s more to Daoism that the “1,800 year old religion” moniker reveals.

And that more complex history, and the secular, philosophical, political readings of Daoists texts, most notably the Daodejing, could pose some problems for the effort to make Daoism into a soft power resource for the PRC state.

One problem is that the Daodejing, rather like the Analects and Mencius, can rather easily become a source of critique of any state that attempts to use it for political purposes. What might Politburo Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin have to say in response to passage 75:

The people are starving, and it’s only because you leaders feast on taxes that they’re starving.

The people are impossible to rule, and it’s only because you leaders are masters of extenuation that they’re impossible to rule.

The people take death lightly, and it’s only because you leaders crave life’s lavish pleasures that they take death lightly,

they who act without concern for life: it’s a wisdom far beyond treasuring life.

November 1, 2011 10:59 PM
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