The Great Leap Backwards

Shanghai in January 1993 was hardly the Shanghai it had become a decade later, but most people – including me, a first-time visitor – had an inkling of the great flourish that was to come. It was a freezing Chinese Spring Festival, and although the streets were largely empty and most of the shops shut, one sensed its coiled, irrepressible energy. The flurry of commercial development and the boom in the city’s real estate market would begin later, and the vast, space-age business district of Pudong was still in its infancy, but the city was on its way to becoming the cornerstone of the new “China Century”.

Wandering through the streets, dazed by the cold and looking for breakfast, we eventually bumped into an old man, convivial almost to the point of desperation, welling with curiosity and expectation. It didn’t take him long to announce that he was a devout Christian, and that he had learnt English just to read the Bible. Seeing two foreign faces, he had hoped to find two like minds. He invited us back to his apartment, drawing our attention to his sick mother, a 90-year old mound of bones and blankets sprawled out on an old brass bed in the corner of the room. Boiling noodles on a filthy stove, he began to allude to a life beset by injustice and misery, including his experiences during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. By now, I can only remember my feeling of disappointment – that four decades of Maoist struggle should have somehow come to this, and that the appalling violence of the revolution had all been in vain, a short, agonizing suspension of the inevitable. It felt like a great leap backwards, an insult to the idea of human progress.

Marxism, I was idealistic enough to think, was in part a struggle against superstition, and it had failed. In most cases, it had in fact become a new source of superstition, a dialectical-materialist cargo cult. In almost all of its manifestations, mass hysteria and leader worship had prevailed.

It is a truism to say that religion means different things to different people, and it is hard for some of us to give credit to how fashionable it can be, brought up – as I had been – on the image of crinkly vicars in their dog-collars and cardies. After school, I would usually join my friends in throwing stones at the solitary bell in the local churchyard. When we finally got the bell to chime, the vicar would emerge from his quarters, fuming and stumbling over his cassock. That was the level of respect accorded to the Church in my neck of the woods.

Christianity in China occupies a different set of cultural coordinates. Countless small churches, commonly on the edge of heresy and beyond, have been emerging for centuries, fed and nurtured by a multitude of European missionaries and subject to varying levels of official disapproval.

The most famous result of the clash between China and Christianity was the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, which came close to overthrowing the Qing Dynasty in the middle of the nineteenth century. A curious combination of circumstances created Hong Xiuquan, a lowly teacher with boundless ambition. After flunking the examinations that would enable him to join the government, Hong lay for weeks on the verge of death. Lost in hallucination, he claimed to discover his exalted destiny. He was introduced to religion by a missionary pamphlet, and took the message across southern China, driven by hubris and superstition, picking up converts in villages wracked for years by disaster and neglect. Hong eventually became the leader of a peasant uprising, sustained in his rampage by the belief that he was the second son of God, the brother of Jesus.

The historian and biographer of Hong, Jonathan Spence, wrote that there was “no denying the strength, the inspiration, and the sense of purpose that Hong derived from the Bible, even though his response was intensely personal.” His experience of Christianity came from a number of “random acts of translation, with all their ambiguities, errors and unexpected ironies”. Because his acquaintance with God was personal, “he felt free to alter it”.

That the original Christian identity of oppression and persecution, of Daniel being thrown to the lions, was given new resonance in Russia or Poland, is hardly a surprise. These were traditional Christian societies, and there are countless examples of nobility and courage in the persecuted Russian Orthodox communities that matched the stories in the Bible itself.

Christianity had now gained a sort of counter-cultural kudos. In Poland, where the official Church had played a significant role in the persecution of the Jews, Catholicism had been transformed by Communism into “practically the only defender of identity and freedom,” in the words of one Polish bishop. After centuries of burning heretics and resisting reform, even Catholicism was able to rebrand itself.

But why China? China was targeted by missionaries for about 3 centuries. Christianity was surely tainted by its associations with foreign imperial powers, and subject to the same hostility that Chairman Mao had harnessed when he finally unified the country behind the Communist Party in 1949. At that point, native church leaders were imprisoned and “re-educated”. China became officially atheist, but Christianity still flourished. One estimate suggests that there are currently 50 million Christians in China, compared to 4 million in 1949.

Some of the conversions are harrowing. Repentant Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution – tormented by guilt – would often take solace in the Church. Having denounced their parents and persecuted their teachers in a blaze of revolutionary fervour, they sought to make amends, and Christianity certainly pushes all the right buttons, with its stress on atonement and redemption. Maoism was, quite rightly, interpreted as one more false idol.
The rise can also be attributed to a new wave of Christian activists, flooding into the poorest regions of China from the late 1970s. Usually working as English-language teachers, they have been accused of buying support with food aid. The authorities have branded the converts as “rice-Christians.”

And so, as many might have predicted, 40 years of aggressive, official atheism enshrined in the national constitution was wholly counter-productive. Christianity somehow became the movement of choice for a nation’s young rebels. It serves to prove that repression is not only wrong in itself, but also gets you nowhere. The biggest mistake the Chinese leadership made over the last decade was its decision – a very close-call in the Party’s Central Committee – to crack down on the Falungong, an eccentric sect of qigong practitioners which has since earned far more renown than it deserved.

The Falungong – which began, apparently, as a commercial self-help organization established by a qigong master and instinctive entrepreneur named Li Hongzhi – is just one of a number of troublesome “evil sects”. All kinds of oddities have been reported throughout China’s countryside. Time Magazine recently described one such movement in central China’s Henan Province, known as the Lightning from the East, said to have as many as 300,000 followers. Jesus, according to the sect, has returned in the guise of a 30 year old Chinese woman, and the apocalypse is nigh. Like the Taiping Rebels, the crux of their popularity is the translation of Christianity into a traditional Chinese context. Their strength, like the Taipings, also derives from the desperation and anger that still prevails in many of China’s impoverished rural communities. The sect has alarmed more traditional Christians in the country, Time Magazine reported.

This isn’t just a Chinese problem: the big idea of Marxism was that economics ruled. Give everyone a decent standard of living, and all this nonsense was supposed to go away. It didn’t work in the case of Scientology, of course, and many members of the Japanese Aum Shimriki cult were engineers and computer boffins, but the sophistication of productive forces was supposed to overwhelm backward social relationships.

This, at least, is one of the reasons why you can believe in the sincerity of the Chinese government as it tries to improve the lot of the nation’s sizeable rural population. The “well-off society”, one of the slogans of the last Party congress, has good old-fashioned political motives. Improving the standard of living, and widening the range of opportunities open to the masses, is expected to reduce the possibility of mass cults and movements. Time Magazine quoted one missionary at China’s biggest seminary in Nanjing, who estimated that seven out of ten converts in China were prompted to join the Church because of illness, and the unavailability of rural health care. Prayer was their last throw of the dice.

Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that it is the lack of freedom, and the abuse of human rights, that throws many people into the arms of religious extremism. The phrase “out of the frying pan and into the fire” might spring to mind, but the repression inherent in Islamic Fundamentalism, for example, is somehow internalized, and can be refashioned as the freedom to become what one ought to be. It is somehow more tolerable than the external violence and subjugation perpetrated by Communists, mainly because you have bought into the truth of the religion and the necessity of its moral pronouncements.

You can read more by David Stanway at Shanghai Eye.

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