China scholar calls for religious rights


China is at a favorable time to develop an institutional guarantee for the legality and equality of all religions, so that they, as President Hu Jintao recently expected, can make a greater contribution to the general social harmony, according to researcher, entrepreneur and religious expert Liu Peng.

The 58 year-old scholar heads his small non-profit Pushi Institute for Social Science, or "institute of universality" and is also a researcher of religions in the United States in the institute of American studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Prior to that, in the 1980s, he worked in the Communist Party of China Central Committee's united-front work department, where he helped the drafting of many policy papers, and became familiar with the ins and outs of China's administrative system on religious affairs.

Now it is time that the system be developed in such a way as to let more religious affairs be governed by law, instead of through administrative means, as the practice up to now, and in order to do so, all religious groups be provided with equal and standard access for legal registration.

Things are confusing now, he says, when administrative officials, unaided by adequate laws, have to deal with both legally registered religious groups and an increasing number of religious groups that are flourishing in the extra-legal territory.

"Just as the late leader Deng Xiaoping said, we need to seek truth from facts," says Liu, "We have to admit that this kind of administrative system leaves huge room for improvement."

In fact, Liu recalls, the Chinese system was a copy from the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1950s. Although Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, said a socialist government should never have any links with or provide financial aid to a religious body, the ironic reality was that administrative officials in China set guidelines for finance, activities and training for various religious groups, and even made their management part of the overall national development plan. Many, if not all, religious groups and facilities received government grants.

At the same time, simply for the sake of officials' convenience, many churches and temples were shut down. "Just one out of every 10 churches was kept open, especially because the newly-founded People's Republic was under threats from hostile foreign forces," Liu says. "Then believers were encouraged to join government-guided patriotic sects."

Now, however, China's social and economic conditions have changed greatly since the beginning of its reform and opening up 30 years ago. A vibrant private sector is growing rapidly along with the State-owned sector, as a pluralistic economy has become a common reality. That has naturally led to new features in people's mindset - just as Karl Marx famously argued, "the economic base would determine a society's superstructure," he says.

Back in the 1960s, Zhou Enlai, then premier, estimated that there were just about 100 million religious believers in China. But the number must have increased manyfold today, Liu points out, even though China has yet to produce a religious census.

Since 2007, Liu has been diverting what he called "substantial money" from his company to carry out a survey on religious groups across 16 provinces in China. He says he is still studying the findings and refuses to be specific about the results, only saying that just "house churches" - praying facilities that don't register or report to the State Administration for Religious Affairs - have at least 50 million followers nationwide.

Some Chinese researchers have attributed the rapid growth of "house churches" to the "evil" designs of some Western forces. But Liu rejects such a scenario.

All religions, from Buddhism to Christianity to Islam, have different sects, he argues. So in no case is it easy to try to persuade members of one sect to join another, nor does it make much sense in a peace time. That is, for him, the primary explanation for the existence of so many "house churches" alongside the "three-self churches," meaning the churches that have registered with the government since the early days of the People's Republic to operate under the principles of "self-support, self-governance and self-propagation."

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Asia, Religionnone