Power Co-opts Religion: China to Support Buddhism

The story is a familiar one: a new religion is founded — or, as the sociologist Rodney Stark would say, a new sect is born from an older tradition — and over time it becomes successful.  By success, I mean that it grows, becomes popular, and shows few signs of slowing down.

At some point during this process, the state will take notice — or fix its gaze upon — the new movement and view it with suspicion.  Should the new movement appear in any way threatening to power, or if the new movement offers possibilities of resistance, the state usually will attempt to suppress it.  Should the suppression attempts become too protracted, costly, and brutal, the state will often change course.

Rather than suppress the new movement, the state will simply co-opt it.  Power thus partners with the new movement, effectively domesticating it and using it for its own purposes.  This co-optation will have many effects, not the least of which is to neutralize the movement as a site or source of resistance to power.

This has been the history and fate of many “new” religions (which invariably are offshoots of older traditions).  Christianity provides a prime example.

I was reminded of this process after coming across this NPR piece written by Louisa Lim: “Beijing Finds Common Cause with Chinese Buddhists.”  China, which has a long and successful history of marrying power to religion, has astutely recognized that despite its official policy of state atheism, supernatural beliefs — which arise naturally from the ordinary operations of brain-mind — are universal and can be channeled to politically useful ends:

This was the first World Buddhist Forum, attended by more than 1,000 monks, and held in China. Never before had the officially atheist country sponsored such a large religious conference.

The moment signaled Beijing’s new proactive approach to religion and, in particular, its support for Buddhism, possibly as a counterweight to the explosion of Christianity in China.

Tensions still remain in Beijing’s relationship to Tibetan Buddhism, particularly given believers’ loyalty to their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. He is viewed by the Chinese government as a “splittist,” with the aim of dividing China.

But Chinese Buddhism is not seen to be politically problematic in this way.

Such cooperation with religious institutions marks a significant advance from the Chinese Communist Party’s recent turbulent history of religious intolerance.

Four decades ago during the Cultural Revolution, all religious worship was banned, including Buddhism. Temples were destroyed or turned into factories or storage facilities, precious relics were destroyed and monks were imprisoned, and in some cases even killed.

There are several interesting things going on here, one of which centers on a particular brand of Buddhism — the Chinese kind — which the state does not consider threatening.  Though I have not read any ethnographies describing this kind of Buddhism, it seems likely that after years of official state repression, the Buddhism practiced in China is probably quite private, introspective, and passive.

Another interesting aspect of Lim’s story is that the state sees Chinese Buddhism as a money-making enterprise.  If Chinese authorities have followed the history of Buddhism in the West — and particularly in the United States — they surely know that various aspects of Buddhism can be packaged and sold at a considerable profit.  Buddhism and consumerism, in other words, can go hand in hand.  In China, this is already happening — as Lim explains:

The economic function of Buddhist temples goes further still. Every year, at least 2 million visitors crowd into Nanputuo’s courtyards.

The temple is a cash cow; its vegetarian restaurant caters to tens of thousands, and it has created business for sellers of incense and Buddhist trinkets.

Tourists hand over ticket fees of nearly $900,000 a year. Some of that goes towards the temple’s development and upkeep, but part of that revenue also goes to the local government, according to Li Xiangping from East China Normal University’s Institute of Religion and Social Development.

The development of the Buddhist economy is often interconnected with that of local government economy, as they’re driving each other. The two sides may cooperate over the planning of tourist destinations and tourism revenues. This also helps build Buddhism’s image.

“The development of the Buddhist economy is often interconnected with that of the local government economy, as they’re driving each other,” Li says. “The two sides may cooperate over the planning of tourist destinations and tourism revenues. This also helps build Buddhism’s image.”

In the past, money matters have caused disputes in the corridors where today Buddhist music is piped. In 1990s, a disagreement over the management of the restaurant at Nanputuo Temple culminated in a stand-off; militant monks held government officials hostage overnight, leading to a raid on the temple by special forces.

But today, the temple’s relationship with the local government in economic terms is mutually beneficial.

If I were a political fortune teller, I would opine that the Chinese state — which despite communism still adheres to pragmatic Confucianism — will continue working with Chinese Buddhists to craft and sell a brand of Buddhism that provides spiritual succor along with hefty profits.  The end product will be a co-opted and neutered Buddhism that offers few possibilities of resistance.

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