The message reached me in early December via Signal, an encrypted messaging service that many Chinese use to bypass the closely monitored social media app WeChat. The day that many of us had feared was upon us: China’s best-known pastor, Wang Yi, and 100 of his followers had been detained. Their church of 500 members was closed—very likely forever.
In the two years since my last Foreign Affairs piece about religion in China (“China’s Great Awakening,” March/April 2017), such stories have become common. Churches closed, crosses removed, mosques demolished, Muslims sent to internment camps—the list of state-organized measures against religion in China has been growing. Seen against a backdrop of measures to limit nongovernmental organizations, tighten ideology, and lift term limits on President Xi Jinping, it’s easy to think that religion in China is being crushed by a strong state, diminishing in importance as a new powerful leader takes firm control of the country.
This view is tempting but wrong. China is not retreating to the era of high communism under Mao Zedong but lurching toward a messy future shared by many authoritarian states. Today’s China seeks not to marginalize competing groups and belief systems, the way Beijing did during the Mao era, but to co-opt them. Indeed, the events of the past two years show that for the first time in a century and a half, religion is firmly ensconced in the center of China’s social and political life.
THE IMPERIAL MODEL
If a Chinese past has found an echo in today’s events, it is that of the imperial era. A central characteristic of that period was that rulers tolerated a variety of beliefs but defined which were orthodox (zheng) and which heterodox (xie). This tradition underlies the state Xi inherits today, which has many religions, some of them even growing dynamically, but no religious freedom.
Today’s Chinese state, much like the imperial state, can be a generous benefactor, helping to rebuild temples, train new Buddhist
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