As readers of this blog will know, I’m always on the lookout for a new book that will find its place onto my current “must read” list. And while I have yet to actually read Evan Osnos’ new book “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” (it was released just yesterday and my copy is on its way) I’m reasonably sure it will make the list.
I say that because I have followed the work of Osnos for years, and consider him to be one of the more astute observers of contemporary China. Combine that with great writing, and you’ve got a winning combination.
“Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker, lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2013. His new book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, is an inner history of China’s transformation, told through the eyes of men and women at the center of it. Osnos writes that, beneath the physical changes, China’s rise is a story of spiritual revival comparable to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century, an attempt to fill ‘a hole in Chinese life that people named the jingshen kongxu — ‘the spiritual void.’’ In this adaptation from Age of Ambition, he explains the five essential dynamics in China’s quest for meaning.”
And here the five points Osnos makes about faith in China:
1. Chairman Mao: the accidental missionary:
“The Cultural Revolution destroyed China’s old belief systems, but Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution could not rebuild them. People who had learned to believe in a force larger than themselves were left to set out in search of their own faiths.”
2. After the almighty yuan, what?
“In sprinting ahead, China had bounded past whatever barriers once held back the forces of corruption and moral disregard. People did not trust the institutions around them: the Party, the press, big companies that had failed to provide safe food. People are placing their faith elsewhere.”
3. Christianity: China’s largest N.G.O.
“The Party is under increasing pressure to change the way it regards the desire for faith; China today has sixty to eighty million Christians, a community as large as the Communist Party. Li Fan, a secular liberal writer, told me, “Christianity has probably become China’s largest nongovernmental organization.”
4. The Other Xinjiang: Xinjiang and Tibet are boiling
“China’s ethnic and religious politics are drifting toward a crisis.”
5. The home field advantage
“For new sources of meaning, Chinese citizens are looking not only to religion but also to philosophy, psychology, and literature for new ways of orienting themselves in a world of ideological incoherence and unrelenting competition.”
Osnos concludes the piece with this clear-eyed observation:
“Nothing has caused more upheaval in the last hundred years of Chinese history than the battle over what to believe. Today, the Party is not allowing the growth of faith as much as it is trying to keep up with it.”
Here are some interesting excerpts from Madsen’s comments.
On the subject of his next book:
My research project is on searching for a good life in China in an age of anxiety. Where do they see their lives going? Where do they see China going? Its aimed at tapping into people’s sense of meaning. I’m doing it with several other colleagues.
On the need for moral anchors:
People’s lives are disrupted by urbanization, economic change, and so on. There’s also a collapse of Marxist ideology and a sense of dislocation. There is a need for new moral anchors.
On the relationship between unhappiness and religious revival:
In the reform era, the revival of religion is probably a quest to return to a normal life to carry out normal festivals, to do things in a normal way, which always had a religious element to it in China. In China, religion has always been more about practice than about belief. You do those things — you sweep the graves of your ancestors because that’s what you do to remain in connection with your family. People have been dislocated from their villages, but there’s a sense that you have to maintain your roots. So they might go back and rebuild a temple or ancestral hall.
On whether China might become a Christian country:
If you look at the growth and project that over the next fifty or one hundred years, that would happen; but I would predict that the current trajectory will plateau out, like in Taiwan, in the range of 7 percent of the population. Maybe 10 percent. It’s a guess, a hypothesis. But other things like Buddhism are becoming more popular. People will look at other things for meaning and that will crowd out Christianity.
On whether or not Christianity has failed in China:
It hasn’t failed. What does success mean for a religion? Taking over the country? Or is it just becoming an accepted part of the plurality of understandings, and permanent in a sustainable way? You can definitely argue that its like that for Christianity in China today. We’re seeing new ways for people to find meaning in their lives. Its definitely changing and broadening. Christianity is a part of it.
In order to understand China today, it’s helpful to understand this simple rule: nothing is as it seems. In fact, I would say this rule applies when observing and analyzing nearly all segments of life in China: politics, economy, social relationships, and even religion. To put it another way, whatever China seems to be at any given moment, it is in fact, the opposite. This can be difficult for westerners because we tend to be dichotomist in our thinking, wanting something to be either this or that. We don’t do well with this AND that.
Rob Gifford, in his book China Road expresses well the confusion and bewilderment that await those engaged with China when he writes, “China messes with my head on a daily basis. One day I think that it is really going to take over the world and that the Chinese government is doing the most extraordinary thing the planet has ever witnessed…The next day it will all seem built on sand and I expect it to all come tumbling down around us.” (China Road, p. 17)
To illustrate this principle, I would like to highlight 8 myths or misconceptions that abound regarding China today.
Myth # 1: China is a communist country.
What I mean here by communism is a Communist or Marxist belief system. Although the Communist Party of China (CCP), with its 72 million members, remains firmly in power, the reality is that communism is no longer a unifying ideology. China today is essentially a consumer society. Every human being is hard-wired to want more stuff, and the Chinese are no different. The economic reforms of the past 30 years have significantly raised the standard of living of most Chinese, and China’s participation in the global economy means that anything can be purchased for a price. Most Chinese today are concerned with the bettering their economic condition and/or the accumulation of wealth.
Myth # 2: China is a capitalist country
Capitalism here of course refers to a particular economic system, where the means of production are in private hands. While private enterprise is flourishing in China, there are many sectors that remain under state control. These include key sectors such as education, media, resources, and transportation systems. The official term that the Chinese use to describe their system is “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” When queried about this Chinese friends usually say “it means capitalism, but we’re still uncomfortable with the word.” What it really describes is a system where the economy is increasingly ordered along free market principles, but the political system remains authoritarian.
Myth #3: China is a wealthy, modern country
Since most visitors to China spend their time in cities, this is usually the overwhelming impression. To be sure, many cities are extremely wealthy and modern. However, trips to the rural areas of China reveal a different reality, namely that China is still very much a developing nation, where millions of people live in poverty, and have lifestyles that differ little from their ancestors of a hundred years ago. Recent statistics indicate that only 24 million people in China earn more than RMB 2,000 per month (approximately USD 300), the minimum tax exemption threshold. In other words, more than a billion Chinese still make less than RMB 2000 per month.
Myth #4: China is a poor, backward country
The reality is that China has many characteristics of an emerging modern nation. There is extreme wealth, with China now lagging behind only the US in the number of billionaires. There is a sophisticated telecommunications system, with more than 900 million cell phone subscribers. China has an ambitious space program that includes putting a man on the moon by 2025. These are not typically characteristics of a poor and backwards country.
Myth #5: People live under severe oppression.
While there was a time when fear was the dominant feature of the lives of Chinese people, the reality in China today is quite different. As the state and party continue to back out of personal lives (not entirely, mind you, as evidenced by the one-child policy) people today have many choices that were not available to them 10 or 15 years ago: choosing majors and jobs; buying homes and cars; traveling abroad. In some ways the government has made a bargain with the people: we’ll give you space and freedom to prosper economically, and you leave the politics to us. “So long as you don’t challenge the authorities, you can say and do anything” is how a friend has described it to me. It’s also important to remember that people in China are very patriotic, and they love their country deeply.
Myth #6: People live in freedom
While Chinese people enjoy many personal freedoms today, they do not extend to the political sphere. Freedom of expression is severely limited, with no room for criticizing the government or the Communist Party. Citizens do not participate in choosing the leaders; rather they are appointed and selected within the personnel system of the Party. Further, since China’s legal system is still weak, and the Party sits outside (and above) it, people are often subject to the whim of local political leaders who are accountable to no one.
Myth #7: Religious persecution is the normal experience for believers of all faiths
Many people have the false impression that no religious activity is permitted in China and that believers (particularly Christians) are severely persecuted. While there was a time when that was true (1950’s to 1980’s), persecution is not the normal experience for most believers in China today. Religious belief has made a significant resurgence in the past 30 years. There are 5 “approved religions” in China: Buddhism, Daosim, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, but Buddhism claims the most adherents, with Protestantism being second (perhaps 50-70 million). Christianity is the fastest growing religion, with that growth taking place in both the registered and unregistered churches. In addition, the church’s role in society seems to be expanding, with opportunities for church involvement in meeting social and humanitarian needs. In addition to the approved religions, Chinese traditional folk beliefs and superstitions are also common, especially among the rural population.
Myth #8: There is religious freedom
While the government says it offers “freedom of religious belief,” it reserves the right to set the boundaries within which religious activities can be practiced, and those boundaries expand and contract in response to the political environment. Religious activities are under the supervision of the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Self-Funding, Self-Governing, Self-Propagating). All religious activities must be registered and approved, and unregistered groups are often harassed and/or shut down. The government is fearful of allowing space for competing ideologies and belief systems that may pose a threat.
If you find all of this confusing then consider, once again, this quote from Rob Gifford: “If you’re not confused than you simply haven’t been paying attention.” (China Road, p. 274)