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Gary Li

Gary Li graduated from Georgetown's McDonough School of Business in 2012 with a major in Finance and a minor in Government. Originally from Old Tappan, New Jersey, Gary studied abroad in Beijing during the fall 2010 semester and wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network.

Gary Li on Religion's Subtle Yet Dynamic Presence in China

October 9, 2010

During China's Cultural Revolution--a period of tumultuous and oftentimes brutally violent social, political, and economic upheaval beginning in the late 1960s and lasting until Mao Zedong's death in 1976--religion was dealt a crippling blow. The Communist Party saw religion's overall concepts and practices as deleterious to Maoist and Marxist-Leninist teachings. Monasteries, mosques, and temples were defaced and destroyed. Countless religious practitioners such as monks and shamans were persecuted or killed.

While there is no official countrywide religion recognized by the PRC, religion definitely plays a unique and fascinating role in China's history and society. Every major world religion has a sizable following in China: in fact, as part of China's initiative to identify and classify its ethnic minorities since New China's inception in 1949, religion was a key criterion for which distinctions could be made (the criteria were based upon Joseph Stalin's theory of national minorities.) As of 1979, 56 distinct ethnicities have been categorized; ten are classified as Muslim (most notably the Hui, Uyghurs, and Kazakhs,) twelve are classified as Buddhist (most notably the Bai and Tibetans,) and two as Christian (the Russians and Evens.) Chinese Jews are also prominent throughout the major cities in China but they do not possess their own classification; ironically they are categorized as part of the Hui ethnicity, although they maintain a separate identity.

Religion in China manifests itself most succinctly through the beliefs and practices of these ethnic minorities. For example, Hui Muslims fast during Ramadan and Tibetan Buddhists routinely rise at 5 AM to spin prayer wheels at monasteries. (I was able to experience both of these events, but due to my American ignorance, I am certain that I offended them somehow by doing so.) These ethnic minorities are scattered around the major metropolitan areas of eastern China but are predominately centralized throughout western China in the provinces of Xinjiang, Tibet, Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan. I was able to see and interact with many of them firsthand while on the Beijing Center's required academic trip along the Silk Road from Xi'an to Urumqi.

Despite--or perhaps because of--its prominence and diversity, religion remains a sensitive subject for the Chinese government; the Great Firewall blocks the "Religion in China" Wikipedia page. A driving force behind China's Communist Party and its practices is its overwhelming and sometimes self-detrimental obsession with maintaining a firm stronghold on its power and influence within its citizenry. The CCP sees religion as a rival center of power; thus, "in China, the Party tightly controls religion, mandating only five official faiths [Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism] and demanding that all services be registered with the local branch of the religious affairs bureau." Rogue religions are suppressed, oftentimes violently: the most notorious instance of such is the continuing crackdown on Falun Gong, a system of beliefs that the CCP sees as venomous. (Ironically, by writing the term "Falun Gong" this letter may be censored by the Great Firewall and may not be viewable to me after it is published.) Interestingly enough, the debate, which began as strictly spiritual, has become fiercely political--if you spend some time outside the Chinese Consulate in New York City you may see protestors passing out fliers and holding banners proclaiming "Falun Gong is Good;" you'll see something similar on the streets of Hong Kong. The Dalai Lama's exile is another prime and infamous example.

The majority of the population (and what Westerners associate with "Chinese people,") approximately 92 percent, is ethnically classified as Han Chinese. Primarily due to the vast dispersion of Han Chinese throughout the country, Hans do not practice a universal religion; however, religious and spiritual elements remain that permeate through their lives. Confucianism, a native Chinese set of ethics, morals, and philosophical beliefs that is commonly mistaken as a pure religion, pervades Chinese society even today. At the core of Confucianism lies the hierarchy--even a casual investigator of China will notice that everything societal and political is structured in such a manner. In the family structure, hierarchy is the basis for filial piety, in other words, utmost respect for one's elders. In the government, the Standing Committee of the Politburo--the CCP's leaders--a group of nine men headlined by General Secretary Hu Jintao, oversees an immense, intricate, and inevitably inefficient network of government organizations and bureaucracies, from the national level down to the local and municipal levels, all organized in a hierarchical fashion.

Although an increasing number of Han Chinese are beginning to actively practice religion (in fact, my aunt was recently baptized) most Hans are highly superstitious believe in an omnipresent, transcendent being and the idea of heaven in the spiritual sense, but are not active members of a particular religion. Instead, religious concepts, spirituality, and superstition are ingrained in Chinese folk culture. Historically throughout Imperial China, emperors were cognizant of the Mandate of Heaven, a divine right to rule that legitimized the incumbent"s reign. Bad harvests, poverty, and natural catastrophes were often seen as heaven withdrawing the mandate to punish the incumbent for unjust rule. As a result, the emperor, and oftentimes the dynasty as well, would be overthrown. Also throughout history, the Chinese have relied heavily on fortune-telling and feng shui--the influence of China's most dominant religions, Buddhism and Taoism, can be readily seen here.

Today, Chinese daily life is still heavily influenced by superstition and spirituality. The color red, which signifies prosperity, is particularly auspicious, and is the color adorned by brides on their wedding day (weddings are consequently referred to as "red events") and by many people on Chinese New Year. Red envelopes contain money and are given as gifts on Chinese New Year to children. Chinese calendars are routinely decorated in red with the Chinese word for "prosperity" written in gold; holidays and weekends are also highlighted in red. In contrast, white is traditionally seen as the color of mourning and death; consequently, white is worn to funerals, or "white events." Even seemingly minute matters have superstitious elements within them: for instance, the number 8 is considered highly auspicious, as its Mandarin character rhymes with character for "to prosper." To have a baby born on August 8, 2008, was considered a tremendous blessing, hence many Chinese parents attempted to conceive a child in time to have his or her birth coincide with this favorable date. On the other hand, the number 4 is considered highly unlucky, as its Mandarin character has the same pronunciation the character for "to die." This is why many high-rise buildings have no floors that contain 4; in fact, floors 40 through 49 may be skipped altogether. So much for the Western dread of the unlucky 13!

With this incredible pervasiveness of spirituality and superstition among the Chinese, it is no wonder that while the CCP could quell certain forms of religion by brute force, it simply could not remove the spiritual aspect that remains deeply rooted within Chinese culture.

In terms of religion, many Han Chinese practice a passive, if not impure form of Buddhism. Many believe in bodhisattvas, saint-like figures in Mahayana Buddhism, and will regularly go to monasteries to pray to Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy, among others, on Chinese New Year and other days of celebration and renewal. Most Chinese prayers to the Buddha revolve around monetary or professional advancement, children"s welfare and education, and good health for family and friends. This is incredibly ironic, because in the most basic sense Buddha teaches to remove desire, which is the root of suffering. However, many Chinese are praying to the Buddha for material matters and gains.

In late July, I visited the Chinese city of Wuxi with my family and my girlfriend Ali. While there, we stopped by the famous Lingshan Big Buddha at the Xiangfu Temple. Since my last visit several years ago, there had been a sizeable amount of development at the site, including the construction of a gargantuan marble structure that houses many Buddhist artifacts and a mammoth theater. A dramatic show recounting the story of Prince Siddhartha Gautama"s enlightenment and ascendance to become the Supreme Buddha was performed every half hour, complete with water and light effects and live actors and dancers.

Our tour guide informed us that the Communist Party had subsidized this colossal structure. Whether this was fact or propaganda remains to be seen. However, one point that the tour guide made that struck me the most was that the Communist Party now supported Mahayana Buddhism in some forms. Why was there this sudden shift in ideology? Mahayana Buddhism not only teaches to remove wanton desires, but practitioners are urged to practice self-sacrifice, compassion, and obedience. In effect, the Communist Party was using Buddhism as an "innovative" vehicle to assert its influence over its citizenry, by establishing obedience as a necessity for its people. Regardless of what role religion and spirituality play in Chinese culture, it will inevitably be under the intense scrutiny of the Communist Party because of the Party's paranoia and insatiable hunger to maintain power and control over its citizenry.

Gary Li on Economic Prosperity as the Driving Force to Stability

December 2, 2010

One or even a few sweeping generalizations cannot explain China and its dynamic and radical changes over the past several decades. Today, a prevailing Western position on why the Communist Party has endured stems from a belief in three key factors – “state-led economic development policies; market forces relate to late industrialization; and socialist legacies.” These factors are valuable but ultimately incomplete.

In the past three years, China has hosted three major international events: the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games. For each event, the government subsidized mass urban reconstruction in the host cities, constructed mammoth and extravagant facilities. The events themselves were bookended by lavish opening and closing ceremonies featuring spectacular performances. On the surface this may appear to be a mighty public staging of great nationalism, but in reality, is nothing more than a facade. In reality, the Communist Party of China is highly paranoid, and it uses nationalism as a means to obscure the issues that threaten to undermine its authority. In Beijing, the subtler yet still visible symbol of Communist control manifests itself in “increased police patrols, roundups of dissidents and tapped phones.” In Wild Grass, Ian Johnson writes: “The signs are not always obvious, but once they are known, they are unmistakable: the triple-teamed soldiers that cordon off diplomatic compounds, late-night police roadblocks, roving patrols on trains heading for Beijing, the sealing off of the cavernous Tian’anmen Square, accessible only to those who present their identity cards for inspection…the message is clear: we are nervous, possibly even weak, but do not meddle; we can still crush you” (6-8).

A common Western misconception exists regarding Chinese foreign policy: China has become a worldwide military threat interested in asserting its dominance in Asia and pursuing foreign invasion, thereby threatening worldwide stability. In reality, however, the CCP has always been inwardly focused, prioritizing the preservation of internal order and stability within its borders. The issues surrounding Taiwan and Tibet demonstrate that China is most interested in protecting its internal sovereignty and territorial integrity. After all, China’s military is named the People’s Liberation Army: its primary interest is in the people it serves. However, the prevalent belief that the military’s first and foremost interest is actually in promoting the Party’s interests probably holds more veracity.

In fact, China is a country of walls and prohibition. It is ironic that a great civilization’s two most distinguished icons are symbols of defense and exclusion: the Great Wall, a fortification of fear and paranoia of those outside; and the Forbidden City, an imperial palace designed to keep those who belonged in and those who didn’t out. Before Beijing’s redevelopment (or gutting as some may put it) an immense city wall stood to keep outsiders at bay.

Today, the government maintains this inward focus by preserving stability. Stability, most notably social and economic stability, is a value universally held by the state, the Party, and the society. The predominant belief that each body shares, however, is that economic prosperity is the vehicle by which other avenues of stability are achieved. This belief has a significant, albeit fairly flawed historical basis. Following the turbulent and tumultuous Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping decided that economic reform and an opening up of the then-isolated China were essential to restore order within the country. In 1978, Deng initiated a series of economic reforms called “Gaige Kaifang”, or Economic Reforms and Openness, which did away with several of the socialist institutions that Mao had implemented during the Cultural Revolution, and paved the way towards the economic reforms we see today. Market reforms were put in place gradually, and the state eased its control on several economic fronts, leading to an economic boom as China opened itself up to opportunities of the outside world. Many were hopeful that political reforms would follow closely behind. Standards of living increased; however, they brought along inequality and inflation. Incidentally, one motive of the infamous Tian’anmen protests of 1989 was that inflation was devaluing the currency of the people. Citizens took to the streets to protest “rising inflation that eroded real incomes, anger at corruption and arbitrary privilege, and rising expectations about political and economic change.” Their calls for change were met with shells and tanks.

The violent crushing of the Tian’anmen protests still has an immensely profound impact on today’s society. Many Chinese today consider politics to be a “fool’s poison;” they avoid an active involvement in it at all costs because of the terror that June 4 instilled. Thus, they go about their daily lives focusing on making money by venturing into entrepreneurship and business. In the dog-eat-dog society that is China today, making money is the only way to shelter one. Furthermore, the state discourages people to organize in groups. After all, the Communist Party itself started as a small group, and as a revolutionary party, is highly paranoid that a small group today could evolve into a mass movement. This creates a severe isolation among individuals and polarities within the society, resulting in an abstinence from collective responsibility. The only responsibility an individual possesses is to look out for himself, those he knows, and for no one else. Chinese citizens oftentimes feel alone, without categories or communities; lacking any organization they harbor fear. Oddly enough, this insecurity holds the society together, causing for the most part a temporary stability.

China operates under an economic system known as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as a means to promote prosperity to achieve social stability. Consequently, the Party and the people remain highly paranoid and suspicious of one another. This is what I’d call “psychological stability with Chinese characteristics,” which, loosely defined, means no psychological stability at all.