Michael J. Walsh is professor of religion, as well as an active member of the Asian studies program, at Vassar College. His books Sacred Economies: Buddhist Monasticism and Territoriality in Medieval China and Stating the Sacred: Religion, China, and the Formation of the Nation-State are both published by Columbia University Press. He is currently writing a book on an alternative history of China. (Photo Credit: Karl Rabe/Vassar College)
The Chinese state, I have argued elsewhere, is a self-sacralized entity that simultaneously disavows religion and yet engages in unstated theological discourses that are deployed to justify its violent containment of religious communities. Ever since Mao Zedong took control of China in 1949, the country’s leadership has long sought to control religious groups and to argue that religion will one day disappear from society. Irrespective of how one seeks to define religion, for the Chinese Communist Party only five religious communities are lawful—Buddhists, Daoists, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants, provided they are officially registered with the government. On the surface, the reasoning from Beijing is simple: The citizenry must first be loyal to the state before any other deity.
For instance, to control Tibetan Buddhists, the state will decide which reincarnation procedure to use and who the next Dalai Lama will be. They will also control the number of Tibetans who would like to become monks. Living buddhas in the Tibetan tradition (tulkus) are prohibited from reincarnating without state permission, a complicated and cumbersome bureaucratic application process. This is biopolitics in the raw. The juridical system takes control of bodies past, present, and future. As in all cases of state control over religion, social harmony and unity are always explicitly referenced as being crucial to “normal” religious activities and to society in general.
Ever since Mao Zedong took control of China in 1949, the country’s leadership has long sought to control religious groups and to argue that religion will one day disappear from society.
Another example of state violence against religion are the internment camps in Xinjiang where more than a million Uyghur, Kazakh, and Hui Muslims have been detained since 2017. Xinjiang is effectively a police state with iris scans, GPS tracking systems in all vehicles, DNA collections from medical check-ups, and constant arrests being the norm.
Before the camps, in the mid-eighteenth century, China had been intent on dominating and controlling Xinjiang (literally, “new territories”), and the Qianlong emperor committed genocide in wiping out the Zunghar, a nomadic people of Mongol origin. Another containment and civilizing mission was undertaken toward the end of the nineteenth century, an attempt to turn this Muslim region into a Confucian state of sorts. Beijing has long sought to control Islam in all its claimed territories.
How does Beijing justify all this? On the one hand, they don’t have to. China is after all an authoritarian state with a leader who answers to no one. On the other, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials will point to China’s constitution, wherein Article 36 ostensibly offers protection of freedom of religious belief. It is the third sentence in Article 36 that justifies state control over religion: “The state shall protect normal religious activities.” When the state deems religious activities as “not normal”—Muslim education, Tibetan ontologies, so-called underground Christian churches—it will and often does persecute and jail practitioners.
The sacrality of the state (my words; Beijing would never use such language), however, is never questioned and always assumed.
The sacrality of the state (my words; Beijing would never use such language), however, is never questioned and always assumed. For instance, the South China Sea is a zone where territorial ambitions toward empire and nation-state imaginings intersect with significant implications for international relations. China claims almost all of the South China Sea. A “position paper” published by the Chinese government stipulates the official government position on the South China Sea islands and expresses a tone common to all of China’s territorial claims, that is, China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the islands within it. China in fact has constructed many of those islands that previously were submerged atolls.
Fiery Cross Reef is a good example of how an atoll was transformed into a military outpost, one of seven such constructed islands in the South China Sea, now part of what China refers to in its constitution as its “sacred territory” (shensheng lingtu). It is this sacrality that invokes the inviolate and justifies indisputable sovereignty. The refusal to dispute territory is a signifier of the sacred, that which is set apart, that which is exclusive. For Beijing and the CCP, the islands are sacred space.
In each case, Beijing will reference how the ancestors occupied these islands thereby linking them to its “sacred territory.” In 2018, President Xi Jinping emphatically told U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, “We cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors.” Xi was referring to the above-mentioned islands in the South China Sea.
Like emperors before him, President Xi Jinping as head of the Communist Party requires of his citizenry the utmost loyalty—nationalism as a form of state worship. Nation-states are always religious states, and their territory is sacred and exclusively inclusive. The nation-state demands and expects always to be sacrificed to, celebrated, consecrated, worshipped, and sanctified. In imperial China, the gods inhabited territory that humans needed to sacralize in order to reside in it. In Chairman Mao’s China, the gods had to be removed. They have since returned, forcing the Chinese Communist Party to navigate what today they still call “the religious question.”
Like emperors before him, President Xi Jinping as head of the Communist Party requires of his citizenry the utmost loyalty—nationalism as a form of state worship.
To play devil’s advocate, most if not all of China’s imperial systems have sought to control religion, and China in its various shapes and dynastic forms has always been a religious state. The state cult of Confucius dominated every dynasty for almost two thousand years. Countless emperors worked politically and doctrinally with Buddhist and Daoist monks to mollify their realm. Sacred economies established through ritual, and territories conquered and justified through a form of sacred violence, were part of every Chinese dynasty. Those communities that engaged in ritual activity or worshipped the “wrong” gods were persecuted. From this perspective, not much has changed in today’s China.