Inside China's Search for Its Soul

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You come to visit the Pope of Marxism-Leninism up a long and rickety elevator. It is in the process of being refurbished, but instead of being shut down, the elevator continues to run, half alive. The claw-hammer handle that the elevator operators once used has been replaced by gleaming new push buttons, but typically for China, the elevator operator has not been replaced. She still sits there, complete with a little square desk and a bottle of green tea, carrying the nation's top Marxists up and down for eight hours a day. The Pope has his office on the 13th floor. The ride takes several minutes.
In the Pope's office, wireless telephones sit next to socialist reviews. Six green leather chairs (the luxurious, deep kind that Mao always preferred) rest on yellowed linoleum floors, backed by off-blue walls. On his bookshelf, sandwiched between Chinese works on Marx, are two slim English volumes on Business Cycles. He wears gray polyester pants and a blue-and-white-checked shirt--short-sleeved and semitransparent so you can see his T shirt. He sips tea from an extra-large mug. Everyone else in the room drinks from a small white one, each stamped with a large red number--144, 78, 33--that gives the room the feel of a lottery. He is 63 years old and tan. It is easy to picture him dispensing gentle ideological wisdom to President Jiang Zemin or Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, providing them with Marxist cover for their very non-Marxist policies.He radiates intelligence. Even through a translator, he makes Marxism-Leninism seem a living, exciting thing. He is responsible for the spiritual and ideological well-being of 1.3 billion Chinese (a flock that, in status-obsessed China, would make him 30% more powerful than the Pope of Catholicism). As director of the Research Institute of Marxism-Leninism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Fu Qingyuan ministers to everyone from government officials to the nation's academics. At his fingertips is the apparatus of one of the most powerful state information machines in the world, and it can all be harnessed to send one simple message to each of those 1.3 billion people: There is no God. When you die, you're dead. The only finger on your fate is your own. Many people in China are facing a crisis of faith, he admits. But I still believe that the majority of the Chinese people believe in dialectical materialism. As Deng Xiaoping predicted: As long as China survives, socialism will survive.

But strangely, if you take a step out of his office, you can find a woman selling Taoist trinkets. A hundred steps away is a small Beijing park that is packed most mornings with dozens of Chinese practicing the slo-mo robotics of Tai Chi, which while secular is deeply Taoist. Not far away is a Protestant church that draws 3,000 souls to its weekend services. Within 150 km are scores of monasteries, seminaries and altars. Despite 50 years of the most violent scrubbing, religion still coats China with an ancient varnish. And as the nation's core ideology of Marxism-Leninism cracks under the weight of the 20th century, the Pope of Marxism is no longer a man controlling a monopoly. China's rickety economy and opaque, chilly leaders have left most Chinese looking for something, someone, to believe in. People have lost their beliefs, explains Xu Haoyuan, a U.S.-trained Beijing psychiatrist. They do not know what will happen to them the next day, the next year. They could lose their job, their business. They wonder what will happen to the country.

Everywhere in China you hear talk of a spiritual vacuum, an echoing nihilism that quiets this hyperkinetic nation. On Oct., 1, as China celebrated the 50th anniversary of Mao's revolution, high-tech military jets screamed over Beijing, foreigners arrived in search of new investment opportunities, and the government celebrated a nation transformed. But what was missing is faith. Fifty years ago on an overcast day, Mao and his cadres had gathered in Tiananmen and stared at a nothing future--no food, no remnants of a healthy economy, no allies. All they had was faith. And it was the only thing missing from Jiang Zemin's party.

Viewed against China's 5,000-year history, Mao's revolution already looks like a tiny, violent, unmatchably murderous moment. But no more than a moment. China is remaking itself at warp speed. Deng Xiaoping's immortal slogan, To get rich is glorious, has replaced Mao's aphorisms in the same way that the tabloid Shopper's Guide has supplanted his Little Red Book. But the Chinese are discovering that while getting rich is marvelous, it can also be numbing. Communism and its concordant atheism remain the state religion. Indeed, Hu Jintao, a contender to succeed President Jiang, built his career partly on suppressing Tibetan Buddhist followers of the Dalai Lama and, it is believed, supported the crackdown on Falun Gong, the mystic sect that claims millions of members in China. As a sign of his ascendancy, Hu, a civilian, was elevated two weeks ago to the vice chairmanship of the critical Central Military Commission.

Nevertheless, many Chinese are looking to Buddhism, Taoism and even brand-new religions to slake a thirst that all the Cokes in the world won't abate. Explains William T. Liu, an American sociologist working in Singapore: Chinese communism is a system of economic development, but there is no theology to explain what people should believe in. China is very fertile ground for any religion right now.

So China's communist leaders are coming, inelegantly, to terms with the problems that religion presents. The mindless faith of the believer terrifies them. They have seen what it can do. And somewhere in their souls, men like Fu still believe in the ultimate triumph of atheism. This is, after all, a country that just inaugurated an annual Hero of Atheism award. (This year's winner was Sima Nan, a 43-year-old ex-journalist who debunks the superhuman feats of local shamans on his TV show.) The sincere advocacy of freedom of religious belief is based on our understanding of the dialectical materialistic theory, says Ye Xiaowen, director of the State Council's Religious Affairs Bureau. It is our concept of God. God, therefore, is subject to sensible, cautious and scientific choice. As Ye wrote in 1996, We must definitely adopt Lenin's attitude on such questions: 'Be especially cautious,' 'Be most rigorous,' and 'Think things over.'

But Lenin would be mortified by modern China. Think things over? The place is changing so fast that the Chinese like to say, He who thinks is lost. In China it's all about reaction. At the nation's heart is a tentatively beating, market-based economy, and keeping it alive puts every other goal--even mass atheism--in distant second place. That's why there's such a complex struggle with religion. China's leaders think a little faith can help the country grow--by serving as a bulwark against social unrest and the ennui Chinese call huise wenhua, or gray culture. Says Bishop Jin Luxian, 83, leader of Shanghai's Catholics: The Communist Party realizes that religion has a good side and can contribute to the welfare of the people. Jin, who is an eighth-generation Chinese Catholic, has waited for that epiphany a long time--including 27 years spent in Chinese prisons. In the past, he explains, people opposed religion as the 'opiate of the masses.' But now that 'opium war' is over.

China's ideological Brahmins have cut a deal with the nation's spiritual leaders--as long as your religions support the regime, we'll let you exist. But there's a flip side: Step off that narrow path, and you'll go to jail. Prison, Chinese priests and nuns still say, is our seminary. In 1982 China's constitution was amended to permit freedom of religion. But that's not the same as freedom of belief or freedom from government interference. Thus while China has officially produced 1,000 Catholic clerics in the past 18 years, all government-certified Catholics--including Bishop Jin of Shanghai--must forswear allegiance to the Roman Pontiff. Those who refuse must worship underground, ministered to by fugitive priests. Beijing has little patience with those who say the Kingdom of Heaven has precedence over the rulers of the Middle Kingdom. Peter Xu Yongze, an underground Protestant minister, has been arrested three times for suggesting that God might be more enduring than the state. (His other transgressions include pushing a kind of Christianity that requires new converts to weep for three straight days as a way to cleanse themselves of sin.)

The government has been equally forceful in its crackdown on the Falun Gong. The mass meditation of 10,000 members it organized in Beijing in April petrified the communist brass. The idea of a religious group capable of mobilizing thousands of followers right at the doorstep of Zhongnanhai, the residential compound of China's leaders, is a nightmare. Inside China, some bureaucrats are worried that the Falun Gong protests signify a state system too weak and too dazzled by change to defend itself from threats. If thousands of quiet meditators can wreak this kind of havoc, they fret, just imagine what millions of angry rebels could do. Is China's ideological shield really that fragile? Says a young Shanghai painter who works with religious themes: China is a bit like a moon colony, a place where life seems to exist sheltered only by a thin glass dome. Everyone knows it is supposed to be strong enough to resist meteorites, but it has never been tested. And no one in Zhongnanhai is eager to see it tested soon. Explains the Rev. Johan Candelin, a Finnish evangelical leader who has worked in China: There are two words that define China's attitude toward religious freedom: control and stability.

In chaos-fearing China, those sound like wonderful values. But the nation is so large and its religious faith so broad and fiery that control and stability are nearly impossible to achieve. The government tries. It has lately stamped its approval on a special, God-free program of jingshen wenming--spiritual civilization--designed to ennoble people's lives with such values as hard work and family. But in a nation newly exposed to and passionately in love with the idea of choice, that kind of McReligion is falling flat. Why can't I choose my own God? Chinese ask themselves. When police in China's small towns plaster walls with slogans like CATHOLICS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO ENGAGE IN ILLEGAL PROPAGATION ACTIVITIES, Chinese no longer nod their heads and agree. They want to decide for themselves.

The conflict can sometimes be amusing. The nation's schools, for instance, are stocked with American-missionary English teachers--cheap labor. They're not allowed to preach, and principals always warn students that they are being taught by Christians. But now the policy backfires. It made it easier for us, laughs a missionary who converted students as he taught, because anyone interested in religion made a beeline for us.

It's hard to get an exact count of believers in China. The government's sharply edited numbers say there are 100 million, but outsiders suggest it could be more than double that. Beijing does say that since the 1980s, more than 600 Protestant churches have opened each year in China. More than 18 million Bibles have been printed, some on the presses of the People's Liberation Army. And the official Chinese Catholic Church is opening youth summer camps in parts of China. The world's religious leaders see this liberation of China's 1.3 billion souls as epochal. Says Candelin: The revival of the Christian church in China is by far the biggest and most significant in the history of Christianity.

Outside the mainstream religions--and outside the supervision of the government--are hundreds of independent Chinese religions that gird China like a rural electric network, illuminating lives house by house. In Fujian province each spring, tens of thousands of the faithful parade from town to town in religious long marches celebrating localized Taoist gods. Tai Shan, a holy mountain south of Beijing, is one of the country's most popular tourist sites--especially among would-be grandmothers, who trudge to the top, drape red strings over trees and then return home to wait for the grandson this ritual is supposed to guarantee. The searching need for faith is written on the faces of the Chinese who pace each day, by the thousands, through the Confucian forest in Qufu. There, among the 600-year-old birch trees, are buried 77 generations of Confucius' descendants. Their graves, trashed and looted during the Cultural Revolution, have been rebuilt and remade in this decade. During the Cultural Revolution, in the 1960s, angry adolescent Red Guards dug up Confucius' grave, the most sacred spot in the forest, to show the Chinese that it was empty, that their Confucian faith was misplaced. But today the shrine is one of the holiest in China. Confucius may not inhabit the crypt, but he still haunts the nation's heart.

Religious vacations may sound unusual, particularly for a communist country, but some form of faith or superstition weaves its way through every element of Chinese life. The new Shanghai stock exchange is built in the shape of a hollowed square to help trap positive energy, a nod to the ancient geomantic rituals of feng shui. And members of China's new middle class are embracing both state-of-the-art technology to transform their economy and 5,000-year-old superstitions to support their lives. It turns out that the majority of businesspeople in China believe in the god of fortune, sighs Fu, the Marxist leader. And one-sixth of the people believe in the existence of gods or demons. One-twelfth believe they have seen ghosts or demons. He sighs again. Is it any wonder that 80% of Chinese visit fortune-tellers?

In many ways, the religiosity that has been reasserting itself in China may simply be delayed evolution. Very similar melting pots of prosperity, superstition and pious philosophy have emerged and thrived in Chinese communities uninterrupted by Mao's revolutions--in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. China of old had three competing and complementary religious traditions: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. While the religions were often at odds with one another--Confucianism, for instance, is built on a base of worldly order and ancestor worship that's far different from Taoism's mystical beliefs--they have, over a long history, fused together. They continued to do so outside China and are doing it again within China. Sociologists call what has emerged a syncretic faith, resembling more than anything else a pointillist painting in which every individual's beliefs are shaped and colored by specks of each tradition--and, at the close of the 20th century, by the color of money.

It may be an explosive composition. The country's history is filled with terrible uprisings inspired by newfangled religions--among the most recent and cataclysmic, the Christian-tinged Taiping Heavenly Kingdom from 1851 to 1864 and the mystical, Kung Fu-like Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century. Even Mao's militant idealism can be seen in this light. But China's long history is also filled with moments when faith and pragmatism merged to create miracles. What scares China's leaders is that the very first miracle of the nation's new faith may be their disappearance.