INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Professor Allen D. HertzkeNews Weekly
ChinaÂ’s spiritual vacuum
, April 8, 2000
Allen D. Hertzke is the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma, First Things, March, 2000
For three weeks in September of 1999 I travelled the length and breadth of the People's Republic of China, lecturing to scholars, students, journalists, and even government officials. Sponsored by the US Information Service, the branch of our foreign service that "tells America's story" to the world, my lectures developed the theme that one cannot understand American politics without comprehending American religion.
Because the subject was religion and the US State Department had just issued a report critical of religious persecution in China, these lectures often evolved into extended discussions, often debates, about the religious situation in China, the nature of a free civil society, the concept of religious freedom, and the meaning of faith in the modern world. Plentiful opportunities for quiet, one-on-one conversations also allowed me to hear personal accounts, whether of suffering during the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen crackdown, or, with striking regularity, of the continuing struggles of religious believers in this one-party state. These encounters - some of the most poignant I have experienced as a scholar - opened a window into Chinese life and thought that I could not have anticipated. The following are some lessons I learned from this experience.
There is a tremendous spiritual ferment taking place in China, despite fifty years of official atheism. The chaos introduced by rapid market liberalisation, not to mention the corruptions inherent in cadre capitalism, have produced a moral and intellectual vacuum. Is materialism enough? What is the basis for moral behavior in the marketplace? What is the purpose of a person's life? Upon what are the moral foundations of civil society to be built?
To this latter question, of course, Alexis de Tocqueville famously answered that spiritual beliefs and religious practice provided the "mores" that undergird free society in America. And in my lectures I explained how his thesis is being reaffirmed by a growing scholarship on American voluntarism, civil society, and social capital. American scholars are rediscovering religion, I noted.
What I discovered is that Chinese intellectuals are also groping for moral and religious clarity. I met scholars looking for ways to make Confucianism, traditionally hostile to commerce, more compatible with modern capitalism. I was asked whether, and how, religion might provide moral restraint in a market society. I was asked about how religion might produce "social capital" - social ties and trust among people-to help smooth the process of modernisation. One perceptive student even asked if communism is a religion. Yes, I said, it is the god of the twentieth century that failed.
Yet the Communist Party clings to power, attempting to fill the vacuum with consumer goods and nationalist pride. The blossoming of religious movements, however - from Falun Gong (the banned meditation cult that blends elements of Buddhism, martial arts, and strict moral messages) to Islam and Christianity - suggests that the party's solution will not be adequate for China's restless people.
Indeed, I discovered curiosity about religion that went beyond mere academic interest, and I found myself explaining my own faith - or "witnessing" in the evangelical argot. One of my guides, a professed atheist, described how if he got depressed or anxious during college, he would go to the Catholic Church to sit and meditate. There was something special about the place, he said. What was it? It speaks to our transcendent yearnings, I offered.