China, Poverty, and Religion

This comes from Istvan Simon: Joseph Kahn reports in a long article in the New York Times (!!/25/04) on the growth of religion  and religious sects in the poor  countryside of China.  The report  starts with the incredible story of  a Chinese Christian family  that were being hounded and harassed by  a man proselytizing for a rival sect in a very aggressive way.  The proselytizer, Mr. Zhang Chenli,  was found murdered  eventually, and authorities arrested the husband  Cai Defu in the  murder. I quote from the article:

"Ms. Kuang poured dirty water on Mr. Zhang's head. Mr. Cai punched him. Yet Mr. Zhang persisted for months until the couple's sect intervened and stopped his proselytizing for good. Mr. Zhang's body - eyes, ears and nose ripped from his face - was found by a roadside 300 miles from this rural town in Jilin Province, in northeastern China. The police arrested Mr. Cai and fellow sect members. One of them died in police custody during what fellow inmates described as a torture session.

China's growing material wealth has eluded the countryside, home to two-thirds of its population. But there is a bull market in sects and cults competing for souls. That has alarmed the authorities, who seem uncertain whether the spread of religion or its systematic repression does more to turn peasants against Communist rule. The demise of Communist ideology has left a void, and it is being filled by religion. The country today has more church-going Protestants than Europe, according to several foreign estimates.  Buddhism has become popular among the social elite. Beijing college students wait hours for a pew during Christmas services in thecapital's 100 packed churches.

But it is the rural underclass that is most desperate for salvation. The rural economy has grown relatively slowly. Corruption and a collapse in state-sponsored medical care and social services are felt acutely. But government-sanctioned churches operate mainly in cities, where they can be closely monitored, and priests and ministers by law can preach only to those who come to them. The authorities do not ban religious activity in the countryside. But they have made it so difficult for established churches to operate there that many rural Chinese have turned to underground, often heterodox religious movements. "

Later on the article says: " "Beijing cannot tolerate religious groups that are not directly under its control," says Susanna Chen, a researcher in Taiwan who has studied the rural sects. "But for every group they repress, there are two to replace it. And the new ones are often more dangerous than those that came before." One is reminded also of the unfortunate persecution of the Falun Gong in China, for which there seems to be no good reason at all. Adherents of the  Falun Gong seem completely inoffensive to me, concentrating mostly on healthy habits, exercise and so on.  I cannot understand their persecution,  except  as fear of anything that the authorities
cannot control.  It seems certain that persecution in turn is futile, and it will not stop the Falun Gong, and may in fact enhance its growth.

Though the phenomenon mentioned by Mr. Kahn in his article is most interesting, and the  relationship between  religious repression, poverty, and  the growth of underground sects  most worthy of research,  I remark that none of these factors  seem to be present in the United States, where the same growth of bizarre sects can be observed.  Waco, Jonestown, the reverend Moon, are just some of the most recent examples. The first two are examples where  it led to terrible tragedy.


RH: Religion around the world ia an important subject. The recent US elections showed that fundamentalist Christianity is a force in the US, as is the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico.  However, in Europe the churches are empty, the subject of a TV program in France, where lack of priests is leading to the import of Black priests from Africa.. It seems unlikely that they will attract more faithful. A BBC program today was devoted to the spread of Pentecostal type religion in Kenya. One is left wondering if religion is a force for unmitigated good in primitive societies.


Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: January 16, 2005