Posts Tagged ‘religion’

One of the biggest misconceptions about China is that it’s given up on socialism in all but name – that by embracing capitalism, the Communist Party has tossed aside Marx, only invoking his name as lip-service to the CCP’s revolutionary roots. In fact, socialism is still the goal. It’s simply the next step on Marx’s stages of development, which consists of:

  1. Primitive Communism
  2. Slave Society
  3. Feudalism
  4. Capitalism
  5. Socialism
  6. Communism

Marx devoted a lot of ink to the 4th stage, where he said capitalist oppressors exploit the underclass and use religion as an “opiate” to keep them content with their repression. Eventually when stage 5 arrives, equality will make religion obsolete.

In 1949, China was more-or-less at stage 3. Mao thought he could just make a “Great Leap” to stage 5 by enforcing the tenants of a socialist society with an authoritarian hand. This included wiping out religion. The next 30 years under this policy were unsuccessful to put it mildly.

Eventually though, Deng Xiaoping came to power and acknowledged that stage 4 is kind of important. So along with a capitalist economy, he accepted religion with the expectation that it would gradually die out on its own through the natural progression of Marxism.

Fast forward 33 years to now and China is living through the worst of the capitalist excesses Marx wrote about. Recent stories on Foxconn have illustrated that, in spite of some improvements in recent years, China’s workers still endure conditions deplorable by western standards. Last month, Elizabeth Economy also revealed statistics that show how the land grab epidemic and exploitation of farmers is getting worse. And last week, Bloomberg highlighted China’s mammoth wealth inequality and marriage of money and politics. Their report said that the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress have a combined $89.8 billion. This compares to $7.5 billion for all 660 top officials in the U.S. government.

When faced with such problems, there’s one thing people around the world tend to turn to: Prayer. To see an extreme example of the power of faith during times of exploitation, we can look back to American and European slavery.  By the time the American Civil War came, the slave population was almost entirely Christian. Masters encouraged this because it gave slaves hope for the next world. With the promise of heavenly reward for hard faithful work, inclinations to seek freedom in Earthly life were subdued.

In one form or another, exploitation continued through the industrial revolution as the lower class created capital that mostly went to the upper class. But then the West eventually reached “development.” Some governments have even stepped in and made healthcare and education universally obtainable, which has helped push down wealth inequality. Several western countries are now moving toward what some might consider socialism through these policies. And a funny thing is happening: Religion is shrinking. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Scandinavia.

Those countries have pushed down wealth inequality to the lowest levels in the world, while per-capita wealth and happiness are among the highest. These countries also now happen to be the least religious.

Marxism is lacking in many areas, but it may not be as discredited as previously thought. Pitzer College sociology associate professor Phil Zuckerman has done research that compares religiosity and societal health. His findings show that countries with higher levels of organic atheism do indeed correlate with better indicators of a healthy society. I asked Zuckerman how this fits with Marx’s theory of religion and development.

“Research does support Marx,” he said, regarding religion. “At least to the extent that we know that societies that are ‘secure’ — people have enough to eat, somewhere to live, access to education, health care, and they live in free, open democracies (unlike China!) — such societies tend to be less religious. Conversely, societies that are poor, chaotic, wracked with warfare, instability, etc. — these societies tend to be more religious.”

Whether it’s Weber’s work ethic, Marx’s opiate, or a little of both, data suggests religion plays a role in developing societies and allowing the accumulation of capital. But then affluence, education and equality largely make the supernatural aspect obsolete. So when talking about morality or social effects, secular countries like China – where atheism has been forced from above – are a world apart from secular countries like Sweden. Sweden may be secular now, but it did develop under a religious moral framework.

Nobody can yet say whether the religious work ethicmoral framework or “opiate” are absolutely necessary for China to develop to the level of Western countries, or if Confucianism will be able to pick up the slack. But the developed club is so far overwhelmingly made up of countries that have gone through periods of majority religious populations.

The Chinese government isn’t blind to this. Many in the still-very-authoritarian Communist Party see the potential for religion and want to guide its development…on their terms. But, as Zuckerman pointed out, China’s capitalism is still missing one key ingredient from Marx’s scheme: Democracy. Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at how that’s affecting the potential of religion in China.

 

Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 3: Divine economics

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity

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As worries of a banking crisis have started to weigh on China in recent months, economists’ eyes have been fixated on Wenzhou. Entrepreneurs in the Zhejiang business hub tend to forgo the banks and simply lend money to each other. This has traditionally served the city well, as it allowed small enterprise to thrive. But now trouble is brewing.

Overinvestment and a slowing economy are starting to see many defaults on loans in Wenzhou. Scores of business owners have already fled the city or committed suicide to escape their debts to shadow lenders. In one case, the daughter of a businessman was taken hostage by a creditor to insure repayment of debt. Because of the growing network of shadow lenders across the country, as well as over-lending by official banks, Tsinghua economist Patrick Chovanec has said Wenzhou is the “canary in the goldmine” for China.

Those interested in the implications of Wenzhou’s economy may do well to look at the city’s other claim to fame: Its Christians. The city has around a 20-30% Christian population – abnormally high for China. Cao Nanlai, Hong Kong University professor and author of Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou, recently told me how religion and economics relate in the city.

He said that Wenzhou Christian entrepreneurs tend to take loans from one another because of the trust and shared values they’ve cultivated together in church. When the city’s debt crisis began, preachers started giving sermons about God’s punishment for greed and telling congregants to keep this in mind in their business dealings. “Wenzhou Christians tend not to put on pressure to repay loans, while their secular counterparts may have resorted to extreme measures that caused an exodus from the city,” Cao said. “In this sense, Christian values and networks do have a very positive impact on Wenzhou’s regional economy.”

In 1905 German economist Max Weber introduced the idea of a “Protestant work ethic.” It said the religion was instrumental in the development of many western countries because of the Calvinist emphasis on honest hard work that would lead to worldly success – a sign that one was heaven-bound.

Recent research has suggested even further economic benefits to religion. A study last year found that people who believe in a vengeful god (ie- one that might send you to hell) cheat less often. And another study that looked at economic data in 59 countries over 20 years found that rises in a belief in hell, and to a lesser extent heaven, correlated with spikes in economic growth.

In 2002, Hong Kong University Professor Wang Xiaoying wrote on China’s “post-Communist personality” and how the country is suffering the excesses of capitalism. Becoming rich is the focus and any attempt at moral guidance is scorned. “Nothing better represents such problems as the sheer scale of corruption and the ineffectiveness of all measures to keep it in check,” Wang writes. “Whatever the intrinsic flaws of capitalism as a social system, China’s social problems seem to come as much from the failure to establish a viable capitalist social order.”

Wang fears China doesn’t have the established social order that the west did during its development to reign in the capitalist excesses. Religion might be one effective way to establish this order and perhaps even turn a few corrupt officials honest. “Christianity may play a very important and positive role in the public sphere at the local and grassroots level,” said Cao Nanlai. “An informal local network of churchgoing relatives and friends can embed local officials within a shared emotional structure, shaping their moral values. This is certainly the case in Wenzhou.”

But religion’s potential in helping China develop might not just be about stopping the strong from exploiting the weak. It could be just as much about keeping the exploited quiet and working through the excesses of development. We’ll dig deeper into that tomorrow.

 

Christianity series Part 1: Can Lei Feng compete with Jesus?

Christianity series Part 2: The new Christians

Christianity series Part 4: What Marx may have gotten right

Christianity series Part 5: Communist Christianity

For those who haven’t heard of the horrific incident in Foshan, here’s a link with a video that will absolutely ruin your day and faith in humanity. It shows a two-year old girl getting run over TWICE and ignored by 18 bystanders. She’s not expected to live.

It’s hard to say how much of the bystanders’ ambivalence was universal human psychology and how much can be attributed to distinctly Chinese characteristics, but it’s becoming harder to downplay the latter. This is just the latest in a string of despicable stories to come out of China in recent years.  Consider these, some of which are just one instance of recurring events:

This list, unfortunately, isn’t even close to being exhaustive. It would be very tenuous to connect these all directly to any single factor, as most regard fear of legal liability as the main culprit in the Foshan story, for example, while the one-child policy is oft-cited for the child-trafficking problem. And of course, these things happen in other countries too, but their sheer scale and consistency in China is hard to write off, as many Chinese themselves have noted. There could be one thing at least partially contributing to all of this:

Hell.

Or rather, a lack of it.

I’m a devout atheist and tend to think dogmatic religion plays a largely negative role in society, but I can’t count the number of times in China I’ve shaken my head and wished more people believed in hell.

In any collectivist society, shame among peers tends to have much more influence than internal guilt. So if it’s unlikely that they’ll be caught, punished and shamed, people have less incentive to refrain from despicable actions. There’s even a Chinese proverb alluding to the idea saying “Neng pian jiu pian” (If you’re able to cheat, just cheat). You can couple this with the moral void that’s been left in the wake of socialism’s demise and the tunnel vision focus on money that emerged in the 1990’s.

The idea of hell as a means to keep people honest might be pretty intuitive (if not a bit Machiavellian) but University of British Colombia psychologist Ara Norenzayan published a study entitled Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. He gave subjects a math test they could easily cheat on and those who believed in a vengeful god typically chose not to cheat. “Fear of supernatural punishment may serve as a deterrent to counter-normative behavior, even in anonymous situations free from human social monitoring,” the study said.

Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and Harvard have also separately found a correlation between belief in hell and lower levels of corruption and higher economic growth.

According to the Boston Globe, “[Harvard researchers Barro and McCleary ] collected data from 59 countries where a majority of the population followed one of the four major religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.[…] Their results show a strong correlation between economic growth and certain shifts in beliefs, though only in developing countries. Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth. Belief in heaven also has a similar effect, though less pronounced. Mere belief in God has no effect one way or the other.”

“The expectation that there is a cultural belief in hell or perpetual and eternal punishment for wrongdoing will act as a disincentive to wrongdoing,” Eileen Lindner, deputy general secretary of the U.S. National Council of Churches, told USA Today.

The Chinese Communist Party has traditionally held a less than hospitable attitude toward religion and regarded the Marxist view that it’s “the opiate of the masses” as a bad thing. But there are signs they’re starting to see the (again, perhaps Machiavellian) advantages to the opiate concept. This seems especially true with Christianity, given its belief in hell and less potential for the political complications associated with Islam in China.

In Nanjing the government has built a 5,000 seat mega church and given other funding to help boost Christianity. In the manufacturing hub of Wenzhou, where it’s estimated as much as 20% of the population is Christian, the government is starting to seriously study the link between Christian enterprises and economic success. One Christian factory owner told BBC, “I’m not saying those people who aren’t Christians are all bad, but from the percentage of the workers who are Christians, they seem to be more responsible. Also when they do things wrong, they feel guilty – that’s the difference.”

During the Mao-era, throwing the doors open to religion would have been unthinkable. Communism was the religion and Mao its god. Any other faith would have been competition. But now, with the death of religious socialism, supernatural religion’s spread is inevitable and SOME in the now strictly utilitarian Party seem to be recognizing that that might be in their best interest.

For many of China’s tens of millions of religious followers, the repression of their faith itself is the biggest grievance with the Party. Standing aside or even assisting religion would likely pay the government far greater dividends than holding the Maoist religion-as-a-threat attitude. It seems it could also have very real economic and socially-stabilizing benefits.

In a 2006 interview with Reuters, Li Junru, deputy head of the Communist Party School  made a very telling statement. When asked why India can handle democracy while China needs an authoritarian government, he explained that India has religion to control the people.

One has to imagine the Communist Party sees the appeal of biblical verses like Hebrews 13:17, which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”