Religion is no longer derided in China. The keynote speech by Communist Party general secretary Hu Jintao to the 17th party congress in October 2007, devoted a paragraph to religion. He stressed that religious people including priests, monks and lay believers played a positive role in the social and economic development of China. Hence religion is no more the opiate of the masses.
The state-controlled Xinhua stresses freedom of belief. It says religion could play an important role in realising a ‘harmonious society’, which is the new political role of the party. That is the main issue we in India should note. A study by two professors of China Normal University based on more than 4,500 people in 2007 concludes that more than 300 million people, namely 31 per cent are religious, and more than 60 per cent of those are in the 16-40 age group. The number of followers of Christianity has increased to 12 per cent from less than eight per cent in the Nineties.
This last fact is interesting since a huge underground church has developed in China and Zhao Xiao, a former communist party official and convert to Christianity, thinks there are up to 130 million Christians in China. This figure is much higher than the official figure of 21 million — 16 million Protestants and five million Catholics. If the former figure is true, then there are more Christians in China than Communist Party members, 74 million at the last count.
The major change in China is not related to growth rates or the Three Gorges dam, shopping malls and Olympic stadia. That is a typical Western way of viewing China. The main change is in religious affiliation, and the assertiveness of Islamic followers and development of a large-scale underground church. The middle classes have given up rice (perceived to be for the illiterate poor) and are embracing Christianity as it also helps job mobility, particularly in global companies where the heads could belong to the same church.
The Muslim population is more concentrated in specific locations like the western parts. But there is also a growing interest in China about its past. The white marble Ming dynasty tombs in Beijing were painted red during the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties. Even today labourers are trying to restore the white, without success. The guides are not reluctant to talk about it.
The 10-handed Buddha in the summer palace of the Qing dynasty near Beijing has many similarities with Vishnu, and even this is mentioned clearly. More importantly China is opening ‘Confucius Institutes’ in more than 50 countries, similar to British Council efforts, but more focused on China’s ancient wisdom. The first thing we should learn is to stop looking at China with Western glasses.
Economic growth bereft of spiritual underpinnings in the context of the death of Marxism will be a great challenge for China. India as an elder brother should facilitate an orderly transformation based on our common shared ancient wisdom.
Let us remember that China too is a multi-cultural and multi-religious society but interested in our shared past. In the words of Hu Shih, a former ambassador of China to the USA (1938-1942) “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without having to send a single soldier across her borders.” We should be using our soft power to ‘conquer and dominate’ China.
We need to print million copies of the Ramayana and Mahabharata and start some 50 Bharatiya Vidya Bhavans in China. This is the only way to destabilise our younger brother, by de-legitimising communism. Actually China needs this more than USA even though all our soft power is currently on show in the USA.
We should recognise China’s weak point and the need of its masses in the absence of communism. Many Chinese even today believe that their next birth should be in India to reach salvation. Culture and religion are not taboos any more.
There are other issues. Officially China recognises or permits only five religions, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Protestantism and Catholicism. Hence we should take steps to include Hinduism as well. The point is that our soft power in culture is interwoven intimately with religion.
You cannot separate it however much you try it. Carnatic music without Bhakthi is neither music nor art. The strategy should be to encircle China with music, dance, art, yoga. ayurveda, spiritual texts, etc, and capture the hearts of the middle-classes as we have done for centuries.
The second issue is related to our own mindset. We tend to look at China either through Western spectacles or through local Marxist spectacles — which have thicker glasses. We need to come out of it. Policy formulators are still living in the Sixties and Seventies while China is undergoing a gigantic social crisis due to material prosperity and spiritual vacuum. The foreign secretary-in-waiting was India’s Ambassador to China.
She should send someone to China who grasps the strategy and fashions the responses and our actions. Unfortunately, as a Chinese colleague of mine commented, “both our countries are ruled by rootless deracinated foreign educated wonders that do not have any idea of the civilisational roots or the cultural richness of our lands.” But this is an opportunity too good to pass up, especially as there is every likelihood that the next two superpowers will be from Asia. In the process we would be destabilising the current dispensation and the remnants of communism. Are we ready to undertake such an ‘invasion’?