China’s ruling Communist Party has a testy and often bitter relationship with religion. During the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, temples and churches were shut, statues smashed, scriptures burned, and monks and nuns forced to return to secular life, often after receiving a good beating or even jail.
While the officially atheist Communist Party hardly pushes religion these days, its attitude has softened considerably, though rights groups frequently complain of sometimes harsh restrictions on Christians and Muslims especially.
On Friday, the Taiwanese Buddhist charity the Tzu Chi Foundation opened its Chinese chapter, in the historic eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, perhaps better known in the outside world for its stunning gardens. Officials say Tzu Chi is the first overseas non-governmental organisation to receive the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ blessing to operate in China. Normally they have to register with the Commerce Ministry as businesses.
It is another sign of China’s Communist rulers’ growing but still limited religious tolerance and part of a drive to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese. The Chinese government is generally less fearful of Buddhism with its home-grown roots, but maintains tight control especially in Tibet where monks have been jailed for supporting their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Yet Tzu Chi is barred from preaching and cannot raise funds from ordinary Chinese without government approval on an ad hoc basis. “We will not make it a point to preach when we do charity work on the mainland, but if people ask me my religion, I will say I’m Buddhist,” foundation spokesman Rey-sheng Her told Reuters.
“We will use compassion to care for every suffering person and enlighten them to use love to help others,” said Her, a former Taiwan television news anchor.
The opening of Tzu Chi’s China chapter, housed in a traditional courtyard, was attended by Chen Yunlin, China’s top negotiator with self-ruled and democratic Taiwan. Despite China and Taiwan’s political rivalry, bilateral trade and investment, tourism and civilian exchanges have blossomed since the late 1980s. “The two sides of the (Taiwan) strait need this spiritual bridge … so that they can live in harmony,” Chen said.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and insists on eventual unification, through force if necessary, a goal it has not renounced despite the signing of landmark trade and tourism agreements following the election of the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan president two years ago.
Taiwan, with its rambunctious democracy, enjoys complete freedom of belief. In China, the Communist Party sees religions as rivals for the loyalty of the Chinese people and have maintained tight control over beliefs since taking power in 1949. The Party has sought to use religion to help curb rising social unrest and fill an ideological vacuum in the post-Mao Zedong era which has eroded ethics and spawned graft.
In what appears to be growing tolerance towards religion, museums in Beijing and Shanghai hosted exhibits this year to commemorate the 400th death anniversary of Matteo Ricci (1582-1610), the Italian Jesuit who brought Christianity to China. Foreign clerics, including Jesuits and other Catholic orders, were expelled after the Communists seized power in a revolution in 1949.