Pulitzer Prize winning journalist discusses relationship between religion, China
Anne Elizabeth Barr | Tuesday, October 29, 2019
Ian Johnson, 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, discussed the role of religion in Chinese society during his lecture titled “Religion in China: Back to the Center of Politics and Society.” The event was sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life and the US-China Catholic Association and took place in the Eck Visitors Center Auditorium on Monday.
Johnson moved to Beijing in 2009 and has lived there since, working for publications such as The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, as well as for the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. His most recent book, “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao,” was released in 2017 and discusses these issues.
Johnson began his discussion with a historical background of China’s relationship with religion during the late 19th century reform movements.
“This was pretty much a top-down enterprise driven by elites in China who felt that their country was losing ground to the West — that there was something wrong with Chinese culture, especially with Chinese religion,” Johnson said.
He described this general trend of governmental distaste for religion as continuing into the 20th century communism under Mao; however, he cited a recent modern shift in government view of religion from avoidance to acceptance of traditional Chinese religious practices.
“I think the government’s policy, broadly speaking — and there are exceptions to all of this — is support of some religions and suspicion to downright hostility toward other religions,” Johnson said. “The religions that are supported are the traditional religions.”
Johnson described the government’s renewed interest and support of traditional cultural religions through propaganda and UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage projects.
“[The Chinese Government] redefined folk religious practice as intangible cultural heritage,” Johnson said. “Not all of intangible cultural heritage is religious but a fair amount of it is.”
Johnson discussed the large implications of such cultural heritage projects for acceptance of previously scorned traditional religions.
“[These religions] are no longer declared superstitious,” Johnson said. “They have the benefit of government support … it is that government support that matters and gives prestige. They are no longer looked down upon.”
Johnson then discussed religions facing persecution in China — particularly Christianity and Islam — which he referred to as the “foreign faiths.” He presented the audience with images of crosses on buildings being removed, video surveillance of religious sites and government-run re-education camps for Muslims living in China.
However, Johnson asserted that many ordinary religious practices, particularly related to Christianity, are still carried out throughout the country.
“There are real problems going on, but there is also a lot of normal religious life that goes on despite the problems,” he said. “Not to try to whitewash it or sugarcoat it, but I think it is important to remember in a big country like China, when we are talking about religions with millions and tens of millions of numbers, it’s not as if everybody is under pressure.”
Despite the continuing persecution of religious groups in China, Johnson expressed optimism regarding the recent increase of religious practice in the country.
“What I find more interesting is that religion, from being a marginalized part of Chinese society, is back in the center,” he said. “It is back in the center in a good way — people search for values and search for meaning in life, things that are important issues in our own society — but also in the nitty gritty political world as well.”