Chinese Theological Review 13

Reading Document 19

Bishop K.H. Ting

"The Basic Standpoint and Policy on Religious Questions in China's Socialist Period," Document 19, adopted by the Party Central Committee in 1982, is an important document. To see why, compare it to documents and essays on religion from the Soviet Union, or with those China has produced in the past. Comparisons such as these show that this document is in a different vein, and its views are fresh and incisive. A very special characteristic of this document is that it does not proceed from concepts and definitions, but from the reality of China, from the present situation of society and religion in China. In its approach, it adopts the invaluable style of seeking truth from facts.

The most evident expression of this approach of beginning with present reality lies in its title: "The Basic Standpoint and Policy on Religious Questions in China's Socialist Period." This tells us that the document is not dealing with religious questions in the abstract, but with religious questions in China, and not with religious questions in China in general terms, but religious questions in China during the socialist period. Religious questions in China is specific; religious questions in China during the socialist period even more so. Chairman Mao promoted the method of paying attention to specifics in doing research, rather than being content with generalities. With regard to the study of war, Chairman Mao believed that while the general laws of war should certainly be studied, it was even more necessary to study the laws of revolutionary wars, and that it was absolutely vital to study the laws of the Chinese people's revolution.

Marx and Engels studied religion in general but primarily understood religion in Western Europe. Lenin was most familiar with religion in Russia. They had little understanding of religion in China, which has its own special characteristics. For example, the role of religion in China has always been much smaller than its role in Europe. In Chinese history, divine right has never overridden the rights of rulers as it did in Europe. There was an emperor in Europe who, because he offended the Pope, had to walk a long distance barefoot and at night, to beg the Pope's forgiveness. We cannot imagine anything like this in Chinese history. Among Han Chinese, religion has always been subordinate to politics. In Europe, church creed has also been political precept, and the study of law was long under the dominion of theology. This prompted Marx to say, "the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism." But in China, religion has never occupied such a commanding position. In China, the feudal code of ethics and the patriarchal clan system have held the place taken by religion in Europe. The slogans of the May Fourth Movement were "Down with the feudal system" and "Down with Confucius." Criticism of feudalism or the patriarchal clan system was "the premise of all criticism" in China. It would be inappropriate to copy Europe in China.

Marx and Engels did not speak of the historical stages of socialism, nor did Lenin have time to study religious questions in the socialist period. What changes took place in the status and function of religion after the people took political power? How should religious questions be dealt with in the socialist period? These were extremely novel subjects. To copy from Europe, from the old ways, or from the period of reactionary rule, would not do. As Lenin said, for example, "The present source of religion is the dread of the unchecked forces of capitalism. These forces truly are unchecked, because the musses cannot foresee them, and because the proletariat and small landholders might meet them anytime, anywhere in the course of their lives. This is what happens when they meet 'sudden,' 'unexpected,' 'happenstance,' bankruptcy and destruction, that turns them into beggars, paupers and prostitutes, even forcing them to starvation."

These words are very much in line with the situation in Russia at the time, and are quite appropriate to capitalist countries and Third World countries where the people have not yet become their own masters, but they are not appropriate for socialist new China. If we simply go by the book, how will we be able to explain present religious questions in China? Can the continued presence of religious believers be attributed to blind bourgeois forces that will suddenly turn people into beggars and prostitutes? Lenin said: "All the oppressor classes must play two social roles in order to maintain control; one is executioner and the other is priest. The executioner suppresses the protests and uprisings of the oppressed. The priest comforts the oppressed, painting for them a far-off vista of reduced suffering and sacrifice if they maintain the conditions of class rule ... and this weakens their revolutionary resolve."

If we were to quote this with reference to present-day China, we would be defeating our own purpose. Can the machinery of a country with the people in charge function to chop off the people's hands? Would our country really want to use religion as a "tool of the spirit" to break the people's revolutionary resolve? And as the young Marx said: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people." To apply this quotation mechanically to socialist China will cause problems. Are the Chinese people still "oppressed creatures?" The first paragraph of Document 19 says: "The exploiting classes needed to use religion as their primary spiritual means to anesthetize and control the masses." But China today is not under the rule of the exploiting classes, and the Communist Party and the people's government certainly do not want to anesthetize the people. If we still emphasize that religion is an opiate, then we must come out and say it - which class is it today that wants to use religion to anesthetize the people?

Since the reactionary ruling class that used religion to numb the people and the conditions which made people accept exploitation and oppression no longer exist, then if religion functions as an opiate, it is only in the sense that wine may be used to banish melancholy. Not its best use perhaps, but entirely permissible. If no distinction is made between the present and the past when we speak of the ruling classes' manipulation of religion to anesthetize the people, then our attempts are, at the very least, theoretically sloppy. In politics, we will be bound to continue "taking class struggle as the key link" in dealing with religion and it will be difficult to keep from flailing into all kinds of "leftist" methods in our work.

We have new Christians now, among whom many turned to Christianity, in their own words, "because religion makes us do good."

Christianity speaks of love, industriousness, sincerity, reconciliation, endurance, self-denial and doing good to others. In the old society these might have been susceptible to manipulation by the reactionary ruling classes, so those classes welcomed their propagation by religion, the better to use them to drug the people. Today, however, there has been a fundamental change in the situation-political power is firmly in the hands of the people. The political and social function of these Christian persuasions is no longer the same. They can be aids rather than obstacles to strengthening stability and unity and to increasing production. People who wanted to practice these Christian virtues were never very willing to participate in "rebel" groups during the Cultural Revolution.

There is a passage in the Bible to the effect that authority is instituted by God, and people should submit to it. The KMT used this to tranquilize the people, to make them docile and obedient. But when Christians say this today under the political authority of the people, they cannot be judged reactionary. For some Christians, this idea strengthens the relationship between believers and the government. This Christian code of conduct is good for social stability and is conducive to people living and working in peace and contentment. Such Christians are more in harmony with socialism, and they are much better than people who smash and grab or pursue selfish interests. Many Christians in the countryside want nothing more than to be able to gather together once a week. They participate actively in production and their record in meeting their quota of grain for the state is very good. Pastors encourage this. Furthermore, the believers are very obedient and local cadres are well disposed toward them. Plainly, religion does not simply play the role of opiate. It may have many roles, depending on the time and conditions; it is not necessarily antagonistic to socialism.

In sum, religious questions during China's socialist period are special. What was done in foreign countries and class societies cannot simply be copied. What is special about this document is first and foremost that it does not simply go by the book, but proceeds from reality. Today the Chinese people have entered a historical period where class struggle is no longer the key link. We should have a knowledge of religious questions appropriate to this period.

We note that the word "opium" does not appear in Document 19, not even once. Only when the rule of the exploiting class in former days is mentioned is the word "tranquilize" used: "The exploiting classes needed to use religion as their main spiritual means to tranquilize and control the masses." In this the Document is very different from many documents dealing with religious questions found in the Soviet Union and in China in the past. In the past some people thought that it was unmarxist to speak of religion without calling it an opiate. I do not think it is entirely by chance that this document does not mention the word. It has thrown off dogmatism and bookishness, and does not begin with concepts and definitions. It is an expression of the fine Party tradition of beginning with reality. Explaining all religious questions by the opiate theory has always been inadequate; it is even less viable as an explanation of religion during the socialist period. Why insist on it then? There is a reluctance among some people to go and study actual conditions; they would rather latch on to one or two well-known phrases in dealing with things. They think "opiate" is part of the nature of religion and that the theory of religion as opiate is a universal or eternal truth. They go so far as to say that it is original to Marx.

Actually, some decades prior to Marx, the phrase was already on the lips of enlightened bourgeois scholars in Germany, including those in religious circles. To claim it as an idea originating with Marx, is degrading, not exalting, to Marx. Actually, the writings and teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Chairman Mao on religion are extremely rich, comprehensive and profound. But "religion is opium," is the only phrase that comes to some people's minds and they rely on it in all questions touching on religion. The result is that they can hardly avoid being simplistic. It was Zhou Enlai who took exception to continuing to trumpet the opium theory when we were already in the socialist period. In 1950, during tile CPPCC, Premier Zhou told the people: "Do not think that the slogans used during the revolution should be used even more fervidly after victory. Quite the opposite. During the revolutionary period it is necessary to make the principles clear. Now that we have political power, there are times when it is not necessary to emphasize that 'religion is an opiate.' The issue is that we must be good at isolating the minority of stubborn reactionaries." These words deserve our attention. The first special characteristic of Document 19 is its elimination of outmoded language; it begins its study of religious issues from the present reality of China and puts forward a brand-new viewpoint.

Secondly, it makes an appropriate assessment of religion and religious circles in China's socialist period.

In the debate over guiding thought for religious work, the dispute between the five natures and the two natures continues. The five natures are (1) the rootedness of religion in the masses of the people, (2) its affinity to ethnic minority peoples, (3) its international connections, (4) its continued existence over the long-term, and (5) its complexity. This theory of the five natures is an important development and a great contribution to Marxism by the Chinese revolutionary movement. The Document does not use the term "five natures," but the spirit of the whole undeniably affirms it. In the latter half of the second paragraph, the five natures are mentioned one by one in detail.

The so-called "two natures" of religion assert its reactionary nature and its deceptive nature. This document in no way advocates or plays up religion in China's socialist period as reactionary or deceptive.

Reaction is a political concept. The most that could be said of religion would be that it is mistaken or erroneous knowledge. And there are a great many people with this or that kind of error in knowledge. The idealism of subjectivism is even more prevalent. People with errors in understanding may be politically reactionary, but they may also be revolutionary, progressive and patriotic. The equation of religious faith with political reaction is a method used during the Cultural Revolution.

The Document makes the following assessment of religion and religious circles in China today: "After Liberation there was a thorough transformation of the socio-economic system and a major reform of the religious system, and so the status of religion in China has already undergone a fundamental change. The contradictions of the religious question now belong primarily to the category of internal contradictions among the people." "We did away with imperialist forces within the churches and promoted the correct policy of independent, self-governed and autonomous churches, as well as the "Three-Self Movement"(self-propagation, self-administration and self-support). The Catholic and Protestant Churches ceased to be tools of the imperialist aggressors and became independent and autonomous religious enterprises of Chinese believers. We abolished the special privileges and oppressive exploitative system of feudal religion, attacked and exposed those reactionaries and bad elements who hid behind the cloak of religion." "By far the majority of [religious professionals] are patriotic, law-abiding and support the socialist system. Only a very small minority oppose the Constitution and socialism to the extent of colluding with foreign anti-revolutionaries and other bad elements." We note that the Document's approach toward religion is scientific, cool-headed and seeking truth from facts; it does not shy away from its subject. It has a very high assessment of religious circles thirty years after Liberation. This is in line with Comrade Deng Xiaoping's statement a few years ago that "Religious circles have made great progress."

As for having a deceptive nature, Engels and Lenin both pointed out that to see religion as the product of a meeting between a fool and a trickster is a bourgeois view. This is not to say that nothing deceptive ever happens in religion, but that the sources of religion are much more profound. It is a great over-simplification to say that religion is no more than a trick and would not exist if not for tricksters.

One-sided emphasis on the reactionary and deceptive natures of religion will inevitably lead to a struggle with religion, to a line in work that attempts to destroy religious faith. We have suffered enough distress from such a line.

Thirdly, the Document makes very clear why the Party is involved in work in the area of religion and what kind of work it should do, what the fundamental starting point and aim is, what the basic task is and is not.

There is a hypothesis which says that since Marxism is atheist then the intent and goal of the Party's work in religion must be, by whatever means, to place all sorts of obstacles in the way of religious belief, to make non-believers of believers, to employ all sorts of methods in the struggle with religion in order to limit and reduce it. This is the line that reached its full expression during the Cultural Revolution period.

The Document deals with extreme clarity with the true intentions of the Party toward religion. "The basic starting point and firm foundation for our handling of the religious question and for the implementation of our policy and freedom of religious belief lies in our desire to unite the mass of believers and non-believers and enable them to center all their will and strength on the common goal of building a modernized, powerful socialist state." The basic task of the Party and government in religious work is "to firmly implement and carry out its policy of freedom of religious belief; to consolidate and expand the patriotic and political alliance in each ethnic religious group; to strengthen education in patriotism and socialism among them, and to bring into play positive elements among them in order to build a modern and powerful socialist state and complete the great task of unifying the country; and to oppose hegemonism and strive together to protect and preserve world peace." It is worth noting that in speaking of the starting point, foundation and basic task of the Party's religious work, the Document says nothing of reducing the number of religious believers, struggling against religion, limiting or destroying religion.

But there are those who pass over this aspect of the document without really seeing it and persist in thinking that religious freedom is just a phrase and the true intent of the Party remains to do away with religion by all possible means. In this case, dealing brutally with religious questions among the people, creating tension between the Party and the masses are all feasible. To justify themselves, they exaggerate the few instances of chaotic and abnormal phenomena in religious matters as if they were emblematic of the whole situation. This differs greatly from the assessment of the situation given in the Document.

As for the "unchecked flood" of religion, we shouldn't exaggerate this. It is certainly not a result of the implementation of the religious policy; rather it can often be attributed to failure to implement religious policy and other policies. Some people are frightened out of their wits at tales of a "religious flood" and become ambivalent about implementing the religious policy, shouting about "religion being out of control," "propagating atheism," and so on. This gives the green light to creating confusion at the grassroots and suppressing the people. This is just asking for trouble. Religious fanaticism cannot be maintained for long. What should be done is to allow the policy to be carried out. The masses will turn to the Party and bad elements (if there are any) will be exposed, isolated and dealt with.

Talk of a "religious flood" is an undiscriminating assault on religion, an all-out attack. Such a characterization makes no distinctions, does not allow for differentiation in the treatment of things and does nothing to enlarge unity. It leads easily to enlarging the scope of attack. Two years ago in one locale in Hubei province, there was an increase in the number of Christians and the sweeping statement was made that this was a "religious flood." But investigation promptly showed that there were at least two sets of circumstances that had to be distinguished: (1) one person had been pushing faith healing and exorcism, claiming the end of the world was near, in order to cheat people of money. (2) Two miners had got up a group of Christians outside the churches, but they were against healing and exorcism and refused to accept gifts, they taught that people had to achieve the "three satisfies" - satisfy the Party, satisfy God and satisfy others. This latter example was not unpatriotic, represented a fairly good type of religion and should not have been lumped together with the first example, as if both were part of the "flood." China makes distinctions in treatment even among imperialist countries. How much more then should it do so among religious believers.

Among believers we find that the large part of religious activities are normal ones. Beyond this, the Document mentions three other things, which it does not include among normal religious activities. "The resolute protection of all normal religious activities suggests, at the same time, a determined crackdown on all criminal and anti-revolutionary activities which hide behind the facade of religion, which includes all superstitious practices which fall outside the scope of religion and are injurious to the national welfare as well as to the life and property of the people." These are two "resolves."

The Document does not hold that religion will exist permanently. However, it is not going to disappear during our present stage, and even less can the cadres of our religious affairs departments be expected to take responsibility to struggle with religion in order to achieve its destruction. For cadres of religious affairs departments to desire to both unite the masses of religious believers and abolish their religious faith would be an irreconcilable contradiction. They could not, in this case, do their work well. The Party Central has responded to this in Document 19: "We must further understand that at the present historical stage the difference that exists between the mass of believers and non-believers in matters of ideology and belief relatively secondary." Belief and non-belief are not described a contradiction, but as a difference, and a minor difference that. I should think this statement would serve to sober up those distracted by the opiate theory, who promote the reactionary an deceptive nature of religion and those bent on sweeping away attacking and limiting religion.

The task of the religious affairs departments is t implement policy and unite believers. They are not charged with opposing religion, propagating atheism to believers or making non-believers of believers. For this point to be made clear and communicated publicly to those related to religion will be very good for the correction of "leftism." For many years, too much was heard of "the reactionary nature of religion," "struggling against religion," "hurrying the demise of religion," "establishing no-religion areas," and "talk about religious freedom is just for the benefit of foreigners." Unless we clearly negate all this now, it will be difficult to rectify "leftism" and difficult to change the image of government religious affairs departments among the believing masses as anti-religion departments, difficult to dispel the misgivings of the believing masses, difficult to establish true friendship with the believing masses, difficult to unite them.

I believe the central spirit of Document 19 lies in showing exactly what the intentions and desires of the Party are in its religious work.

Fourthly, the Document asks for improvement in the relationship between the government and religion in some areas. The country is presently engaged in putting into practice separation of state and commerce. Turning to religion, the failure to separate religion and state is quite serious in some areas. The problem is that it is in no way conducive to mobilizing the patriotic strength of religious circles as a bridge between Party and masses. And so it is not conducive to uniting the broad mass of religious believers around the Party.

There are three passages in the Document which emphasize that cadres should stress the role of patriotic religious bodies at all levels. If the cadres are good at leading, if they avoid taking over and allow the religious bodies their role and power, then they can be in close contact with the believing masses.

(1) "The basic task of these patriotic religious organizations is to assist the Party and the government to implement the policy of freedom of religious belief, to help the broad mass of religious believers and persons in religious circles to continually raise their patriotic and socialist consciousness, to represent the lawful rights and interest of religious circles, to organize normal religious activities and to manage religious affairs well."

(2) "We must strengthen the government organs responsible for religious affairs, to enable all cadres who give themselves to this particular work to study the Marxist theory of religion in a systematic way, to thoroughly understand the Party's fundamental viewpoint and policy on the religious question, to maintain close relationships with the mass of religious believers, and to consult on equal terms with persons in religious circles in order to cooperate and work together."

(3) "All patriotic religious organizations should follow the Party's and government's leadership. Party and government cadres in turn should become adept in supporting and helping religious organizations to solve their own problems. They should not monopolize or do things these organizations should do themselves. Only in this way can we fully develop the positive characteristics of these organizations and allow them to play their proper role and enable them, within constitutional and lawful limits, to voluntarily perform useful work. Thus they can truly become religious groups with a positive influence, and can act as bridges for the Party's and government's work or winning over, uniting with and educating persons in religious circles."

At present there are individual locales where these conditions do not apply. Everything (including those things that are properly the affairs of religion itself) is under the control of the cadres. These cadres do not understand religion, do not understand the thoughts and feelings of religious believers and do not respect religious traditions. People in religious circles dare say nothing and so these cadres act in many ways which are injurious to religious believers and force them into the arms of bad elements and enemies, causing patriotic religious groups to lose many of the masses.

For example, in some places "patriotic pledges", "Eight Not-Alloweds", "Ten Not-Alloweds" are perpetrated under false use of the name of religious groups. This is extremely unfavorable to uniting believers around patriotic religious bodies. Forcing such unpatriotic things that lack a mass base upon patriotic religious bodies can only cause believing masses to look down upon persons in patriotic religious circles. A quick end should be made of these practices. Of course, if patriotic pledges contain no anti-religious content or language, if believers have been consulted and have accepted them and if they have a mass base, then that is another story.

China's enemies overseas say that our religions are officially run and some people in China think that is the way it should be. They claim that people in religious circles should not be allowed to be in charge of their religion, for only then can the Party lead. The leadership of the Party consists in communicating the Party's correct line and policies to the masses; it is leadership with a mass base which is thoroughly implemented by reserving to the masses their duties and rights.

Some "leaders" in religious circles do not represent the legal rights and interests of those circles. They know how to curry favor, they seem to act on whatever is said and are very willing to accept leadership, but their actions do not function as bridges. Rather they increase the estrangement from the Party and cause the cadres to be isolated. If cadres want to unite the believers, they should not despise religious leaders who love religion, nor should they blindly welcome and depend on religious leaders who do not love religion, because it is their love of religion that gives these leaders their mass base. For cadres to rely on leaders who do not love religion and distance themselves from religion-loving leaders in order to make their work easier can in the end only do damage to the work. There is a great need today to help church leaders not to distance themselves from the masses and to have more of a mass character.

Comrade Deng Xiaoping has said: "All levels of our leadership organs are engaged in supervising things they should have no part in; they handle them poorly or not at all. These things simply need definite regulations and can then be delegated to commercial, business or social units, allowing them to deal with such things themselves according to democratic centralism. These things could be handled very well, but bring them all to Party organs, to Central departments, and they become very difficult to handle. No one has the magical power to handle difficult and unfamiliar things. It can be said that this is one of the root causes of the bureaucratism peculiar to ourselves these days." This seems very appropriate to reforming our religious work.

Finally, I would like to say that this Document is an expression of the Party's absolute resolve to implement the religious policy, but it is not the only expression.

In the recent Constitutional revision, those articles affecting religion are a concentrated expression of the spirit of the Party Central Committee. I was a member of the Commission on Constitutional Revision. Looking over the large amount of materials from the two years of meetings of the Commission, I find that there were many on the Commission who supported the proposal to retain the wording of the 1978 Constitution on religion ("freedom to propagate atheism"), and some of these were important cadres or well-known scholars. But the Party Central supported returning things to normal, so that as the drafts of the revised Constitution appeared, the 1978 wording on religion had been removed. The Religious Affairs Bureau under the State Council wrote to the Commission expressing support for the draft put forward by religious circles. This was in line with the spirit of the Central Committee. It is especially worth noting that a certain tone which can easily lead people to feel that religion is being discriminated against - religion may not be involved in this, religion may not be involved in that - has been eliminated. The whole process reflected the resolve of the Party to uphold truth, return things to normal, implement policy and unite with believers.

I should also point out that the Twelfth Plenum deleted the clause in the draft Party Constitution forbidding Party members to believe in religion. This deletion of course does not imply that the Party is in favor of Party members believing in religion, but it reflects once again the trouble the Party Central has taken to unite with the believing masses, avoid offending believers' feelings and accept the views of religious circles.

These facts attest that with regard to religious questions, the Party Central opposes and has overcome the errors in thinking left over from the Cultural Revolution. Many cadres in every department and district are striving to understand this spirit and to put it into practice, thereby doing well their work of uniting with the believing masses. This makes us very optimistic. It can be affirmed that Document 19, a theoretical document, will, after testing in practice, play a greater and greater role.

I look forward to your comments on what I have said here today.

Talk to government cadres, 1984.