BEIJING – Last spring, a delegation of 11 Chinese government officials visited Nairobi, Kenya. Their mission: to seek advice on how to promote Christianity in China. Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which regulates religion in China, reportedly told Kenya's Anglican archbishop that "religion is good for development."
Amid growing social tension and an ominous economic outlook, some quarters of the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party seem to be warming to Christianity. Land is being donated, churches built, and research being conducted on positive Christian contributions -- all by the Chinese government, which until recently treated religion as a harmful but unstoppable force. In 2001, Chinese President Jiang Zemin called for religion to be cautiously accommodated, but actively discouraged, and adapted to the socialist culture of atheism and materialism.
The traditional antipathy toward religion in the Communist Party stems from Karl Marx's idea that it is the "opiate of the masses" that "dulls the pain of oppression" from capitalist aristocrats. In an egalitarian socialist society, there's no need for this remnant of exploitation.
But recent moves toward religion suggest this ideological aversion is transforming along with China's socioeconomic situation -- albeit more slowly. Since Deng Xiaoping began opening China's economy in 1978, its GDP has grown 40-fold with increasingly serious side effects. Corruption, yawning wealth inequality, environmental degradation, and the threat of a major banking crisis weigh on the Communist Party's ability to maintain control. The religious opiate could be just what the doctor ordered for a nervous Communist Party.
Academic studies and think tanks devoted to studying religion's political and sociological effects have been sponsored by government organs to explore topics such as Christianity's role in developing the United States and Europe. And institutions like Fudan University's Religious Studies Department in Shanghai and the Institute for Advanced Study of the Humanities and Religion at Beijing Normal University are becoming more common in Chinese academia.
"There's a fair amount of overlap between the government agenda and the Christian agenda," says Gerda Wielander, who researches Chinese religion and politics at the University of Westminster. "When you speak to [Chinese Christians] or look at the data, they all emphasize what good citizens they are and what good citizens they want to be, so there's a lot for the government to tap into there."
Last October, in the southern city of Foshan, a van ran over a 2-year-old girl. After pausing, the driver continued to drive over her again with the back tire. The video of the incident, which went viral and incited debate on the state of Chinese society, showed 18 bystanders walking past and ignoring the fallen girl until a scrap peddler eventually came to her aid. The driver later reportedly said he'd be liable for less money with a dead girl than an injured one.
For many Chinese, the incident highlighted some of the problems that have emerged from the post-socialist jettison of morality in the pursuit of material wealth. "The old moral system doesn't work anymore, and the new one hasn't been established," says Fenggang Yang, a professor at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. "Many people in society feel kind of lost and don't know what to do."