The recent attacks on Chinese police in the northwestern, Muslim-dominated
Xinjiang region seem to confirm Beijing's claim that Islamist separatists are
the biggest danger during the Olympic Games. The week before the opening
ceremony, Col Tian Yixiang of the Olympics security command centre told foreign
journalists that the main threat came from the "East Turkestan terrorist
organisation," a group that claimed responsibility for blowing up buses in
Shanghai and Yunnan in July, killing five people.
However, like the riots in Tibet last March and April, the secessionist peril
regularly used by the authorities to justify brutal crackdowns on dissent masks
a deeper problem facing the Chinese regime. That problem is neither principally
ethnic nor predominantly territorial but fundamentally religious - hence
Beijing's desperate attempts to control and repress independent faith
To be sure, among the protesters in Tibet and Xinjiang there are
separatists and terrorists, but the origins of radicalisation and extremism
among Tibetan Buddhists and Xinjiang's Uyghur Muslims can largely be traced to
the social and cultural impact of Beijing's centrally-enforced modernisation on
the local populations.
Like Tibet, Xinjiang province is nominally autonomous but tightly ruled by
Beijing. In recent years, ordinary people in these regions have undoubtedly
benefited from substantial investment in infrastructure, education, and public
health: life expectancy is now higher and poverty lower than in China's
undeveloped western rural provinces.
However, the ideology of
modernisation has also led to a toxic mix of ethnic colonisation and cultural
devastation, with millions of ethnic Han Chinese being imported to boost the
local economy. The indigenous culture of Tibet's capital Lhasa has been
disfigured and displaced by modern bars and "Buddhist theme parks" for foreign
After decades of military coercion, China's leadership has finally grasped
Karl Marx's point that there is nothing like unfettered capitalism to destroy
traditional cultures. But the ensuing resentment and anger is fuelling the
flames of religious extremism even among those Tibetans and Uyghurs who are
demanding autonomy, not independence. The Communist policies of assimilation and
repression are unwittingly playing into the hands of Al-Qaeda's operations in
the border region of China and Central Asia.
Elsewhere in China, the consequences of modernisation are producing a
significant revival of religion that the Communist Party struggles to contain.
Under Mao, organised religion was banned and its traditional institutions of
charity and social support destroyed. Now that economic liberalisation is
exacerbating poverty among China's peasants and urban underclass, religious
groups are providing help to the needy.
Confronted with growing social and political discontent - last year alone,
there were more than 87,000 separate protests across China - the country's
leadership has discarded Mao's atheism in favour of Confucian religious
philosophy. Since the Party Congress of 2007, the Communists' self-proclaimed
mission is to create a "harmonious society" that fuses ancient Confucian
principles with modern socialist utopianism.
This strategy has backfired. Ordinary Chinese distrust both Communism and
Confucianism, viewing both as colluding with each other at the expense of the
common good. Instead, the population is turning in large numbers to faith groups
and spiritual movements such as the Falun Gong, which resonate with the
traditional religions of Buddhism and Taoism.
religions like Tibetan Buddhism, Uyghur Islam and the Falun Gong are organised
groups that contest the Party's power monopoly, repression has been swift and
severe. Chinese activists regularly accuse Beijing of violating the human rights
of Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims. According to the UN Special Rapporteur,
Manfred Nowak, Falun Gong members make up two-thirds of all reported torture
victims in China and half the labour camp prisoners.
Fearful of foreign interference, the Communist Party is also persecuting
those Christians who refuse to join the officially sanctioned church
The effect has been to drive faith groups underground, where they
convert people in huge numbers. Falun Gong spirituality is thought to be
practised by more than 100 million Chinese. Protestant Christians who worship in
illegal "house churches" number around 110 million, perhaps as many as 200
million. Taken together, organised religion constitutes a substantial and
growing potential for collective opposition to the regime.
Beijing's recent record in repression and persecution casts doubt on whether
China's economic reforms will be followed by political liberalisation and
genuine religious freedom. By embracing capitalism, the one-party state offers
many citizens new opportunities to consume and work. But more liberty in the
private sphere has been matched by a greater control of the public political
realm where organised religion remains banned.
Perhaps more than the economy, it is the ongoing battle over China's soul
that will determine its identity and place in the world.
teaches religion and politics at the University of Nottingham and is a research
fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International