In 1990 in a conversation with my colleagues in the ‘China team’ I took a deep breath and proposed the dramatic rise in the Chinese underground church would have to have an impact on the leadership of the country, in particular addressing the moral vacuum which derived from Mao’s ideology. I had no data, only the emerging crisis in Poland and eastern Europe as a catalyst for my thinking. It was purely speculation but not wholly invalid. Civilisations have risen and fallen on less.
There was polite silence and it was clear my colleagues had either not considered this variable or that it was outside their empirical, military frameworks. And of course to suggest a Christian influence, and an evangelical one at that, rather than a Buddhist or Confucian influence only elicits the same discomfiture any proposal of that nature makes anyway. I let it go, for even if I wanted to pursue it there was no data with which to work.
In the thirty years since we have watched the thoroughly materialistic rise of China together with the raising of edifices and monuments to middle class wealth and aspirations. I hasten to add that the ‘in the span of a generation’ transition of hundreds of millions out of poverty is to be applauded, admired and respected. I grudge none of those their new lives. But in that time that moral vacuum we observed in 1990 has only deepened, expanded, become more palpable. If vacuums can ever be these things. And at the same time the evangelical population in China has expanded, to a percentage greater than that of Australia and numbers in excess of one hundred million – according to some estimates. As the moral vacuum became more acute, the Christian faith has become more firmly established.
So to my surprise Roger Garside, in his book China Coup, raises this correlation as a central pillar in this observations about China and his proposition that we may be on the cusp of witnessing a leadership coup in Beijing.
While the compelling basis of his argument is an economic one he supports it with the perils of misjudged brinkmanship, the environment (which the nouveaux rich are obsessed with) the deepening moral vacuum and human rights. My surprise was not the coup argument, but that the evangelical element might figure so strongly.
Others have raised the issue. In his China’s Crisis of Success William Overholt talks about the new god which replaced old religion – money. But the new god has resulted in a spiritual emptiness and a revulsion against the lack of morality. In that vacuum he notes the rise of religion, in particular Christianity and Buddhism. He goes so far as to observe members of the Communist Party fervently pray in Buddhist temples, behaviour tolerated and even accepted by the small leadership elite.
Despite this we know Beijing has been tightening control over all forms of religion and forcing closure of Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches. However these closures don’t address the moral vacuum of their ideology and Overholt points to the medical profession as an example of the quandary. Doctors prescribe drugs because they are sponsored, take payments under the table and deny care to those who cannot afford it. The moral code of the new god is a feeble one though that god sits at the centre of health care worship.
For his part Xi is not blind to these forces. His answer is to revive Confucianism and Marxism even as he suppresses those spiritual pursuits his people derive the most moral guidance from. Ironic no?
We’ve been witness in our own generation to the collapse of nations because the moral fabric has no tensile strength. My observations in 1990 were in the expectation that those with a well defined moral code might have a positive influence for good. We all wanted that for China though most thought Deng’s economic miracle would do the trick. I wasn’t thinking like Garside and forecasting dramatic leadership change, perhaps even revolutionary change. China’s morality tale is worth watching just as closely as its economic one.
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