A Chinese regulation would prohibit online insults based on religion. Some decry it as antithetical to Communist values.
- BY MA TIANJIE
- MARCH 31, 2017
Almost every Chinese person with even a middle school education must, at some point, run into the famous statement about religion by Karl Marx: “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” It is enshrined in textbooks that introduce students to the philosopher’s materialistic interpretation of the world, which considers religion as a “fantasy” used by reactionary forces to disarm the revolutionary proletariat by promising salvation in the afterlife while preaching endurance in the current one.
Some will argue that there is a Leninist spin in such a presentation of Marx’s view, and that his is a more nuanced one that recognizes, albeit grudgingly, the historically progressive role of religion. Still, Marx’s view has become probably the only modern critique of religion that many ordinary Chinese are familiar with, besides Confucius’s largely agnostic approach to spirituality. It also forms the basis of the Communist Party’s self-branding of a fundamentally atheist party.
That being said, the textbook does not dictate how millions of Chinese actually approach faith, nor does Marxist dogma completely defines how the Party handles religion in the People’s Republic.
Marx’s harsh critique of religion does not stop a large number of Chinese from embracing the teaching of Buddha, the message of Jesus Christ, or the words of Mohammed.
Marx’s harsh critique of religion does not stop a large number of Chinese from embracing the teaching of Buddha, the message of Jesus Christ, or the words of Mohammed. If anything, the “value vacuum” left by the retreat of a fanatic Maoist ideology since the death of Mao Zedong has increasingly been filled by religion, demonstrated by skyrocketing numbers of new converts.At the same time, the officially atheist Communist Party has seen its position shift dramatically on this thorny issue over the decades. It has moved from courtship in the early years for the sake of building political alliance, to open hostility in the radically leftist years as a result of internal political struggles, to reconciliation in the early days of the Reform and Opening period, and finally to the cautious ambiguity that defines its approach today.
It is in this ambiguity that a revision proposed in mid-January to a low-level administrative regulation aiming at maintaining social order has stirred such controversy online. In the draft change, authorities added a clause that, by the Chinese standard of social control, may seem innocuous: “Anyone who produces content in publications or online platforms that contain insults or prejudice against a religion or ethnicity may be subject to administrative detainment from 10 to 15 days.” As China is a society dominated by a largely secular majority of Han Chinese, its setting up mechanisms to prevent the abuse of minority ethnic groups does not appear controversial. Measures designed to prevent hate-speech are also not unprecedented. The 2009 Measures for Ethnic Unity Education enacted in the western region of Xinjiang, where a great number of ethnic minorities, particularly the Uighurs, live, also contain a clause that forbids hate-inciting speech. However, this time the outcry was loud and clear, with one Weibo post asking people to oppose the measure collecting over 60,000 shares within a short period of time.
There are a few notable things about this wave of pushback against the regulation. First, the backlash primarily targets Islam and Muslims even though the proposed clause does not specify any religion or ethnicity for which it is designed. Second, online mobilization for the cause concentrates in “pockets” of the cyberspace that have a track record of anti-Islam activism; and rather than a concern with freedom of expression in general, it appears to be sparked by a very specific grievance that has been gradually festering on the Chinese Internet: a discontent with the perceived (unprincipled) accommodation of the spread of Islam by the Chinese state.
Like many online sentiments that accumulate over time, it is likely shaped by the recurrence of events that are perceived (and interpreted) as having a repeating theme.
Researchers may point to the violent riots in Xinjiang in 2009 as the starting point of the narrative of the Chinese state being “too accommodating” to ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs.
Researchers may point to the violent riots in Xinjiang in 2009 as the starting point of the narrative of the Chinese state being “too accommodating” to ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs. And as this recent online mobilization will show, the narrative has evolved and gained momentum from a host of new sources.