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02/15/2012 China (Foreign Policy) – 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.

While the allure of moral and economic development accounts for some of China’s new interest in religion, a quieter motive is perhaps in play as well: political control. In a 2006 interview, Reuters asked Li Junru, a high official in China’s top political advisory body, why India can handle being a democracy but China can’t. He replied that India has religion to control its people.
In December, when residents of Wukan expelled all officials in their small fishing village, they drew attention to a nationwide trend of corrupt officials seizing land from peasants in order to raise revenue and enjoy kickbacks from developers. China is showing many of the symptoms of the crony capitalist system Marx decried.

Now, however, some liberal Marxists within the party see religion as one way to pacify a public increasingly agitated over inequality. “In general, using and controlling religions is not something new in Chinese history. Almost every emperor knew the power of religion,” says Peng Guoxiang, Peking University professor of Chinese philosophy, intellectual history, and religions. “For classical Marxist ideology, religion is nothing but spiritual opium. But recently, it is very possible that the authorities have started to rethink the function of religion and how to manipulate it skillfully, instead of simply trying to curb or even uproot its development.”

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