For the past few years, the Chinese Communist Party has shown an eagerness to praise “correct” Buddhism, in contrast with its criticism of the Dalai Lama.
This has been evidenced again in the Second World Buddhist Forum, which gathered in the Eastern Chinese city of Wuxi in late March, writes Peter Fischer, correspondent in China for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (March 30). This also offered an opportunity for a public appearance (and a talk in English) from the 19-year-old 11th Panchen Lama, whom the Chinese leaders would like to promote as a competitor to the Dalai Lama, although most Tibetans do not take him seriously.
According to the Panchen Lama’s talk, Buddhism should strive to create a “harmonious society. ” Chinese Communists have come to recognize the potential of religion for social stability and for inspiring a moral attitude, reports Reuters’ Lucy Hornby (March 28). As Abanti Bhattacharya had observed at the time of the First World Buddhist Forum in April 2006, the fear of social discontent has led the Communist government to endorse the revival of Buddhism in its desire to promote “harmonious development” (IDSA Strategic Comments, June 23, 2006). In addition, the compatibility of Buddhism with science was stressed at the Forum.
Since “science and technology alone cannot ensure a happy life for the mankind, who still needs to possess moral ethics and values … Buddhism can play a certain role in this regard, ” the secretary general of the Buddhist Association of China told Xinhua (March 30). China has also been reappraising Christianity, especially Catholicism, and the role it can play in unifying the country. In First Things magazine (June/ July), Francesco Sisci writes that it is particularly the Catholic Church, with its Western base and structure that lacks strong syncretistic influences while preaching values compatible with modernization, that has drawn Beijing to its potential as a “unifying force.”
After a long period of tension between the Vatican and China, relations have recently been thawing. Sisci adds that the Catholic Church “remains of far greater interest to the authorities than the amorphous and sometimes ephemeral denominations that comprise the ‘house churches’.” These churches often have mixtures of folk traditions and beliefs, which China’s modernizing political elite wants to avoid (as in the case of the syncretistic and dissident movement Falun Gong).
The greatest obstacle to both the Vatican and the Chinese leadership is the split between the underground and the patriotic churches. The underground Catholic Church has remained loyal to Rome, but its isolated state has led it into novel and improvised practices and doctrines that may make it difficult to integrate. Sisci concludes that China still has difficulty understanding the Catholic Church after Vatican II and its more spiritual rather than political thrust.
“Beijing wants to offer Rome a minimum presence on a trial basis, waiting to see the result. In turn, Rome is wary that the Chinese Communist Party will exploit ties with Rome without making the substantial concessions required for effective communication between the Vatican and Chinese Catholics.”
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