Buddhist, Muslim and Christian groups are finding new ways to overcome government restrictions and obstacles as they expand in urban China, according to scholars speaking at a session of the August meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR) in Denver, which RW attended.
A paper by Yuting Wang of the American University in the Arab Emirates looked at the mushrooming Muslim businesses in urban China, interviewing 65 Muslim businesspeople in five cities across the country. She said that Islam in urban China has been contained within the boundaries of ethnic Hui quarters, perpetuating the foreigness of Islam in the eyes of the Han Chinese majority. But in recent decades these enclaves have been converted into business districts that attract rural Muslims in search of business opportunities.
These newcomers are “bringing new vitality into urban religious life” and “expanding the traditional Islamic space in urban China.” Because the social policy limiting families to one child does not apply to ethnic communities, Muslims can have more children, thus making these business enclaves larger and more attractive to Muslims outside of them.Businesses are also playing a new and important role in expanding Buddhism in China’s cities, according to Weishan Huang of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversities. Huang looked at the Tzu Chi movement, a humanitarian Buddhist group based in Taiwan, but with a growing global membership of millions.
The movement spread in China through the transnational links of Taiwanese investors and business professionals who started companies in cities such as Shanghai. The increased indigenization of the membership has been rapid and most new converts are Chinese.Huang said that after Tzu Chi gained legal recognition in 2008, members in China have in some cases worked side-by-side with local governments on relief efforts. But even after obtaining legal status, they nonetheless have to practice their belief in hidden ways. In her research in Shanghai, Huang finds that municipal regulations forced Tzu Chi missions from home-based meetings into business sectors.
In one case, Huang found a storefront space that had been converted into a gathering place for all Tzu Chi activities in a particular district in Shanghai. Every Tuesday a study group gathers in this commercial space, where members watch video clips and listen to senior commissioners’ lectures about environmentalism and Buddhism, she added. In another paper, Graeme Lang of City University of Hong Kong argued that even with government restrictions, competition is also driving religious growth in China. Lang and his co-author, Kim-kwong Chang, found that Protestants, who are among the fastest-growing groups in China, are known for their creativity and independent approach that can reach a segmented population, as well as for their involvement in social services.
Buddhist temples have borrowed some of these evangelical practices, such as holding summer camps and featuring brief Buddhist teaching sessions that are similar to the evangelism carried out at Protestant church cafés.
Catholics have also adopted Protestant techniques, such as singing Christmas carols in the streets and passing out evangelistic tracts. Lang said that even Muslims, particularly those outside of ethnic communities, fear losing members to Protestant churches and have sought to learn from Christians, borrowing their segmented approach and using advertising and music in an attempt to keep their youth in the fold. Lang said that he was most surprised by how other ideological groups such as the Communist Youth League have also borrowed from the Protestants in their use of study groups and summer camps.