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Buddhism and China's Rise

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • June 23, 2006

    Communist China, which has so far pursued a policy of state-sponsored repression of religion, has suddenly begun to promote a revival of Buddhism. This has deeper significance than what meets the eye. From April 13 to 16, 2006, China staged the World Buddhist Forum in Hangzhou for the first time. This first major Buddhist conference since the Chinese Communist Party took power should not be viewed as an isolated event, but is inextricably linked with growing social unrest in China, the challenges of globalisation and its wider foreign policy imperatives.

    While China's current rise is based on its phenomenal economic growth, the impact of such growth has created an explosive social situation marked by widening inter-regional disparity, rural-urban gap, corruption and environmental degradation. The China Human Development Report 2005 identifies three major groups that have become vulnerable to inequities: the rural poor, the urban poor, and rural migrants in cites. Reports from China reveal that 87,000 incidents of "public order disturbances" happened in 2005, and this was an increase of 6.6 per cent from the previous year (74,000 such incidents). These figures indicate an alarming rise in social crisis, which forecasts serious consequences for the country's stability. Given that a crisis in governance would ultimately destabilise the control of the Communist party, the paramount challenge before the Chinese government today is to address the issue of social inequality and economic disparity. This is one reason for the reorientation in Chinese domestic-religious policy as well as in its foreign policy.

    It is the enormity of social discontent that has led the atheist Communist government to endorse the revival of Buddhism. As a religion with "profound ideas of harmony and a conception of peace," Buddhism could relieve the strains and stresses among people as well as between them and nature, thus enhancing social accord, according to Ye Xiaowen, chief of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. It is therefore little wonder that the theme of the World Buddhist Forum in Beijing, "A harmonious world begins in mind" echoes Hu Jintao's campaign to build a "harmonious society."

    It was in the face of growing social tension that the Chinese government under Hu Jintao put forward a new view of development in 2003 that comprised "putting people first, taking an approach that is comprehensive, co-ordinated, and sustainable, and promoting broad development of the economy, society, and the individual." This concept of harmonious development is drawn from the Confucian philosophy of 'harmony', which gives prominence to the disadvantaged groups in society, even while retaining authoritarian control over them. In fact, the ethos of Confucian harmony has common resonance with Buddhism, which too advocates peace, harmony and tolerance. Buddhism's emphasis on harmony not only strikes a chord with Confucianism but also at the same time makes it less of a threat to Communist China than Christianity or the Falun Gong sect. In 2004, the Chinese government set the development target of "building a socialist harmonious society" that is "democratic and law-based, fair and just, honest and fraternal, full of vigour and vitality, secure and orderly, and in which man and nature co-exist in harmony." Building a harmonious society has thus emerged at the top of the agenda of the Communist party of China.

    This concept of harmonious development has had ramifications in the Chinese foreign policy arena as well. The concept is intrinsic to China's rise as a great power and it obtained a worldwide audience with Hu Jintao's pronouncement at the United Nations 60th Anniversary Summit on September 15, 2005. Chinese sources have enumerated certain reasons behind the formulation of this new notion, which shares striking significance with the "peaceful rise" concept. First, it evolved mainly as a result of US hegemonism and unilateralism, which challenges peace and development of the contemporary world. Second, the idea of harmonious development is fundamental to China's internal growth and domestic stability. Third, with this ideology in perspective, China seeks to promote its national interests. China has realised that economic strength alone would not propel it into the category of a major world power, for which purpose it should also be able to formulate rules for the international community. By formulating the notion of harmonious development, China seeks to portray itself as a responsible, confident and constructive power. Embedded in this notion are China's aspirations for a leadership role in international affairs.

    From the perspective of China's foreign policy, the import of the speech by the 11th Panchen Lama, Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu, at the World Buddhist Forum should not be missed. Bainqen Qoigyijabu was nominated by Beijing in opposition to the Dalai Lama's choice, and the Forum provided an international platform to legitimise China's own Panchen Lama. In fact, the Dalai Lama was not even invited for this international forum in which over 1,000 monks and experts from thirty-seven countries gathered to participate in the discussion on building a harmonious world, because he is seen as "splitting the motherland and sabotaging the unity of ethnic groups." As such, his participation would have caused "disharmony." More importantly, by using Buddhism as a safety valve, China has sought to win over the Tibetan Buddhist population and consolidate its position in Tibet. The Chinese government claims that now there are more than 13,000 Buddhist temples with about 200,000 monks and nuns in China. Moreover, some 7 million Buddhists in China are not Tibetans but are drawn from other ethnic groups; and this includes 120,000 lamas and nuns as well as 1,700 Living Buddhas in more than 3,000 monasteries. Further, by including Taiwan as one of the eight initiators of the forum, China has also sought to promote the cause of reunification. As the People's Daily noted, the forum "was also significant in enhancing understanding across the Taiwan Strait and promoting China's peaceful reunification." The foreign policy implications of the World Buddhist Forum are therefore clearly evident. The message of peace and harmony helps not only to quell social tensions but also to promote an image of China as a responsible power upholding the cause of a harmonious world.

    China's rise today is contingent on a peaceful harmonious international environment. Liu Yandong, Vice-Chairwoman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the top advisory body of the People's Republic of China (PRC) said, "China's peaceful development cannot proceed without a harmonious international environment." But US hegemonism, unilateralism, terrorism, deteriorating ecological system are multiple challenges confronting its rise. The Chinese leaders therefore believe that Buddhism, with its ethos of harmony and peace, would help China to promote the mission of building a harmonious world. It would enable China to concentrate on solving its domestic social crisis. Buddhism has thus emerged as a tool in Communist China to fight social tensions, to build social cohesion and create an environment of peace and harmony in which development and growth is sustained. A sustained development would propel China to the rank of Great Power nations.