Ian Johnson

Staying away from foreign involvement is key in the massive religious revival China is going through, author Ian Johnson of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao tells NPR. Religion is condoned as long as the new movements stick to a few unwritten rules in its sensitive relations with the Communist Party.


President Xi Jinping has called on China’s citizens to continue to be “unyielding Marxist atheists.” He insists that the country’s 85 million Communist Party members remain atheists. But increasingly, he’s loosening the restrictions on religious organizations. These days, Chinese authorities even subsidize some religious practice under the guise of backing what the government calls “traditional culture.”

Johnson writes about the myriad ways religions of all sorts are practiced today in China. He describes walking in an elaborate Buddhist-inspired funeral procession in the Beijing neighborhood called the Temple of the Tolling Bell. He delves into the small sect, Eastern Lightning, a cultlike group that will remind some readers of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual practice. Eastern Lightning dared to attack China’s Communist Party.

“They feel it’s them against what they call the ‘Great Red Dragon,’ which is the Communist Party,” Johnson says. “They operate illegally, and they almost try to hijack church congregations. They sometimes resort to violence; and their very secretive nature, their proclivity for violence, in some ways, this also reflects how the Communist Party runs China,” Johnson says.

The “red line” for the faithful is foreign involvement.

“If people are part of a religion that has a strong foreign component, if they’re getting money from abroad, if they’re getting training, this is a problem for the government,” Johnson notes.

But ultimately, all religions are global. And that may increasingly pose a problem for Chinese authorities.

“It’s a double-edged sword for the government,” Johnson concludes. “They think religion can maybe provide some stability in a society that is racing forward and doesn’t have a center of gravity. … But religion creates values that are above any government values, ideas of justice, of righteousness, of truth and these are things can come back to haunt the party.”

More (including a radio interview) at NPR.

Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

Are you interested in more recent stories by Ian Johnson? Do check out this list.

Please follow and like us: