Ian Johnson

Most of China has left poverty behind, but people are still not happy. The search for moral values is now taking over the desire among China’s citizens, says author Ian Johnson of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao in PRI. How turning to religion can change the country.


“As one guy who told me, ‘We used to think we were unhappy because we were poor. Now, we’re no longer poor, but we’re still unhappy,’” says Ian Johnson, a long time correspondent in China, most recently writing for The New York Times and the New York Review of Books, and author of the new book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.

If it’s tempting to pull out the old saying “money can’t buy happiness,” many Chinese are more interested these days in figuring out what can. And so, a search for meaning has intensified in recent decades, as the descendents of those who once revered Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, and Chinese emperors before that, now embrace new centers of meaning, and new communities that share their values…

“A lot of it is driven by this feeling that there are no shared values in Chinese society anymore,” says Johnson. “People constantly talk in social media –—and this is uncensored (by the Chinese government), it’s OK to talk about it — this lack of minimum moral standards in society, that anything goes, as long as you don’t get caught.”

Another driver, Johnson says, is a desire for community in a society that has rapidly urbanized, with rural Chinese moving to new cities, and old urban-dwellers losing their neighborhoods to demolition and construction of new developments.

The Communist Party officially recognizes five religions — Buddhism, Daoism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Islam, and tries to control each under the umbrella of the state, forbidding most ties with foreign centers of power, such as the Vatican. The party has long been wary of competing parallel power structures, including “house churches,” gatherings of Protestant Chinese who seek to practice their faith outside of the strictures of Communist Party rules. Many such adherents still remember and respect Watchman Nee…

Turning to religion or spiritual practice is one way Chinese are now looking for meaning, but, as in the past in China, what starts with finding a new moral center, can lead to a yearning to shape new relationships and rules in society. China is still finding its moral compass and its direction, some 40 years after Mao’s death, and what started as a search for meaning may yet lead to more sweeping societal change. It’s a prospect that makes the Communist Party nervous, and keeps it vigilant.

“I think all religions have an over-arching idea of justice and righteousness, and heaven, ‘tian,’ that ‘s above all else,” Johnson says. “It helps create among people that it’s not the government that gives us rights and laws. It comes from something higher. And I think that’s the change that could come to China in the future.”

More in PRI.

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 looking for more experts on China’s cultural change? Do check out this list.

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