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Shorenstein Journalism Award panel explores China’s religious landscape

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Ian Johnson, the 2016 Shorenstein Journalism Award winner, speaks about religion in China to an audience of 150 Stanford faculty, students and community members, part of the award's 15th anniversary, Encina Hall, May 1, 2017.
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

China is encountering a religious resurgence. Its revival symbolizes tension between the past and the present, as people search for purpose in a country that’s been shaken by expansive reforms and modernization efforts over the past four decades.

That was the message shared by veteran journalist Ian Johnson, the 2016 winner of the Shorenstein Journalism Award, who gave a keynote speech followed by panel discussion titled “Religion after Mao,” part of the Award’s 15th anniversary ceremony at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center on Monday.

Johnson, who has spent 30 years as a journalist, has written extensively about Chinese history, religion and culture, and is also a teacher and published author, most recently releasing the book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao.

“Ian is maybe one of the most remarkable awardees we’ve had in recent years,” said Daniel Sneider, Shorenstein APARC associate director for research, who introduced the event by talking about Johnson’s distinguished career, which has included writing for the New York TimesWall Street Journal and New York Review of Books and led to a Pulitzer Prize win in 2001.

Xueguang Zhou, a Stanford professor of sociology and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, and Orville Schell, the director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley, joined Johnson on the panel, while Sneider moderated the discussion.

In a wide-ranging conversation, the panelists discussed the varied history of religion in Chinese society during the 20th and 21st centuries, offering stories of their experiences living and working in China.

According to Johnson, religious persecution in China is often thought to be associated with the anti-religious campaigns of Mao Zedong following the Chinese Communist Party’s assumption of power in 1949, but in reality, it existed decades before and has lingered in national memory.

Into the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Chinese government remained superstitious of religion, trying to redefine religious groups as “culture” alone, under the assumption that religion could be desensitized enough to eventually disappear, Johnson said.

But that did not happen, he said, and instead an opposite trend did. Reaching a high point in the 2000s, China’s economic reforms – both sweeping and fast-paced – brought growing angst and anxiety and prompted people across every socioeconomic background to turn to religion as an outlet.

Johnson, who has spent weeks at a time living among religious groups, noted a shift from the time he was in China in the mid-1980s to the past decade, where now “the government sees that religious groups can provide some sort of moral framework for some people.”



Chinese people today are searching for meaning, the panelists said, and are driven to join religious groups amid resource competition and mass migration that has usurped traditional family structures and disquieted many people who have moved from close-knit rural towns to alienating urban centers.

“Everybody is out there…trying to reify that part of life which isn’t filled by bread alone, by commerce alone,” said Schell, who has written about China since the 1970s as an author and journalist. “It’s a pretty chaotic quest and it’s very hard to know where it will all end.”

At the moment, religious groups in China remain heterogeneous and fragmented, Zhou said, but cohesion is growing in some regions and participation of local government leaders has drawn greater attention to the practice of faith.

“In grassroots China, religion, spiritual life and the Party, really go hand-in-hand – they’re intertwined,” said Zhou, whose research focuses on Chinese bureaucracy and economic development. “Local elites are involved both in the spiritual world and the Party world, and they shift back and forth simultaneously.”

However, the future of the relationship between religion and the government remains to be seen, according to the panelists.

Religious groups could fracture, or the government could continue to favor “native” religious groups, which if exacerbated over time, could lead to quasi-state religions, Johnson said. (Today, China recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism).

While religious groups increasingly provide a service to some people, the Chinese government continues to be wary of them as an alternative source of knowledge and values, Johnson said, which hold the potential to coalesce into a nascent civil society.

“Every dynasty in China knows that one way dynasties usually ended was with some millenarian movement,” Schell added of the government’s apprehension. “They are afraid of religious movements because they do bespeak of higher values, higher loyalties and different organizational structures that don’t owe fealty to the Party.”

A video of the keynote speech is posted at this link.