Updated 23 April 2013, 15:37 AEST
The man in charge of the State Administration of Religious affairs in China says while religion could be a force for good in the officially atheist country, it’s important to ensure that it does not mislead people.
EWART: So not so much a change in attitude but a change in management style?
PENNY: Perhaps, certainly a change in tone. One of the particular points that Wang raises here is that religion and the administration of religion and government should actually be separate. I mean he doesn’t go so far as to say that religions should have the right to do anything they like. He still maintains that the law of the state should override any kind of religious considerations, and that religious administrations and so forth should behave according to the ideals of keeping society stable and orderly and so forth, which is obviously a reference to religious uprisings or religious trouble and so forth. But he also does say that religious believers have got rights, that religious organisations and buildings and so on have to be maintained for the needs of religious believers, they can’t be snatched by local authorities or businesses or something like that. So he is in a sense defending I think more strongly than we have seen for a while the rights of religious believers.
EWART: Could you see that extension of rights stretching to obvious targets, government targets like the Falungong and the Uighurs up in the north west?
PENNY: No in short, those are quite different cases. In terms of the Uighurs and perhaps the Tibetans the official position of the state would be that as it were it’s not the religion that’s bad, it’s people using the religion to do bad things against the state or against society. So they’re going to come down very hard as they have done on those matters. Falungong is a difference case, the government does not recognise Falungong as a religion at all. In China there’s a set of categories that sounds rather odd to people in the west, namely that there are certain religions that are officially accepted; those are Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism. Apart from those other things that we would think of as kind of religious fall into two categories; one is the evil cult which is where Falungong fits and evil cults are there to be eradicated as hard as you can. And the other is superstition, which is generally regarded as feudal superstition that is a hangover from the old society. And it can be eased away with education, is generally the way it’s thought of.
EWART: So in essence are what we’re seeing here is that the Chinese officials are saying that they are prepared to tolerate religion providing shall we say that devotees go about their religion in a quiet way and they don’t pose any perceived threat to the state?
PENNY: I think that’s right, I mean the words that the Chinese use all the time and indeed in the constitution are that religious believers are allowed to do normal religious activities. What those normal, what normal means can vary from place to place and time to time. But certainly I think what we have here is a realisation that religion is in fact growing in China, and this is of course not the way that the Marxist classics should have religion behave, but nonetheless the government has come to terms I think in some sense with the idea that there are, I mean their own estimate is more than 100-million religious believers in China, and they also admit that’s almost certainly an underestimate. I think most independent observers would see it as a very large underestimate. But nonetheless they’re coming around to the idea that religion is a long term thing, it’s been around in China for millennia, it’s not going to go away in a hurry, in fact it’s growing, and so really the attitude of government should be one of working with religions to manage them in a way that aids social stability and social harmony.
EWART: So how would you see for example China’s relationship with the Vatican changing in light of this or would it change at all?
PENNY: I don’t think I can see that changing in a hurry because the issue with the Vatican is actually one of as it were international relations. The Chinese maintain that one of the things that religious believers are not allowed to do is to have, well they would say be controlled by overseas entities. And for them the Vatican is a kind of extra state authority, I mean extra to the Chinese state authority, to which Chinese citizens owe allegiance. Their idea about the way the Catholic church should run in China is that it should be an indigenous Catholic church, as the Protestant churches have become indigenous Protestant churches. And that control of influence from the Vatican in say the appointment of Bishops and so forth, is a matter of, it’s almost a diplomatic matter rather than religious matter.