EVENT TRANSCRIPT: The Chinese Model of Religious and Cultural Persecution
DATE: 1pm, 28 January 2020
VENUE: The Henry Jackson Society
SPEAKERS: Rod Wye (Associate Fellow with the Asia Programme, Chatham House); Matthew Henderson (Director, Asia Studies Centre, HJS)
EVENT CHAIR: Dr Rakib Ehsan, Research Fellow at the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism
Dr Rakib Ehsan: If we could make a start ladies and gentlemen, firstly thank you for attending this event on the Chinese persecution on cultural and religious minorities. My name is Dr. Rakib Ehsan and I am a research fellow here at the Henry Jackson Society. I sit in two centres: The Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism and the Centre on Social and Political Risk. Now, just to introduce these two fine gentlemen, who have kindly agreed to speak at this event. Firstly, we have Rod Wye – we are very thankful for his presence. Rod served for more than thirty years as an expert in research analysis on China, including two postings to the British embassy in Beijing, finishing his foreign and commonwealth office career as a head of research on Asia. Wye is now a senior fellow at the China policy institute based at the University of Nottingham —
Rod Wye: Not anymore.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Not anymore?
Rod Wye: No, that’s all done.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Well I hope that was under amicable circumstances. Are you still an associate fellow at the Asia Programme at Chatham House?
Rod Wye: Yes.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Ok, thankfully we got there. And you’re also a regular media commentator on Chinese affairs. Today we also have Matthew Henderson, who is the director of the Asia Centre. Following eight years of Chinese studies at Cambridge, Beijing and Oxford Universities, Matthew joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office back in 1986. His career in the Diplomatic Service was mainly spent working on East Asia. In Hong Kong he was attached to the Sino-British joint liaison group, whose task was to work with China to prepare for the transfer of government back in 1997. And in Beijing during the 1990s he focused on China’s increasingly active engagement in international relations. So firstly, we will have Matthew speaking on some of the subjects we will be covering today. Thank you Matthew.
Matthew Henderson: Thank you very much indeed. This is a timely meeting, and we are very grateful to welcome you here. The way in which we understand China and perceive China now has never been so important, I think, for the way in which post-Brexit Britain will continue to assert a proper and balanced role in the world. We are all confronted, on a regular footing, with images of strange goings-on in the likes of Xinjiang. I don’t propose to parachute down into that world of barbed wire and confusion. I’d rather stand back a bit, with no apologies offered to anybody, and draw on the first eight years of my sinological life, when I was taught by people who had been through the cultural revolution at the wrong end, another person who had been a Red Guard, and others who were able to shed very interesting light indeed on the very ancient tradition of law and religion in China as two contrasting forces. So that’s where I’m going to begin, and I will eventually, I hope, by the end of this talk, get up to today. But on the way, I hope, some interesting insights will emerge. China has been a deeply religious society as far back as our records go, which is more than three-thousand years. And the initial records are of a combination of religious practice by rulers, and an orderly government, delivered in states at that stage shorter or longer-lived, smaller or more powerful than others, but all this idea that the order of nature was embodied by a leader connected probably to something like what we would call Heaven, who interpreted Heaven’s will by governing correctly. And when a major dynastic change took place in about 1000BC, we first hear the term The Mandate of Heaven, which is a system whereby authority, as it were, was received, something like the Divine Right of Kings, but not quite that. But it can also be removed. Now when the state religious structures embodied all of that, there was, of course, a huge majority of the population, formed effectively of powerless peasantry, who nonetheless were also users of religion. So here you have folk religion, often very diverse, intense and fascinating archeologically and in every other way today, where opposition could develop, and it could express itself in terms of religious movements. So the cults of state are very, very important. But the way in which the cults of state can be challenged, as it were from below in the event of famine or war, or some sort of other set of adverse circumstances, there is always the possibility that the Mandate of Heaven can be described as having been lost and gained. Now this is something that the transition from Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor, to the Han Dynasty, focused on very closely. And the decision then was made to adopt Confucianism, which is not exactly a religion. It’s a Humanist philosophy with a quasi…well there are saints, let’s put it that way, there are temples and saints. But there is no clearly-defined Deus Ex Machina, if you like. And that was the cult of state. But in practice also, you can’t only govern by virtue and benevolence. You also have to govern by law. So in reality, the legalist school, which were another branch of philosophers acting somewhat at the time after Confucius’s life, in 500BC or so, those laws were also very important indeed. And the Confucian canon system translates itself into a series of formulaic restrictions and principles and protocols about how order is articulated. And the Emperor, in that order, the son of Heaven, is made manifest as that intermediary figure through sacrifices, but also through a downward exercise of moral authority. That carried on, more or less, until the first big religious movement, based on a different thought system, Daoism, brought the latter half of the Han dynasty to an end, in the 2nd century AD. In 220, the Eastern Han collapses. But about 20 years before that there is an enormous rebellion, called the Yellow Turbans Rebellion, where a movement based on a millenarian, mystical-inspired, Daoist thought process, really undermined the state so thoroughly it collapsed. And one of the three kingdoms that emerges after that, the State of Wei, led by the great general Cao Cao, is informed also by that Daoist thought. Well, I can jump forward now, by a thousand years, well I shall try anyway. And we will see that once Buddhism has come in, more millenarian thought processes come along. There is a type of Buddhism which contemplates a future Buddha, in other words a stage of salvation, and thereafter a period of utter chaos and disarray, an age of glory and grace, and the kingdom of heaven on earth, if you like, will come. This is a wonderful driver for upheaval and rebellion against an order that was seen to be corrupt. Now this happened in a very striking form through an organization called the White Lotus Society, which actually brought down the formerly Mongolian Yuan Dynasty and instigated the Ming, one of China’s greatest dynastic periods, in 1368 until 1644. This all began with a penniless, peasant Buddhist monk, inspired by millenarian ideas about the Buddha of the future, who is able to transform the geopolitical climate of East Asia as a result of a religious uprising. Now his secret society, this White Lotus Society, in some ways is still alive today. It reappeared, in a less successful format, in the 19th century, when a rebellion was launched to reinstate the Ming, in the context of the Qing, the Manchu – non-Chinese – dynasty. In other words, we’re seeing a picture here where religion has a driver of the dynastic cycle and change, particularly when it’s religion that is getting out of control and suddenly takes off, sparks that bushfire if you like, is a force against order, which the reigning power will do everything in their ability to restrict. Now, you might think that this legislation was more recent than it actually is. ‘All who carry out deviant and heretical practices, or who in secret places keep prints and images, who gather people by burning incense, meeting at night and dispersing by day, thus stirring up and misleading people, under the pretence of cultivating virtue, they shall be sentenced.’ Well, that comes from the Qing code, which was in use until 1912. But it must date from some point in the early 18th century. That approach to the heterodox religious faith – the sects – the bits that are not part of an organized, authorised, religious structure, which don’t have temples that are properly registered, and so on and so forth. That approach has been very, very well grounded. Now, the 19th century, as we all know, and the Communist Party of China best of all, was an extraordinarily difficult time, for governments in China generally. And one of the worst periods, which resulted in the death of between ten and thirty-million people, was a rebellion called the Taiping Rebellion, 1850 and 1864, led by someone who claimed, if you please, to be Jesus’s brother, and wanted to convert China to a syncretic version of Christianity. So they’ve got the idea of an external religion, in a [sinocized] but still rather mutant form, creating a massive, massive damage to nearly all of China. There was only one province that wasn’t caught up in this dreadful struggle. When we say that number of people died, of course a lot of people died in starvation and pestilence, but effectively the root cause of that was this millenarian movement to change the face of China using principles based on Christianity. There are other such disturbances, which we haven’t got time to talk about now including, most importantly I think, the Boxer Rebellion. But the net result of all of these was that they undermined the Chinese body politic, and loss of control and chaos. Very dangerous and damaging chaos. When eventually the Qing crumbled under all of this and the Republic of China took over, the rationalist approach involved treating traditional religion and rights as essentially regressive and undesirable. And we see that in the emergence of socialist thought and communism, particularly beautifully evoked in Lu Xun’s famous stories in the Nahan collection. But at the same time, oddly, because of a sense of vacuum and disorder in the state at large, and perhaps the very decline of the rituals of state – the cults of state under the empire, new sects grew and flourished, and something very much akin to Falun Gong called Yiguandao began. It had started in the late 19th century as a syncretic mix of Buddhist and Daoist ideas. But by the time we get to the 40s, they have over twelve-million followers. And as soon as 1949 comes, and we see the new order established, there is a big challenge out there in the form of a large – not particularly organized but certainly organic – religious challenge to the new status quo. Very much in a traditional Chinese mode as well. Consequently, in 1951 to 1953, millions of the Yiguandao devotees were arrested, some imprisoned and some even killed. Tackling the challenge using Marxist ideology, and the fear of a large organic, organized religious movement was absolutely essential. As we all know in the cultural revolution in the 60s, all forms of religion were attacked in China chiefly on ideological grounds, using a traditional Marxist-atheist ideology. Wrong, harmful thoughts were damaging to socialist society’s developments. And religion was linked into the so-called four ‘olds’ – old customs, old culture, the old habits and old ideas. One gets the impression at that stage that crushing all religious activity was an existential necessity for the Chinese communist party, because it was the biggest challenge to the Chinese Communist Party’s survival. In those days we saw in Xinjiang, and in Tibet, violent campaigns against Islamic and Tibetan culture. In Tibet, by the end of the 1970s, the six-thousand monasteries or so that had been in Tibet were reduced to eight, and the six-hundred thousand monks and nuns there were almost entirely wiped out. Some people claim that the Cultural Revolution cleansed China of superstition and outdated traditions, and enabled Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms to operate, as it were, from a level base. Be that as it may, the spiritual vacuum that was created by this degradation of traditional religion in China, led to a rapid upsurge of interest in Christianity. I remember it well, I observed it. As well, ultimately, there was the emergence of the Falun Gong movement, which is in very many ways akin to some the White Lotus theory and actions as well – an Yiguandao too, which I talked about earlier. Falun Gong emerged in 1992. Initially it was seen as very valuable. It gave people something calming, and something Chinese-centred, and peaceable and therapeutic. So even some of the hard nuts who were around in those days like Qiao Shi, extremely effective and able observer of social mores, as late as 1998 he was in favour of it. However, when Jiang Zemin takes over after the death of Deng Xiaoping, as his personal mission, getting rid of Falun Gong seems to be very much the fore. And it’s very large-scale. It’s attractiveness, including to people in the party, including to people in the army, firmly-placed in a secular world, and accessible to anybody without especially close study or any arcane practices, made it very challenging to the CCP legend. When the CCP was seeking to appropriate all Chinese culture, and manages current manifestations in an unchallenged way, a cultural revitalisation of this sort, very different from CCP ideology and the ideas of modernisation, was a direct challenge. It wasn’t particularly orderly. They did a rather Hong Kong-like water approach. Not much leadership structure, and not very easy to [cattle] in that kind of way. The CCP propaganda, initially, was to suggest that it was a social threat because it was so very organized, and it was named as an illegal organization in 1999. And again we see the old language: Falun Gong is engaged in illegal activities, advocating superstition, and spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability. In other words, basically, Falun Gong was a threat to the CCP, because it tacitly denied the CCP the right to own and manage the idea of Chinese national civilisation. This challenge, however, having been neutralised, we are now seeing a return to the idea of [sinocising] religion, on new terms. The systems which are nominally accepted are Chinese Buddhism – not Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, Islam – as interpreted effectively by the CCP, and authorised Protestant and authorised Protestant Christian activity. Interestingly, Confucianism, despite its role through all those millennia, is not treated as a religion at all – which makes it rather easier to appropriate. It’s notable I think that since 1979, the number of Chinese Christians has grown about 10% annually, and is probably now more than about 100 million. The vast majority of these are Protestants. Many of them do not go to registered Churches even now. And the Party – not hard to understand why – is alarmed by this. And we are seeing now a reintroduction of quite aggressive anti-Christian activity – the destruction or closure or general degradation of churches, arrests and imprisonments, even the bible is having to be redrafted in certain ways, the omitting of online bible sales, disbanding congregations, et cetera. What we are observing is a condemnation of religion, ad this is Party language: ‘religion that is becoming a weapon in the hands of dissidents, for instance, inciting the masses, and creating political disturbances. So here again we see the law versus religious activity, that is not part of the sanctioned core, which itself is being oppressed. And again, we see the shibboleth of outside hostile forces, radicalizing Muslims, people outside stirring up Tibetan separatism, and external Christian support for illicit underground churches and sects. It doesn’t help, also that quite a lot of China’s human rights lawyers are practising Christians, which enables them very easily to be condemned as anti-party, anti-China, pro-democracy and pro-western human rights. In 2017, there is a party document, on a human rights conference, called the Beijing declaration, which says that states should choose a human rights development path, or guaranteed model, that suits those specific conditions. And recent religious legislation says that the construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national conditions, and integrate with Chinese culture. So we’re seeing the [sinocisation] reaching deep into the heart of probably the most rapidly growing religious movement in China, which is the expansion of Christian churches generally. But what this does is say that contrary to the constitution actually states quite clearly – that there is guaranteed religious freedom – state interests have priority over all and any individual and collective freedoms. And as a Chinese Catholic priest recently commented, these provisions show that your religion no longer matters, whether you’re a Buddhist, a Daoist, a Muslim or a Christian. The only real religion allowed is faith in the Chinese communist party.
Now, I said I wasn’t going to do any parachuting down into places, but I have to remark that a place, which is defined geographically and ethnically, with a culture and a language and a religion that is also so defined, is a very different matter from a foreign movement, albeit very thoroughly sinocized in all sorts of ways, and it has obviously demanded a very different approach in terms of management, ever since the days when Deng Xiaoping served in Tibet and was involved in a particularly ugly incident in a Yunnanese Muslim village, ever since then a much stronger and deliberately all-embracing line has been apparent. We have seen this articulated in the recently-revealed party documents. The objectives and aims of this policy has been breaking lineage, breaking roots, breaking connections and breaking origins. Now this, when you translate it, and there are various interpretations of what that means, but it’s pretty clear what the general thrust of it is – this is actually a formula for a religious and cultural genocide, which has advanced already both in Tibet where it was first tried out, and now in Xinjiang, where the same Party secretary is operating it. It has advanced very quickly to achieve its goals. Now, time is short and I must draw to a close. But, it has been said by an organization called the Chinese Human Rights Lawyer’s Group, that it feels as though the Cultural Revolution is returning in covert form. Many matters of societal welfare are politicised and internet censorship is the norm. Basic freedom of speech is being suppressed, sensitive news is prohibited, ideological discussions in universities are being shut down. In conclusion, therefore, the repression of religion in China is as old as the nation state itself. The first Emperor of China burnt the Confucian canonical texts, and reportedly buried 450 scholars alive. But the latest Chinese ruler has gone one stage more imaginatively further. And having appropriated Confucianism, as an [exceptionalist] Chinese model for an atheist, non-democratic social order, he is fulfilling purposes that Confucius would probably have questioned. But still, the sage’s words are remembered. ‘Govern the people with laws, and punishments, and they may obey but will have no sense of shame. But govern them with moral virtue and propriety, and they will learn shame and correct themselves. Would that they could be allowed to do so. Thank you.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Thank you Matthew, and now we will hear the thoughts of Rod Wye. Rod?
Rod Wye: Thank you very much. I’ve been asked to give a sort of foreign perspective and foreign governmental perspective in terms of the responses to what is happening in China, how those responses are and how they might develop. And, I just want to say thank you very much to Matthew for his illuminating background, because it does point out one big area that, I think, is often overlooked in government responses. First of all, religion is a difficult matter for governments to take on board. And by and large, questions of religion in other countries are treated not so much as questions of religion as questions of human rights, and questions of freedom of belief and these kinds of things. I think what a lot of people tend to overlook is the very clear link that Matthew has drawn in the Chinese governmental mind if you like, between religion and the state, and particularly religion as a subversive element. For us, in the developed west, we’ve moved a bit beyond in our thinking, and forgotten about the challenges that religion can pose to the state. In response to what is happening in China, we tend to take it very much as a human rights issue, and of course, human rights issues are very problematic for governments in confronting or responding to what is happening in China. There is this inevitable dilemma between how you promote and defend values of human rights, and how you push forward your agenda, your political, your military, your economic, or whatever other agenda it is, with the country concerned. And very often this has to be done in the knowledge that whatever is said or done in terms of criticism of human rights performance in the third country, that is going to excite strong opposition and pushback from the country concerned. And I think for human rights diplomacy at the moment, I would say that there is sort of three drivers for states in responding to what is happening in China and elsewhere. The first is responding to our own internal demands, that our state should be actively promoting its values – this whole question of values and what we stand for. It’s not just defending our values, it’s also promoting our values. Some years ago, the UK tried to include an ethical dimension to its foreign policy. And that sounded a really noble thing to do, but it did raise hugely unrealistic expectations about what the government would do, and it quickly fell afoul of hard-nosed realities. And it’s an illustration of how this kind of high-sounding ethical pursuit of values can often be more of a burden than a help in foreign policy behaviour. The second element, I think, is an internal aspect, and that is resisting or responding to criticisms within our own societies that we are overlooking or neglecting widespread human rights violations in the third country. And then, sort of, on a more positive note, there is an attempt to positively improve the situation in the country concerned. It’s not just always criticism. It’s sometimes trying to find positive ways to improve the situation as it is seen. And I just want to run through some of the ways that the UK government responds to what is happening in China. You will find there is a lot of words, a lot of verbiage, and not so much action, in what I am about to say. And I think this is very much a feature of not just of policy on religion, but policy on human rights more generally. First of all, there is private diplomacy. This is the preferred method of governments. We prefer to raise individual cases on a direct government-to-government level. This enables our government, or whatever government it is, to say: ‘we raise these matters constantly with country X (in this particular case China) and satisfies some of those demands generated internally that we are taking the matter seriously and that we are trying to do something about it. And the argument often used by governments is that trying to put public pressure on a third government, in this case China, is likely to be counterproductive, because the reaction will be strong, and will lead to no discernible improvement in practice or behaviour in the Chinese government. I would just like to quote very briefly from the report done by the Bishop of Truro, into how the FCO deals specifically with cases of Christian persecution. And this is actually, this report, which was produced a couple of years ago now, is still a very fundamental aspect of the way the UK government approaches Christianity in particular, but also its attitude to freedom of religious belief more widely. And this – the report said, ‘The FCO in Beijing engaged in both public and private diplomacy, although due to specific sensitivities, they were not able to share specific details about possible involvement with individual cases. And this, I think, it a recurring theme that governments say they are saying things, and maybe sometimes they are, but more often than not, it’s in a very sort of general context. The second way I which UK government has responded is through the human rights dialogues. These were initiated after 1989, at a time when China was quite eager to rehabilitate itself in international society. And there were a series of human rights dialogues, initially held every 6 months, and then with sort of greater and greater infrequency and perhaps with less and less content. But they do offer opportunities for the UK government, and others who conduct such dialogues, again to use that famous phrase, to raise the various issues concerned in a direct a bilateral fashion. Then there is doing this through multilateral bodies, such as the UNCHR, and other UN bodies, for example at the last UN general assembly meeting, the UK and others made a joint [inaudible] statement on the situation in Xinjiang. Then there is public diplomacy, much more public statements, the thing that governments hesitate a bit about. But the UK government has made statements about Xinjiang, has made statements about Tibet, has made statements about individual religious figures, mainly Christian figures who have been persecuted in China. And this is an attempt, often not just by ourselves but with others countries including the EU, to put diplomatic pressure on China often in the case of individual cases, often to release the individual concerned, from whatever form of detention they are in, or to make their life easier. Then there is positive action, as I describe it. And this is things like funding of human rights projects, funding of projects to help develop the human rights situation in China or elsewhere. And I do note that the latest umbrella – I’m not sure what the word is – umbrella fund for promoting democracy across the world, the Magna Carta fund, in calling for applications in the last two years in relation to China, has specifically asked for submissions relating to supporting human rights defenders, or freedom of religion or belief in China. And that is actually quite new. What I don’t know is whether there have been any such projects. The latest Human Rights Report from the FCO says little or nothing about China and nothing in particular about what particular projects may or may not have been initiated or supported. Then we come to another very controversial area, that the UK so far has not so far been involved in, in any significant way, particularly in relation to China. And that is sanctions. But I note again that Baroness Goldie said, not so long ago, that the government would be showing global leadership by imposing [inaudible] style sanctions on nations which violate human rights. She went on to say ‘secondary legislation will be laid under the sanctions and anti-money-laundering act 2018 once we leave the EU. This will allow the UK to impose [inaudible] style sanctions in response to serious human rights violations or abuses. Well that is a power perhaps to come, and a question that might raise itself in the future in relation to China and in particular to areas such as Xinjiang. Another governmental response that can be made, and has been made in the past is questions of asylum – allowing more generous conditions to individuals for freedom of belief and this kind of thing. I mean, in the case of China, the last time we really did it in any seriousness was after Tiananmen, when we allowed people who had protested to remain in this country and made things easier for them. We have not done that, so far as I know, in relation to religion, and religion actually remains one of the difficult areas, where deciding those deciding asylum cases find it very difficult to make decisions relating to those who claim religious persecution in China. Partly because of the proliferation of unauthorised or unexpected sects and groups – the kind of things that Matthew was relating to – but particularly in relation to Protestant groups in China, because, as Matthew has intimated, much of Protestant Christian worship in China takes place in a non-authorised place, and fashion. And then lastly is the thing that again governments perhaps pride themselves on and are rather better at, which is monitoring and reporting on what is actually happening – trying to get a figure – a feel – for what is happening. I might add at this point that it’s not just governments that find it really difficult to establish a sensible, practical, useful and respectful way forward in dealing with these kinds of issues. It’s also the established churches themselves. I note that the Vatican recently came to some kind of secret agreement with the Chinese over the appointment of Bishops. But it does show, I think, that these kinds of big religious institutions, not just the Vatican, but our own archbishop of Canterbury, has made numerous visits to China. Well… not the present one so much, not only the present one but mainly the previous ones. Because they like to think they are taking this longer-term view about their relationship with China. And that the ability to establish and maintain relationships with the faith communities there is a very important part of their work, and that’s something they need to do. But they realize, or they should realize, that they are making serious short term accommodations with the Chinese government in so doing, and in a sense, supporting the Chinese version of religion as somehow being organized and responsive to the state through the state-approved Catholic and Protestant bodies. And the very last point I would like to make is a sort of more general one, and that is again inspired by what Matthew has said. And that is that for most certainly western countries in dealing with religion in China we are looking essentially at Christianity, but also Islam, both of these religions are seen as essentially foreign-based systems of thought, and thus they start in the Chinese official mind from a very disadvantaged position, if you like. But they are viewed with suspicion. They are foreign – they do have links with foreign outside bodies, not within the control of the Chinese state, now the Chinese Communist Party, and they do need to be viewed with some suspicion. And, I think, when formulating responses to how China views and treats religious belief, we do need to take this very much into account. Thank you.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Thank you. Now we’ll be opening the discussion to the floor. We’ll be taking questions in blocks of two, and we’ll see how that goes. Before you ask your question, firstly if you could just kindly be very sharp with the questions you ask, and if you could kindly mention your name as well as your formal affiliation. Gentleman here at the front:
Audience member 1: [David Stoller] retired teacher. It’s a very difficult question, I’ll try and reduce it to a few words. What is it that the Chinese people are attracted to in Christianity, if it’s having such a huge interest there. And just as in the west, Christianity completely changed over a thousand years or two, our mind set and probably gave us the idea of human rights. Do you see that possibility happening in China?
Audience member 2: [Juliette Samuel] the Telegraph. I wondered to what degree the surveillance state that China’s building is essentially going to be successful in this project of stamping out religions they don’t like or what the effect will be – will people from Xinjiang simply disappear, and whether there’s also a racial element to this as well as a religious one?
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Thank you. Matthew, if you’d like to…
Matthew Henderson: Yes, my thoughts on both of those. And I observed the Christian thing first hand. I went round China with an earlier Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Carey, and his wife. And we went to see some orphanages and philanthropic institutions. And the only organizations of that sort that existed at the time were Christian. So there is that sense of community, fellowship, the wish to do good, and the wish to volunteer to do good. In those days at least, when the boom was beginning, this was uniquely special. And really, what I suppose I’m describing was the underlying emphasis on love and loving, kindness, charity – those ideas, which, while they’ve been present in Buddhist behaviours, it was more or less automatic – you would bring a bunch of flowers and offer them to the Buddha, as it were, but that act of karma was an individual matter – the socialised aspects of Christianity, its [community] aspects, a sense of fellowship and shared purpose, were very appealing to people whose lives had been very much turned upside down, and where the world of the spiritual and the moral had been reduced, and material pressure, and fear and competition were the only things you could see around you. There was a feeling of refuge, people were seeking solace in Christianity. And I do believe that’s been a major factor in it. There are others, no doubt, but that was what I observed myself. As for human rights as an idea, as you will have heard, there is now a notion that in some sort of way China is excluded itself – is excluding itself from an international idea of human rights. Because that implies supremacy of something individual over the interests of the state. So I don’t think, as long as the CCP’s in charge, I really don’t see the kinds of human rights that we espouse as having much chance of getting any profound traction. On the issue of surveillance and what effects it will have, with a degree of intensity it’s imposed on people in Xinjiang and Tibet, for example, it’s very clear that there is already an epidemic of depression, a feeling of alienation and loss. You can’t name your children as you wish them to be named, you can’t have them educated, your cultural identity is being stamped out, you’re being forced to paint over your parents’ graves, the mosque that you went to and your parents’ parents went to has been demolished, your communities have actually been moved around and broken up. This is an astonishing effort – it’s the sort of things that is really not known almost anywhere else, and although in Tibet the setup is somewhat different, nonetheless over a much longer period of time, the sheer laicization of the clergy, the fact that monks have to look after themselves economically, the fact that the church itself is not filled with generation after generation of more and more qualified religious undermines the very notion of that faith. Although it has a deep root in the veneration of images, and in the value attached to the figure of the Dalai Lama himself. Obviously as the freedom to express such sentiments is removed entirely, people’s lives are literally drained out of something that was central to them. So I fear that the extension of that, to the degree that it’s focused in that kind of intense way, is bound to have a very damaging effect in the long term. But I do still have some hope, because actually religion cannot be extirpated entirely. It never is, it always comes back, throughout the most dreadful times. It has survived. It survived the worst excesses of the cultural revolution, which were far more physically damaging, perhaps, that what’s going on now. It’s more about mental torture now. But people are tough, and, God willing, they will survive.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: And I just think, just adding to Juliette’s point, to what extent is ethno-racial prejudice implicated in this – these processes, of cultural and religious persecution?
Matthew Henderson: I mean, what they’ve done essentially is they’ve securitized ethnicity. You’re now identified racially with a face-recognition device. You are seen as being that thing. You’re a dissident or a rebel or somebody who wishes to immolate themselves because you are a Tibetan or a Uighur or a Kazakh or a Kyrgyz or something that is not Han Chinese, you are now a subject of interest, in a technical process. That in itself tells me a great deal about the answer to the question.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Thank you Matthew. Rod would you like to add anything on the questions that were asked, or build on any of the points Matthew has made?
Rod Wye: I think on the first question; I mean it’s a very difficult question to answer. But it is, you do need to think about it in term of how individuals see themselves and their lives within China – religious believers. And I think Matthew is right that there is, if you like, a sort of spiritual vacuum in China that has been filled in all sorts of different ways, sometimes by Christianity, sometimes by Falun Gong, sometimes by other groups or organizations or sects of whatever you like to call them because the materialist drive of the state just does leave something to be desired – and that has been filled by, in some instances, by religion, in various forms and in various places. I think the state has recognized that and has tried to substitute that kind of attraction with appeals to nationalism, with appeals to the China dream, these kinds of things. These are ways of adding a greater dimension to human life, than can be provided simply by the material success of the state. Whether this leads to a more profound reassessment of human rights and the relationship between the state and the individual, I don’t know. But I do note, as is well known, that among the drafters of the original universal declaration of human rights were Chinese people. It’s not something completely invented by the West. On the surveillance state and how successful it may be, in a sense it’s self-defeating when it tries to identify, as Matthew was saying, individuals by their ethnicity because then, how do you stop being what you are. You’re continually, in a weird sort of way, being reinforced in that ethnicity by the treatment the state gives you. And you may do all the things that are required of you, and people will because they have a sense of survival. But that won’t remove their feeling of differentness, in fact it will reinforce it. And as the cultural revolution has shown, the persistence of these traditions, in Han China and in non-Han China, is very strong. It is difficult to completely eradicate religion and culture, and they do tend to go closely together.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: OK, thank you Rod. Can we take the next couple of questions please?
Audience member 3: [Mallory Woburn] I don’t want to try to say a name in Chinese, but I refer briefly to the great admiral of the 15th century…
Matthew Henderson: Zheng He
Audience member 3: Well that seems to me to mark a phase in which China expanded. And then, suddenly, it drew in its horns. So there are phases where China behaves in a centrifugal way, expanding, and others where it behaves in a centripetal way, looking to itself. So that’s the background to the question, which is, today, we have Chinese people who go out of China but come back, but there’s also a substantial Chinese diaspora living in places all over the world. So the question then is, what is the role of this element of [outering] of Chinese sensibilities and existence, let alone the government, but the people at large? Is there anything that is happening, or can it be kept in control by the government, and if so what’s the story?
Matthew Henderson: That’s such a good question
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Yes gentleman right here at the front, thank you.
Audience member 4: [Paul Shaw] I read a piece by John Grey, the philosopher, a couple of weeks ago, saying he’d been in China and Russia, and they were facing similar problems as anxious governments with legitimacy deficits, responding in very different ways. The Russian government was going full counter-enlightenment. It was retreating into mysticism, Eurasianism, Alexander Dugin and a kind of cultivation of orthodoxy in relation to nuclear weapons. The Chinese though were, he saw, still in a kind of enlightened despotism. They were looking at Western responses to deal with legitimacy problems, and they were looking at western philosophers. One of them [inaudible] was Karl Schmidt, the Nazi ideologue, who emphasized homogeneity and central control, and they liked this because it fitted CCP doctrine and they would use that or refracted other bits of western doctrine. Do you see that continuing to happen, or is there anything that’s going to stop it? Because the projects you’ve mentioned have worked out quite well, haven’t they? When are they going to decide that neo-Schmidtism isn’t the way to go, with Chinese characteristics?
Matthew Henderson: Two excellent questions, I’ll be as brief as I may. Your point about the centrifugal/centripetal question – absolutely fascinating. But to cut it short: people who travel on a bus with a Chinese driver, all together in a group, go to Bicester, buy lots of stuff and go home again, haven’t had much of a cultural experience. Some of them might travel a bit further afield – you find people now in the furthest north-western corner of Scotland, all in a group, all going to a place where all the meals have been pre-booked. So again, they’ve been there and done that, and taken the selfies – lots of those. But how much has actually sunken in, I don’t know. Now take the opposite sort of case, where somebody’s at a university for a while. Young people at one point were able to merge with groups, and be one of a few – ah, but no, equally at universities, you find essentially a frat house, full of Chinese students, all eating Chinese food and all talking to each other. And do you know why? Because they are scared being caught out talking to other people. There is so much of this extraordinary level of surveillance that it’s possible – or at least in theory possible, from central to here, that just walking along the road, and coinciding with something to do with demonstrations in Tibet, or demonstrations in Hong Kong, can get you into an awful lot of trouble, and that blot on your [inaudible] is permanent. It will not be eliminated. So from that point of view, it used to be said that when the sky is high and the Emperor is far off, stuff can happen. The Emperor’s in your pocket, in your mobile phone, and that does make it an awful lot harder. Yes. Well, on the question of state ideology, I do believe it is the case that the idea of a mandate of heaven has been very, very important. There’s been an idea of the transfer of power. We’ve seen some extremely interesting transfers of power in the days since Deng Xiaoping, and we’ve seen a particularly interesting one at the moment. Once again, the notion of a collective leadership really doesn’t seem to account for that much anymore, even though it gave a certain kind of resilience. Even Deng had his eight immortals that he would go and talk to, and they brought a lot of wisdom and practical experience of warfare – the sheer grit and courage that had been needed to create the myth of the CCP as a benevolent leadership, despite the horrors of the great leap forward, and all of that. There was something there that Deng seemed to radiate. You read the biography of Deng, and it is an extraordinary story. There isn’t anybody like that anymore. So there has to be a system, as it were, that creates its own pyramid of power. And it requires great pressure to generate that. So the time of the recent national day, it appears there really were some quite traditional practices in terms of people being exposed to having to do self-criticism, and to listen to a lot of rhetoric about the wonders of the organized communist party. There is a feeling there that the well springs have dried up. I’m not picking up any sense of a new vision, other than this China dream thing which is quite frankly more of a China nightmare in many ways. It doesn’t keep people awake at night thinking, ‘Good, I’m going to wake up tomorrow and the China dream will be brighter and richer. It won’t because your kid’s been had up for going to along to support Hong Kong youngsters somewhere. What dream is that? I don’t know. So philosophically, there’s a lot in Confucianism, there’s a great deal that is actually very good. But unfortunately, the fact that it isn’t – the legalist bit of it – it’s not just order and hierarchy, the very thing that the original communist party fought so hard and so bravely to get rid of, and they called Confucius himself a stinking corpse, the stinking corpse has somehow been revived, partly inflated, and dragged around behind the thoughts of Xi Jinping, as if in some sort of way that was good enough. But it isn’t. To me, there is an ideological vacuum, as well as a spiritual one.
Audience member 4: So what’s going to happen?’
Matthew Henderson: Time will tell.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Thank you Matthew. Rod would you like to add your thoughts, please.
Rod Wye: On, sort of, outgoing, and I take Matthew’s points, but I think even so, an exposure to different cultures and ideas, however limited, does have an effect because it shows there are other places, places other than China and the Chinese system, in which people seem to be going about their business in a reasonably satisfied way, depending of course on where you go. I think the second point on that is that ideas are particularly pesky things. They do get into you somehow. You do take them back. And even in very closely surveyed situations, you do talk about them, about impressions and things. There is somewhere else. And I think this leads on to my answer to your question, that this whole obsession with sort of controlling everything, gets actually more and more difficult for those in charge of controlling everything, because there’s so much more. There’s more and more and more and more and more, and how are you going to control all of that? It sort gets back into this, it sort of devolves back into anarchy because how are you going to control everyone’s thoughts all the time, and in which way are you going to manipulate them and who’s going to make all these choices, and this kind of thing. And I think one can see the, as it were, the sort of policing aspects of it, and we hear an awful lot about that and the social credit system, and the way in which Chinese society is likely to be increasingly manipulated by artificial intelligence – and we have our own fears in our own societies about how big data are going to affect our lives. But, you know, they, whoever they may be, the big organizations or the CCP, sitting from their point of view, are pretty – not exactly helpless or powerless but as you say are very worried and anxious. The more information they get and the more means of control that they get, they may be able to produce some kind of superficial uniformity and acceptance. But I think, overall, it’s a doomed experiment. It’s not going to work. It may last for a while, but it won’t last forever.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: I think we have time for one more question. Yes, gentleman here.
Audience member 5: Rod White, not affiliated. I think the fundamental issues are very hard to discuss. They are kind of nebulous. We are talking about an authoritarian regime without diversity of opinion in decision making. And that is an issue that’s very hard for us to change. But over the next ten years, China will become the dominant superpower in trade. How can we, for example with [inaudible] Marina Litvinenko and Magnitsky Law, that was quite specific, relating to human rights, relating to corruption, to relate such a law and introduce sanctions across an extremely wide, diverse range of opinions is very difficult. What I think has to be done, as with the Magnitsky Law, is to give a lot more media coverage, more focus on having information known and understood widely about the human rights abuses and the religious intolerance in Russia. I don’t believe we can make a big change, but I think we can make a difference. And I do advocate asylum and [donations]?
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Rod, would you like to have a first go at answering that, on this occasion?
Rod Wye: I tend to agree with you. We’re not going to change the government in China, and we’re not going to change the government in Russia – it’s not our business to be doing that. It is the business of the people in those countries. What we can do – as you say we can expose wrongdoing, if you like, wherever we see it. We can put pressure on, in a limited way. I mean, the kinds of things I was describing are actually pretty limited kinds of things, and I think they have to be limited, because what we are trying to do is change ways of thinking and ways of approaching things, and you can do that partly by talking to people, but often they just don’t listen to you. You can do that partly by your own example – and you can do that partly by – as I say and as you suggest – exposing things. I think trying to impose sanctions on things is more for our benefit than it is for changing things, quite honestly. So it is nebulous, difficult and long term. But if you turn the light off and turn your back on these societies, you’re not helping. If you are engaging, to an extent – it has to be to an extent – with your eyes open, then I think long-term you can at least say to yourself that you’re contributing a little.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: Thank you Rod. Matthew?
Matthew Henderson: I also share your views, very largely. I do think there’s one sense in which [inaudible] have broken out of its traditional, small – as it were – corner, and spread across the world through the Belt and Road Initiative. There is far more exposure of the shortcomings of certain aspects of the way in which the Communist Government comports itself than there’s ever been before. And so rather than forever carping from the side lines and saying this, that, or the other has gone wrong in Wuhan – which sadly it has, and we all feel deeply for the people of China exposed to this frightful peril, and for the world which suffers as a result – but it’s that exposure to what happens in South America, where the economy of a place like Venezuela, never very stable at the best of times, has been entirely trashed by the intervention of irresponsibly large and essentially politically-directed funds from China. Other countries around the world spring to mind in exactly the same vein. There is now a particular way in which Chinese construction projects are seen in South America, when you know the way that the dams don’t work, and the roads don’t run, and the whole thing is so shoddy and dreadful, and there’s complete contempt for local culture and the environment and so on and so forth. There is now a very effective model of how not to do things like that, which has actually undermined China enormously, as part of a ridiculously overblown and premature surge into that international space, and misuse of money for all manner of purposes. This has reflected extremely badly on Beijing, and this is something of great regret. So, we simply have to say, ‘well look how well that transplants, and how that looks here, where we are,’ and it isn’t good. So we can do that, because our interests are at direct stake. As I say, the Emperor is now in your pocket. We’ve done things today about Huawei, which I don’t fully understand but no doubt light will be shed on that as well.
Dr Rakib Ehsan: On that note, I would like to thank everyone for attending today’s event, and please show your appreciation for our two speakers Matthew Henderson and Rod Wye.