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Visit to China

October 3, 2010

I’ve been away from this blog during a week-long visit to China as an invited contributor to the First Nishan Forum on World Civilizations, held in Jining, 26-27 September.  The event involved ca. 60 contributors and over 200 registered participants, mainly from China but a number of westerners as well.  The focus was on Confucianism and Christianity.

As is widely known, China is exploding economically, and the cities are chockfull of impressive skyscrapers and other buildings, new cars, stores selling luxury goods, new highways, bullet-trains that go over 300 kph, and much more.  Everything is big:  e.g., I was told there are ca. 1 million university students in Nanjing alone!  Jining, a lesser-known city in Shandong Province is 8.1 million population!

Among the many different impressions that I’m still trying to sort out is the somewhat uncomfortable sense that the event was heavily managed for propaganda purposes.  That’s understandable, given that the Chinese govt funded the event.   It’s understandable that the govt would want to spin things to promote China in the world.

But I found it slightly disturbing that in an event supposed to be a “dialogue” some of those chosen for the panel-discussions (specifically some representing a Confucianist stance) chose to engage in irrelevant and unnecessary comparisons of Confucianism and Christianity (always, of course, the latter portrayed in simplistically negative terms).  To be sure, these were a minority, and there were also a number of respected Chinese scholars who took a much more balanced and generous stance.  But  I did wonder why such aggressiveness or defensiveness was displayed.

In a few cases these zealots tried to argue that Chinese people weren’t religious, didn’t need gods, that Christianity was simply a colonizer religion, etc.  So, in this light are the 100+ million Chinese Christians not true Chinese?  You see the danger.

It’s perfectly right that China and Chinese people should recognize Confucius as an important figure, a key figure in Chinese heritage and cultural identity.  Christians and other “minorities” can acknowledge Confucius as a great sage and teacher.  But the “ism” in “Confucianism” could be a problem unless the govt proceeds wisely.  China’s comparatively greater moral stature in the world today is not the result of its remarkable economic development, but rather from the sense that the govt has granted the people a comparatively greater measure of freedom.  To date, however, this is primarily a greater economic freedom.  China’s aspiration for further growth in moral stature in the world will come as the govt grants the people still greater freedoms in thought, expression, belief, and in aspirations.

My own paper was a study of two second-century Christian texts, Epistle to Diognetus and Justin Martyr’s Apology, and I argued that these texts provide a case-study of Christians affirming their particularity while also seeking to play a positive role as good citizens in their non-Christian society.  I propose that these texts provide a good model for Chinese Christians, and also perhaps for the Chinese govt in taking a flexible attitude toward religious diversity.

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  1. Hi Larry – Just ran across this which might be of interest given the reflections on the China experience: “Chinese Communist Party elders … call for an end to restrictions on expression in China.” Full article at

    • Thanks for this. The open letter from such senior figures is very interesting. Their complaint about the non-realization of stated rights of expression reminds me of a comment from an East European friend during the Cold War: What’s the difference between the Russian Constitution and the American Constitution? Both give freedom of speech; but in the US you get freedom after speech too!

  2. Siang permalink

    I see in the blog entry a sharp and correct observation of certain nuances in certain speeches in the conference. This is natural. I think I can understand the point of view of speakers who still speak in the “olden language” that takes a conservative or even anti-Christian stance, though there are many more who speak objective. This conservative stance has been there for many decades since Mao, to safe-guard Chinese people from converting to foreign religion/”power” (Christianity being a major one), and to promote atheism. Atheism runs in the blood of Communism in China. It was the spirit and soul of Chinese communism in those days. This style of speaking was and still likely patriotic in the eyes of the government.

    Confucianism has for one decade or so been used as a stand-in for a religion. China’s economic reforms has in the past encouraged a largely amoral attitude towards making money. A saying goes under the late leader Deng: ‘it does not matter whether it is a black or white cat, any cat that catches a mouse is a good cat’. To curb the growing amoral tendency in the society, the government realises that there is an ethical vacuum that has resulted in the eradication of religious beliefs in the past. The Chinese economy has its fair share of fake and harmful foodstuffs/products, and the government is also trying to root out corruption.

    It may be probable that the government realizes the benefits of religions in acting as moral safeguard for the society. And thus promotes Confucianism, which is indigenous, over and against the popular Christianity, though the conference funded also by government money does show an interesting opening up to Christianity as an intellectual subject.

    But issues of faith is still very sensitive especially for party members, and openly confessing the Christian faith for members poses a risk to their jobs, pensions, etc.

    Yet at the same time, an academic study of Christianity is getting popular. Christianity is also growing rapidly, and stamping it out would not be in the interest of the government. I sympathise with the measures that the Chinese government is taking to re-enculturate the society. Confucianism is also a way to promote the awareness of China to the world.

    These points I have discussed may still be sensitive issues that one does not speak openly in China, so any responsibility said of the above is mine alone, and these are spoken from my observation as a non-PRC, so take it with a pinch of salt 🙂

  3. I hope your positive contribution to dialogue and advance was heard by others there.


  4. Good day!This was a really terrific post!
    I come from itlay, I was fortunate to look for your blog in baidu
    Also I get a lot in your subject really thanks very much i will come every day

  5. jpboulter permalink

    Thanks for this Professor Hurtado. I have a good friend (American) who is a Confucian scholar living in Hong Kong. He has traveled to the mainland for these types of conferences. As is clear in your post, China is still hesitant in many areas to promote legitimate dialogue, but it seems to get better and better. Very exciting stuff for Christians who are interested in working along side the Chinese academics!

  6. Sean permalink

    Greetings Professor Hurtado. Will you be posting this paper online? It sounds fascinating!

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