THE Western liberal media had a laugh in August when China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs announced Order No. 5, a law covering “the management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.” This “important move to institutionalize management on reincarnation” basically prohibits Buddhist monks from returning from the dead without government permission: no one outside China can influence the reincarnation process; only monasteries in China can apply for permission.
Before we explode in rage that Chinese Communist totalitarianism now wants to control even the lives of its subjects after their deaths, we should remember that such measures are not unknown to European history. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the first step toward the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years’ War, declared the local prince’s religion to be the official faith of a region or country (“cuius regio, eius religio”). The goal was to end violence between German Catholics and Lutherans, but it also meant that when a new ruler of a different religion took power, large groups had to convert. Thus the first big institutional move toward religious tolerance in modern Europe involved a paradox of the same type as that of Order No. 5: your religious belief, a matter of your innermost spiritual experience, is regulated by the whims of your secular leader.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Chinese government is not antireligious. Its stated worry is social “harmony” — the political dimension of religion. In order to curb the excess of social disintegration caused by the capitalist explosion, officials now celebrate religions that sustain social stability, from Buddhism to Confucianism — the very ideologies that were the target of the Cultural Revolution. Last year, Ye Xiaowen, China’s top religious official, told Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, that “religion is one of the important forces from which China draws strength,” and he singled out Buddhism for its “unique role in promoting a harmonious society.”
[Extract. Appeared in The New York Times, on October 11th 2007. (full text).]