The traditional role of religion in China is not unlike that found under Islam: religion and the state are effectively joined, and a ruler without religious sanction is as difficult to imagine as a faith independent of the state. The demands of Confucianism, for centuries China’s official system of belief, are perhaps less exacting than those of Islam, but their place in society is similar. What is more, they continue to frame the problems with which religion confronts the Communist regime in Beijing today. Unless China’s fundamental culture changes dramatically, no Chinese leader can rule without some sort of broadly recognized moral or ideological sanction. By the same token, the notion of religion as a separate estate-the realm of individuals and private organizations-will seem strange or even subversive to many Chinese, especially to government officials.
Yet communism today is dead. Not long ago there was a sense that Marxism, suitably Sinified by the party of Mao Zedong, could indeed serve as a new and revolutionary orthodoxy for modem China. Certainly communism was, in effect, a religion for its early Chinese converts: more than a sociological analysis, it was a revelation and a prophecy that engaged their entire beings and was expounded in sacred texts, many imported from Moscow and often printed in English. That faith has vanished today, leaving in China a great void that some shared belief must fill.