China's Socioeconomic Changes and the Implications for the Religion-State Dynamic in China

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

During the past two years, most of the world's media attention has focused on the September llth terrorist incident and the resulting antiterror campaign, including the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the subsequent war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.1 However, most of China's media attention has centered on different events: China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), China's soccer team entering the World Cup competition, Beijing's successful bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games,2 and the recent changes in China's political leadership.3 These events, which differ from the concerns of the Western world, signify China's coming-of-age in the twenty-first century and China's emergence in the world's political and economic order. China has again reasserted itself as an important player in the international community.

Among these events, the Olympic Games and the World Cup are a source of immense national pride.4 China's new leadership has only recently taken office but has already built a promising record by its handling of the SARS crisis.5 However, China's accession to the WTO, completed in December 2001, bears important sociopolitical significance and may change China permanently.6 There are numerous studies examining the impact of WTO accession on China, almost all of which focus on economic and administrative issues.7 One area not yet addressed by commentators is how accession will affect the religious dynamic and church-state relations in China. Part II of this Article examines the general social changes resulting from China's WTO accession, while Part III discusses the implications for religious development in particular. Part IV provides an analysis of the government's responses to these changes, and Part V explores possible future ramifications on religious experience. Finally, Part VI offers a brief conclusion.

II. THE WTO AND GENERAL SOCIAL CHANGES

With regard to many aspects of life in China, accession to the WTO will bring a period of change unlike any other China has witnessed in its rich history. That is not to say that accession will be China's first experiment with Western culture, foreign religion, or even market capitalism. This Part will briefly recount some of China's earliest encounters with market economics and Western culture generally. In addition, this Part will explore some of the general socioeconomic consequences of China's membership in the WTO.

A. A Brief History of China's Experience with Market Capitalism

From the late eighteenth century until the early nineteenth century, China enjoyed a considerable trade surplus with the Western world, exporting more goods to Europe than it imported from Western nations.8 At the time, China was not eager to open its markets to overseas commodities. Western merchants, however, were anxious to open China's markets as an outlet for an oversupply of goods produced in factories built during the Industrial Revolution.9 It was not until China began to import opium, which enjoyed immediate popularity, that the balance of trade shifted from a trade surplus to a trade deficit.10 As the payments required to purchase opium increased, the negative trade balance literally bankrupted the Chinese government11 and led to a trade dispute that resulted in the infamous Opium War and the subsequent opening of China's markets to the West.12 Afterwards, China suffered economically as government policies designed to protect China's commercial interests proved ineffective and local manufacturers were forced to compete with lower-priced imported goods.13

Contemporary Chinese leaders and intellectuals often attribute modern China's economic woes to Western invasion and capitalist exploitation, symbolized-or demonized-by the Opium War.14 Capitalism and market economies were regarded as evil; thus, to avoid the stigma of national humiliation, China adopted socialism in hopes of regaining its economic sovereignty and national dignity. …