China Political Stories in 2015 — Which Will Be the Biggest?

The Wall Street Journal 2015/01/06

Anyone who has spent time observing Chinese politics is keenly aware of the country’s capacity for making fools of prognosticators. This past year was a case in point.

The formal arrest of former security czar Zhou Yongkang, the detention or imprisonment of prominent government critics previously assumed to be safe and the production of an unprecedented top-level blueprint for reforming the legal system demonstrated a surprising boldness on the part of Beijing in the second year of President Xi Jinping’s term. On the flip side, an explosion of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the U.S. Justice Department’s indictment of five Chinese military officers on cyberespionage charges showed how that boldness could backfire in unexpected ways.

And yet, what fun is it trying to understand this place if you can’t polish off the crystal ball every once in a while? We’ve listed a few of our own ideas below, in no particular order.

The Fox Hunt

After more than a year going after targets at home, China’s graft busters have trained their gaze on corrupt officials and their family members who have fled abroad. Authorities put the value of illicit assets spirited out of China in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Operation Fox Hunt, as it has been dubbed, has already resulted in the apprehension of 428 suspects from 60 countries and regions, according to state media reports, and it shows no signs of slowing down. A major challenge is the U.S., a popular destination for skittish Chinese elites that has no extradition treaty with China. Is this one area in which the world’s two biggest powers will find a way to cooperate, or will it feed the flames of mutual suspicion?

Hong Kong Aftermath

The 10-week occupation of key Hong Kong streets by demonstrators calling for universal suffrage was the largest pro-democracy protest to happen on Chinese territory since 1989. Now that the streets have been cleared, how will Beijing react? Will it sacrifice C.Y. Leung, the city’s unpopular chief executive? Will it clamp down and exact revenge on protest leaders?  Already, a number of those involved in the protests have been prevented from traveling to mainland China and Macau, and it seems likely the government will increase surveillance in the city, compromising what was once considered a haven for critics of the Communist Party.

The New Silk Road

The Silk Road of old came and went in concert with major Chinese dynasties. With the U.S. persisting in its “pivot to Asia,” Beijing is now determined to rebuild the Silk Road relationships that formerly placed China at the apex of a churning exchange of global commerce and culture. And it isn’t messing around: Already, China has built new border cities almost from scratch, and committed $40 billion to a “Silk Road Fund” to help lubricate the flow of goods and money in Asia. Will these efforts succeed in binding the region to China? And if so, what will that mean for China’s heft in the rest of the world?

If you’d like to read more, here is the link:



The new role of “religion” as a help for maintaining social peace


I have just returned from Beijing where I collected empirical material for my next public talk on “wisdom traditions” in China. I would like to share with you some of the stories I heard from young students and elder scholars about how people see change taking place regarding “religion” in their country.

As I have mentioned in my earlier articles, the concept “religion” cannot be used to describe Asian spiritual traditions the same way it is used to describe western spiritual traditions. The eastern cultures have various belief systems with their pantheons of spirits, demigods and gods that do not exclude one another, but are rather intertwined in the daily reality of the people.

In China religious institutions have never played a significant social or political role like e.g. the Catholic Church in the western world. Furthermore, as spiritual life in China has always been extremely multifaceted no spiritual institution has ever obtained exclusive power over others.

The People’s Republic has been experiencing an ideological vacuum for quite some time. My old friend Chen Feng Shan, a sociologist, made the point that “people do not accept the communist ‘language’ / ideology any longer. Neither do they accept the free market ‘language’ of the 1980’s. And generally speaking, people are having more and more trouble accepting any authority at all.” A new ethic codex is badly needed to give the people a new guideline for moral conduct.

The government is trying to fill this vacuum in two different ways. On the one hand it now allows the practice of traditional spiritual activities (as long as they can be controlled). On the other hand it actively propagates the ancient moral doctrine of Master Kong. The idea is that if spiritual activities help people to manage the contingences of their lives better then they serve the purpose of maintaining social peace. Keeping the country politically stable is the highest aim of the Chinese government.

Spiritual activities

People can and do worship in temples and churches of the five officially sanctioned religions. They can do this as long as they “don’t disturb anyone”. However, religious meetings in homes are forbidden, because they cannot be controlled by the government. Thus religion remains a private thing.

Adam Chau (Chau, Adam Yet 2006: Miraculous Response. Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford, California. Stanford University Press: 211-215) has done research on popular belief systems in northern China in the 1980’s and states: ”To my knowledge there has been no crackdown on superstitious activities in Shaanbei since the 1980’s, which partly accounts for the vibrant popular religious life there. Yet so much of Shaanbei popular religious life (e.g. divination, spirit mediumism, rain prayers, symbolism of hell and divine retribution, etc.) would qualify as superstition according to the criteria of the Maoist era. It is quite plane to everyone in the local state that cracking down on popular religion, no matter how superstitious it looks, will meet with popular disapproval and even resistance: it ´will not win people’s hearts´.”

The age-old “self-employed” fortunetellers can practice their trade now more or less openly also in urban areas. They can be found e.g. around the Lama Temple in Beijing. They can’t draw attention to their services in newspapers, but they can do it online in a limited way. And they have their clients.

There are two most beautiful ancient and well restored Buddhist temples, the Azure Clouds Temple and the Temple of Recumbent Buddha located near the Fragrant Hills in the NW of Beijing, which are frequented by locals as well as tourists. A young lady, who lives in this area, told me about new, privately financed Buddhist temples that are being built in the hills. By building new temples well-to-do families seek to establish themselves socially in the traditional Chinese way.

I was told that Buddhist communities tend to be growing strong around old Buddhist centers. The same thing happens with Daoist and Christian communities. The geographical location and local traditions, not individual ponderings, seem to influence the choice of the main spiritual activities of the locals. But, as mentioned before, other spiritual activities are well accepted and practiced in parallel with the main stream activities.

The Confucian doctrine as the old / new moral codex

The government’s preferred alternative to spiritual practices is the Confucian moral codex. Confucianism is an ancient Chinese social doctrine that includes everything necessary for “good governance” from the point of view of the present government. Certain aspects of the doctrine suit the government well, because it is basically hierarchical and authoritative the same way as the Communist Party.

Confucianism is theoretically a moral code of conduct rather than a spiritual tradition. In China, however, it has obtained aspects that could be regarded as “religious”. There are Confucian temples where people show respect to their ancestors and the “demigod, sage Confucius” by conducting ceremonies similar to those in Buddhist and Daoist temples. The common goal of such practices is to ensure that one’s dead relations do indeed become ancestors, supernatural powers that are benevolent and remote rather than ghosts that are malevolent and proximate. These practices make the basically rational, non-metaphysical doctrine acceptable for the many people. Furthermore, the Confucian ideology is regarded as part of the ancient Chinese culture.

As for Confucian style weddings and the more and more popular grand scale family gatherings (especially in southern China), they are regarded as commercial rather than spiritual affairs, says Chen Feng Shan. Thus the gatherings of the often large crowds are not perceived as a threat to the organized society.

The Confucian doctrine is summed up in the “Five Confucian Classics” (compiled after Confucius’ death). The current interpretation of the texts seems to stress the role of an individual as a citizen. Yu Dan expresses this in her book “Confucius from the Heart” as follows: “Unlimited possibility leads to chaos, because you don’t know where to go or what to do. We must rely on a strict system to resolve problems. As citizens, our duty is not necessarily to be perfect moral persons. Our duty is to be law-abiding citizens” (Yu Dan: “Confucius from the Heart” 2006).

However, to Confucius social harmony was consensus, not conformity. It required loyal opposition. When censors now remove critical comments from the Chinese Web with the argument that it is done in order to protect political stability, people say that the text has been “harmonized.”

Popular religious practices in China: Shamanism or “Wuism”

The term „religion“ has a strongly European connotation without a clear definition of its meaning(s). In the Asian context I prefer terms like “spiritual or wisdom traditions” or “belief systems”. For the sake of simplicity, however, I use the word “religion” in the title.

The oldest spiritual traditions worldwide could be put together under the umbrella of “shamanist practices”. Such traditions are based on the belief that “spirits” can be influenced, and actions that aim to influence them to have their support and concrete help e.g. for healing purposes, to predict the future, to bring good luck for hunting etc. The techniques of shamans and the specific aims of their practices are, of course, culture and context bound.

Nikolas Thomas and Caroline Humphrey make a difference between what they call ”vertical shamanism“ meaning esoteric knowledge that belongs to a small elite group of practitioners. (In the old China vertical shamans came from shaman families, the jobs in the royal courts were passed from father to son and the men were carefully trained for their work) and “horizontal shamanism” referring to practices that can be performed by anyone, who is able to come into contact with spirits. They divide Chinese shamans, the 巫 wū, into three categories

或巫師huòwūshí „tribal priests“
男巫 nánwū male shamans, court officers, mediums / vertical shamanism
女巫nǚwū female shamans, healers and magicians, also mediums / horizontal shamanism

The earliest archeological evidence of shamanist activities has been found in the Yellow River area in northern China dating from 4000 – 2200 years before our time. It includes objects like small human and animal statues made of stone as well as oracle bones and percussion instruments made of clay. The first Zhou-King 武王Wǔ Wáng (11. century before our time), is supposed to have been a gifted shaman himself.

Vertical shamans seem to have played a very important role at the courts. Some of them became extremely influential. According to old court records from Zhou-Dynasty the Chinese kings were believed to rule under the Mandate of Heaven. If they ruled well, their kingdoms prospered. If not, they lost their mandate and the result was a change of dynasty. The court shamans were vital members of the court in making sure that “Heaven” was satisfied with the ruling king. Their job was to mediate between the king and the Heaven.

However, the court shamans were not only mediums and advisors. They also served as court “scientists”. They studied the constellations of stars in order to make predictions for the future. They also wrote down genealogies in order to support the claims of rulers and kept careful books about historical events. Such records served additionally the development and standardisation of the language.

The court shamans lost their status in 1912 when the First Republic of China was founded. Confucianism was declared to state ideology and the tasks of shamans were handed over to priests, who replaced shamanic practices through Confucian rites.

It was a time of enlightment and social reorganization. All practices that had to do with the spirit world were forbidden, because they were thought to be remnants of the feudal, superstitious society of before. However, horizontal shamans have always been met in all walks of life. There is a continuous market for their services as healers, interpreters of dreams, know-it-alls and fortunetellers. Their social position may always have been rather weak, but as the rulers have preferred keeping them under control (as well as possible) rather than trying to forbid their activities completely (which they knew would have been impossible) shamans have never been persecuted all too strongly.

Today a paradigm shift can be observed as the current government seeks to establish and strengthen phenomena that they call “the spiritual heritage” of the nation in order to propagate nationalistic feelings of the citizens. For example shamanic practices are being “remodeled” by introducing new potentially helpful spirits such as Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Lei Feng. The regalia of a shaman may now include parts of a Red Guard uniform and modern sport shoes. The traditional chants are sometimes supplemented by the national hymn of the PRC.

Emily Chao (Chao, Emily 1999: The Maoist Shaman and the Madman: Ritual Bricolage, Failed Ritual, and Failed Ritual Theory. Cultural Anthropolgy 14(4): 505-511.) describes such a new kind of shamanist ritual in her article and points out that in the end it is always the audience that makes their judgment of its effectiveness based only on the result.

Adam Chau (Chau, Adam Yet 2006: Miraculous Response. Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford, California. Stanford University Press: 211-215.) has done research on popular belief systems in northern China in the 1980’s and states:

”To my knowledge there has been no crackdown on superstitious activities in Shaanbei since the 1980’s, which partly accounts for the vibrant popular religious life there. Yet so much of Shaanbei popular religious life (e.g. divination, spirit mediumism, rain prayers, symbolism of hell and divine retribution, etc.) would qualify as superstition according to the criteria of the Maoist era.”


“It is quite plane to everyone in the local state that cracking down on popular religion, no matter how superstitious it looks, will meet with popular disapproval and even resistance: it ´will not win people’s hearts´.”

Benefiz-Konzert am 14.6.2014 mit, unter anderem, chinesischer Musik in Bern

Benefiz-Konzert der SPOG, Schweizerische Pädiatrische Onkologie Gruppe.

Samstag, 14. Juni 2014, 17.00 Uhr, Türöffnung 16.30 Uhr
Französische Kirche, Zeughausgasse 8, Bern

Freier Eintritt, Kollekte zugunsten

Links zur Eilandung und Programm:

Benefizkonzert_14_Juni_2014. Einladung

Benezif Konzert 14.6.2014 Programm

Smoggy and yellow air in Beijing

I have spent many smoggy days in Beijing. However, even more scary than a “nomal smoggy” day was the sandstorm I experienced in the middle of March in 2002. I had just arrived in Beijing and was getting settled in my flat. As I woke up on my second morning and looked out of the window the only thing I saw was yellow air, really yellow air. I could hardly see the wall of the neighboring building.

Then my phone started ringing: “Don’t go out today. You’d better stay at home. It’s a bad sandstorm.” My Chinese friends warned me and it was good they did. I simply didn’t know how dangerous a strong sand storm coming from the Gobi Desert can be.

Millions of trees have been planted since then according to the Green Great Wall project to stop the desert from growing and to act as a bulwark against the wind. However, sandstorms still belong to the Beijing winter.

The People’s Republic of China is a party of the Kyoto Protocol, but being a so called developing country it is only committed to reduce its emissions without having legally binding targets.

The following is part of an article from the New York Times published on February 3. 2014

China to Reward Cities and Regions Making Progress on Air Pollution


BEIJING — Chinese officials announced Thursday that they were offering a total of 10 billion renminbi, or $1.65 billion, this year to cities and regions that make “significant progress” in air pollution control, according to a report by Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

The announcement came from the State Council, China’s cabinet, after it held a meeting on Wednesday to discuss, among other issues, the country’s immense air pollution problem. “Control of PM2.5 and PM10 should be a key task,” the State Council said in a statement, referring to two kinds of particulate matter that are deemed harmful to human health.

The announcement of the financial incentives revealed how difficult it has been for some leaders in Beijing to get many Chinese companies and government officials to comply with environmental regulations. Though central officials have been saying with growing vigor that pollution of all kinds must be curbed, their efforts to force other parts of the bureaucracy and the state-run economy to obey rules have been stymied by the self-interest of some groups.

Last year, more than 100 cities in China had an average of 29.9 smoggy days, which was a 52-year high, China Daily reported, though it did not explain what constituted a smoggy day.

The majority of China’s energy use is based on coal, whose burning, besides being the major cause of air pollution in the country, also contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming. China has surpassed the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the biggest coal consumer in the world.

The South China Morning Post introduces a possible new method of controlling air pollution

China to test new smog-busting drone to help clear polluted skies

Published on Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 2:49pm, Updated on Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 4:24am by Darren Wee

New design of unmanned vehicle will spray chemicals that freeze floating particles, allowing them to fall to ground, developer says.

Government agencies are to test a new design of aerial drone to see whether it might help tackle the air pollution that often blankets much of the mainland, state media reported.

Air pollution control drone (South China Morning Post 5. March 2014)

Air pollution control drone (South China Morning Post 5. March 2014)

The vehicle will spray chemicals that freeze pollutants, allowing them to fall to the ground.

The tests would be led by the China Meteorological Administration and carried out later this month at airports and ports, Xinhua said.

The drone has been developed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China and has a paragliding wing, which allows it to carry three times more weight than the fixed-wing version, making it more efficient and cost-effective.

Happy New Year 2014

According to the Chinese lunar calendar the New Year begins this year on January 31. It is the year of the wooden horse.

In earlier times horses provided an important means of transportation and played a very important role in warfare. Thus horses symbolize speedy travelling, quick success and victory. By the way, I call my electric bicycle 马上 mashang, which literally translated means “on horse back”, the modern meaning being “immediately”. Not that I feel especially noble or elevated on my bike. It does take me to places faster and helps me to manage the Swiss topography better than a bicycle without a battery, though. Riding uphill I beat my husband any time. That is speedy travelling, quick success and even victory.

People born in the year of the horse are supposed to be competitive and passionate lovers of freedom. They are social and make good leaders.

If you would like to read the legend of the dragon horse, here is the link:

I wish everyone, particularly the horse people, a very good and successful Chinese New Year.

Christmas in the PRC


Christmas is not a traditional Chinese festival. However, more and more people in the bigger cities have taken over certain holiday traditions from the west. Especially commercial ones. Department stores and big hotels have Christmas decorations. Gift shopping is great and you can greet Santa here and there.

Companies that deal with foreigners give Christmas parties. Afterwards the foreign employees go home for a couple  of days and the Chinese back to work. Most offices, shops and schools stay open. Business as usual.

The number of Christians in China is very small (estimated 1% of the population). However, Christian churches are very popular places during the holiday. I’ve been told that it’s fun to go to a Christian church to listen to the songs. Everybody gets something to eat and a little gift to take home.

I’ve seen Christian churches with Christmas decorations that are never taken down. Such decorations have in a way become a symbol for the religion.

Have a happy holiday season unless you work in China.

CPC’s stance on religious belief

Updated: 2013-10-09 09:18

By Ji Zhebu ( China Daily)

Although social circumstances have changed markedly since China implemented its reform and opening-up policy more than three decades ago, the Communist Party of China’s stance on its members’ belief in Communism has not changed since the Party was founded in 1921.

The Party Central Committee has clearly and repeatedly stated that members are prohibited from believing in religion or participating in religious activities. Those who refuse to adhere to the rules are usually persuaded to withdraw from the Party.

At the National Conference on Publicity and Ideology, held in Beijing on Aug 19 and 20, Party chief Xi Jinping called on CPC members and officials to believe firmly in Marxism and Communism and to apply a down-to-earth approach to their work.

According to Xinhua News Agency, Xi stressed that officials, especially those in the upper echelons of power, should grasp the fundamental theories of Marxism and study Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, The Thought of Three Represents and the Scientific Outlook on Development.

In addition, Zhu Weiqun, executive vice-minister of the United Front Work Department of the Party Central Committee, published an article entitled “Party members can’t be religious”.

“The article was just a response to the situation that some Party members believe in religion rather than science. As far as I know, very few opposed (my idea) openly inside the Party, but I know a lot of people are not happy with it,” Zhu told China Newsweek earlier this year.

He listed a number of reasons for maintaining the rule for Party members, pointing out that the Party’s worldview is based on dialectical materialism, which is the cornerstone of all the Party’s theories and practices. He also explained that allowing Party members to practice religion could cause a conflict of interest if they believe they should follow the basic tenets of their religion ahead of Party policy.

Zhu said the principle doesn’t contradict the freedom of religion. “When a person chooses to be a Party member of their own free will, it means he or she chooses to be nonreligious. By the same principle, he or she can quit the Party and be religious,” he said.