“Religion is the opium of the people.” — Karl Marx

Almost every Chinese who goes through some middle school education must, at some point, run into the famous statement about religion by Karl Marx. It is enshrined in text books that introduce students to the philosopher’s materialistic interpretation of the world, which considers religion as a “fantasy” used by reactionary forces to disarm the revolutionary proletariats by promising salvation in the afterlife and preaching endurance in the current one.

Some will argue that there is a Leninist spin in such a presentation of Marx’s view and that his is a more nuanced one that recognizes, albeit grudgingly, the historically progressive role of religion. Still, Marx’s view has become probably the only modern critique of religion that many ordinary Chinese are familiar with, besides Confucius’s largely agnostic approach to spirituality. It also forms the basis of the Communist Party’s self-branding of a fundamentally atheist party.

That being said, textbooks do not dictate how millions of Chinese actually approach faith, nor does Marxist dogma completely define how the CCP handles religion in the People’s Republic. The harsh criticism of religion by Marx does not stop a large number of Chinese from embracing the teaching of Buddha, the message of Jesus Christ or the words of Mohammed. If anything, the “value vacuum” left by the retreat of a fanatic Maoist ideology since the death of the Chairman has increasingly been filled by religion, demonstrated by skyrocketing numbers of new converts.

On the other hand, the “atheist party” has seen its position on the thorny issue, intertwined with ethnic relationship, vacillate greatly over the course of a few decades, from courtship for the sake of building political alliance, to violent attack during its radically leftist years of internal political struggles, to reconciliation in the early days of Reform and Opening, and to a cautious ambiguity that defines its approach today.

It is within this ambiguity that a recent revision of a low-level administrative regulation aimed at maintaining social order stirred up a great controversy online. In the draft change, authorities added a clause that, by the Chinese standard of social control, may seem innocuous: “Anyone who produces contents in publications or online platforms that contain insults or prejudice against a religion or ethnicity may be subject to administrative detainment from 10 to 15 days.” As a society dominated by a largely secular majority of Han Chinese, setting up certain mechanisms to prevent the abuse of minority ethnic groups looks like a legitimate cause. If viewed as a measure designed to prevent hate-speech, it is also not unprecedented. The 2009 Measures for Ethnic Unity Education enacted in Xinjiang, where a great number of ethnic minorities, particularly the Uighurs, live, also contain a clause that forbid hate-inciting speeches that stir up ethnic tension.

But this time the outcry was loud and clear, with one Weibo post asking people to oppose the measure collecting 60,000-plus forwards within a short period of time.

There are a few notable things about this wave of pushback against the regulation. First, it primarily targets Islam and Muslims even if the proposed clause does not specify any religion or ethnicity for which it is designed. Second, online mobilization for the cause concentrates in “pockets” of the cyberspace that have a track record of anti-Islam activism; and rather than a concern with freedom of expression in general, it seems to have derived from a very specific grievance that has been gradually building up on the Chinese Internet: a discontent with the perceived (unprincipled) accommodation of the spread of Islam by the Chinese state.

Like many online sentiments that accumulate over time, it is likely shaped by the recurrence of events that are perceived (and interpreted) as having a repeating theme. Researchers may point to the violent riots in Xinjiang in 2009 as the starting point of the narrative of the Chinese state being “too accommodating” to ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs. And as this recent online mobilization will show, the narrative has evolved and collected energy from a host of new sources.

Many events that are reinforcing that narrative today may seem trivial: airlines carry only halal-certified foods aboard domestic flights; police in Shanghai hesitant to intervene in a bully case where supposedly Muslim beef noodle shop owners tried to stop others from opening competing shops; CCTV’s annual spring festival gala accused of distorting a Chinese New Year tradition to avoid mentioning pork. Compared to violent ethnic conflicts, these are stories of minor frictions that often flow beneath the surface of sensational news headlines.

Popular Weibo posts opposing the proposed measure cite the “secular joys” of the Han Chinese life as worthy of protection, going all the way back to the times of the Monkey King when such classic literary works as the Journey to the West could make fun of the ridiculous aspects of religion. “The proposed rule will destroy a core part of Chinese culture”, asserts one post. Some of the commentators see a slippery slope in front of them: “First you can’t eat pork, then girls can’t don short skirts…, then your kid can’t go to school because enrollment favors kids from certain religions. It’s about our very dear interests!”

This highlights the intrinsic contradictory in the Chinese experience with Islam, and ethnic matters that are closely related. On the one hand, the impression outside China has been influenced by its heavy-handed social control in regions such as Xinjiang, especially after the riots in the late 2000s. On the other, domestic experience, particularly in Han-dominated central and coastal areas, often contains an element of hurt and frustration. This may seem ironic given the overall economic and cultural advantage that the majority group enjoys, many of which related to its access to opportunities and public resources that tend to concentrate in the developed eastern provinces.

But on a micro, personal level, the experience is also very likely to be real. China’s ethnic policy of today, wherein religion constitutes an organic part, features a series of preferential treatment of minorities, ranging from affirmative action in higher education to leniency in the criminal justice system, some more controversial than others. The so-called “two restraint one leniency” policy, issued by the Party’s Central Committee in 1984, instructs law enforcement across the nation to practice restraint in arrest and execution and leniency in treatment when dealing with minority criminals. Even though the supposed intention of the original policy was to accommodate traditional customs in minority areas that could be criminalized under the sweeping campaign to crackdown on crimes in the early 1980s, it nevertheless led to a lingering situation where “in legal and civil disputes, authorities throughout the nation tend to side with ethnic minorities for the sake of preserving ethnic unity, even to the dissatisfaction of the Han Chinese.” Reports of police officers turning their eyes away from crimes involving ethnic minorities abound on the Chinese Internet.

China’s different approaches to religion in and outside the Xinjiang (and Tibet) Autonomous Regions, where “leniency” is probably the last word used to describe ethnic/religious policy there, is something worth keeping in mind when examining online sentiments on this issue. For instance, in this recent controversy, many who oppose the draft cited situations in places like Ningxia or Qinghai where the issue of Islamic expansion seems particularly salient. People share pictures of grand, luxury Mosques being built in those remote, poverty stricken areas in Western China with the blessing of local governments, and accounts of local children being organized to attend religious schools.

Many netizens online feel uneasy of such developments. And this is where Marx clashes with Islam. One of the major concerns that emerges from this wave of criticism is the worry that the Chinese society’s unique equipment to keep religion at bay, its atheist socialist ideology, can be severely constrained with the introduction of the proposed measure.

Xi Wuyi, a scholar of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a leading voice denouncing the amendment, embodies this unique Chinese response to Islam. In her strongly worded commentary that was posted online, she asserts that “to research religion and to critique theology is the classic academic paradigm of contemporary Chinese Marxist religion studies” and questions if the clause will undermine the “scientific atheists’ efforts to curb the negative impacts of religion”, a stated aim of the National Conference on Religion-related Work held by the Party in 2016. Her arguments were echoed by other influential personalities on Weibo, who are more colorful when expressing their disapproval: “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which topples biblical creationism, and The Internationale, which refutes the existence of gods, can all be taken as offensive to a certain religion. Should they be banned under the new rule?”

An atheist conviction is not their only weapon, especially when it comes to Islam. Broader concerns with women’s rights and the religion’s perceived aggressive hostility toward non-believers are also major factors contributing to online acrimony. Again, they are reflected in the online activism of an opinion leader like Xi, who constantly intervene in cases of Islamic “intrusion” into secular freedoms. Just as the petition to scrap the amendment was ongoing, she mobilized public support for an ethnic Hui girl whose father threatened to kill her for her dating a Han boyfriend. A large portion of the Hui ethnicity are Muslims. The father allegedly told the girl that “killing you would violate Han Chinese laws but I would be celebrated as a hero by my Muslim brothers.” The mobilization to support the girl reinforced the sense of urgency felt by those dreading an Islamic encroachment into Chinese social values, further energizing the opposition to the proposed regulation.

For many commentators who piled on the topic, the invocation of Marx can be purely a strategic choice: citing the Party’s ideological idol in opposition to a governmental initiative seems politically acceptable as a “kind reminder” of its communist roots. It also speaks to an important aspect of this online revolt: the grievance is directed as much towards Islam the religion as it is to state favoritism and incompetence, hence the almost “scolding” element in the online criticism that’s designed to “alert” the Party of deviating from its “true color”.

Such “alerts” can be at times very specific, tracing the proposal to powerful religious figures that are able to influence Party policy. The message is that those figures, mullahs who wear governmental hats, have swayed a Party which so far have resisted religious interference into its rule of the country. The curious Taoist support of the campaign, which won applause online, only adds to the perception that the clause was created solely to block criticism of Islam.

A few commentators are careful in making a distinction between religion and ethnicity, separating what they consider religious prejudice, which for them is a false concept, and ethnic prejudice, which is much less defensible. They maintain that every person, no matter of what ethnic lineage, has the freedom to believe or not believe in a religion. It is also in line with the kind of thinking long advanced by prominent scholars such as Ma Rong, who advocates the “depoliticizing” of ethnic “group” identities and the uphold of “individual” identities. He believes that group-based preferential policies are making ethnic identities more acutely felt, and should be replaced by individual-based welfare policies blind to a person’s ethnicity.

Not everybody is patience for nuanced distinctions. This wave of opposition to the regulation also brings to the foreground some of the more disturbing elements in Chinese online discussions about the Muslim community. Blanket derogatory terms such as “cult” and “green cancer,” a term that derives from the religion’s symbolic color, are tossed around casually in conversations, which triggers the exact kind of worry that is probably behind the draft measure. “Demonizing Muslims will undermine ethnic unity in our country,” Prof. Ding Long declares in his article, accusing people like Xi Wuyi of “exaggerating the threat of Islam.”

Yet online sentiments cannot be easily tuned down by voices calling for more open dialogues, as developments overseas continue to feed into that narrative, with even the President of the United States signing off a Muslim travel ban. Violent events in countries like Sweden and France, which further fuels anti-Muslim rhetoric globally, were quick to find their way into Chinese cyberspace. The memory of the bloody event that occurred to Charlie Hebdo editors, also an aggression against expressions, only intensifies that sense of threat. In this regard, Marx’s other important teaching, the camaraderie among fellow proletariat brothers and sisters that transcends ethnicity and national borders, is less important to Chinese netizens eager to contain Islamic influence in the country. Their intense insecurity with Islam, energized by both a love for secular freedom and a frustration with unfair state policy, will likely shape religious and ethnic relationships in China for years to come.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Chublic Opinion.

First Editor: Edward White