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Buddhism: A New Tool for China’s “Sharp Power”

Although the outside world generally believes that China has adopted a policy of repression against religion, recent studies have shown that the Chinese government is quietly using Buddhism as a tool to expand its “sharp power” internationally and increase its political influence.

On the one hand, during the 2020 epidemic, the Chinese government massively destroyed unapproved or foreign-published Buddhist books and demolished a great number of outdoor Buddhist statues. On the other hand, Chinese Buddhist institutions have used Buddhist teachings to appease the society that the epidemic has affected and to maintain national security.

At a recent seminar that Georgetown University held, David L. Wank and Yoshiko Ashiwa, who have been studying Chinese Buddhism, pointed out that these religious activities that the Chinese Buddhist organizations overseas have carried out are part of the Chinese government’s operations to expand its political influence.

“In 2015, the BAC (Buddhist Association of China) Ninth National Congress formally recognized the global promotion of Chinese Buddhism as a key activity. It called for Chinese Buddhism to ‘go out’ (zou chuqü) of China to other countries in order to ‘tell the Chinese story well’ to their peoples so they could realize China’s accomplishments and peaceful intentions.”

Wank said that, although the BAC’s global plan began in 2015, it has been launching actions since Xi Jinping took office in 2013. The Chinese government has diverted a large amount of resources to Buddhism.

Since the early 1980s, the Chinese government has used Buddhism as a tool of its foreign policy to achieve its political goals.

“The revival of Buddhism has helped persuade overseas Chinese business people that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is no longer following ‘leftist’ ideology and that they are welcome to come worship and invest in the PRC (People’s Republic of China).”

Wank also pointed out that, after the 1989 student movement, the Chinese government used Buddhism to improve its international image that the Tiananmen Square Massacre had damaged, and it used religious exchange activities to promote its “One China” policy.

“Chinese leader Hu Jintao, assumed office in 2002; he used the Confucian term ‘harmony’ to refer to his new approach to reduce economic inequalities in China and to manage international relations.”

“In 2006, the BAC reintroduced itself to global Buddhist society by convening the World Buddhist Forum, the first major international religious conference in the PRC.”

Wank and Ashiwa identified different strategies that the Chinese government adopted to use Buddhism in different countries.

First are Asian countries where the Buddhist majorities are economically dependent on China, including Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Mongolia, and Sri Lanka. The Chinese government’s strategies include “establishing bilateral Buddhist friendship associations; setting up Buddhist broadcasting networks; organizing joint religious and cultural rituals, such as praying for peoples’ health during the coronavirus pandemic and commemorating historical Buddhist ties between the countries; and providing funds to restore temples.”

Second are Western countries with recent histories of Buddhism and a growing popular appreciation of Buddhist culture as Asian culture in daily life. In these countries, efforts have been made to build Chinese Buddhist temples in order to further Buddhist cultural activities. For Buddhists and Chinese tourists, these projects are sites for worship and pilgrimage, while for the general populations of these countries, they are presented as Chinese cultural theme parks.

Third are strategies for Asian countries—India, Japan, Taiwan—that Beijing sees as geopolitical rivals and that the BAC views as competing for global status in Buddhism.

“In 2017, the Nanhai Buddhist Academy opened in the PRC, with strong state backing, to compete with India’s recently revived Nalanda University as the world center of Buddhist teaching. The academy is a center for creating Buddhist culture and Sinicized Buddhism as well as Buddhist friendships using such methods as inviting clerics from other Asian countries for study.”

The two researchers believe that the promotion of Chinese Buddhism around the world is exerting an influence that is beneficial to the Chinese government.

First, many activities—such as conferences, rituals, and inviting people (clerics, politicians, ministers of culture) to the PRC—further the aim of the UFWD to develop ties with individuals who may become favorably disposed to the PRC.

“These overseas Buddhist activities develop a network of individuals who may become favorably toward Chinese government. This is one of the main strategies of the United Front Work. This network includes Chinese Buddhists, famous overseas Buddhists, foreign leaders in cultural affairs.”

Wank also pointed out that temple-building projects in other countries may bolster the status of the Chinese clerics associated with them in the eyes of societies and governments of the host country. This can offset the status of those Buddhists that the Chinese government considers competitors, such as the Dalai Lama.

Giving resources to major Buddhist temples and schools can create dependencies and pro-China factions in Buddhist-majority countries.

Ashiwa’s analysis is that the teachings of Chinese Buddhism may also have a more far-reaching impact. “In Buddhist teachings, secular leaders have the potential to become Buddhists in the future. What we are concerned about is how this image of leaders will be shaped to such an extent that people’s political obedience is fostered, and how this will affect the perception and behavior of Chinese and overseas Buddhists.”

Both researchers believe that the current Chinese state promotion of Buddhism is operating on an unprecedented scale. An issue that the CCP will have to face is how Sinicized Buddhism representing Chinese great civilization will cooperate with other locally embedded Buddhist traditions in Asian countries, as well as Westernized Buddhism. Without well-considered strategies, the global promotion of Buddhism may trigger results that are contrary to CCP expectations.

Source: Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University. November 17, 2020.