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BV_Tianjin_nov_2010

The religious growth that China currently experiences is leading towards a most interesting trend: the organization of faith-based charities.  For sure, such trend is still hampered by a number of factors, but it does express the growing assertiveness of China’s civil society and of its religious groups.

Religious charities are anchored into Chinese history. Confucian lineages were providing funds for public work and education. For a long time, Buddhist lay associations had been helping the poor and organizing disaster relief. Popular religion was structured as a network of solidarity. After the introduction of Christianity in China, the new religion made itself known through hospitals, orphanages and schools. For sure, it all went to a stop after 1949, when new regulations on religion were put step by step into effect. But the religious revival happening in China from the 80s on could not go without a new focus on charitable and social work. Buddhists have been looking at the success of the “Buddhism-in-this-world” approach in Taiwan – an approach first theorized in the Mainland during the Republican era. Christians, Protestant and Catholics alike, have been remembering the dynamism of Church-affiliated social services in the past, and have been inspired by examples from abroad. Taoism and popular religion are inseparable from the self-structuring of civil society on the basis of mutual support and local initiative.

Religions have been restricted in their efforts by the regulations that apply to all sectors of society. Foundations and other NPOs need to go through a complex and harrowing process before approval (or reject), and are strictly controlled in their motives, organization model and finances. More informal groupings are not sustainable. Besides this, the lack of formation and available personnel has also been a severe limitation for religions desirous to foster social initiatives. Still, with time passing by, things are evolving. Official religions have been often able to set up bodies working with or having found accommodation with local governments. Academics and entrepreneurs have been providing expertise and funding. The government itself is not objecting to some initiatives when their social benefits are obvious.

The phenomenon is quite clear in the metropolises of the East coast: Muslim organizations care for their poorer believers coming from the northwest, often perceived with much diffidence in a Han-dominated environment. Large Buddhist temples provide students with fellowships. Protestant churches pay attention to urbanites’ psychological needs, and some even try to open service centers to that effect. Catholics support development projects for small rural communities in Shanxi province or for far-away leper villages.  All people involved in these efforts underline the legal and practical difficulties they meet with, but they see the development of such services as vital for the authenticity and social legitimacy of the religions they profess.

There are differences in approach. Though it is difficult to generalize, a good number of Protestants seem to stress the proselytizing aspect of their charitable work, while Buddhists and Catholics may underline that such services are offered without ulterior motives. On the ground, the reality is fragmented and complex. What is certain is the fact that the “religiousness’ of social services remains a strong concern for the Chinese authorities. Strict regulations and pervasive anxiety concerning proselytism make it difficult for them to liberate the potential of creativity and generosity that Chinese believers bring along with them.

And yet, this potential is impressive indeed. Chinese believers are ready to dedicate time and money through their churches, while they would not consent to do so through other channels. Today, as it becomes even more segmented and less compassionate, Chinese society urgently needs volunteers ready to reach out to people marginalized or isolated; it needs examples of gratuitousness, it needs close-knit networks working at the ground level - and it is hard to imagine what social force can do this better than vibrant religious groupings.

The government might progressively relax some of its strictest regulations. Academics are calling it to do so, and it knows how much the social fabric is in need of remodeling. Also, too strict a control on religious charitable efforts may have a counter-effect: this could make religious communities look even more inwards, alienate them further from the state, while the government is in need to foster some harmony and cooperation between its own structures, society at large, and groupings based on faith or other forms of affinity.

The core issue is not about “how much” religious charities can contribute to China’s society, and it is certainly not about them substituting for state organizations, as the latter function according to a well-designed if not always fully effective model. It is about the inventiveness and capacity to “feel’ social and personal needs not yet answered that characterize faith-based initiatives. It is about the quality of care and creativity that communities of believers are ready to contribute. It would be a shame for China to deprive itself any longer of a humane resource that till now remains untapped.

Photo: B.V. (Tianjin, 2010)