Former Chinese Premier Chou En-lai once said that ``religion in China will continue to exist for the next 200 years.'' In other words, for a long time. Senior leader Deng Xiaoping has said nothing on the subject. But just as though advocating market-oriented economic reforms have gained influence under his leadership, so have those who favor greater tolerance of religion.
During a visit to China in April this year, American Evangelist Billy Graham said he observed openness in discussing questions of moral and spiritual renewal. He said there was an increased recognition of the positive role religion can play in strengthening morality in a country rushing toward greater material prosperity.
It is no secret that the shadowy United Front Department of the Chinese Communist Party has primary responsibility for religious policy. The department's mission is to make a reality of the dream of Chinese leaders since imperial times: to unite China under one ruler and keep it united. This includes attempting to bring not only the stubbornly anticommunist government of Taiwan under Peking's wing but also enlisting China's ethnic minorities and religious groups in the unification effort.
Under the United Front approach, if religious believers do not oppose socialism and the party and make a contribution to China's modernization, they are tolerated. The policy is a toehold for religious freedom, but not an affirmation of that right as understood in the West.
``You can't separate religious policy from the United Front,'' says a Jesuit scholar in Hong Kong who specializes in Chinese affairs. ``If the United Front policy is strong, as it is now, then you have greater possiblities for religious freedom.''
The Central Committee in 1982 issued the Communist Party's most authoritative statement on religion, known as Document No. 19. It criticizes the intolerance and persecution of the past and outlines current policies.
A part of the United Front effort, the document is especially aimed at pacifying the country's often troublesome ethnic minorities, the majority of whom are deeply religious. Although they are only 4 percent of the population, the minorities - especially the Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in Xinjiang Province - occupy large tracts of strategically important territory on China's periphery.
``It is not only ineffective but extremely harmful to use simplistic and forceful methods to handle ... problems concerning the spiritual world of the people, especially the problems of religious beliefs,'' the statement says. It acknowledges that past persecutions have increased the number of religious believers and aggravated problems of political and social instability.
Document 19 bans superstition and allows ``normal religious activities,'' which serve the interest of national unity and economic development. ``Normal'' activities include worship meetings by the officially recognized formal religions.
In practice, such distinctions are unclear. Taoism, for instance, has official recognition. But popular Taoist worship has traditionally included various forms of divination labeled superstitious. According to Hong Kong sources, faith healing groups in South China have been broken up under the same rule.
This year a new distinction has appeared in the official press - ``abnormal'' activities which are a deviation from what is allowed. Worship services held in fixed places by approved clergy are ``normal;'' itinerant preaching and meetings in private homes without official approval is ``abnormal.'' Christian leaders have argued that meeting in homes is a traditional Christian practice, but they confront a security bureacracy that is suspicious of gatherings not under government surveillance.
Despite the party's relaxed attitude in the 1980s, there have been reversions to the antireligious crusades of the past.
In a township in Henan Province, for example, officials who were untutored in religious tolerance took their own initiative in December 1986. They mobilized the town's 3,700 school children to destroy the community's 28 Buddhist temples in one day.
A local press report on the incident commented coolly that it was better to use ideological warfare than physical forces to eradicate religion. ``It's easy to destroy temples and buildings, but not so easy to remove Buddhist idols from people's hearts,'' it said.
More serious distortions of policy have occurred when provincial authorities pass their own Draconian versions of national rules. Last year Shanxi Province published its ``nine regulations for adhering to normal religious activities'' which were so illiberal that they brought strong objections from national religious leaders.
This gap between policy and practice was pointed out to party secretary Zhao Ziyang during a meeting with senior religious officials last November. According to the Hong Kong magazine Baixing, the head of the official Chinese Buddhist Association, Zhao Puchu, told the party secretary that the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom was not being practiced. Secretary Zhao reportedly listened with interest.
Although Chinese leaders have given religious policy a low priority, there has been a growing internal debate among social scientists. Some have used Deng's counsel to ``seek truth from facts'' to define a positive role for religion. Since 1986, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences has published several remarkable studies which contradict the party's assertions that religion has an undesirable effect on economic production and quality of life.
The studies give examples of Buddhist communities in Fujian Province, the Taoist monastery at Qingcheng in Sichuan Province, and a Catholic fishing village near Shanghai. They show that economic production does not lag behind other areas where non-believers are in the majority.
Communities where the population has a Christian educational background also show higher levels of achievement in science and medicine, the studies say. Where moral and religious teachings are practiced, the crime rate is lower and traditional family virtues are preserved.
``As long as religious morality encourages people to do good deeds, we must affirm its positive social function in a realistic way,'' one Shanghai report says.
While the Shanghai studies have stirred interest among scholars and offer encouragement to religious leaders, rank-and-file party members still espouse the orthodox Marxist view of religion as the ``opiate of the masses.''
The Party's pragmatic attitude was made clear to Rev. Graham when he asked what future the Christian religion had in China, according to Baixing.
Zhao Fusan, a former Anglican clergyman and now senior government adviser on religious affairs, answered with a question of his own.
``I want to ask you, what contribution can Christianity make to China's modernization? If you have a contribution, then the Christian religion will have a bright future. If you become an obstacle to construction [economic development], then of course there's no future.''