China is rapidly developing a plan for a ‘Buddhist globalisation’ using its financial, political and marketing clout.
Unsurprisingly, President Xi Jinping is not just asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea and expanding China’s connectivity project through the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, he is also working to make China the world leader in Buddhism. Xi has had this idea for some time now – he started building a partnership between China’s communist party and the religion when he was only 29 years old, serving as a bureaucrat in provinces. The story began when he encountered Shi Youming, a Buddhist monk who was restoring ruined temples of Zhengding County in Hebei Province.
Xi was probably also influenced by his father, Xi Zhongxun, who in 1980 had warned the party in his 11,000-word report ‘Document 19’ against banning religious activity, suggesting that this would alienate too many people. In fact, one of Xi’s father’s signature lines is said to have been, “If the people have faith, the nation has hope and the country has strength.”
Nobody knows whether Xi is a practitioner himself, but he has firmly been putting Chinese Buddhism on the global stage since 2005. At the domestic level, it looks as though Xi is turning to religion not just to bolster his rule, but also to save the party from falling. He certainly sees Buddhism as useful for arresting the flagging moral values in China’s social fabric, and to prevent the angry middle class from crumbling under the weight of a deepening social crisis and economic downturn. Having felt the pains of an ageing society, the country had to abandon the Mao’s one-child policy. More importantly, Xi intends to imbibe moral ethics among party officials – deemed necessary to bring about further economic reforms.
Becoming a guardian of Buddhism is helping Xi successfully promote China as an acceptable world power with a soft image. Buddhist globalisation helps Beijing push its economic projects – religious diplomacy makes it easier for China to win economic and infrastructural projects in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal and elsewhere.