“China seeks tips on how to boost Christianity,” or Wang Zuoan meets Max Weber in Kenya

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By Pal Nyiri Kenya’s Sunday Nation reports that a Chinese government delegation “led by State [Administration] for Religious Affairs minister Wang Zuoan is in Kenya to ‘copy good practices’ that could help it grow Christianity.”

“Religion is good for development,” the minister reportedly said at Bishop’s Gardens in Nairobi, at a meeting with Kenya’s Anglican archbishop. He also said that “he was happy with the localisation of Anglican Church in Kenya after independence, so that all its bishops are locals.”

Well. Where to begin?

China has used religion, including exchanges of clerical delegations and references to religion in official meetings, in its diplomacy before, notably Buddhism (especially in relation to Thailand) and Islam (with the Middle East and Indonesia). In fact, in the Indonesian case — as documented by Johanes Herlijanto –the image of China as a country that protects Islam and has even propagated it in the past, in the person of the famous Admiral Zheng He, has contributed to a surprisingly widespread view of China as a reliable developmental patron in the context of increasing Chinese investment in Indonesian infrastructure. Something similar is clearly going on in Kenya.

The link to this article reached me via the weekly news bulletin of Peking University’s Centre for African Studies, directed by Li Anshan, a researcher of overseas Chinese who rose at an opportune moment to become the main voice of China’s official Africa research. In Chinese, the link is entitled 中国向肯尼亚学习处于里宗教事务的经验 (China learns from Kenya’s experience of dealing with religion), a very different message that de-emphasizes the somewhat risque suggestion that China actually wants to promote the growth of Christianity, and stresses instead that China is learning from Kenya. This is in keeping with the official line — untiringly represented by Li — that Chinese exchanges with Africa take place on a basis of equality.

Still, I think Wang’s statement is more than mere diplomatic posturing. That a Chinese minister says he wants to promote Christianity, or religion in general, and that this declaration is picked up by a research centre that positions itself as very close to the government’s ears, suggests an increasingly clear trend in China, namely that the government, or at least parts of it, really does promote religion, as long as it is hierarchically organised under government control. One of the reasons is the government’s concern with social morality; another is that the religious hierarchy provides an additional channel of ensuring Chinese people’s identification with the official discourse of nationhood and weeding out subversives. A third is the reason Wang suggests: the religious subject, and perhaps the Christian subject more than any other, in many ways fits the description of the self-disciplined, community-oriented Chinese citizen desired by the state. The prosperity gospel (the idea that getting rich is a sign of the Lord’s blessing), embraced by many African politicians and churches, is influential in China (see Cao Nanlai’s ethnography of Wenzhou “boss Christians:” Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou).

Pál Nyiri is Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective at the VU University. See his earlier posts on Standplaats Wereld. He also writes regularly for the Culture Matters and China Can’t Stop Saying No weblogs.

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