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Even Authoritarian Communist Countries Need Religion

The one-child policy, combined with industrialization and massive migration to cities, is eroding one of the strongest pillars of traditional Chinese values: filial piety. 185 million elderly Chinese now live alone.

Beijing sees the problem, and is trying to spark a return to traditional values by publishing updated versions of classic Chinese morality tales. As the NYT reports, however, the project has had little effect on behavior so far, and may have even backfired:

. . . the new book brims with down-to-earth suggestions for keeping parents happy in their golden years. Readers are urged to teach them how to surf the Internet, take Mom to a classic film and buy health insurance for retired parents…

So far, those good intentions appear to have prompted mostly ridicule. But they have also unintentionally kicked up a debate on whether the government, not overextended children, should be looking after China’s ballooning population of retirees.

Chinese leaders know they need a force that acts on the consciences of individuals: to take care of the elderly, to fight corruption, to induce the rich to give to the poor, to influence the behavior of employers and so forth.

They are turning to Confucianism, an ethical system that has appealed to rulers for centuries because of its authoritarian qualities, but the appeals ring hollow in a country whose way of life has moved far from Confucian norms—and whose economic ambitions are radically at variance with traditional Chinese values. Nevertheless, large numbers of Chinese are turning to religion to find a center for their lives. Again the government prefers traditional Chinese observances over formal religions, which, among other things, also make ethical demands on rulers.

Ultimately China’s government is going to have to make its peace with the two world religions that have sunk deep roots among Han Chinese: Buddhism and Christianity. These great religions hold the key to the development of a sustainable Chinese society. Rather than trying to limit and control them, the government should be removing all obstacles in their path.

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