- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2002

BEIJING — While President Bush's pleas for freedom of worship during a visit to China have propelled the issue into the headlines, evidence is emerging that religion is already under intense debate in top Communist circles.
China has largely jettisoned Marxist economics in favor of market-based reform, and recent comments appear to show that the same deeply pragmatic open-mindedness is now being applied to spiritual beliefs.
As with much of the Chinese communist ideological metamorphosis, the rationale seems to stem from a simple question: How can religion contribute to social stability and help the Communist Party theoretically atheist keep control?
This was answered in simple terms by Pan Yue, who though only a vice minister at the Economic Restructuring Office, is considered at the forefront of thought on how to reform the party while maintaining its grip on power.
"A new sort of relationship between politics and religion favors the evolution of a revolutionary party into a ruling party," Mr. Pan wrote in an article published in December by a series of Chinese newspapers.
Religion has tangible benefits for society, such as improving morale and combating crime, Mr. Pan argued, and this could be encouraged without necessarily affecting the Communist Party's exclusive grip on power.
China's emperors had put the then-dominant Buddhist and Taoist religions "at their service," added Mr. Pan, one of the brains behind President Jiang Zemin's recent deeply controversial edict that capitalists should be allowed to join the Communist Party.
Observers are thus speculating that Mr. Bush's impassioned appeal for religious liberty could at least come slightly true if not, however, because of high-flung notions of freedom.
Prompting a great deal of comment, the publication of the article came at the same time China's national leadership was gathering in Beijing to discuss religion and to consider the effects of a brutal two-year-long repression of the Buddhist-inspired Falun Gong group.
According to information from Chinese sources, the conference called on some provincial officials to rein in the systematic persecution of believers who do not adhere to state-sanctioned creeds.
China permits versions of five main religions Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism but keeps them under strict state control.
During the conference, it was noted, Mr. Jiang also publicly saluted the contribution of believers to China's modernization.
"The question is whether this amounts to a change of direction on religious policy," said Ren Yanbi, professor at the Institute of Religious Research in Beijing.
Some observers say the signs are that, at the very least, authorities consider their crackdown on religion has perhaps gone too far.
"There has been a sensible change. The authorities have recognized they have neglected certain aspects of traditional Chinese customs and have admitted going a bit far in persecuting Falun Gong," a diplomatic source in Beijing said.

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