His coverage has broadened since then.
He’s the author of half-a-dozen books and numerous articles, on all manner
of themes, and remains required reading. He’s one of those writers, like,
say, Andrew Sullivan, who’s
always worth checking out, even when the topic in hand is not especially
His latest book,
Bad Elements, was published last year, and is a guided tour
of the Chinese dissident movement. Since the
massacre of 1989, when the demonstrations of students and others nearly
ousted the government, the dissidents have been scattered in a worldwide
diaspora. Buruma tracks them down, and he makes an interesting discovery - a
surprising number are in church.
I had been troubled by
a cliché that kept popping up in conversations about China: the “spiritual
vacuum”. Again and again, this alleged vacuum was blamed for China’s current
ills. The Chinese, I was told, were in dire need of religion.
I think it’s worth noting that most
reporters you meet in Asia seem pretty secular in their outlook (as was I,
when I was a reporter in Japan). Most wouldn’t notice a religious revival,
or other religious phenomenon, unless it belted them over the head (which is
what happened to the world’s media on September 11).
On this point, Ted Esler makes a very
interesting comment in his blog. Asked
to read Thomas Friedman’s well-known book
The Lexus and the Olive Tree for a college course, he found that:
One thing that
Friedman doesn’t do is address issues concerning religion. In fact, if one
rolls back the clock a few years and reads the “future-hype” books, few of
the secular writers pay any attention to religion. What are we seeing today?
We are seeing globalization affected more by religion than by just about any
Buruma is different. He is such a good
reporter that he doesn’t need to be belted over the head. (Though he’s not
entirely bereft of presupposition or condescension. For example, he writes:
“People smiled at me in that beatific way of religious converts.” Gee, I and
many in my church are religious converts. I guess we’re all going to have to
start standing in front of the mirror to practise that particular smile.)
He recognises Christianity as a
significant force at work in the lives of many Chinese, and he follows the
story. Two of the book’s 12 chapters are largely on the spread of
Christianity, including a lengthy account of a visit to a house church in a
remote country town. (By contrast, Buddhism scarcely features in the book,
except in connection with Tibet.)
The main appeal of
Christianity, over the last hundred years or so, to many Chinese, Koreans,
Vietnamese and Japanese, is that it provided an egalitarian challenge to the
Confucian tradition. It promised to break the hierarchies that dominated
East Asian societies. Christian activists like to think that universal and
unconditional love are essential to the establishment of democratic freedom.
That is why rebellions against dictatorships have often been initiated and
led by Christians.
However, he also notes that a previous
attempt at mass conversion to Christianity of the Chinese – in the 1850s and
1860s by a failed Confucian scholar, who became convinced he was Jesus’
younger brother – ended in war and the death of millions.
What might happen now to China?
Buruma is convinced that Communist rule
is ending. He finds:
There was an
unmistakable stink of political, social and moral decay in the People’s
Republic, the smell of a dynasty at the end of its tether.
But there are still perhaps more
questions than answers:
Encounters with Chinese dissidents and protesters threw up new questions.
Why were so many of them Christians?…Is it perhaps true, as Christians often
claim, that a faith which came of age in Europe can be the only basis for
liberal institutions that also ripened there? Is there something about
Christianity – its egalitarianism, perhaps – that lends itself to struggles
for political freedom? Or will other faiths, more in tune with Chinese
traditions, provide the spur for political change? What, if any, is the
connection between spiritual and political change?
Dissidents featured in the book who have
become Christians include Yuan Zhiming, now chief director of the
China Soul for Christ
Foundation, and Xie Xuanjun, a writer. They were two of the five authors
of the explosive River Elegy television series, which helped spark
the Tiananmen protests. Others are former student leader Zhang Boli, now a
pastor, and Han Dongfang, previously a worker’s representative.
These people almost overturned the
Chinese Communist dynasty on their first go. Which raises a final question:
What might happen now that they have God on their side?
June 3rd, 2002