Religious groups in China step into the coronavirus crisis

Ian Johnson, The New York Times

Posted at Feb 24 2020 09:27 AM | Updated as of Feb 24 2020 09:29 AM

Village committee members wearing face masks and vests stand at the entrance of a community to prevent outsiders from entering, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Tianjiaying village, outskirts of Beijing, China January 28, 2020. Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters

Earlier this month, the hard-hit town of Caohe, near the center of the coronavirus outbreak in central China, received an unexpected gift: a large donation from a Taoist nunnery 550 miles away. Another Taoist temple, this one in Caohe itself, contributed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of medical equipment to help those sickened by the virus.

“The moment believers heard the news, they called us and asked how to help,” said a nun who organized one of the fundraising drives.

In temples, mosques and churches, China’s religious believers have jumped into the national battle against the coronavirus. They have offered prophecies and prayers, ceremonies and services, as well as donations totaling more than $30 million. Their efforts reflect the country’s decadeslong religious revival and the feeling among many Chinese that faith-based groups provide an alternative to the corruption that has plagued the government.

“Ten years ago when you looked for this sort of faith-based giving and engagement, you couldn’t really find it,” said Wu Keping, an anthropologist at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. “Now people think of it as normal.”

But not all the efforts have been well received.

The Communist Party has long distrusted any organization, from churches to charities to civic groups, that it believes could come between the government and the Chinese people. The party a few years ago put in place new regulations to tighten already severe state control. Some recent contributions have been hampered by such pressures.

Earlier this month, seven underground Protestant churches in Beijing raised $10,000 to buy face masks and disinfectants for those in Wuhan, China, the city at the heart of the coronavirus outbreak, where more than 1,800 people have died.

After sending the shipment Feb. 5, police called in church leaders for questioning and told them to stop their activities, according to church members who asked not to be identified by name for fear of attracting additional government surveillance.

The Rev. Huang Lei, leader of an underground church in Wuhan, said local officials have rejected their donations because they fear trouble with more senior officials for cooperating with what the government in Beijing considers to be illegal organizations.

“In China the government likes to control all channels for donating money,” Huang said in a telephone interview. “They don’t like civil society to participate, and especially not faith-based organizations.”

Still, many religious groups — particularly those that have registered with the government — have been doing just that.

According to recent figures from their websites, the China Buddhist Association has contributed $14 million to the fight against the coronavirus, the Protestant association $10 million, the Islamic association $4.5 million, the Catholic association $1.5 million, and the Taoist association $1.9 million.

Some donations have been prompted by dissatisfaction with China’s large government-run charities. The Red Cross, the China Charity Federation, the Hubei Charity Federation and the Hubei Youth Development Foundation have donated the equivalent of $1.9 billion. But their work has been plagued by accusations of corruption, leading the national Red Cross to send a review team to Hubei province, where Wuhan is.

These charities also often channel money from big businesses, while the donations from China’s religious organizations are led by grassroots efforts supported by ordinary people, said Wu.

The two Taoist temples that helped the town of Caohe received hundreds of small donations from believers, according to lists published on the temples’ social media accounts.

In the Chinese city of Wenzhou, the Rev. Wu Shengli of the Chengxi Protestant Church said the city’s Protestant churches were asked by local officials if they could donate roughly 1 million yuan, or about $143,000. He said that worshippers were glad to do it.

“People aren’t reluctant,” he said. “People are very willing to help out, and the final amount will be higher.”

Susan McCarthy, a political scientist at Providence College who studies faith-based charities in China, said these kinds of donations can also help religious organizations prove their loyalty to the state.

“The government is happy if religious groups make contributions but is wary that they will use charity to expand their base and infiltrate society,” McCarthy said. “My sense is, a lot of this is defensive or to prove their patriotism.”

But for many believers, the nonmaterial aid is the most meaningful.

Even though all places of worship in China are closed as part of the effort to prevent the virus from spreading, temples and churches have been organizing prayer vigils, while halal restaurants in Wuhan have provided free meals and boxed lunches to medical staff at local hospitals.

The Changchun Taoist temple in Wuhan has held ceremonies to purify the land, a traditional Taoist ritual used when illness or ill fortune strikes a region.

“To know that they are in the temple praying for us is comforting,” Wang Derui, a 42-year-old who used to regularly go to the temple to listen to lectures on traditional culture, said in a telephone interview. “We can’t go, but they are sending up prayers on our behalf.”

Religion also inspired songwriter Zhang Shuzhi to compose a piece that is meant to lift spirits — but also critique the social and moral ills that he believes underlie the outbreak.

Noting that the two new hospitals built in Wuhan in record time earlier this month were named after Taoist deities who punish evil, Zhang reread the Taoist classics and then wrote his song:

Today people act without virtueAnd blaspheme against heaven and earthIn the human world greed has broken outAnd things are no longer in a normal state

The song is meant “to give people energy and strength,” Zhang said. It is also meant to help people “rise up despite the difficulties and fight the disease.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company