My research looks at the very positive role that the religions of Chinese people play in creating a workforce ready for success. This includes Confucian ethics, but it goes beyond just that. It includes such things as the Chinese Protestant Work Ethic, and the powerful set of Catholic Social Teachings. These contribute to the moral, ethical and motivational characteristics needed for societies to be harmonious and prosperous. Also, there is another important factor making these contributions possible - religious freedom.
Although religious freedom is still developing in China, there has been a dramatic increase in religious freedom since the time of the Cultural Revolution on the 1960s and 1970s, when all faiths were outlawed and suppressed. One other interesting by-product of China’s gradual move to religious freedom is increased religious diversity, which is an added source of innovation for economic growth not only in China, but also in Asia more generally.
Research shows that religious freedom leads to peace and social harmony. When governments restrict religious freedom and put extra burdens on religion that other groups in society do not have, this can create disharmony and grievances that can erupt into violence and rebellion. None of that is good for business.
So, for China’s long term economic growth, ensuring religious freedom and harmony is essential. In addition, the freedom to have faith is an important part of a successful economy. Research shows, for instance, that religious freedom is an ally in the fight against corruption because it allows the ethics of faith to add moral controls that reduce corruption and increase trust.
Overall, research shows that religious freedom is good for business because it fosters respect, reduces corruption, engenders peace, develops the economy, overcomes over-regulation, and multiplies trust.
China is a lot more religious than you might think. Yes, China certainly has more religiously unaffiliated people than any other country, and it is led by a party officially committed to atheism. But what is less well know is that China is home to the world’s second largest religious population after India, according to the latest demographic estimates by Pew Research.
This represents a religious bull market when compared to the years of the Cultural Revolution when religion was completely outlawed, believers brutalized, and all religious institutions boarded up.
Today, China has the world’s largest Buddhist population, largest folk religionist population, largest Taoist population, seventh largest Christian population, and seventeenth largest Muslim population—ranking between Yemen and Saudi Arabia in size. This also makes China one of the world’s most religiously diverse nations, something research shows to be associated with economic growth.
But the projected growth of Christianity is of particular note. A study by Purdue University’s Fenggang Yang (cited recently in the Economist) finds that China’s Christian population may become the world’s largest by 2030.
The Chinese government restricts religious freedoms in an effort to maintain order, protect the citizenry, and reduce potential violence. For instance, in China increased restrictions on Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists, and Muslims in Xinjiang are justified as an effort for preserving social order. Xinjiang is an especially sensitive case not only due to violence in the region, but also because the violence has spread. For instance, in March 2014, attackers dressed in black killed more than two dozen people and injured up to 100 at a train station in south China. In response to the separatist movement, the Chinese government has also tightened restrictions on religion in the region.
Chinese authorities argue that such restrictions on religion are needed to maintain security, promote social harmony, and keep religious hostilities in check. However, the data suggest that rather than reducing religious hostilities, added restrictions on religion may add to the grievances. The bitter irony is that denying religious freedoms has resulted in less order and more violence. In particular, religious violence rises as government restrictions on religion increase (see The Price of Freedom Denied, Grim & Finke, 2011). The case for religious freedom in China is twofold: it can help bring peace and harmony as well as economic growth.
My Chinese name is 葛百彦 (Ge Bai-yan, or “very learned”). Of course, I got that name from my Chinese teacher in 1979, many years before I received a Ph.D., so I suppose my teacher hoped that I’d become learned – I certainly wasn’t as a sophomore in college. I’ve had the chance to live in China at some very interesting times. In 1982 my wife and I taught at Hua Qiao (Overseas Chinese) University in Quanzhou, Fujian. We were among the first Americans to live and work in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution. In those days, no one had a private car, and just to have an electric fan was considered a luxury.
Our first daughter was born there (Ge Tian-en), making her the first American born in China after the Cultural Revolution, so we’ve been told. We also lived in Urumqi, Xinjiang, from 1985-88, and again in 1993. Interestingly, Deng Xiao-ping personally signed approval for an exchange project we were working on in Xinjiang. We got word of that on 8/8/88 – which we saw as a very good omen.