BEIJING (Reuters) - China should use religion to promote social harmony and adhere to policies on religious freedom, a member of the inner circle of its officially atheist ruling Communist Party said on Monday.
China has allowed religious worship since the end of the Cultural Revolution, but only as long as it falls under state supervision. The most dramatic spiritual threat to Party rule, the Falun Gong movement, was outlawed in 1999.
“We should fully follow the policy on freedom of religious belief, implement the regulations on religious affairs, ... guide religious leaders and believers ... and make full use of their positive role in promoting social harmony,” Jia Qinglin, the Communist Party’s fourth-ranked leader, told a news conference.
The comments come as China grapples with increasing social cleavages emerging as the country develops at a breakneck pace and the gap between rich and poor grows wider.
China’s leaders are also trying to reassure on religious freedoms ahead of its hosting of the Olympic Games in August, which have become a lightning rod for activists.
The number of Chinese believers in Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity has been on the rise in recent years, religious officials say, and the Party has been increasingly encouraging religion to play a role in promoting social development.
At the same time, China punishes Christians who worship outside Party parameters and rights groups say it strictly controls the extent of religious freedom in Tibet, the largely Buddhist border region Chinese troops invaded in 1950.
Jia, who heads the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a largely symbolic advisory council that opened its annual meeting on Monday, said the Party must “maintain ties with emerging social strata”.
It must also open channels for them to articulate their interests, he said, as the Party seeks to curb official graft and maintain its legitimacy in a country whose economic rise has not been matched with political liberalisation.
Jia, whose own reputation has been dogged by claims of past corruption, said the advisory body he heads must be improved.
“Looking back on the work of the past five years, we must also be clearly aware that it falls somewhat short of what the new situation and new tasks require of it,” he said.
“We need to work out ways to raise the overall quality of national committee members and take full advantage of their enthusiasm, initiative and creativity.”
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Writing by Lindsay Beck