The project will conduct a macro-level spatial mapping of religious mobilities between China and BRI nations. This mapping will begin with a review of academic, media and online literature and sources, as well as interviews with relevant scholars and knowledgeable persons on the relevant regions and religions, in order to identify the actors, groups and organizations most active in China-Asian religious circulations, as well as the main hubs, routes and networks, associated with different religions and different countries and regions.
This data will form the foundation for using GIS, geocoding and geoinformatics techniques, to be carried out by a postdoctoral fellow, to undertake the following:
(1) GIS mapping techniques involving: both quantitative mapping of key nodal places in networks of religious mobilities, calculating the spatial attributes of such networks; and qualitative GIS mapping of spatial networks and paths of flows, cross-referencing spatial patterns with qualitative data.
(2) geocoding and geoinformatics techniques: this "big-data" approach will use data-mining techniques to collect social media or webpage data. From such data, geographical and locational information can be extracted, so as to map out nodes, networks and flows.
This mapping will not aim to be exhaustive (an impossible task), but to sketch the main contours of the terrain, as a guide to contextualising case studies, and as a foundational reference for future research.
The project will examine how BRI-related deepening of ties between China and Muslim countries is leading to the intensification of competition between parallel and sometimes intersecting Christian and Islamic missionary movements that have taken a special interest in Chinese Muslim communities as targets for conversion and/or rectification to orthodoxy. The conversion of Chinese Muslims has been regarded as a critical stepping stone towards spreading both Christianity and Islam in China as a whole. First Christian and later Muslim missionaries have competed for the hearts and minds of China’s Muslims, who have often been objectified as crops waiting to be reaped. Christian and Muslim missionary projects have often been animated by fears that, without greater activity on their part, their competitors would succeed in making inroads into the country and convert it to Christianity/Islam. In the 19th century, Christian missionaries worried about the "Mohammedan" expansion within China, while early 21st century Muslim missionaries, fretting over the Christianization of China in turn, have, in recent years, started a number of China-focused missionary organizations, aiming both to bring Muslim Chinese ethnic minorities back to Islamic orthodoxy and to convert non-Muslim Han to Islam. Since the 1980s, in parallel, a “back to Jerusalem” movement has gained traction within some Chinese Christian circles, with the goal of sending 100,000 Chinese Christian missionaries to the middle East, in order to convert the Islamic heartland to prepare for the Return of Christ, where Chinese Christians can avoid the anti-Western sentiment of many Muslims (Aikman 2012). With the explosive growth and sophistication of Chinese Christianity over the past decades (Cao 2010, Lian 2010), coupled with the new openings and opportunities offered by the BRI, the process of sending Chinese missionaries out has begun. Victory in a perceived ongoing cosmic struggle between Christianity and Islam, and competition for global dominance, presupposes a central role played by China; to win China is to win the world, and to win China requires winning over its Muslims. Recent policies enacted by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) demonstrate the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) growing concern over the interreligious rivalries being staged within its borders, making the party-state another contestant in the struggle; the CCP seeks to control religion within the country, and limit the influence of foreign religious actors, even as it broadens its global outreach through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). These conversion fears are tied with geopolitical concerns and often fuel different types of global imaginaries about the future, with spill-over effects on the BRI Eurasian surroundings of China (Al-Sudairi 2016, 2017a, 2017b, forthcoming.)
Meanwhile, away from Christian-Muslim rivalries, other transnational religious networks are circulating along the intensifying links connecting China with other Asian nations. Christian house church networks are connecting with Pentecostal, evangelical and charismatic movements, and even Christian megachurches, in Hong Kong, Singapore and other Asian countries (Goh 2005, 2016, Kitiarsa 2008, Lanz and Ooosterbahn 2016). And, with the growing popularity of yoga and new age-style body-mind-spirit practices among the urban middle classes, Indian new religious movements such as Oneness University and the Art of Living Foundation are spreading in China, with a flow of gurus and trainers visiting China and Chinese students heading to India for advanced spiritual training.
(2) Hubs as centres of transnational activity and circulations:
Using hubs as a focal point, the project will examine the intricate yet largely overlooked relationship between religious circulation and urban space in the context of state building in modern China, exploring how the entanglement between religious practices, urban development and urban social changes involves transnational circulations both of religious cultures and policy discourses (Cao 2010, Hancock and Srinivas 2008, Mann 1984). It focuses on selected cities that play a significant role in the flow of religious groups, ideas and practices in building the ties between China and the rest of Eurasia. Under the current BRI, these cities, including specifically Guangzhou, Shanghai, Chongqing, Hangzhou and Shenzhen, as well as Hong Kong, with their historical legacy and/or future-looking ambitions, continue to serve as strategic hubs that reinforce transnational religious exchange and the construction of civilizational identity (Hong 2004).
The development of religious sites and experiences are closely embroiled in secular processes of urban planning, urban land development and commercial economies, which are increasingly being linked to BRI-related investments and networks. For example, authorities in the city of Hangzhou have devised plans to turn Hangzhou into a “religious capital on the Belt and Road,” reviving the imagination of Marco Polo’s description of the city. Through Buddhist-themed hotel development and urban mega-projects, involving partnerships between state and religious agents, such processes involve creative learning between the Chinese contexts and existing urban projects based on Buddhism in Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries.
Another transformation the project will study in urban hubs will be the role of migration from BRI countries into China. For example, a growing diaspora of traders from Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan have migrated into Chinese cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai, a trend that is growing as China intensifies its relations with these countries. These Muslim migrants are becoming part of the ecology of Chinese Islam, both renewing a silk road tradition dating back to the early days of Islam during the Tang dynasty, and injecting new ideas and divisions into the Chinese Muslim community, enhancing Chinese Muslims’ sense of a cosmopolitan Islamic identity (Ho 2013, 2016, 2018).
These circulations, not only of traders but also of religious preachers from the Middle East, are adding new twists to the tensions between processes of “Sinicization” and “Arabization” of Islam in China. Historically, Muslims, as a diasporic ethno-religious population, had “Sinified” their religious and cultural traditions to the Chinese context, both for their own survival as well as for the preservation of Islamic identity in an overwhelmingly non-Muslim mainstream environment. In recent decades, however, a phenomenon of “Arabization” and Islamic Revival in China, may be viewed, in some ways, as a backlash against localized versions of Chinese Islam. Beginning in the early 20th century, as Muslims from China gained access, through international travel, to Islamic heartlands, they witnessed and joined revivalist, some would say fundamentalist, movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. Bringing these views back to China, they formulated a critique of centuries-old Chinese Islamic traditions and imported non-Chinese Islamic polemic traditions, which in turn became naturalized in the Chinese context. With the BRI, circulation between China and Middle Eastern Islamic countries is increasing, enhancing the tendency towards “Arabization” among some Chinese Muslims; at the same time, and in reaction to this process, the Party’s religious policy under Xi Jinping, has stressed the importance of “Sinifying” religion and is increasingly attempting to restrict religious mobility between China and Islamic countries. In this dialectic development, a bewildering array of synthetic and sectarian ideologies is increasing the complexity of an already diverse Chinese Islamic landscape (Frankel 2012, 2016, 2017).
Another urban centre that the project will examine is the city of Dubai, which is a key hub for connections between China and the Middle East. Dubai has long been an important centre for a Chinese Muslim diaspora (Wang 2016); and is now the home to an expanding Han Chinese expatriate community that is bringing its own religious practices and networks (primarily Buddhist and Christian) into this Arab metropolis. The Chinese state, through its diplomatic missions and other state or semi-governmental agencies, is building ties with various religious and quasi-religious groups in Dubai.
(3) Infrastructures as locations for the negotiation of state power and flows of people and ideas. The team will focus specifically on the routes and borders between China and Pakistan (Mostowlanski), Laos/Vietnam (Palmer, Estevez and Ngo), and India/the Himalayas (Halkias and Palmer), as well as sea routes passing through the South China sea (Dean), Sri Lanka (Woods) and the Maldives (Feener).
In Gilgit-Baltistan – at Pakistan’s northernmost tip, on the Sino-Pakistan border – entanglements of Muslim networks and Chinese development projects and infrastructures go back to at least the 1970s and the construction of the Karakoram Highway. Muslim charitable and development organizations have followed the materiality of Chinese pathways and they have sought ways to employ new technologies and infrastructures to expand their claims and take roots in local communities. Since the announcement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its incorporation into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 these encounters have intensified. The omnipresence of Chinese investments and state development in Pakistan have heavily impacted the country, including Gilgit-Baltistan. Mosques are built and reached via Chinese roads, pious entrepreneurs obtain university degrees from Chinese universities and the promise of connectivity between Kashgar and the Arabian Sea has triggered new Muslim spatial imaginaries (Mostowlanski 2016, 2018, Van Shendel and Abraham 2005, Saxer and Zhang 2017).
The complex cultural and socio-political mosaic of Himalayan societies is indebted to historical interactions with Central Asians, Baltis, Chinese, Mongols, Tibetans, Mughals, Indians and more recently the British. The composite ethnic communities of the Himalayas have been historically intertwined and socially structured in response to the advent of Tibetan Buddhist institutions, media and agents from the 9th century onwards. Buddhist monasteries contributed to the very constitution of early modes of translocal connectivity and continue to serve as venues for the renewal of religious ties by visiting charismatic Buddhist leaders of the Tibetan diaspora in India. Border regions have their own social dynamics, historical development, and cultural variation mediated by ethnicity, trade and migration and the interface between societal and ecological features. Building on preliminary visits and contacts, this project will take Darjeeling, located in Northeast India, as a base to examine how intensifying links and tensions with China re-activate and transform historical circulatory networks and imaginaries, much of which now revolve around geopolitical issues and religious/secular dynamics in India, China, Bhutan and Nepal, reconfigurations of Tibetan Buddhism, and local forms of Hindu, Muslim, Christian and ethnic identities. The research will acknowledge the relational character of the religious field shaped in response to inter- and intra-religious contacts and exchanges, and the economic, social, and political boundaries imposed by states and the physical environment (Klieger 2006, Lecomte-Tilouine and Dolfus 2003, Sijapati and Birkenholz 2016).
The borders separating China, Vietnam and Laos cut through several ethnic groups, such as the Yao and Hmong (Pourret 1982, Kandre 1967, Tam 2006 and forthcoming); for several decades, owing to wars and political tensions, borders were relatively closed and circulation among kinship networks between these groups in the three countries had become severely restricted. Nowadays, as cross-border circulations increase and China’s footprint in both Laos and Vietnam becomes deeper, ethnic and religious groups are re-activating old networks, and also beginning to join transnational (sometimes China-sponsored) cultural networks for the preservation and promotion of ethnic and religious heritage, which include ethnic religions, Theravada Buddhism, and Daoism. The intensification of cross-border links affects the transmission and circulation of religious and ritual knowledge, impacting on the constructing of ethnic, religious and national identity (Qian and Tang 2017). In Laos, for example, the Yao on different sides of the border are beginning to share Daoist ritual knowledge, while the Chinese origin and ritual language of Yao Daoism has sensitive geopolitical implications for the Lao authorities, who are also concerned about Christian missionizing by Chinese businessmen travelling from Yunnan into Laos.
In maritime Southeast Asia, the ethnic Chinese diaspora are key players in the growing ties between China and nations such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Chinese religions – including Chinese folk religion, Buddhism and Daoism, as well as evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity, are prominent features of circulatory networks and mutual influences between China and the diaspora. One interesting response to BRI, being investigated by Kenneth Dean, is a network of Earth God (tudigong) temples which are intensifying their own links under the project of “One Sea, One Temple” (yihai yimiao) as an interesting response to BRI, forming a chain of temples in each of the port cities along the South China Sea, thus emphasizing local autonomies instead of nationalistic initiatives. This case is an example of how the BRI engenders alternative imaginations to the globalist expansionary project of the Chinese state-sponsored Belt and Road.
In the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka plays an important role in the BRI, as it occupies an important geopolitical position in maritime trade routes, and, as a result, has received a huge amount of Chinese investment in recent years. Such investment has, in various ways, bolstered the resolve of Buddhist nationalist groups in Sri Lanka. Such groups have always positioned themselves in opposition to Christianity/the West, and whereas they once looked to Russia as a sort of counterbalance, they have increasingly started to align themselves with China as well. This project will explore the relationship between Chinese investment and resurgent Buddhist nationalism in more detail. How has Chinese investment and presence contributed to a reframing of (or shift in) Sri Lankan Buddhism? And, more broadly, how has the emergence of Chinese migrant communities affected the country’s religious landscape?
Workshops and Conference
The above-mentioned cases are based on preliminary observations by the project participants. In order to develop each case into a common framework, each group will hold one small-scale workshop in the first year and a larger workshop in the second year. Each group’s first workshop will primarily involve members of the project team for presenting preliminary research, while the second workshop will include an open call for applications with paper proposals, and the presentation of final papers. The goal of the workshops will be to align the cases with the fourfold common conceptual framework described above (historical context, geopolitical context, imperial/civilizational imaginations, infrastructures).
A final international conference, to be held in the third year, will bring together all the project participants and selected outside participants from the second-year workshops. The papers from this conference will lead to the final volume, and to consultations for further collaboration leading to the next stage of research.