Religion and the Unlimited Public Good in Chinese Societies

Dat Manh Nguyen

In Religion and Charity: The Social Life of Goodness in Chinese Societies, Robert Weller, Julia Huang, Keping Wu, and Lizhu Fan provide a comparative study of what doing good means in late 20th and 21st century China, Taiwan, and Malaysia. The authors argue that while particular methods of doing good and visions of goodness have come to dominate engaged religions in these places – what the authors respectively call ‘industrialized philanthropy’ and ‘the unlimited good’ – they have also been shaped and reconfigured by the local historical and political situations in each of these locations.

Weller et al. propose the concept of industrialized philanthropy to describe three interrelated phenomena at the core of religious philanthropic practices in China, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Industrialized philanthropy entails large-scale philanthropic practices that are ‘increasingly rationalized and bureaucratized’, with institutions employing accounting methods, forming boards of directors, recruiting members, using new media, and developing relations with governments (p. 2). It engenders and relies on a new vision of self that makes autonomous decisions, embodies a vision of universal goodness, and voluntarily dedicates time and resources to the causes of doing good. Weller et al. term this new sense of goodness the unlimited good; it is a form of goodness that espouses great love and compassion for all beyond the boundaries of family lineages, local communities, ethnicities, and nations. Driven by this vision of unlimited goodness, many religious institutions, particularly those in Taiwan and their branches in mainland China and Malaysia, disseminate a ‘model of industrialized philanthropy by virtue of an ecumenical universalism’ (p. 109).

Industrialized philanthropy, as Weller et al. explain, emerged out of two waves of globalization, namely the Christian models of missionaries, charity, and education dated as far back as the late-Qing dynasty and a later cluster of developments that the authors see as the global expansion of Taiwan’s Buddhism (p. 100). While Christian charity organizations typically operated as an outside provider of charity, the expansion of Taiwanese Buddhism, particularly that of Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation (hereafter Tzu Chi), tapped into the local and transnational Chinese networks. The intensified development of industrialized philanthropy in all three Chinese societies in the 1980s was no coincidence. Weller et al. show that this decade marked the beginning of crucial sociopolitical changes in all three societies. These include market reforms in mainland China, the political loosening both in China and Taiwan, the enforcement of the affirmative action policies favoring Malays over Chinese in Malaysia, advancements in communication technologies, and increasing flows of international and internal migration (p. 9). All of these factors contributed to changes in the social fabric of the three societies that broke earlier social ties and relations, while allowing new connections to be developed. In both China and Malaysia, Tzu Chi first expanded through the migration of devout Taiwanese businesswomen who mobilized their social networks to proselytize Tzu Chi’s religious messages and to organize large educational and philanthropic programs (p. 106 and 168–72).

Religion–State Relations
Weller et al. challenge two dominant hypotheses in the study of engaged religion: the interfering state and the state failure hypotheses. While the former holds that state interference with grass-roots philanthropies leads to the deterioration of these charitable endeavors, the latter attributes the contemporary proliferation of grassroots charities to state’s failure to provide social assistance. Both of these hypotheses, the authors insist, do not hold up well in the contexts of China, Taiwan, and Malaysia. On the one hand, the state in these three societies are neither failed nor weak states. All three states are powerful enough to regulate and interfere with philanthropic causes, and neither Taiwan nor Malaysia ever tried to function as a welfare state so there has been no welfare retrenchment. On the other hand, state endorsement can be crucial for the success and survival of religious philanthropies. Weller et al. argue that the rise of religious philanthropies signifies a ‘different model of governance in which the state is able to access and better harness grassroots desire to contribute to the public good’ (p. 59).

The authors thus propose to look at political merit-making, that is, ‘the relationships religious groups cultivate with the state in order to gain more legitimacy, political support, autonomy, or even ways of influencing policy-making’ (p. 59). The monograph documents three different patterns of religion–state relationship. In China, political merit-making is defensive as the state controls religious organizations through the methods of financial auditing and registration. Thus, it is in the interest of the organizations to develop political merit with state officials (p. 70). In Taiwan, religious organizations and the state has a collaborative relationship – a domain where political power is legitimized through politicians’ involvement in religious philanthropy; and religious activities benefit from state endorsement (p. 74). In Malaysia, political merit-making is enclaved because of Malaysian’s policy to limit charity to ethnic enclaves; Chinese religious institutions can be free from governmental control if their activities stay in the Chinese enclave (p. 83). These patterns demonstrate that industrialized philanthropy is distinctively configured based on the local historical and political conditions.

A New Subjectivity
As mentioned, central to industrialized philanthropy is a new vision of subjectivity, that of ‘volunteers as deployable agents of civic love’ who are ready to dedicate time and resources to the ‘Protestantized’ voluntary imperative, and who willingly embrace a cosmopolitan identity and embody the collective ideals of ‘loving hearts’ (p. 122). Tzu Chi volunteers in Taiwan, China, and Malaysia, as well as those from other religious institutions, participate in what Weller et al. refer to as ‘civic selving’, where volunteers engage the common good and place themselves in a larger moral and political order predicated on the notion of the cosmopolitan unlimited good (p. 124). A notable trend in all three societies is that women and young people are leaders and active participants of newer forms of industrialized philanthropy. This stands in stark contrast with previous forms of charitable activities by local Chinese temples and lineage associations whose leaders are ‘relatively wealthy, middle-aged or older, and almost always male’ (p. 143).

Weller et al. observe that despite certain shared characteristics, civic selving does vary among the three societies. While civic selving in China and Taiwan harkens back to socialist morality and the Kuomintang’s civility campaign respectively, civic selving in Malaysia attempts to go beyond the Chinese ethnic enclave and ‘thus breaking away from the ghettoization of purely Chinese associational life’ (pp. 124–5). It is also important to note that the Chinese understanding of goodness has a long heritage in Chinese notions of benevolence (仁) and impartial love (兼爱), the Daoist vision of cosmic retribution, and the Buddhist field of merits and bodhisattva ideals (pp. 90–100). In tracing these linkages to Chinese traditions and the varieties of civic selving, Weller et al. refrain from calling these new volunteers ‘neo-liberal’ and thus destabilize the usage of neo-liberalism as a dominant analytical lens to examine new forms of religious voluntarism and philanthropy. As such, Weller et al. join other scholars of East Asia[i] in registering their concerns about the applicability of neo-liberalism to the contexts of East Asian societies where the states remain consistently present in many spheres of social life.

With Religion and Charity Weller et al. have written a timely monograph that explores the complexity of religion’s involvement in the provision of social welfare and the public good in Chinese societies. The book draws on a wealth of ethnographic materials collected during a span of more than four decades of research. While industrialized philanthropy and the unlimited good have come to dominate Chinese engaged religions in the last decades, Weller et al. carefully show towards the end of the book that alternative visions of goodness continue to exist, focusing on local community building, cultural heritage, spiritual life, and daily problem-solving (p. 180). The book proposes rigorous conceptual and theoretical frameworks to productively investigate the rise of religious voluntarism in Asia. As a comparative study, the book at times sacrifices depth for breadth. A multitude of examples of religious organizations are included, but the fragmented treatment of these otherwise complex operations are streamlined to achieve theoretical coherence. This shortcoming, however, does not negate the theoretical significance of the book. It will provide the roadmap for innovative anthropological theory on the subject of engaged religions in East Asian societies and encourage further research into religious voluntarism and what Joel Robbins calls ‘the anthropology of the good’.[ii]

[i] Donald M. Nonini, Is China becoming neoliberal?, Critique of Anthropology 28(2), 2008: 145–76; Christina Schwenkel and Ann Marie Leshkowich, How is neoliberalism good to think Vietnam? How is Vietnam good to think neoliberalism?, Positions 20(2), 2012: 379–401.
[ii] Joel Robbins, Beyond the suffering subject: Toward an anthropology of the good, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3), 2013: 447–62.