How Chinese Communism is like religion: an anthropological analogy

This is really quite brilliant:

Despite their explicit atheism, Marxism, socialism and communism are often compared to religions. They require conversion and unquestioned belief in dogma and provide a full eschatology that gives sense and purpose to what has to be done here and now. This continues to be an essential insight but misses one crucial point that is particularly salient to contemporary China.

Viewing these ideologies as such is predicated on a Western understanding of religion modelled on Christianity. Cross culturally, however, religion is not about dogma and belief or how one expresses this belief. Religion is not even necessarily about the supernatural; rather, it is about the privileging of certain aspects of one’s environment, life and experience as sacred, that is, as special and set apart from the normal, profane domains of life. This distinction exists in any society quite independently from what it is exactly that is considered sacred.

If religion is simply about distinguishing the sacred from the profane, it can exist without any dogma and belief, or a material representation and awe of supernatural powers. In his study of the Giriama in Kenya the anthropologist David Parkin has developed this point further. Parkin demonstrates that the Giriama define themselves as a distinct people by reference to a remote, largely uninhabited but nevertheless sacred place of origin called the Kaya. This ‘sacred void’, as Parkin calls it, is kept pure and sacred through periodic acts of cleansing and purification to ensure the fertility and continuity of the Giriama people.

The concept of a sacred void, I would argue, travels rather well to contemporary China. Leninist principles set the CCP apart from society and represent its rule as a sacred mission regardless of any of the beliefs, dogmas or ideologies that it professes. Just as Giriama elders move secretly in and out of the Kaya, with only the occasional elder identified as having broken some rule, so it is that Party leaders are beyond scrutiny and only occasionally get purged. …

The sacredness of CCP politics is why the Party maintains an elaborate edifice of largely vacuous ideological innovations and resists the scrutiny of democratic principles and procedures. Jettisoning ideology would turn CCP rule into an ordinary dictatorship that visibly has no other mission than its own perpetuation. Introducing democracy would crowd the sacred void with the profanity of electoral politics that citizens of democratic countries might deplore, yet fully expect and take for granted: deceitful politicians, greedy interest groups and media theatrics.

It is, therefore, too simple to think that the CCP resists democratic elections and accountability only out of fear of losing power to competing parties. Its resistance to democracy runs at a much deeper indeed religious level. Democracy would expose the inner core of CCP politics to the gaze of ordinary people, stripping the Party of the mystery and sacredness that have rendered its rule unquestionable and untouchable for so long.

The quote is from Knowing China: A Twenty-First Century Guide by Frank Pieke, the chair professor in modern China studies at Leiden University, and an anthropologist by training.

I didn’t intend this post as a commentary on the news about the removal of term limits for Xi Jinping, but it feels appropriate nonetheless.

Perhaps because of its European origins, this 2016 book does not seem to have gotten much notice on this side of the Atlantic, which I think is a criminal oversight. In fact it is one of the clearest and most original summaries of how to think about the Chinese political economy that I have come across. Thanks to Dorothy Solinger for the  recommendation.




  1. Firsthand experience: my mother is a deep believer of communism, and treats it totally like her religion. Joining the communist party used to be her ultimate dream, which filled her life with full passion. Barriers to realize this dream had even delayed her marriage. The consciousness of self-sacrifice and sharing with others has been throughout her daily life as the guidance from the communist party. This belief has helped her overcome tough periods, but brought problem to her when life gets better and she has no sense of what she really wants but contributing herself. I see similar characteristics in her peers as well.


  2. shall be an interesting one to read… the communism shares one similarity with other religion, exclusiveness, excluding any other religions, one centralised character, not tolerating or accepting any other religions…


  3. This sounds like overfitting to me. Powerful men always seek to retain and expand their power. And it involves little effort for them to justify their priorities to themselves. If this sacral sense of the Party exists, it’s only instrumental for the Party leaders, a play upon the psychology of the people.


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