Religion in China’s Public Diplomacy Towards the Belt and Road Countries in Asia
China has promoted the so-called “five connectivities” (policy coordination, infrastructure connection, trade facilitation, financial integration, and people-to-people exchange) under the Belt and Road Initiative towards the relevant countries. Together, the five connectivities constitute a comprehensive agenda in forming a long-term and sustainable cooperative relationship between China and these countries. China has rightly put people-to-people exchange as one of the five, but has not been very clear what concrete areas are to be promoted, and so far religion has received very scant attention from the official side.
This paper makes the argument that China, although officially atheistic, and for a long time having had a very secular culture, ironically has many indigenous religious resources that it can enlist and mobilize to promote stronger people-to-people exchanges with many Belt and Road countries. While China is atheistic or secular, the people in many countries along the Belt and Road remain strongly religious, or at least more spiritual or religious compared to the average Chinese. To enhance people-to-people exchange the spiritual dimension should not be overlooked. This paper will examine in particular Buddhism and Islam, and how these two religions are very much part of the Chinese heritage and how and why China should not overlook them in the conduct of public diplomacy towards the Belt and Road countries. It will review some of the past examples in light of the current push for people-to-people exchanges, and make some recommendations.
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