If you live in China long enough, you’re bound to notice a complete absence of civil society. It’s not a harsh, authoritarian thing that you could easily describe, but you can tell something is missing. Maybe it helps that I’ve been to the “other Chinas” – Taiwan and Hong Kong. In the mainland, the government or something else is stopping people from organizing, for any reason.

The most obvious absence of civil society in China is religion. Here we’re talking about the birthplace of Daoism and Confucianism, two massive philosophies/religions that have beautiful temples in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and elsewhere. People still revere Confucius’s hometown of Qufu, Shandong, but there are very, very few people who would say “I am a Daoist.”

Buddhism was also hugely influential in China; the Tang Dynasty built its whole society around Buddhist monasteries and scripture. Mongols who invaded China and established the Yuan Dynasty were Buddhists, though their behavior wouldn’t suggest such. There are many Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout China today, but most of them are simple tourist attractions (Hongfa temple in Shenzhen included). I can confirm seeing a monk in McDonald’s last weekend.

Islam has very deep roots in China, since the beginning of the Silk Road a thousand years ago. Today an entire ethnic group, the Hui, has been established for Chinese Muslims who are still ethnically Han, but follow the teachings of the Quran. The provinces of Gansu and Ningxia are considered Hui strongholds, and its almost impossible to go 10 minutes without passing a Muslim-influenced restaurant of some kind. But even these people are pretty fairweather Muslims; almost every Hui restaurant I’ve been to serves beer and features a number of chain smoking waiters. The Great Mosque of Xi’an is very touristy, like the few Buddhist temples scattered across the country.

Finally, Western religions also have a history in China. Shanghai had one of the largest Jewish populations of any city in the world during WWII, mostly because the occupying Japanese had no desire to follow in Hitler’s anti-Semetic madness. The first and second presidents of the Republic of China were Christians, and Christian missionaries had enormous influence during the late Qing and Republican years.

All of these stopped during the Communist era. During the Cultural Revolution, thousands of religious relics were senselessly destroyed. The government made atheism the official policy. Following Confucius was considered backwards, so no one would practice anything openly. It all faded away.

Today, religion is associated with troublemakers. Xinjiang and Tibet are two provinces that are devoutly Muslim and Buddhist, respectively. They constitute an enormous part of the country, about 1/3 of all the land in China. These people, for reasons mostly unrelated to religion, dislike the government and tend to start violent riots. The other big religious player, the Falun Gong, is a spiritual cult based on exercise and undying devotion to a supreme leader. While Xinjiangers and Tibetans have been allowed to practice religion (at least in the constitution), the Falun Gong has been outright banned. The churches and temples that do exist are either closely monitored gimmicks or museums from the age when Christian missionaries roamed the countryside.

I am not a religious person, but it’s sad to see that no one at all takes an interest in these practices. Besides going to church, many of the Catholics I knew from my hometown also planned social events, charity drives, and other activities to help the community. One that stands out in particular was the “funeral breakfast pool,” where each parishioner would sometimes be called on to make a dish for a reception following a funeral. Mom made many a green bean casserole for this very occasion. In China, the government is so fearful people might turn social groups against them that they are either nonexistent or monitored to the point where they are just another government agency.

Religion is an easy example. Stuff like “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” could also never exist, even though the group is very apolitical. Sports groups are okay, but they are usually structured or have at least some government connection. Laws prohibit the establishment of a group across city borders in an effort to prevent the nationalization of any mass movement. So far, it’s worked quite well.

I think the future will allow for greater openness. I’m an optimist. I remember reading in Shenzhen Daily a few weeks ago about an apartment community who held (highly illegal) popular elections to elect a president and vice president of the local event planning committee. The article mentioned how the police fully intended to shut them down immediately. So don’t expect a fruit basket or a welcome reception from the neighbors when you move in. But as people get wealthier and have more free time, I have a feeling the bars and clubs and KTV are going to get old after a while. A little religion and civil society wouldn’t hurt anyone, government included. It’s sad how some places in Hong Kong can feel more “Chinese” than Beijing.