China officially guarantees freedom of religion for major belief systems like Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, but party members are meant to be atheists and are especially banned from participating in what China calls superstitious practices like visiting soothsayers.
The party’s official People’s Daily said in a commentary it had not been uncommon over the past few years to see officials taken down for corruption to have also participated in “feudalistic superstitious activities”.
“In fact, some officials often go to monasteries, pray to God and worship Buddha,” it said. “Some officials are obsessed with rubbing shoulders with masters, fraternizing with them as brothers and becoming their lackeys and their money-trees.”
Chinese people, especially the country’s leaders, have a long tradition of putting their faith in soothsaying and geomancy, looking for answers in times of doubt, need and chaos.
The practice has grown more risky amid a sweeping crackdown on deep-seated corruption launched by President Xi Jinping upon assuming power in late 2012, in which dozens of senior officials have been imprisoned.
The People’s Daily pointed to the example of Li Chuncheng, a former deputy party chief in Sichuan who was jailed for 13 years in 2015 for bribery and abuse of power, who it said was an enthusiastic user of the traditional Chinese geomancy practice of fengshui.
Another much more junior official, in the southern province of Jiangxi, wore charms to ward off bad luck, it said.
“As an official, if you spend all your time fixating on crooked ways, sooner or later you’ll come to grief,” it said.
The founder of modern China, Mao Zedong, banned fortune telling and superstition in puritan, communist China after the 1949 revolution, but the occult has made a comeback since the still officially atheist country embraced economic reforms and began opening up in the late 1970s.
In one of the most famous recent cases, China’s powerful former security chief Zhou Yongkang was jailed for life in part due to accusations he leaked undisclosed state secrets to a fortune teller and healer called Cao Yongzheng, known as the “Xinjiang sage” after the far western region where he grew up.
The People’s Daily said officials must remember Marx’s guiding words that “Communism begins from the outset with atheism”.
“Superstition is thought pollution and spiritual anesthesia that cannot be underestimated and must be thoroughly purged,” it said.