Beard war intensifies, as official punished for not smoking

Nury Vittachi

An atheist friend got in my car the other day and I snapped him into prayer mode with a single line: "Put on your seat belt, I want to try something." Heh heh heh.

Religion is on my mind after seeing a news report from China.

Recently, communist party officials were shocked to hear that one of their members had failed to be sufficiently disrespectful during a meeting with a group of religious citizens.

Local party secretary Jelil Matniyaz did not smoke a single cigarette at a meeting with Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, despite knowing that clean-living spiritual groups disliked such practices, the Global Times reported.

"A dutiful party member would choose to smoke in front of religious believers in order to demonstrate his or her commitment to secularism," an official said. Insulting clean-living faith groups is mandatory. He and other disapproving colleagues stripped Jelil of his duties and demoted him, Agence France Presse reported.

Your columnist was forwarded this report by an old China hand who follows Beijing's war on spirituality. His report reminded me of the time Chinese communist party officials got rid of a divinely chosen leader from Tibet and replaced him with their own divinely chosen leader. People on both sides asked how a strictly atheist group could have such advanced knowledge of divine choices. Flustered officials, having no answer, made it illegal to ask the question.

In 2011, party bosses were alarmed to notice that members became less materialistic and more spiritual as they aged. They issued a regulation extending severe restrictions on what party members can believe in the period between retirement and death. "There are clear rules that retired cadres and party members cannot believe in religion," an official told the BBC.

In 2014, party members in Xinjiang started offering cash handouts to citizens who reported that their neighbours were growing beards. The logic was that beard equals spiritual person equals dangerous weirdo. This is surely wrong. I'm sure it is scientifically possible to be a bearded man and not be a dangerous weirdo, and it is pure coincidence that that two-word phrase is a perfect description of pretty much all my friends who have large amounts of facial hair.

The no-beards rule was copied by China's neighbour, Tajikistan, where police in 2015 boasted of having shaved 13,000 men, many of whom they had just snatched off the street for that purpose.

The curious thing is that big beards are the height of hipster fashion in the West, so it's likely that baffled American tourists are being snatched for committing facial hair crimes against society. This may actually be an appropriate response.

The most recent twist in this story is intriguing. The Chinese government has become alarmed at the lack of morality in society and leader Xi Jinping has launched a campaign to revive traditional beliefs and values. "These are the same traditional values that the party spent 60 years trying to destroy," the Economist magazine noted.

Life is weird. There's really nothing quite like it.

Here endeth the sermon. Amen.

(Nury Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. Send ideas and comments via his Facebook page)

--IANS

nury/vm/sac