Wenzhou's removal of crosses and actions elsewhere may signal wider crackdown

Authorities' destruction of crosses in Wenzhou, and harsh steps elsewhere, spark fears of a wider crackdown by Beijing on Christianity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 September, 2014, 5:08am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 10:50am

Because he was a Christian, the man from Wenzhou in Zhejiang province was criticised at mass rallies, thrown into jail and sent to the countryside for hard labour during the Cultural Revolution.

During that tumultuous political movement, he and fellow Christians continued to meet in clandestine Bible studies and worship in small groups.

The man, a part-time lay preacher in his 70s who asked to be identified as Zheng, said he never dreamed that in his lifetime he would again witness persecution of Christians.

Since late last year, the local government has ordered many state-sanctioned Protestant churches across Wenzhou and elsewhere in Zhejiang to remove crosses from their church spires. Officials say the destruction is part of a provincial programme to raze illegal buildings.

By early August, crosses on at least 229 churches across Zhejiang had been taken down, according to Zheng Leguo , a Christian preacher from Wenzhou living in the United States who has followed the crackdown. In the past month, crosses on about a dozen additional churches were dismantled, local Christians said.

Several congregations complied with the orders, but many tried to resist, leading to sometimes violent clashes with the authorities.

"I have not seen a crackdown as comprehensive as this before," said Zheng, the elderly Wenzhou preacher who requested anonymity out of concern for his safety. "Mobilising masses of paramilitary police and guards to deal with Christians? This is completely irrational."

While the demolition has been confined to a certain region, the bigger fear is that the government campaign could be a harbinger of a nationwide clampdown on Christianity.

Religious scholars noted President Xi Jinping's public support for Buddhism and Confucianism and, at the same time, an increase in the suppression of Christianity elsewhere in the country.

They pointed to examples including the 12-year imprisonment of a pastor from a state-sanctioned church in Nanle, Henan province, in July, the detentions of 22 Christians in Cao county, Shandong province, in the name of cracking down on "cult members" in June, and the lengthened detentions of Christians from the Shouwang church in Beijing who have for the past three years been trying to worship outdoors.

Professor Yang Fenggang, director of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in the US, said he feared that Beijing was tightening its national policy towards Christianity.

"What makes me worry is the central government's attitude, given that the silent endorsement [of the demolition campaign] has gone on for so long," Yang said.

The cross cutting that started last year picked up steam this summer. In several cases, Christian congregants have tried to prevent destruction of their worship spaces, leading to clashes and injuries.

On August 27, a dozen people were injured after more than 100 law-enforcement officials tangled with worshippers when they tried to protect the cross on the Shangzhou church in Mabu township in Pingyang, Wenzhou. The cross was removed on Wednesday, despite the protests.

On August 28, Huang Yizi, a pastor in Wenzhou who had been detained for nearly a month, was formally arrested on public order charges, accused of organising a protest against the removal of a cross at the Salvation Church in Pingyang, Wenzhou. One day earlier, Xie Zuozhong, a member of the same church, who had been injured in a clash with the authorities in July over the removal of the building's cross, was also detained on public order charges. Dozens of other Christians have been detained during protests.

A lay preacher with an officially sanctioned church in Wenzhou who identified himself as Joshua out of fear of reprisal said his 2,000 square metre church, accused by the authorities of occupying 300 square metres more than officially allowed, was also threatened with demolition when it refused to take down its cross. Since then, scores of congregants of Joshua's church have been guarding the building around the clock, in case the authorities try to dismantle the cross, he said.

Joshua and other Christians said they believed the campaign on church buildings is part of a coordinated plan by the Zhejiang authorities to target one of the largest Christian communities in the country.

"The cross is the symbol of Christianity, so the gesture is aimed at reducing its influence in society," Joshua said. "There is obviously a policy to suppress Christianity."

The effort started last October when a top provincial official inspecting Wenzhou reportedly expressed displeasure over church crosses dominating the skyline along motorways. A month or so later, churches began receiving notifications to remove crosses, locals say.

Wenzhou Christians, who have until recently been used to practising their faith relatively openly, described the current crackdown as hurtful and alienating. They say local officials - who once tolerated large-scale Christian meetings and even turned a blind eye to buildings operated by non-state-sanctioned churches - have told congregants privately of their reluctance to carry out orders from higher authorities, but said that they were compelled to comply.

In June, a leaked policy paper from the Zhejiang provincial government titled "Working Document Concerning the Realisation of Handling of Illegal Religious Buildings" began circulating on the internet. The document says local governments should "rectify the situation where religious development has been too fast, [or] there are too many religious sites and 'overheated' religious activities".

The document said crosses atop churches across the province had to be comprehensively "regulated" - the priority being to dismantle crosses along both sides of motorways.

A Wenzhou pastor, who requested anonymity because he feared reprisals, vouched for the document's authenticity, having seen a copy of it.

The State Administration of Religious Affairs declined to comment as to whether the state has changed its policy towards Christianity. But a secret party document, widely known as Document No9, issued last year warned against "Western anti-China forces" infiltrating the ideological sphere and condemned seven subversive influences in society, which included "Western constitutional democracy", universal values such as human rights, press freedom, civil participation and judicial independence, scholars noted.

Professor Ying Fuk Tsang, director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Chinese Society at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noted that during the past year, Communist Party journals has warned cadres against the harmful influence of "superstition and religions".

In August last year, the journal Qiushi cautioned against "ideological infiltration" as a way by "Western hostile forces to push the agenda of Westernisation and alienation". It quoted Xi as emphasising the "extreme importance" of ideological control.

This May, a "National Security Blue Paper" published by a government think tank listed four major state security threats: Western democratic values, Western cultural hegemony, information flows through cyberspace and the foreign media, and underground religious activities.

It said "the infiltration of overseas religions has already extended its tentacles to reach all domains of Chinese society".

The Communist Party has always barred members from having religious beliefs, but one of the priorities of Xi's Mao-style mass education campaign was to emphasise that members should adhere to atheism.

A Wenzhou Communist Party mass education campaign group that started in May said cadres should study the "Marxist religious view" and the party's policy on religion.

In May the Communist Party branch in the city of Ruian in Zhejiang posted on the website of a local primary school a request that party organs survey party members on their religious beliefs and ordered members who refused to renounce their beliefs to quit the party.

Ying said the authorities were asking "why Christianity is developing so quickly, and they decided that was because officials are not firm enough, or they themselves have become believers, so the campaign has to target their education".

Christians in Wenzhou said that if they did not fight against persecution, other regional governments would likely join in and suppression would spread nationwide.

"If there is little criticism of this assault on Christianity, I think the campaign could step up to cover the whole country," said Zheng, the elderly Wenzhou preacher.

But scholars said previous efforts to restrain the growth of Christianity had been unsuccessful and any current effort would not likely succeed.

Yang, author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule, said the country's Protestant community would grow from 58 million in 2010 to between 160 million and 255 million by 2025, making China the largest Protestant country in the world.

A sociologist, Yang said that when all churches were forcibly closed during the Cultural Revolution, the number of Christians in China tripled from one million to three million, according to official documents.

During the past 30 years, even when the number of state-sanctioned churches was inadequate to accommodate the Christian community, the annual compound growth rate of Christians was 10 per cent.

He said an increasingly open society and rapid urbanisation had stoked a longing for spiritual fulfilment.

Zheng, the elderly Wenzhou preacher, said he believed the current ordeal was a "test from God" that would help Christians and local churches reflect on their commitment to God.

Zheng said the Bible's First Book of Corinthians said: "We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings."

He believes China's Christians will grow from this conflict.

"If it weren't for this ordeal," he said, "it would not be a splendid enough spectacle."