For more than a year and a half, officials in one of China’s eastern provinces have been waging an aggressive campaign to remove crosses from Protestant churches.
This may appear unremarkable given the Communist Party leadership’s hostility to organized religious groups worshipping outside China’s official control.
But what’s notable is the parishioners’ unrelenting peaceful resistance to the authorities’ anti-cross campaign.
The churchgoers, many of them located in Zhejiang’s coastal city of Wenzhou, have been remarkably eloquent in writing open letters.
They also sing hymns in front of armed policemen, stage church rooftop protests, and cite China’s own constitution, which promises them freedom of religion.
Protestants in Wenzhou have also recently begun making small red-painted wooden crosses to display across Zhejiang as another form of civil disobedience.
In recent days, some local pastors have been told that the campaign against crosses is being halted, probably due to upcoming ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the end of World War II, which would bring many high-profile foreign visitors to China.
But Bob Fu, who leads the U.S.-based Christian human rights organization ChinaAid, said that in at least some areas of Zhejiang the cross removal has definitely not stopped.
He referred to a photo of a long crane removing a cross from a church called Sanjie in the city of Shaoxing on August 10.
His estimate of the combined number of churches demolished and crosses removed in Zhejiang comes to more than 1,500 so far.
In some cases, pastors have been detained or arrested. In August, authorities in Zhejiang detained seven Christians on suspicion of crimes including “embezzlement” and public order offenses after they tried to prevent government-hired workers from demolishing a cross on their church.
The city of Wenzhou, dubbed “China’s Jerusalem” by some, has been a major target of the demolition and cross removal campaign.
Wenzhou may appear threatening to Party officials because many in its large and relatively well-to-do population of middle class entrepreneurs have adopted Christianity as their religion.
They thus combine financial clout with a strong devotion to Christian beliefs.
The majority embrace Protestantism, but some are Roman Catholics, and a few Catholic churches have also been recent targets of demolition teams.
About 15 years ago, the Communist Party reached out to co-opt China’s wealthiest capitalists and entrepreneurs by offering them Party membership.
This has favored some of the richest “red capitalists” in China. But many of the entrepreneurs in Wenzhou are small independent-minded businesspeople who have yet to fully bounce back from a local credit collapse a few years ago.
What may concern the Communist Party leadership more generally has been the Chinese people’s widespread loss of faith in communism over the years and the resulting “spiritual vacuum” in China.
Finally, it may also have shocked some Party stalwarts when even leading members of some of the government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Churches in Zhejiang spoke out against the cross and church demolition movement.
“The pushback is surprising coming from legally registered churches, which in the past rarely strayed from the Party line,” said Yang Fenggang, director of the Center of Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in Indiana, in a recent interview with World magazine.
Some experts think that what is happening in Wenzhou may be a prelude to an intensified nationwide crackdown on Christian churches, since Communist Party leaders apparently fear any highly organized group operating outside of its control.
As New York-based Freedom House noted in a report last month, signs of a nationwide attack on so-called underground house churches were already evident in 2014.
While some Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations were able “to meet quietly with the tacit approval of local authorities,” Freedom House said, other house church gatherings were “raided or evicted from their meeting locations.”
In Wenzhou local Party leaders were surprisingly tolerant until last year.
A major turning point occurred in late April 2014 in Wenzhou when the huge state-sanctioned Sanjiang Church with an 180-foot spire in Wenzhou was torn down for allegedly violating zoning regulations.
Local officials had earlier praised the $5 million church as a “model construction project” and allowed it to be legally registered.
The destruction of this church, moved the city to “the center of a national battle with a Communist Party increasingly suspicious of the Western values it represents,” reported The New York Times.
Analysts told Radio Free Asia that the huge church had become a too-visible reminder of the numbers of Chinese turning to Protestant Christianity—and of their financial muscle.
China’s Communist Party members number nearly 88 million according to official sources. But some scholars believe that the country’s Christian population, including a conservative estimate of 60 million or more Protestants, is on its way to exceeding that number if it has not already done so.
And the Protestant faith seems to have attracted an increasing number of Chinese human rights lawyers, many of them a target of a sweeping crackdown this year.
Lawyer Teng Biao, now in the U.S. as a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, told The New York Review of Books that about a fourth of China’s human rights lawyers are Christians because “without God or a belief, a human rights lawyer would feel hopeless.”
A Council on Foreign Relations background report on Christianity in China published in May this year cited experts as saying that Chinese Christians are also attracted to the faith’s “sense of fellowship, comprehensive moral system, organized structure, and solidarity as part of an international movement.”
State policy toward Christian churches
In widely reported remarks on May 20 this year, President Xi Jinping warned against foreign influence on religion in China.
“Active efforts should be made to incorporate religions into socialist society,” Xi said at a high-level Party meeting.
Under Xi, the Chinese government has been promoting traditional Chinese culture and religion, including Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, apparently as a counter to Christianity.
But some experts see the attacks on churches in Zhejiang as part of a much broader assault on all dissent.
A Christian who took part in demonstrations in Wenzhou on Tuesday stressed that churchgoers are law abiding and focused on the cross issue.
“We are here to express our feelings to the cross. We are Christians, we are peace-loving people. We feel very sad that our crosses have been torn down, but we won’t go on the street or act against the government,” said the follower, who spoke on condition of anonymity.