Officials in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang sent in monks to burn incense and chant Buddhist scriptures as a “provocation” as Christian believers faced off with a government-backed demolition gang intent on removing a large cross from the roof of their church, church members told RFA on Monday.
The monks came in and chanted prayers, burning incense at the door of the Jinjia’er church in Zhejiang’s Huzhou city, where believers had been staging a sit-in in the hope of blocking access by the demolition gang for several days, a church follower who asked not to be named told RFA.
“We are Protestant Christians, so by sending monks to chant sutras they were trying to get us riled up,” the Jinjia’er congregant said. “They blocked the main door, and they were detaining anyone who got physical with them on public order charges.”
“They were trying to make us angry so that we would retaliate against them. They think that anyone who opposes the government is a traitor, or someone trying to overturn the Communist Party,” he said.
“Anyone who opposes them risks being stuck with this label.”
The authorities had also moved quickly to delete any social media posts about the standoff on China’s Twitter-like platforms, and from social messaging app WeChat, he said, adding that the cross was eventually demolished by the government on Sunday.
The demolition came as the authorities target churches in Zhejiang, and Wenzhou city, which has been dubbed “China’s Jerusalem” owing to its large proportion of Protestant believers.
Tearful congregation sings
The provincial government has kept up the "Three Rectifications and One Demolition" campaign, which claims to target all illegal structures, for several months now, rights groups say.
Local officials are required to take action to "demolish illegal structures that violate laws and regulations, occupy farmland, affect public safety and major construction, seriously affect urban and rural planning, and those that are located on both sides of main lines of transportation," according to guidelines published last year on the provincial government’s website.
In Wenzhou, a member of the Yuyangtaitou church in Wenzhou’s Pingyang county said their church’s cross had also been demolished by the authorities on Monday.
Video footage shot by congregants and seen by RFA showed government officials lowering the cross gradually to the ground using ropes, watched by a tearful congregation singing hymns.
“The cross is gone; they took it down this morning,” the Yuyangtaitou church member said on Monday. “Why did they demolish the cross for no reason? This was pointless. It’s not like it was getting in the way of anything.”
“This church has been in our village for several decades; I knew it while I was growing up.”
Local media reports said the Pingyang county government had announced that all visible crosses in the county would be removed by Aug. 5.
Zhejiang authorities are also taking draconian steps to manage online references to the cross demolition campaign.
Protestant believer Zheng Xianghuang said he had received a visit from Zhejiang state security police at his home the southwestern province of Sichuan after he posted a photo of a cross demolition on a social media site.
“A few hours after I posted it to my microblog account it had been retweeted more than 1,000 times, and had been viewed tens of thousands of times,” Zheng told RFA on Monday. “Maybe it touched on somebody’s vested interests … or perhaps it prompted some kind of campaign, because they came here … all the way from Pingyang county.”
Police plant malware
He said that, before they left, police admitted having placed surveillance malware on his computer.
“My QQ [chatroom account], my WeChat and my microblog accounts are all being monitored,” Zheng said. “When the police were here, they clearly indicated that the [malware] had been installed by them.”
Meanwhile, Zhejiang-based Protestant pastor Zhang Chongzhu said the demolition program shows no sign of abating.
“As well as the cross demolitions, the government is carrying out ideological work with all parties,” Zhang said. “It’s not just the crosses that they’re targeting.”
“The government wants to turn the Protestant church into a truly Chinese institution, which is to say that it wants it to become a tool of the party.”
“They have already begun this work of reclamation in the bigger churches; those that have more than 100 or 200 members,” he said.
President Xi Jinping warned Communist Party ideologues earlier this year that the development of religion in China, which is already closely controlled by an army of religious affairs officials, should be "independent of foreign influence."
Citing the rapid expansion in Christian believers after churches began to re-open in the wake of the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Xi has described religion is a tool that can easily be used "by hostile foreign forces."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.