By Yaxue Cao and Pastor L, published: December 15, 2015
This interview was conducted on November 23, 2015.
Yaxue Cao (YC): Paster L, I interviewed you in late July at the height of the Chinese government’s cross-removal campaign. The campaign of demolishing churches and removing crosses had lasted a year and half by then, and several large churches were destroyed. One estimate had it that up to 1,500 crosses were dismantled across Zhejiang Province. But since August and September, there hasn’t been much news about cross removals. Has it stopped?
Pastor L: It has for the time being, but the suppression has not, and is very much ongoing. Since August and September, the authorities have changed their strategies and methods. They are accusing journalists who simply reported facts of “divulging state secrets,” and charging pastors and evangelists with leaking intelligence. That is a first. In Wenzhou, at least twenty clergy members, church workers, and legal counsel have been placed under secret detention for over two months by now.
They are: in Wenzhou, elder Wang Yunxian (王运显), pastor Yan Xiaojie (严晓洁牧师), elder Zhou Aiping (周爱平); evangelists Zhou Jian (周剑), Wei Wenhai (魏文海)， Cheng Congping (程从平), Huang Xiaoyuan (黄晓远); brother Zhang Zhi (张制); Pastor Zhang Chongzhu (张崇助), Huang Yizi (黄益梓), Cheng Chaohua (程超华). Three lawyers and law staffers from Beijing: Zhang Kai (张凯) Liu Peng (刘鹏)，and Fang Xiangui (方县桂). In Jinhua region: Pastor Bao Guohua (包国华) and his wife Xing Wenxiang (邢文香), evangelist Bao Chenxing (包晨星), and several staffers of the Jinhua Chengguan Church. [Editor’s update: Wang Yunxian, Zhou Aiping (周爱平), Zhou Jian, Huang Xiaoyuan, Cheng Chaohua, Fang Xiangui, Liu Peng, and Kang Xiaoyou (康孝友) were released last week.]
It’s been confirmed that some of them have been placed under secret and solitary detention where detainees face high risk of torture and maltreatment. All of them could face severe jail terms.
In early November, several of them in secret detention sent letters to their relatives almost simultaneously to dismiss their lawyers, including lawyer Zhang Kai who had been the counsel for several churches. This is rather strange: a lawyer who has been known for using legal tools to help church communities in Wenzhou would reject help from lawyers after being secretly detained. In his letter, Zhang Kai said nothing at all about his circumstances, inviting speculation that the letter was produced under duress. Such things are common in China.
On November 11, Lucheng District (鹿城区) authorities in Wenzhou posted three documents in Xialing Church (下岭教会), announcing the pending demolition of two church buildings, each four stories with a total area of 2,907 square meters (about 31,290 square feet), on November 16. This is the very church where lawyer Zhang Kai and his assistants had been stationed and were arrested. But as of today, the demolition team hasn’t shown up.
Right now, church communities in Zhejiang Province are experiencing a sense of defeat not seen over the last 30 years or so. The churches have underestimated the cruelty of the government. They thought the crackdown would come to an end after the Sanjiang Cathedral was demolished. But that has proven to be wishful thinking.
YC: It all started as a campaign to demolish illegal buildings and clean up the city’s appearance, but what really happened looked more like a masked war against Christians. What’s the real motivation?
Pastor L: It was a carefully thought-out plan to legitimize their demolition of churches and crosses, in the name of regulating illegal buildings. The goal was to minimize negative reaction by the public. By treating religious issues with non-religious methods, the government hoped to conceal its intent to weaken Christianity.
It’s true that some churches in Wenzhou, and across the province, have built more than they were permitted to. That’s due to the flaws of religious policies and excessive administrative restrictions. Because the procedures for church construction approval are extremely cumbersome, local governments, out of tolerance for religious groups, have allowed churches to unofficially “construct more and report less,” and sometimes you can even see local officials giving speeches during a church’s inauguration ceremony. Take Sanjiang Cathedral for example. In 2013, the expansion of it was proposed, and promoted, by none other than the Wenzhou municipal government as an architectural landmark that would forge the image of a modern, pluralistic, and tolerant city.
But the cross removal campaign must be understood in the context of the Xi Jinping government’s tightening control of ideology. The authorities see Christianity as something outside their authoritarian sphere, and an imperialist legacy that identifies more with Western values. Indeed, it is one of five categories of citizens whom the government deems a threat to the security of the regime, along with rights lawyers, dissidents, Internet opinion leaders, and disadvantaged social groups.
The government sees Christianity as an independent political group. Indeed, its organization meets the definition of modern civil society, and is an autonomous society entity independent of the state. The Christian church is an intermediary for a self-governing, plural and open social space. The Holy Cross and the architecture of the church are expressions of the church’s physical presence in the public space, and symbols of social power.
Suspicious of religious organizations, the government does not tolerate the scope and influence of the church and regards it as a threat to its security. An internal meeting in Zhejiang Province in early 2014 required that “cadres in charge of ethnic and religious affairs must grasp the political matter behind the cross and resolutely resist infiltration.”
In Wenzhou one rumor is that, while visiting Wenzhou in September 2013, the provincial CCP Secretary Xia Baolong (夏宝龙) was greatly displeased by what he saw: the large, brightly-lit cross of the Sanjiang Cathedral by the Ou River. “This is brazen! Whose domain is this, the Communist Party’s or the Christians’?”
As a matter of fact, the government has become impatient with its own pretext of “demolishing illegal construction” since May 2014, openly forcing churches to demolish crosses. When church leaders reasoned with the officials, the latter simply said, “There is no why; we just don’t allow crosses anymore.” In Zhejiang, crosses were removed even from churches who have all the documentation and where construction followed the procedures. Some churches have been converted into “Seniors’ Activity Centers” or “Cultural Auditoriums.” It all goes to show the demolition campaign is naked political persecution.
YC: Again, why Wenzhou?
Pastor L: Because Christianity is thriving in the area, with 15% of the population Christian. That’s over one million people, according to official statistics. In towns and the countryside, churches are numerous and crosses conspicuous. Wenzhou has been called “China’s Jerusalem” and the authorities don’t like it. And more, Wenzhou has influenced, over the past 30 years, the expansion of churches in China.
YC: Can you elaborate on the last point?
Pastor Pastor L: Starting in the mid-1980s, troves of Wenzhouers left home to do business across the country. Christians among them would hold regular gatherings in the cities they lived. Volunteers and clergymen, mostly from house churches, began to establish, propagate, and sponsor house churches in large cities and rural areas, providing financial support, equipping their altars, and holding regular evangelical meetings. As churches in Wenzhou matured, they also organized Bible study groups to equip church leaders and staff across the country with biblical knowledge and church management skills.
Wenzhou Christians inside and outside China worked together, evangelizing in the country. There are more than 10,000 volunteer evangelists in Wenzhou; there are several hundred of them in European countries and in the U.S.; several thousand evangelists serve churches in large cities in China; and there are many evangelists from Wenzhou in both officially sanctioned churches and house churches in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, and other cities. Since the 2000s, Wenzhou has gradually established two dozen or so bible and theology sessions, training hundreds of new grassroots evangelists each year.
YC: As a non-Christian who observes society and politics in China, two things struck me about the Chinese government’s behavior: one is that it challenges a very large sector of solid middle class people in the wealthiest province on the east coast; the other is that it treats the state-sanctioned churches no differently than the underground house churches. I feel that the state of Christianity in Wenzhou must have troubled the government a great deal for them to act with such reckless abandon.
Pastor L: The state-sanctioned churches are not always obedient in Wenzhou. The church’s’ belief system is rather self-contained, impervious to government control. In this, any authoritarian government would perceive potential resistance to its control. In China, the central government has been increasingly unhappy about the ambiguous interaction between local governments and churches, convinced that its authority has been weakened and the manipulation through the so-called United Front Work hasn’t worked well. Indeed the UFW’s usefulness is so limited that the government doesn’t mind the loss by destroying its connection with state-sanctioned churches.
YC: What loss? Can you elaborate on that?
Pastor L: The registered churches have always believed that their religious activities are approved by the government, and, because of it, they have done things almost free of concern. For example, they organized summer camps for college students. They held large-scale evangelist services. In townships and villages, sometimes they came out with Christmas programs on streets. The church workers didn’t limit their work to Wenzhou. In Wenzhou, many of these workers have been trained in registered churches, and they are doing excellent work.
But as this cross removal campaign unfolded, they suddenly realized that registration with the government does not guarantee that they’ll be spared, and a lot more crosses have been removed from government-sanctioned churches than from house churches. They realized that, as registered churches, they are retaliated against even worse when they refuse to adopt the government’s unreasonable policies. On the part of the government, they feel the registered churches have betrayed them and therefore should be suppressed even harder. The will of the Party must prevail. Consequently the government loses everyone. Disappointed church leaders have condemned the government. Grassroots Christians are angry but not surprised. They say, if the Communist Party showed tolerance, then it wouldn’t be the Communist Party.
YC: While the cross demolition was taking place and over the following months, I regularly saw slogans like “sinicizing Christianity” and the “five entries and five transformations.” This month a purportedly international academic symposium was held in Beijing called “The Path to Sinicizing Christianity,” attended by representatives of the Party’s United Front Work Department, the State Administration for Religious Affairs, proxies like China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and a number of universities. What is the sinicization of Christianity? Is this is a new idea?
Pastor L: The official-led and directed campaign of “sinicizing Christianity” is in essence the politicization of Christianity—it’s forcing Christianity to “go communist,” or undergo a “socialist transformation.” The intent is to reform and remold Christianity into a Party-dominated tool that can be used in its service. A proponent of the “sinicization of Christianity” theory, official scholar Zhuo Xinping (卓新平), laid it out straight: “Christianity in China needs to emphasize sinicization politically; it must acknowledge and endorse our basic political system and its policies.”
At this conference in Beijing, “sinicizing Christianity” might mean different things for different parties, but the core, tacit presupposition of the meeting was that Christianity is a latent, potential political competitor with the Party. This already warps Christians’ own understanding of their identity as God’s people. It has absolutely nothing to do with what went on during the late Qing and Republican eras, in which grassroots Christians, as an organic part of their missionary work, experimented with and developed various forms of localizing and adapting Christian teachings to China.
When Nestorian Christianity entered China during the Tang dynasty, it integrated too much into Chinese culture, to the extent that the transmission of Christian teachings was stopped, in the end going away entirely. If Christianity neglects its ecumenical and theological tradition, all sorts of “abnormal” variations fused with Chinese folk traditions are apt to proliferate. The example of Hong Xiuquan’s “Taiping heavenly kingdom” is a familiar example. If the Church, on the other hand, overly attaches itself to state power, emphasizing nationalistic will, then secular powers are apt to sweep in and try to commandeer it. Nazi Germany’s instrumentalization of Lutheranism led to great tragedy. Many clerics in the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe were later found to have been recruited as informants for the Communist Party, and when the archives were opened they were too ashamed to show their faces in public. In China, Christianity should draw a lesson from these cases and on no account let itself become a mistress of the Communist Party.
The authorities are now engaged in a series of actions in churches. In Pingyang, Wenzhou, the local authorities are on Sundays sending administrative personnel to churches to monitor the activities, ensuring that churches don’t discuss the cross demolitions or talk negatively about government policies. Some places plan to set up offices inside churches, but they haven’t succeeded. In other places the government has set up their own propaganda noticeboards on church properties, and made a big fuss of them in state media. In 2015, Zhejiang officials started to roll out the “five entries and five transformations” (“五进五化”).
The “five entries” consists of: “government policies and statutes enter the church; health care activities enter the church; popular science and culture enter the church, assisting and helping the poor enters the church, and harmonious construction enters the church.” It’s all about controlling the church’s social activities, ensuring that they’re toeing the Party’s line. The “five transformations” refers to “localizing religion, standardizing management, indigenizing theology, making finances public, and co-opting the Christian teachings.” With these, they intend to control the church by controlling the teaching, management, and finance.
But their scheme has not worked. The “five entries and five transformations” campaign hasn’t progressed smoothly at all, and church groups have been quite critical and put up very stiff resistance.
YC: Can you elaborate on how church communities have resisted these measures?
Pastor L: The “five entries and five transformations” go against Christian belief. Parishioners have ripped down the propaganda posters the government has put up in churches, they’ve criticized the project online, and churches that have compromised have been strongly urged not to and criticized by other churches. Some churches have refused to be subject to having their finances investigated. There was a house church that decided to chant scripture together if the government sent someone to stand at the altar and spread propaganda, not let them do it. If the officials managed to gain control, they’d rather give up than cooperate with government demands. Some churches have, in response, begun quoting from Jonathan Chao, the late North American pastor who founded China Ministries International, and promoted the “Three-Fold Vision” the “Chinese Gospel,” “nationalizing the church,” and “Christianizing the culture.”
YC: What do you mean by “rather give up?”
Pastor L: Abandon the whole church and meet in small groups at their own homes.
YC: We all know that, because its power is unchallenged and unchecked, the way the Communist Party uses power is brazen and brutal. Whether Christians resist or not, I predict that the Party will carry out its will – of that I have little doubt.
Pastor L: In China, diktats are issued from the top straight down, and the apparatus moves following the will of the top leaders. Local officials, if they want to keep their job, have to join the competition to suppress Christians, and they are rewarded by the number of crosses they remove. There are local officials who say: We don’t want to be the Number One, but we don’t want to be the last one either. The Public Security Bureau chief in Wenzhou and the Party Secretary in Yongjia (永嘉) have been promoted for their hardline approaches during the cross-removal campaign.
In order to complete their objectives, secret police began threatening church leaders. They have arbitrarily detained people, showing no regard for proper legal procedures. In the Wenzhou area, hundreds have been summoned, detained, threatened, or criminally detained. In Pingyang (平阳), Wenzhou, 14 members of the Salvation Church (救恩堂) were beaten and injured. The government has also persecuted families and relatives, and targeted businesses owned by Christians. Wenzhou has become a testing ground for Party officials to fulfill their political ambitions and test their ideology and brinksmanship.
Doubtless, Wenzhou is facing the same cataclysm it did in 1958. Back then, it was declared a “religion-free area,” it became an outpost in a projected war with Taiwan, and religion was suppressed. Today the government is once again targeting Wenzhou. Information about cross removal campaign online is censored immediately. Discriminatory measures are taken against Christian civil servants. The government has also investigated grassroots Party members to find out who the Christians are, and it has organized sessions to study the Party’s Mass Line rhetoric and Marxist religious views. All signs indicate that this is a determined political campaign and another catastrophe for Christians.
YC: Wenzhou Christians’ criticism and resistance to the government will inevitably lead to a standoff, whether passively or otherwise. According to your observation and information, what are the options Christian communities in Zhejiang have to defend their rights and faith? Legal recourse, as represented by lawyer Zhang Kai, didn’t seem to help. Is it still an option? Now that so many have been placed under secret detention and perhaps torture, I feel it’s pointless to even ask this question.
Pastor L: Through the last year and half, Wenzhou Christians have come to see themselves as a targeted community. The church is seeking a new social identity, moving closer to other suppressed groups. The younger generation, having grown up in relative comfort, has until now not shown particular sympathy and concern for those suffering from injustice, but now they’re increasingly attuned to the social injustice around them and are reflecting on their social responsibility.
During this crisis, church communities first sought to defend themselves through communication with the government. When that failed, they engaged lawyers and the media. They even made “human shields” in an orderly and limited manner, among other forms of resistance. But officials, arrogant in their power, saw the peaceful self-defense of Christian communities as a kind of rebellion—they don’t understand how Christian citizens, actively defending their rights according to the rule of law, are actually constructive for the country and society.
The government believes that it must above all continue its authoritarian rule, and to them Christian beliefs appear to be at odds with the heavily nationalist China Dream narrative. So they started demolishing crosses to deter and contain the growth of churches. But obviously they are not familiar with the history of churches in Wenzhou. The 1958 campaign drove the Christian communities underground, and 30 years later in the 1980s, they emerged like a miracle and have since experienced a spectacular renaissance. One thing is certain: Suppression will not destroy Christianity.
YC: Speaking of human shields, I recall this photo of the Xialing Church. This was Christmas Eve last year. Tell us, what happened?
Pastor L: In early December 2014, the Xialing Church was slated to be demolished by the authorities. Members guarded the church and foiled the government’s plans. Frustrated, officials ordered the demolition team to wreck the front steps. This is the church choir standing on the debris and singing; singing His glory amidst the ruins—this epitomizes the spirit of Chinese Christians right now. Christmas is again approaching, and particularly befitting to churches in Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province, or across China for that matter, is the ancient song in praise of God: “Glory to God in the highest, and on the earth peace among men with whom he is well pleased.” (Luke 2:14)
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.