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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.
A Report by the Initium Media, published: August 31, 2015
Zhang Kai (张凯), a prominent Chinese rights lawyer who has been living for a year among Christians in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, and assisting in their litigation against the government’s encroachments, disappeared with his assistant on Aug. 25. They are understood to have been taken into custody by the authorities in relation to Zhang’s legal work. On Aug. 27, Chinese lawyer Yang Xinquan (杨兴权), director of Beijing Xinqiao Law Firm and Zhang Kai’s employer, posted the following report of Zhang’s legal activities in Wenzhou. He also announced that he was establishing a legal group for Zhang’s defense, much like the many which Zhang established to defend Christians when he was free. — The Editors
Zhang Kai, a lawyer who organized a legal team of over 30 to litigate religious cases across Zhejiang Province, was taken away by police in Wenzhou on Aug. 25, and hasn’t been heard from since.
On Aug. 8, Zhang shared his thinking with his friends on WeChat: “I’ve made up my mind: the most they can do is jail me. But if I stay silent, I’ll regret it my whole life.”
Two weeks later he and his assistant Liu Peng (刘鹏) were taken away by Wenzhou police.
Zhang Kai, 37, is a lawyer with the Xinqiao Law Firm (新桥律师事务所) in Beijing, and a Christian. Amidst the campaign to demolish crosses in Zhejiang, of all human rights lawyers in China, Zhang has been the most active and become the most deeply involved. Beginning with his representation of Wenzhou Salvation Church (救恩堂) pastor Huang Yizi (黄益梓) in August last year, he’s lived in Wenzhou and been counsel in many cases involving cross demolition. He said “I’m perfectly clear” about the fact that he’s treading in extremely dangerous political territory. In July, a reporter with the Hong Kong-based Initium Media (端传媒) bumped in Zhang on the destroyed steps of the Xialing Church (下岭教堂). He was smiling and said that he wasn’t concerned about his personal safety: “How many large scale removals of crosses have you come across in history?” he remarked.
On July 10, Zhang originally planned to begin a lecture series titled “Laws and Decrees.” “‘Decrees’ (律法) are called ‘law’ in Christianity; the rules that the Lord created,” Zhang said. “Christianity teaches us to submit, but what we ought to submit to is the constitution and morality, not to illegal people and conduct.” But late the same night, as part of a violent nationwide crackdown sweeping up hundreds of lawyers, Zhang Kai was taken away by Wenzhou state security police and interrogated the night through. Later, in an interview with the Initium reporter, he said that public security officials told him: “Don’t stir up the Zhou Shifeng [周世峰] case,” “Don’t hold legal seminars in Wenzhou,” and “Don’t get involved in religious cases in Zhejiang.” Clearly, Zhang Kai did not submit.
He maintained his residence at the Xialing Church, every day seeing pastors and believers from all over Zhejiang, exhausting every possible legal method to safeguard their rights, determined to resist to the end through the storm of cross demolitions.
A year ago, the authorities encountered fierce resistance when attempting to remove the cross from the Salvation Church in Wenzhou. Many people were beaten bloody in the struggle. Pastor Huang Yizi was in the end designated the leader of that resistance and sent to a year in jail for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” Zhang Kai was counsel to Huang.
Zhang Kai was meticulous and earnest in his litigation: he broke the suit into four cases, and mobilized 11 lawyers to help. For example: state policy says that criminal suspects have a right to legal counsel within 48 hours, but over 70 hours passed in Huang Yizi’s case before he was able to see his lawyer. So Zhang sued for compensation. Another was that Huang Yizi was prevented from receiving a copy of The Bible while in custody, so Zhang’s legal group initiated another suit. Zhang called this “China’s first case about reading scriptures in custody” (“全国首起看守所读经案”).
In another incident, the Zhejiang provincial government’s website featured the response to a letter from one of Huang’s defenders, sent to the “governor’s mailbox,” saying that he was wrongly imprisoned. The official response included language referring to “Huang Yizi’s criminal conduct.” So Zhang’s legal group initiated yet another case, saying that this was a “convicting without trial” and constituted defamation of his client. Zhang and his lawyers also collected over 1,000 signatures after Huang was arrested, and submitted an application to the authorities to hold a protest march.
As Zhang Kai saw it, all this was “the process of gambit.” “Filing a case is one thing, and filing a case without the court taking it up is another.”
Zhang Peihong (张培鸿), a lawyer who worked with Zhang Kai on the Zhejiang cases, said that Zhang Kai had “hit on a new approach” in his chosen method of litigating the cases. “He did not let a single legal question lapse.” Zhang Peihong told Initium that lodging information requests with the government was part of citizens’ right to supervise state power. If the government has engaged in illegal conduct, it’s only natural to apply for an administrative explanation, and litigation can then be based on that. Demolishing crosses is illegal conduct, so correcting it would mean that the crosses are allowed to be erected. “All this is according to legal process. Just going by the book,” Zhang said.
This sort of endless legal game led the authorities to be both enraged and helpless—whether small or large, when government organs around Zhejiang ignored the law and acted at will, they’d be sued, and their conduct dealt with as “illegal acts” that must be resolved through a legal process.
Zhang Kai told Initium that three months later the Wenzhou authorities, frustrated beyond measure, proposed a deal: as long as Huang Yizi relieved Zhang Kai as his legal representative, he’d be free in a month. Zhang Kai was thus forced to recuse.
But the Wenzhou authorities went back on their word, and in March of this year sentenced Huang to a year in prison for gathering a crowd to disturb public order. Zhang, who was representing him again, said: “Originally they charged him with three crimes, with a minimum prison sentence of a decade.”
In Zhejiang, Zhang Kai organized a group of over 30 lawyers—Christians who hailed from all over China—to begin taking on church cases around the province. Up until July, Zhang told Initium, he represented four churches in Wenzhou. He organized a group of six lawyers to take on cases in Jinhua and Lishui in Zhejiang (浙江金华和丽水), and churches from around the province called on him to consult on matters of law one after another.
Establishing a rights defense league against the cross demolition campaign and taking on all manner of rights defense cases aren’t the only things Zhang did. During the same period he wrote a large number of articles, Weibo posts, and met with believers and the Christian “two organizations” (两会) (the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement [基督教协会和三自爱国运动委员会]) , ensuring that when cross demolitions took place believers were aware of their legal rights.
“I calculated that there were roughly nine activities we could engage in: apply to hold marches, listen to testimony, impeach officials, write letters, bring suit, call for freedom of access to government information, and more,” Zhang Kai said. “Lawyers can’t necessarily prevent the crosses being removed, but at least they can expose the illegal nature of the exercise. Even if they were constructed against regulations, there should be a reasonable and legal process to remove them. Otherwise, where’s the legality?”
In November 2014, Zhang Kai became the legal representative for Wenzhou’s Xialing Church, using the methods he’d honed on the Huang Yizi case to bring a string of legal complaints against the authorities.
After the failed attempt to remove the crosses at Xialing Church last November, the authorities handed down an “official statement of punishment” (处罚决定书) saying that because the church’s documentation was incomplete, it was designated an illegal structure and was to be demolished entirely. Zhang first requested an administrative review of the decision, and then initiated legal action against the response. At the same time he initiated freedom of information proceedings against each government department. As with all the other churches that had their crosses removed, the authorities severed its water and electricity supply. So Zhang Kai also sued the state grid.
This July, the authorities passed new “Zhejiang Provincial Religious Construction Regulations” (浙江省宗教建筑条例). The Regulations strictly limit the appearance of crosses: “A cross that appears atop the main body of the church building cannot exceed a proportion of 1/10 to the main church body.” This means that the cross can’t be placed on the church’s peak, but only on the outer wall. Many analysts say that the regulations were initiated to pave the way for removing crosses around the whole province. With these rules, they can rip crosses down without proving that they were built “illegally.”
Immediately, Zhang Kai made a formal application for public information about the law on behalf of Xialing Church: he demanded that the government provide its legal basis for formulating the Regulations, the procedures under which they were drawn up, the research and investigation report produced by an expert committee, the religious affiliations of the committee members, and the procedures and official organs responsible for enforcing the law once it was passed. He demanded that the government respond within 15 days, according to law, or else he would sue them.
“The relationship between Church and the government has reached an extremely strained point. But this is our right.” This was what Zhang Kai told fellow Christians over and over again.
Zhang Kai remembered the night he was taken away on July 10. A female domestic security agent who “looked like Fan Bingbing” remonstrated with him: “Look, Zhou Shifeng had some connections, but you have none. If you take on Wenzhou religious cases, you’re just looking for trouble.” Zhang Kai then began teaching her Christian principles.
“You’re wrong,” he said. “I have God as my backer.”
 Zhou Shifeng is a veteran rights defense lawyer and is the head of the Fengrui Law Office in Beijing, known for its heavy involvement in rights defense work. Fengrui was one of the primary targets of mass arrests and slander in the state press beginning in July.
 The Xialing Church in Lucheng District, Wenzhou, was established in 1993 as a government-sanctioned church. Since the middle of last year, authorities have made repeated attempts to tear down its cross, efforts staunchly resisted by believers. In October last year security officials demolished the church’s outer wall and left its stairs a rubble.
Christian Sentiment in Zhejiang Against Cross Removal: Three Statements, China Change, August 7, 2015.
The Ongoing War Against Religion in China, China Change, August 4, 2015.
中文原文: 《张凯：政教關係到了非常緊張的時刻》, translated by China Change.
By China Change, published: August 7, 2015
The ongoing forced demolition of crosses, and in some cases entire churches, taking place in Zhejiang is an extraordinary occurrence: the Chinese government appears determined to remove all traces of the symbol of Christianity in the public realm, with no regard to the antagonism it is provoking among at least two millions of Christians in one of China’s most prosperous provinces. All signs indicate that the attack on the cross is just the beginning of a plan to rein in the rapid-growing number of Christians across the country.
In response to the church demolition and cross removal, Bishop Zhu Weifang (朱维方) of the Wenzhou parish published a letter a year ago titled “Believe, and Fear Not – To All Priests and Catholics,” and the Catholic clergy (司铎团) also spoke against the actions of the government. Since the cross removal campaign escalated recently, there have been a flood of statements in protest, and warning. Here we sample three such statements to convey to our readers the feelings of Zhejiang Christians: they come from the government-sanctioned the Christian Council of Zhejiang Province (浙江省基督教协会), ordinary believers in Rui’an city (基督教瑞安市众教会), and the Catholic clergy of Wenzhou (天主教温州教区全体神职人员), respectively.
Open Letter to the Zhejiang Committee of Ethnic and Religious Affairs
Zhe Ji Zi (2015) No. 44
To: Zhejiang Committee on Ethnic and Religious Affairs
In the nearly 18 months since the removal of the cross from the Huanghu Christian Church in Yuhang District, Hangzhou, more than 1,200 crosses have been torn down from places of religious activity in our province under the “Three Rectifications, One Demolition” campaign. (These include crosses belonging to fully permitted churches totally compliant with the regulations, such as the Dayuan Christian Church in Fuyang, the Xin’en Church in Yiwu, and the Panshi Church in Hangzhou.)
Such a large-scale, targeted campaign of administrative law enforcement (without consideration of its violations of both substantive and procedural law), with its incidents of bloodshed, has seriously hurt the feelings of Zhejiang’s more than 2 million Christians. At the same time, it has also had an extremely serious negative impact on the masses in the areas surrounding the churches whose crosses have been torn down, leading relations between the Party and the masses to become negative and even confrontational. This goes completely against the ideology and spirit of Party and state policy regarding “governing the country in accordance with law” and “governing the country in accordance with the constitution,” causing an unprecedented degree of damage to the image of the Party and government at home and abroad. These actions are a flagrant violation of the policy of religious freedom that the Party and government have been implementing and continuously perfecting for more than 60 years and a serious violation of the constitution.
As the organization representing our province’s Christian community, our council feels deeply saddened by these actions. Members of our council’s enlarged council-affairs conference (including chairmen, vice-chairmen, directors, and deputy directors) have unanimously decided via telephone conference to strongly urge the Zhejiang Committee on Ethnic and Religious Affairs to transmit this letter to the provincial Party committee and government and immediately order that the relevant authorities cease tearing down crosses.
Party and state guiding policy regarding religious work is: “Protect, Serve, Manage, Lead.” Only the “management” function has recently been on display within our province, however, and this “management” has been so unreasonable and violent that it makes it impossible for our council to fulfil its role as a “bridge.”
In view of this and considering that previous attempts by our officials to demand in person or by telephone that your committee cease all demolition, we now make this solemn appeal in writing: We hereby request that you observe the constitution and the law, consider the special and complex nature of religion, and immediately cease this mistaken policy of removing crosses that is tearing the Party and the masses apart.
The Christian Council of Zhejiang Province
July 10, 2015
Also submitted to: National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, China Christian Council, United Front Work Department, State Administration of Religious Affairs, Zhejiang Province United Front Work Department
cc: Regional Three-Self Patriotic Movement committees and Christian Councils
 After publishing the open letter, the government confiscated the Council’s official seal. – The Editors
Joint Statement from the Rui’an Christian Community
Since February 2014, local enforcement agents have been illegally tearing down crosses from Christian churches in the name of “Three Rectifications, One Demolition.” In doing so, they have flagrantly violated the constitution, trampled on the dignity of the law, undermined social harmony, and infringed on citizens’ right to religious freedom. The situation is getting worse, repeatedly bullying good Christians and threatening to tear down the crosses from all churches in Rui’an. In order to defend the lawful rights and interests of all of our city’s believers and safeguard the dignity of national law, the entire Rui’an Christian community hereby issues the following solemn statement:
- The 203 Rui’an churches that have previously registered with the government are lawful places of religious activity, and these church buildings and the crosses on top of them are protected by law. We resolutely oppose any encroachment, damage, or destruction by any individual or work unit.
- If individuals or local authorities dare to risk universal condemnation and use force to tear down church crosses, we the churches of Rui’an will have to arm ourselves with the law and hire lawyers to defend our rights by filing suit against leading individuals and the work units who ordered the demolition, in order to safeguard the legitimate and lawful rights and interests of the religious people of our city.
- If local authorities ignore the lawful demands of our city’s religious people and oppose us with evil intentions, wasting money and manpower, and even illegally employing armed force to tear down the crosses from our churches, our churches will respond in a non-violent, non-cooperative manner. We shall absolutely refuse to accept this evil and shall never give in or cooperate. We shall never tear down our own crosses and shall refuse to undergo rectification.
- If local authorities do not obey the law and act in violation of the law, illegally tearing down church crosses through stealth attacks, or damaging church property, we shall re-erect the crosses.
- We shall remain in contact with churches in other counties and cities and communicate and look after each other.
- Churches that have had their crosses torn down will resolutely join together to petition the higher authorities.
Christian Churches of Rui’an
July 25, 2015
Cry Out! Be Silent No More! – An open letter by Catholic clergy from the Wenzhou Diocese to all Chinese Christians and citizens
Last year the Zhejiang provincial government began a “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” campaign; over time, it got worse and worse, and now, its nature has changed entirely. At present, the campaign is a naked attempt to rip down the crosses atop every single church. Across our parish, we have been neither servile nor cowed—we have forborne, we have ardently prayed, we have communicated rationally, and we have calmly observed, all the while waiting for the dark clouds to pass.
But certain people have not only not slowed down, but have become more aggressive, as though they were facing a mortal enemy in their targeting of a symbol of universal love—the Cross. They have defied the wishes of the masses and come up with the “Zhejiang Provincial Regulations on Religious Buildings” (《浙江省宗教建筑规范》), which fails even basic jurisprudence, cheating the people and recklessly attempting to carry out their campaign of tearing down every single cross.
Not only this, but our peaceful petitions, as well as rallying the support of parishioners, have been treated as illegal conduct. It’s truly like the ancient Chinese saying: “The official is allowed to set fires, but the ordinary folk can’t light their lamps.” But “trap water in a stream and there will be a disastrous flood; shut up the voices of the public, and a worse disaster awaits.” Is it really the case that a government which says it serves the people is going to take the country back to what Liang Qichao (梁启超) decried as “a government that excels in nothing but repressing its own citizens?”
The more they try to suppress the call for justice, they more they demonstrate the severity of the social crisis, the fragile confidence in their rule, and their inability to get to grips with the matter. If they want to strike out at the cross as a means of treating such an urgent disease, it will only plunge China—which, after making it through the Great Leap Forward and the disastrous Cultural Revolution, is only now finding peaceful development—into yet another calamity.
As individuals with human rights granted by God, every single person has freedom of belief. In order to safeguard the cross, and to preserve our most basic right to believe, we will keep watch and defend one another, and we will mount a rational and reasonable resistance.
As citizens of China, we yearn for comprehensive and deeper democracy and rule of law. As for those senior officials who force their subordinates to participate, issuing commands to make them carry out demolition work; and those who trample upon the constitution, who willfully defile the dignity of the law, who violate administrative procedure, who use their power to confuse the law, and who lead the way in undermining the rule of law, they must be resolutely exposed and resisted, and they must be brought to justice.
As the sons and daughters of China, we all yearn for an environment of long-term peace and stability. We absolutely can’t go back to where “the ordinary people suffer whether in a period of prosperity or decline;” we must absolutely not allow anything to go against the tide of harmonious development.
All Christians in China have all along carried a sense of mission with them, honoring the Lord and benefiting their fellow man. At the same time, we have longed for a fair and tolerant cultural, religious and social environment in which to adapt the Christian religion to Chinese culture. Zhejiang provincial authorities have been demolishing crosses with a vengeance. Is that your understanding of the sinification of religion recently called for by Chairman Xi Jinping?
At a juncture where “the wind is sweeping through the tower heralding a rising storm in the mountains,” we will even more so take as our great responsibility the rejuvenation of the Chinese people, and we will more firmly believe that we too are the backbone and the blessing of the Chinese nation. Watching one cross after another being torn down, we have cried out in anger and shed tears in sorrow. But we will wisely and carefully use every method available to re-erect the crosses. When one cross is removed, one million crosses will be erected: in every person’s heart, along the avenues and in the alleyways, and in the home of every family.
The Church has throughout its history grown and thrived under either persecution or the favor of the ruler. We earnestly beseech the Lord’s mercy, to grant us the courage to die for what is right, for the peace of the nation, for the true rise of the Chinese nation, to make whatever sacrifice is required.
As it is written in The Bible (Amos 5:24): “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” For the freedom to believe, for the dignity of the law, for the continuous development of China, for the long term welfare of the Chinese people, all believers across the whole of China, those tens of millions filled with a sense of justice—be silent no more! Let us all cry out!
The whole body of Christian clergy from the Wenzhou Diocese
July 28, 2015
Severe crackdown in China on church crosses draws backlash, AP, August 5, 2015.
Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province, Yaxue Cao, China Change, July 29, 2015.
Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire, Ian Johnson, the New York Times, May 30, 2014.
By Zhao Chu, published: August 4, 2015
This article has been making the rounds on social media in China. It was published a year ago following the demolition of churches or crosses in the prosperous coastal Zhejiang province (watch a Telegraph video here). China Change’s recent interview with a local pastor sheds more light on the still ongoing campaign and the rising Christian resistance. – The Editors
Recently, many Christian places of worship have been forcibly demolished by local governments throughout China. The odd thing about this is that the great majority of these churches and other places of worship hadn’t just suddenly appeared on their own; rather, they had been constructed over the course of the past 30 years. In fact, during this gradual process of construction, local governments have turned a blind eye and pretended not to notice. Otherwise, given China’s system of tight control, these facilities could never have been built in the first place.
This means, in other words, that the present large-scale campaign to destroy every cross in sight nationwide represents the will of the new leadership group. Consequently, those who observe Chinese society and politics ought to pay attention to the conflict between those carrying out this campaign and those faithful who are determined to protect their churches.
Over the course of history, there has been no shortage of fierce social conflicts over religious belief. Everyone knows how in the Middle Ages the Christian countries of Europe launched the Crusades against the rising power of Islam. The tragic conflicts between Christians holding different religious views were part of the transformation of Europe into modern nation-states, with those conflicts coming to an end only after the Thirty Years’ War. Like those conflicts inside Europe, deadly confrontations over sectarian religious differences continue to this day to fuel many of the trouble-spots in the Middle East.
Setting aside the discussion about the truth of religion and faith, and unburdening ourselves of the disputes and divisions that always come with the discussions, we look at China’s evolving policies toward religion over the years in terms of societal change and governance.
There’s been an obvious resurgence of religious fervor in China over the past 30 years. Stigmatized and subjected to severe punishment after 1949, China’s religious communities first started to see their positive image restored after introduction of the policies of “reform and opening” [in the late 1970s]. This is because of the central role religious communities play in the “United Front” policy—one of the “Three Great Strategic Magic Weapons” supporting the historical rule of the Communist Party. In the Chinese context, religion is implicated in the policies governing ethnic regions like Xinjiang, Ningxia, Tibet, and Qinghai. Therefore, softening policies toward religious repression can be said to have been a prerequisite for promoting control in those regions.
As for the rest of China, the rapid spread of religion—particularly Christianity—reflects society’s spiritual longing in the wake of the utter failure to promote Bolshevism as a substitute for religious faith. Especially in economically developed areas and among the middle class, people are searching for some sort of spiritual center from which to reconstruct an ethical life that enables individuals to settle into and get on with their lives in a world full of drastic and kaleidoscopic change.
Put simply, though expanding ties with the outside world have provided an entry to foreign religious missionaries, the spread of Christianity in China is first and foremost a product of conditions within Chinese society. This is demonstrated by the fact that, over the past several years, continued repression of house churches and religious groups outside of official control has done absolutely nothing to diminish people’s fervor for religion.
Political and social changes over the past 30 years have brought earth-shaking changes to the old structures of politics and power in China. Even though these structures remain quite rigid, they have actually undergone major changes in step with the times. Few people realize that use of the phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics” itself demonstrates that the authorities have already acknowledged the failure of the Bolshevik theocracy they established at the cost of so much blood. Even though the regime still strives to preserve dictatorship, its strategy of “putting economic construction at the core of everything” for nearly 30 years is equivalent to announcing that the state has retreated to the realm of economic life. In doing so, it gave up trying to dominate the realm of spiritual life and returned control to society and individuals. This is another reason why local governments focused solely on other sorts of development turned a blind eye to the religious wave sweeping over China.
Careful observers will discover that for most of the past 30 years, generally speaking, even though the government has in theory opposed the development of any religious activity outside of official control, it in fact never employed particularly advanced policies of strong confrontation. Religion continued to develop in pace with the economy. Up until recently, those with power rushed to make money and everyone tried to live in peace with one another.
Therefore, if you want to understand today’s policy of strong repression against religion, you must consider the serious and comprehensive social crises now facing contemporary Chinese society. When local governments depart from their habitual way of doing things and start doing battle with religion at any cost, this is really a reflection of how China’s top leaders assess the overall situation and their basic political agenda.
These crises exist first of all on the economic level. There’s the potential collapse of the overall state-led economy and financial sectors and the resulting collapse of local finances and governance capacity. Then there’s the crisis of large-scale public opposition sparked by various issues related to economic development. Given the overall depletion of economic resources and efficiency, the authorities are most fearful about the basic security of the political regime. Particularly after big problems arose in places like Tibet and Xinjiang, where religious and ethnic groupings essentially coincide, religion is itself now seen as a major potential threat to the security of the political regime. Recent terrorist attacks have only brought this problem even more out in the open.
Ordinary religious believers, especially Christians and their clergy, have typically been cautious in their attitudes toward political and social problems in China. Even so, Christianity has become the primary target of the current attack. Clearly, then, the new round of religious repression has no direct connection to the specific social activities of religious believers but comes from some other set of considerations.
There are two main considerations. First, as the prospect of social crisis becomes clearer, the sense of group identity and influence provided by faith-based groups can turn into a powerful framework for social opposition. There is strong evidence for this in the role played by churches in the transformation of Eastern Europe and South Africa. You can already see signs of this in the way that Christians are joining to protect their churches through silent confrontation.
Second, Christian churches exemplify the Chinese religious community’s refusal to accept official control. This has made a regime determined to exert direct control over everything sense their potential will to engage in social confrontation. This is exactly the kind of thing that the Chinese authorities have historically been unwilling to tolerate, and this has basically been the source of all previous conflict and friction.
Just like the ancient story of the innocent man punished on account of his most cherished piece of jade, it’s the potential social and political capacity of Christians that is the fundamental reason for the uncompromising repression they face. There is still deeper social significance to this point.
One should also consider the practical factors behind the choice to attack Christians: while the other main religions are connected to the complex situations in China’s ethnic regions, Christians live primarily in the heartland of China. And as I’ve said before, they have been comparatively low-key, politically. It’s for these reasons that they were chosen to be the first targets of repression – in other words, because the authorities calculated that repressing Christians would be less likely to arouse troublesome political opposition. This doesn’t mean that the authorities haven’t employed similar kinds of repressive measures against other religions. In fact, over these several years, the authorities in China’s western regions have already adopted many repressive measures targeting Buddhist temples and Islamic customs.
The Chinese Communist Party’s mindset is already fixed regarding how to deal the current social crisis: politically they have determined to maintain the legacy of the Maoist past, and rejected constitutionalism and a new system of tolerance toward religion and society. Instead, they think their only logical choice is to revert to the past ways and rebuild a centralized and integrated new Stalinist system. In the process, all religious activity that refuses to submit to direct official control and supervision and the current ambiguous state of peace will all naturally have to come to an end.
Therefore, we can see from the ongoing undeclared war against religion that the confrontation between the religious faithful and the authorities is more about making a fundamental choice between two ways of life than it is a conflict between the religious and secular worlds. On the one hand, there’s a world in which one is free to practice one’s religion, where there is tolerance toward those of different religions, and where control over spiritual life is returned to the people themselves. On the other hand, we’re faced with saying farewell to religious freedom and turning our lives over once again to the religious affairs bureau and the endless string of party secretaries and mayors, just as we did during the 30 years after 1949.
In this respect, China’s current 21st-century war against religion is destined to be like those other religious conflicts over the course of history. Unless the side of religious freedom is victorious and society is given the basic political conditions to be able to provide institutional support to religious diversity and tolerance, there will never be any other possibility of compromise.
On this basis we can make a preliminary prediction of how this conflict will progress in the future. The authorities will become increasingly harsh and brutal, inevitably leading Christians who have always been politically low-key to develop broader and more heightened political consciousness. This is exactly how things developed in Eastern Europe and South Africa—there is nothing specifically Chinese or religious about it.
Zhao Chu (赵楚) is a Shanghai-based independent commentator and a long time researcher on international strategy, global military and social issues in China.
Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province, by Yaxue Cao, China Change, July 29, 2015.
Source 《赵楚：正在上演的中国宗教战争》, translated by China Change.
Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province
By Yaxue Cao, published: July 29, 2015
Yaxue spoke with Pastor L in Wenzhou on July 26.
YC: I began paying attention to the demolition of churches and tearing-down of crosses in Zhejiang last year after reading many international media reports on the demolition of the Sanjiang Church (三江教堂) in Wenzhou. Recently there’s been a resurgence of cross-removals, and the daily news items and images of this are quite shocking. It seems the Chinese government is determined to tear down every cross in Zhejiang!
I’ve also read the statements issued both this year and last year by clergy and believers in Zhejiang, including from churches that are acknowledged and even, to a certain degree, led by the Chinese government, such as the statement from the Christian Council of Zhejiang. It seems as if Christians in Zhejiang are at the point where they can no longer tolerate it any further.
Although there have been some foreign media coverage of these events, I feel that the outside world—including myself—doesn’t really understand very well how things got to this point. I hope that you can provide me and our readers with an “introductory 101 class” to help us gain a basic understanding of what’s going on.
Let’s start by talking about the demolition of the Sanjiang Church in April 2014. That was an extremely impressive church, and the images of its destruction are extremely shocking. Why did they want to tear down the Sanjiang Church?
L: The Sanjiang Church was an architectural landmark in Wenzhou. Situated in a good location opposite Wangjiang Road, it had just been built and was in the process of being fitted out but it was already being used for services. It was not the original plan to build such a large church, but the government gave encouragement for a larger building because Wenzhou has a lot of people living overseas and foreign tourists, and the authorities wanted it to become a tourist attraction.
At that point, Zhejiang Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xia Baolong (夏宝龙) came to Wenzhou. He’s the one who ordered that the church be torn down. The local government in Wenzhou has always been rather tolerant regarding religious buildings. Occasionally, there would be forced demolitions for redevelopment, but local officials would have never torn down such a large structure. So, we knew from the beginning that this was not the work of the local government in Wenzhou and had to have come from higher up.
Some online have said that Xia Baolong gave the order because he felt uncomfortable when he saw the size of the Sanjiang Church. But I think the more reliable explanation is that Xia had in fact already planned to tear down crosses all over Zhejiang. Even before the Sanjiang Church was demolished, there had already been cross removals elsewhere in Zhejiang since perhaps February. There was a great deal of discussion about this among Christians, a lot of it expressing surprise: “Why tear down crosses?” So the destruction of the Sanjiang Church was actually only the climax of this campaign.
Opposition to the demolition of the Sanjiang Church lasted about a week as groups of Christians began spontaneously arriving to defend the church. Several thousands camped out there inside the church to try to defend it, day and night. But we voluntarily withdrew late at night on April 26. There were several reasons for this. First, armed police had arrived and there would definitely be bloodshed if we continued to resist. Normally, they would send SWAT police, and they came so regularly we didn’t fear them. That day, the entire hillside was surrounded by SWAT vehicles and armed-police vehicles, and armed police were hiding out in the surrounding greenbelt areas. They’d already shut down all roads and entrances within a radius of miles. The government was very nervous, as they’d never encountered this kind of resistance and solidarity before. The church itself came under too much pressure from the government, who said that there were Xinjiang terrorists mixed among us. We could have actually continued to hold out, but it definitely would have resulted in big trouble.
On April 28, Sanjiang Church came tumbling down. From that point on, the dam burst. Wenzhou began to tear down crosses on a grand scale. All along the way, there has been resistance. The most serious was on July 21, 2014, in Pingyang County (平阳水头救恩堂), when SWAT police rushed protesters and started beating them. Fourteen people were injured, two or three of them quite seriously. The foreign media reported on this, using hidden-camera footage of the violence. But the churches have always exercised restraint. They could have mobilized a great number of people to oppose the demolitions, but that would lead to casualties on both sides.
After the incident on July 21, Christians went to the government seeking accountability for the police action and emotions were running high. Pastor Huang Yizi (黄益梓) held prayers at the scene of the protest and was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison.
YC: Was the July 21 incident about demolishing a church or tearing down a cross?
L: It was about tearing down a cross. The authorities claimed to be tearing down an illegal structure, but they only tore down the cross, not the part of the construction that was actually in violation.
After the July 21 incident, there was a great decrease in incidents of cross-removal and things quieted down for several months. But at the end of June and beginning of July 2015, we began receiving a large number of verbal notices that crosses needed to be torn down. And unlike the previous times, this time they wanted to tear them all down.
For example, all 135 crosses in Pingyang County must be torn down. There were more than 50 crosses in Lucheng District (鹿城区) – all must be taken down. East of here, in Yuhuan County (玉环县), they also wanted to tear down more than 50 crosses. In the area around Wenling City (温岭), they’re planning to remove all 168 crosses. [NOTE: Yuhuan and Wenling are both part of Taizhou (台州), northeast of Wenzhou.] To this point they’ve already torn down around 1,500 crosses. This is obviously a campaign specifically targeted at taking down crosses.
Actually, around the time that the Sanjiang Church was demolished we saw a leaked internal document that talked about things like the “political meaning behind the crosses” and “infiltration by foreign forces.” Since this document was leaked, they no longer circulate these sorts of written documents.
YC: What’s the current situation like?
L: Things are very different now from before. Resistance is much more widespread and difficult to suppress. Resistance used to be isolated and focused on a particular church. Now, with this campaign of total demolition, everyone feels like this is no longer simply about tearing down crosses. It’s not merely about symbols—they want to attack your beliefs. Everyone feels like this is the beginning of a deeper repression, where they first do away with your symbols and then attack at a deeper level, destroying your internal organization, your doctrine, your church finances, even your pulpits.
For example, no matter whether you’re a “Three-Self Patriotic Church” (church sanctioned by the government) or a “house church,” no one discusses government policies or regulations on Sundays. Now, they want us to take time during our Sunday worship to let religious-affairs officials talk about religious policies and regulations from the pulpit. This has led to extremely fierce opposition—no one’s willing to allow this.
It wasn’t like this before. At worst, you’d see the Chinese government cultivate a group of people within the church to act as its proxies, and the things they wanted publicized tended to be some government policies, like aligning moral education with official ideology. But you cannot tamper with doctrine or turn pulpits over to religious-affairs cadres. There’s even resistance to this from inside the “Three-Self churches.”
YC: Over the last few days I’ve seen an open letter from the Christian Council of Zhejiang (浙江省基督教协会). They seem extremely upset. What do you think of their announcement?
L: There are a few different reasons behind this. The vast majority of crosses torn down are from “Three-Self” churches. The government set up these “Three-Self” churches to bring churchgoers into their “United Front.” But the authorities have stopped using the relatively flexible methods they’d always used in the past, so the official churches feel they’ve gone too far. For one thing, the authorities’ actions aren’t in line with the Communist Party’s own religious policies. For another, many Christians complain about the official churches, which makes the official churches feel that they’ve lost their ability to function as a “bridge” between the faithful and the government. It’s become impossible for them to convince church members. They feel that if they don’t speak out, they’ll lose all credibility.
YC: I saw one report that after the Zhejiang Christian Council published its open letter, the government confiscated its official seal. I find the government’s arrogant and insulting behavior simply hard to believe. They treat churches with absolutely no respect, like a violent master towards a lowly slave. So it’s little surprise that they act in this barbaric manner, tearing down crosses and violating the religious rights of Christians.
You said a moment ago that the resistance of Christians is now more difficult to suppress. What form is their opposition taking and how is it being expressed?
L: It takes many forms. Many churches have people join hands to form a “human wall.” We also call this the “snail strategy,” where we stick to a place just like a snail. There’s also the “honeybee strategy,” where a bunch of people gather together and pester them. They typically come at night to carry out the demolition, so if you pester them for several hours they get tired and leave. Those churches that have been able to protect their crosses have done so through these methods.
YC: Oh, some have succeeded in defending their crosses?
L: Yes, quite a few have been protected.
There’s also the strategy of piling up stones to block the road leading to the church. This is used quite often in rural areas. The more rural a place, the stronger the resistance. I saw a photo of one location where they even demolished a bridge to block the demolition. There’s also a lot of banners and loudspeakers. Many places in the Cangnan plains (苍南平原) have been broadcasting legal-education recordings from loudspeakers toward the people who come to tear down the crosses—things like: “Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees its citizens freedom of religious belief. There is no legal basis for what you police are doing.”
YC: Are you seeing armed police or SWAT teams these days?
L: Yes, especially SWAT police. Armed police were deployed at Sanjiang, but now you don’t see them much. When the resistance is not so fierce, they use private security guards.
Churches don’t have protest experience, so their organizational capacity is rather weak. This is because for several decades, churches have responded to various threats through avoidance, non-resistance, and passive retreat. Now, they’re defending their crosses and there’s no way to escape. Several hundred churches have hired lawyers to sue local officials. Some are calling for the removal of Xia Baolong. Someone proposed that an image of Xia Baolong be made with a cross drawn over his face. Pastors and believers also use social media to broadcast latest development and photos of the scenes. A single post can get reposted tens of thousands of times in a single day if it doesn’t get censored immediately. As soon as it gets censored, another gets put up again and reposted tens of thousands more times. There are many ways of protesting. We’re mobilizing the imaginations of our fellow believers.
YC: Are any churches that had their crosses torn down putting up new ones in their place?
L: Lots of them. They put up new crosses right after they’re torn down.
YC: What do you anticipate will happen next?
L: Believers are manufacturing a large number of crosses out of both wood and acrylic glass. They say, “Go ahead and tear down the crosses. We can’t fight you, so we’ll put crosses on our cars and hang them from our homes. We’ll put them up on the side of the road or on a mountaintop. We’ll put up crosses all over.” It’s not easy to put a large cross back up on the roof of a church. You need to hire many experts and spend tens of thousands.
YC: In its open letter, the Zhejiang Christian Council says that there are more than 2 million Christians in Zhejiang.
L: That’s a very conservative estimate. There are over a million in Wenzhou alone. Wenzhou is unlike large cities like Beijing or Shanghai. It’s mostly made up of small towns, and there are churches everywhere. Each of these places of worship has hundreds of people. Even churches in remote areas have over a hundred people. It’s rare to see churches with fewer than a hundred people.
YC: Can you tell me about the social background of Christians in Wenzhou? For example, what sort of people join your own church? What’s their level of education, occupational background, and so on?
L: There are all sorts of people and people of all ages. There are many who are in business and many are intellectuals. We also have a lot of elderly people. There are also many Christians among the ranks of civil servants.
YC: Do they come to church openly?
L: Of course they do! But now they’re encountering great difficulties. I have a friend—a university professor—who resigned because of unbearable pressure. They used all sorts of different means to threaten him. Many of the doctors and nurses at the Wenzhou Medical College and its affiliated hospitals are Christians, and they too have come under pressure. There are also many Christians among middle-school- and primary-school teachers. They’re also well represented in early-childhood education, where Christians have an advantage because they learn to dance and play the piano in their churches from an early age. Now, however, kindergartens are refusing to hire Christians. It wasn’t like this before.
There are also a lot of young people who are Christians, and each church will have a youth fellowship organization. There are also summer fellowship camps for students, attended by dozens from a single church and several hundreds from a parish—all young people.
YC: I have another question. Given that this campaign to tear down crosses has become a focus of international attention, do you think the campaign is the work of the provincial government? I don’t see how it can be.
L: We’ve been having quite a heated debate on this point recently. There are two opinions. The first—mainly made up of people from the south—believes that this is the work of the central government, something either being led or condoned by Xi Jinping. The second view is held primarily by northerners, who believe this is a local action. This includes people overseas in Hong Kong and North America—those who study religion and research government-church relations mainly think this is a local action. But here in the south, people inside the church have a hunch that this is the work of the central government.
YC: This north-south division you describe is within the clergy, right?
L: It also includes people within institutions, university researchers, and public intellectuals.
YC: When it comes to tearing down crosses, is any distinction being made between Catholic churches and Protestant churches?
L: No. All are seeing their crosses torn down.
YC: Which is more predominant in Wenzhou, Catholicism or Protestantism?
L: There are more Protestants, but Catholicism is quite strong, too. There are two main streams of Protestant Christians in Wenzhou. The two earliest originated with the United Methodist Free Church and the China Inland Mission, now known as the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF). Both came originally from Britain. These account for the two main denominations of Protestant Christianity in Wenzhou. There is also the Church of Seventh-Day Adventists, as well as the Christian assembly churches, similar to the Church of the Brethren. All four of these denominations are seeing their crosses torn down, without any distinction.
YC: Can you say a few words to explain a bit about the differences between “Three-Self” churches and “house churches”?
L: There isn’t too much difference in terms of doctrine. The government once wanted to change a core doctrine of the “Three-Self” church, namely the “doctrine of sola fide” (or “justification based solely on faith”). House churches and “Three-Self” churches all insist on this doctrine.
K.H. Ting (丁光训), a bishop recognized by the government, once proposed a doctrine of justification based on love. They wanted to change the doctrine in this way but were unsuccessful. Also, house churches don’t tailor their ethical guidance to official ideology. The second difference is that clergy in the “Three-Self” church are appointed and approved through official channels, while those in the house churches are not.
YC: Aren’t all of the churches that had their crosses torn down “Three-Self” churches? Can “house churches” be so large?
L: In Zhejiang, many house churches employ roundabout ways to build similarly large church buildings.
YC: I’ve heard people call Wenzhou “China’s Jerusalem.” I’ve seen so many extravagant church buildings in photos. Can you explain briefly why Christianity is so flourishing in Wenzhou and in Zhejiang? First, am I correct in this judgment? Is Christianity particularly flourishing in Zhejiang?
L: It’s true. Missionaries from countries like Great Britain, the United States, and other countries began proselytizing in Ningbo (宁波), Hangzhou (杭州), Wenzhou, Taizhou (台州) back in the 1880s and became long-term settlers here. So, there’s a historical source for Christianity in Wenzhou. From early on, Wenzhou’s trade with the outside world was very developed, and this is another important reason.
There is a strong practical and utilitarian flavor to the religious belief of people in Wenzhou. If I’m engaged in business or any other enterprise, I want to seek the blessings of God. If someone goes into business, he seeks the prayers and blessings of people in his church. After giving birth, you seek the prayers and blessings of the church so that your child may do well in school.
So, when Wenzhou merchants go to do business in Beijing, Shanghai, or other large cities, they immediately set up their own places of worship and devote at least one night a week to worship. As long as there are people from Wenzhou, there will definitely be a church for them. There are also a large number of Wenzhou Christians living overseas in places like Paris, Rome, New York and Los Angeles.
When people from Wenzhou make money and become prosperous, they voluntarily donate fund to build big churches. Once people rode bicycles; now they all drive cars. When they come to church they need places to park, so of course churches need to expand. In the past, when it was hot people fanned themselves to keep cool or installed electric fans; now you definitely need air-conditioning. People’s standard of living has improved, and church buildings also need upgrading. Why should churches be any different from government buildings in that respect?
YC: I notice that nearly all the crosses that have been torn down from churches in Wenzhou are red. Why is that?
L: This is a meaning being expressed there. Christianity has encountered several decades of repression in China. In the 20 years from 1958 to 1978, China banned Christian worship and Christians were all forced underground. Life was extremely difficult for Christians during those years. They had to gather secretly, hiding in the mountains or in other places where nobody went. There were no place to purchase the Bible, so they hand-copied it and shared with each other. If you got caught, they would confiscate your Bible.
Everyone was very happy when Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) lifted the ban on religious belief in 1978. Older Christians shed so much blood and so many tears for their faith. They didn’t care much about or have a deep understanding of theology, but when they built churches they insisted that the churches be taller than their houses and that the crosses should stand up tall. What they were expressing is this: In the past, we weren’t free; now we want to show that our churches exist. So the crosses were built very tall and kept illuminated at night with a red light. The church is a city upon a hill. Christians are the light of the world. We want to shine in all directions.
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.
The Ongoing War Against Religion in China, by Zhao Chu, China Change, August 4, 2015.
Source 《与一位温州牧师的访谈：中国在浙江省大规模强拆十字架》, translated by China Change.
More photo are available here.