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What Do Lu Yuyu’s Statistics of Protest Tell Us About the Chinese Society Today?

Wu Qiang, July 6, 2016

As we were readying to post this translation, we learned that two lawyers met with Lu Yuyu and two other lawyers met with Li Tingyu on July 6 in the Dali Detention Center, Yunnan Province. — The Editors

 

 

“June 13, Monday, 94 incidents,” Lu Yuyu’s last tweet read on June 15. On June 24, the news spread that Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇) and his girlfriend Li Tingyu (李婷玉) were detained for “provoking disturbances.”

Open his blogpost that day and you can see the 94 incidents grouped into categories, 5 of them highlighted, each with a link to the original post on Chinese social media (though some have long been censored). We learn that on June 13,  in 21 provinces and 3 municipalities directly under the central government, workers protested for unpaid wages; taxi drivers blocked roads in protest against Didi Dache, a Chinese version of Uber; farmers protested against environmental degradation or land expropriation; property owners protested various forms of exploitation and fraud; investors protested scams that robbed them of years of savings; veterans lodged a petition for fair treatment; passersby protested police brutality…

This is what Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu have been doing for four years every day: researching, tallying, and publishing information about protests in China. He knew this day would come. Nor am I surprised.

I first met Lu Yuyu in a cafe in Fuzhou in July, 2013. I was an academic researcher on social movements and he was a frontline citizen reporter. As such, he was a unique participant in the events he recorded. The notes from that two-hour interview became the raw material for my research paper, but I never sorted them out and published it. Now that he is detained, I re-opened my notes to recall “Lao Lu” (Old Lu) — as activists affectionately called him.  

Lu Yuyu was born in 1979 and didn’t finish college. In October, 2011, he was identified by police in Shanghai and called in for an interrogation after he re-posted news about the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng. He didn’t make a fuss over it, online or off. Instead, he began a one-man protest. Between April and September 2012, he alone picketed the government, demanding that officials disclose their assets and that citizens be given the right to vote. Picketing was once the main activity of the Southern Street Movement. But Lu Yuyu realized that, while his protest tested his courage, it made little impact.   

Eventually he was driven out of Shanghai by police. He stayed in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Fuzhou. Everywhere he was, he was driven away — a common practice by the Chinese police against activists. In some cases, the police would threaten the landlord who rent them the apartment, or the friends providing a play to stay. These days, local security police drive away activists in their jurisdiction as part of their stability maintenance obligations. Lu Yuyu stayed in Fuzhou somewhat longer than elsewhere, and that was how we met for the interview.  

Also around April 2012, Lu Yuyu began to collect information about rights defense incidents across the country, then sorting and publishing them. Soon after he started, foreign media outlets began picking up the news, some even contacting him directly to verify information. In the process, he grew more meticulous about verifying data, including seeking multiple sources, and contacting participants and internet posters directly. Lu became a unique citizen journalist.

Lu Yuyu told me that he searches Weibo, QQ, and BBSs everyday, identifying the basic information about each incident through text and photos posted online. Then he searches other sources to verify the information, including time, location, cause, demands, scale, and whether there was a crackdown, before posting it online. As with his post on June 15, he also sorts the incidents by day, week, month, region, and nature of the protest, as well as highlighting incidents involving more than 1,000 protesters.      

For instance, in June 2013 Lu recorded 53 mass incidents in which people fought for the protection of their rights. Among these, nearly half involved violent clashes. The majority were in response to expropriation of land and forced demolitions, as well as labor protests, with 13 and 11 incidents in each category. There were 9 incidents caused by government non-action and 7 caused by police or urban enforcement brutality. Finally there were 5 protests respectively in response to environmental issues and corruption. The groups that were most involved were rural people, with 22 incidents, and urban workers and residents, also with 22 incidents, while the rest were single-issue business proprietors, students, teachers, taxi drivers, and petitioners. Geographically, most of the resistance was in Guangdong (12 cases), while the rest were in Guangxi (5), Jiangsu (4), Zhejiang (4), with progressively fewer in more inland and less developed areas. Protest statistics increased only slightly in July, for a total of 59 cases. But the number of worker strikes in Guangdong jumped up significantly, reflecting a burgeoning workers movement in the Pearl River Delta. This trend continued all the way until 2015 when the authorities began their crackdown on labor organizing.

Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu.

Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu. Photo: online.

Whether for someone like me, a researcher of social movements, or for anyone who takes an interest in China’s rights defense incidents, Lu Yuyu’s record-keeping is unique and irreplaceable. In particular, it’s important to note that the Chinese government stopped publishing statistics on “mass incidents” in 2008. The trend of protests with more than 10 people had begun at 10,000 in 1994, increasing steadily every year, with 58,000 in 2003, 74,000 in 2004, and an estimated total of more than 100,000 in 2008. Statistics on the incidents involving over 1,000 people is retained as internal information and isn’t published. The media can only go by the fragmentary information reported online, given that there’s no official continuous statistics. Social movement researchers have an even more difficult time, often only able to piece together trends gleaned from the limited information in printed publications. These printed materials are often highly susceptible to propaganda restrictions and whatever the policies of the day happen to be. Though the incidents of resistance catalogued by Lu Yuyu using new media platforms are far less in number than what official sources had been reporting a decade ago, they have been the only independent source of information that the outside world has had recourse to.

The most obvious change was after 2013, when the proportion of land dispute cases dropped and the number of labor disputes and urban protests increased. Labor rights protests often revolve around unpaid wages and social security issues, while urban resistance mostly related to “Not-In-My-Back-Yard” activism and other specific complaints — for instance, equal access to education, the taxi system, opposition to police violence, and so on. This shows that rights defense activities have become increasingly urbanized , and that urban residents and workers are becoming the key actors in the rights defense movement in China.

Lu Yuyu summed it up by saying that, given the same protest, those in rural areas are more likely to be suppressed, while urbanites are more likely to be successful. Mass protests in rural areas are often swiftly followed by violent suppression, and this happens less in urban settings.

Although, after 2014 this contrast also began to change. As the number of large-scale urban protests increased, the number of violent clashes climbed. This very much shows the shifting power of Chinese social movements and their changing trends: As the middle-class rises and urban residents are more empowered, city protests have quietly replaced the more dispersed rural protests since the 1990s; protesters are also finding that they are able to resolve their demands through their struggle. On the other hand, the old model of rights defense in rural areas, of “resisting according to the law,” has instead often been terminated by harsh repression. As a result, more and more rural people have been shepherded into cities, and the rate of urban-based protests has also accelerated.

Lu Yuyu. Photo: online.

Lu Yuyu. Photo: online.

Another aspect to it is that, entering 2014, the frequency of mass incidents involving more than 1,000 people dropped, stabilizing at an average of 30 per month, apparently showing that rights defense mobilization has been effectively suppressed. Post-2014, the authorities used more severe preventative suppression, including “cleansing the internet” campaigns, attacking “big Vs,” apprehending activists, news disseminators, and NGO workers. All this decreased the likelihood of large-scale protest incidents. For those spontaneous and sudden mass protests, along the lines of the Weng’an model  (瓮安模式) of some years ago, it was quite effective. Similarly, for the forms of public resistance that rely on a high-degree of organization, like the Wukan protests, it was also effective. The kind of prophylactic form of suppression also made Lu Yuyu’s work of compiling and spreading such news suddenly more dangerous.

Since 2015, Lu Yuyu found that the number of protests involving 10 or more people shot up. He recorded 28,950 incidents in 2015, a 34% increase from 2014. In the first half of 2016 the number continued to climb, while the number of large protests involving 1,000 people or more reached about 40 per month. What do all these numbers mean? Did social conflicts continue to escalate as the regime adjusted its stability maintenance policies? Or is it that a souring economy engendered more labor unrests, which spread to Henan and other heartland provinces?

What will it lead to as these protests grow in number and coalesce on cities? Lu Yuyu’s statistics do not provide answers, but they have helped inform much research on China, including my own. At the same time, the Chinese government has come to see high-frequency protests as the biggest threat to its regime because, as in Tunisia, they can trigger an avalanche of protest. These perceived threats are driving China to transition from a stability maintenance mode to a mechanism of total security lockdown.

The regime’s ubiquitous menace of power has had a profound effect on the daily lives and activities on practically all activists in China over the last few years, and has gradually pushed many of them to the margins of society. Resistance has thus become a way of life for those on the fringes. Lu Yuyu was spending 4 to 5 hours every day online dedicated to searching for traces of protests. (At the beginning it took him sometimes over 10 hours.) To ensure that he’d have continuous statistics, he had no choice but to quit his job. Due to the obvious dangers of his work, Lu never used a fixed IP address to publish his information, but would instead make his way about the city, borrowing open WiFi connections. In early 2013, a student at Sun Yat-sen University took note of his work and began sharing the burden. They pushed updates on Sina Weibo and Twitter, and ran a blog for the publication of the statistics and preliminary categorizations. Li Tingyu, having gradually become part of Lu’s solitary enterprise and life, also became his partner. She decided to drop out of university, live on the margins, and to lead a life of resistance. It’s full of danger, but also full of purpose.

This was their own form of protest.  

 

(The essay has been edited with permission of the author.)
Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.
————

Also by Wu Qiang on China Change:

The Death and Life of Middle Class Politics in China, June 2016.

In the Wake of the Sino-American Summit, the Potential for a New Cold War, October, 2015.

Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview, August, 2014.
吴强 《追蹤抗爭的盧昱宇失蹤了》

 

 

The Death and Life of Middle Class Politics in China

Observing Recent Events, Especially the Death of Lei Yang

By Wu Qiang, June 13, 2016

 

As public contention surrounding the death of Lei Yang’s continues to grow, something new is developing in China’s political scene: the middle class is speaking out and asserting its own demands, even as the rights defense movement continues to suffer a sustained crackdown.  

 

吴强 (2)

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强)

Four recent deaths in China sparked widespread public attention. The first, on April 12, was the that of Wei Zexi (魏泽西), a university student in Shaanxi Province, who perished from a rare form of cancer after following recommendations for a hospital from China’s largest search engine, Baidu. It turned out that the facility was part of the so-called “Putian network,” a clique of corrupt businessmen with their origin in a township in Putian, Fujian Province, who peddled quack treatments. The incident exposed the unethical ties between Baidu and hospitals in China. Then on May 5, Chen Zhongwei (陈仲伟), a doctor in Guangzhou, was hacked to death by a patient in his own home. Two days later, the 29-year-old Beijing environmental worker Lei Yang (雷洋) died in police custody shortly after being apprehended on the street by plainclothes police. On May 10, the 36-year-old Zhengzhou resident (and Masters degree holder) Fan Huapei (范花培) was so enraged by the forced demolition of his property that he lashed out at, and killed, a local official—he was soon after shot to death by police.

All these deaths triggered protests of varying scale, with anger and discontent directed at a search engine company, the healthcare system, the military, and the police. Beneath it all is the deep sense of anxiety of the Chinese middle class, worrying about its personal safety, health, and livelihood. To this author, what’s notable is that fact that these events have sparked unprecedented and new forms of organization and protest, with China’s social elites taking the central role.  

The most representative instance is the protests that burst into public view following the death of Lei Yang. Lei graduated with a Masters degree from Beijing’s elite Renmin University of China in 2012. On his way to the airport to pick up relatives in the evening of May 7, he was arrested near his home by several plainclothes police officers. Soon after, he mysteriously died in their custody. Later, local police said that they had been carrying out an “anti-prostitution” crackdown, and thought that Lei Yang had just exited a brothel. They broadcast the testimony of an on-duty police officer, as well as a “prostitute,” on state television to back-up this story, and also claimed that all of the surveillance cameras in the vicinity had been damaged. The body-cameras on the police who interacted with Lei Yang were also broken, they said. And when it was found that even all recording on Lei Yang’s cellphone had also somehow been removed, they said they had nothing to do with it. The brutal acts of the police, their blatant coverup, and weak defense, infuriated Lei Yang’s friends and schoolmates.

On May 11, an open letter of protest signed by alumni of Renmin University’s class of 1988 (the year of entrance) quickly went viral. A string of open letters by other alumni classes soon appeared online, including a joint declaration by alumni of the class 1977 and 1978.

Directly and unequivocally, these letters questioned the Chinese police’s use of violence and abuse of power, and for the first time brought into the open the collective sense of deep unease and personal insecurity felt by China’s middle class—in particular the fear that even their own basic physical safety isn’t protected. They also called for an independent, transparent investigation into Lei’s death. The alumni of the Class of ‘88 described the death of Lei Yang as “the random, willful killing of an ordinary, urban, middle-class person.”

At the end of that letter appears one of the strongest remarks of the last decade: “The death of Lei Yang is not an accident, but a structural tragedy. We ask that the highest authorities conduct an independent and fair investigation into Lei’s death; we demand that the murderers be punished and that law enforcement be rectified and disciplined. We must have the most basic, dependable safety, civil rights, and urban order. Short of this, we, who are not too old to give up on the future, will not let the issue go. We won’t tolerate evil indefinitely.”

A week later, the protest brought two public responses by China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping, one of which demanded that the government treat China’s middle class properly, the other demanding that law enforcement be regulated.

These episodes do not really, in fact, sit neatly within the established paradigm for understanding Chinese politics: they rupture the superficial harmony and stability between the Chinese society and government, and demonstrate a transformative contention between old and new forces, furnishing observers with a new framework for understanding events. The situation parallels the philosophical-spiritual analysis laid out in the book “Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept” by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, where he refers to the creation of a new political subject. China’s newly rising middle classes are, through their participation in these incidents and the solidarity that inheres in that participation, reconstituting their own subjectivity. In the context of three years of iron-fisted rule under Xi Jinping, this is without doubt an extraordinary challenge and shift.

It’s true that this series of incidents is still playing out, the outcome is still uncertain, and the public’s attention will likely to shift to new topics as they burst forth, but events like the death of Lei Yang may be moving China’s political tectonics, and may be the only path for pushing change in China’s stiff and ossified political system.

Behind these incidents is the display of the unprecedented power of China’s newly risen urbanized classes. They mobilize and stage protests via alumni groups on social media platforms, and unite two generations of China’s educated class — the 1980s generation and the  post-Tiananmen generation — in their demand for justice. This is a new form of Chinese politics, or put another way, the rise of a middle-class politics in China.

Even though these are small actions in the post-Tiananmen market reform period, they have already created many precedents: The first successful mobilization using alumni networks; the first cross-generational mobilization of alumni including both elites within the official system and social elites; the first instance in which an elite university has been involved in the expression of the collective fears and anger of the new middle class; and the first large-scale direct resistance to police order, which throws down a challenge to the core of power and authority in China: the police, and police violence.

Considering the large-scale self-organized protests across China in May against “reducing Gaokao admissions” that included self-immolation and expressions of extreme discontent with the current education system, we can safely declare that this is the first time since the Sun Zhigang incident in 2003 clearly signalling that China’s middle class is no longer rejecting political resistance. Because of Lei Yang’s death, the social capital formerly deployed in the reproduction of elite status (in this case alumni ties) was instead mobilized, politicized, and transformed into a new tool of middle class protest. Afterwards, participants felt a clearer sense of group identity, clearer political demands, and on the basis of their collective anxieties, used social media to further mobilize, eventually forming a protest coalition.

What’s even more significant about this is that the new form of middle class politics has arisen in the three years that the Xi Jinping regime has been dealing heavy, incessant blows to China’s civil society. This includes the Southern Weekend incident in the beginning of 2013, the “internet cleansing” campaign that shortly followed, the forcible shutdown of independent NGOs and then the arrest of NGO leaders, rights lawyers, women’s rights activists, and labor leaders, and in the strengthening demands in the ideological sphere for loyalty to Xi and the Communist Party, and rejection of Western values.

While the rights defense movement has spread like wildfire in China over the last decade, the middle class participants have been limited to rights lawyers, a small number of intellectuals, journalists operating at commercial media, and NGO workers. In the burgeoning middle class in China, these people represent a very small number. They advocate primarily for the rights and interests of those in society’s lower strata, as well as minority groups, using their professional capabilities to provide assistance, and supporting self-organized activities like “protests according to the law.” However, these “downwards from the middle” rights defense efforts  — which include the flourishing of NGOs, philanthropy aimed at helped those at the bottom of society, and limited “surround and watch” (围观)  protests, where activists congregate where events took place — have all slowly been receding in the last few years, as the Xi Jinping regime unfolds a campaign of targeted repression over fears of a “color revolution.” Institutionalizing suppression, the Law on the Management of the Activities of Overseas NGOs within Mainland China, which was promulgated on April 29, 2016, not only severed the ties between Chinese civil society and the international community, but also isolated the middle classes and their NGOs from the lower social strata.

It was just as the rights defense movement in China was being terminated by force that the string of incidents over the last month indicated a new phase of development: the political resistance of the Chinese middle class, using an entirely self-mobilized organizational model, has emerged as a player on the political scene. Importantly, they’ve begun to display an identity and set of demands that have already, at a certain level, exceeded what would be expected of a group that is tacitly reliant on the system (because they, as a class, are the petty bourgeois that has arisen from the coming together of the bureaucratic class and the market economy). They’re also building on the foundation laid by the rights defense movement over the past 10 years, and even that of the earlier 1989 movement, with a new process of internal class mobilization.

Compared with the rights defense movement’s attempt, from the outside, to mobilize the lower classes, China’s middle class possesses more robust resources for a movement — whether financially, ideationally, or rhetorically. As to whether they’ll be able to better use new media and technology and organizational forms, the extent of their convictions and willpower, and whether they’ll be able to stage still more protests and acts of defiance — all that, of course, will only be known as we observe the struggles that are sure to follow. The one thing that we can be sure of is that the string of incidents over the last month has established a new framework for political resistance in China, and moreover, has begun to change the self-awareness of the middle class.

That is, they’ve learnt that the bonds of the middle class traditionally used for maintaining class identity and social reproduction can also be transformed into a force for mobilization and resistance. It’s only the diehards in the rights defense movement, who arrogate to themselves the right to speak for the lower classes, and who’ve been suppressed by the authorities, who not only can’t imagine the changes that may result from this new politics, but who also persist in discounting the significance of the middle class and middle class politics.

As the size of the middle class increases, and the the pace of urbanization speeds up, the Chinese government’s basis of legitimacy is quickly turning into a question of whether it has the continued support of the middle class, and whether that middle class has sufficient household consumption. All that is happening at a time when the Chinese economy continues to decline, or faces a prolonged “L-shaped” period of stagnation. With all this in mind, we can safely predict that middle class political resistance is going to emerge as a major force in China. A political opposition may emerge out of the demand for equal rights to education, personal freedom, and civil rights, competing with the Communist Party for the role of middle class’ protector, thus influencing China’s political future.

 

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.


Related:

Minxin Pei: China’s Middle Class Is About to Demand Big Changes, May 26, 2016

Also by Wu Qiang on China Change:  

In the Wake of the Sino-American Summit, the Potential for a New Cold War, October, 2015.

Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview, August, 2014.

 

原文 中產階級的死與生──雷洋案後維權運動的終結》. China Change translated an earlier version of the article.

 

 

 

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.

 

Photo credit: online.

Photo credit: online.

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.

Open letter from the Christian Council of Zhejiang. Click to enlarge.

Open letter from the Christian Council of Zhejiang. Click to enlarge.

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 温州十字架_石头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?

温州十字架_举着小十字架的阿公阿婆

Photo from Weibo.

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.

温州十字架_young woman

Photo from Weibo.

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.

Catholic clergy protesting in front of the government. Photo from Weibo.

Catholic clergy, led by Bishop Zhu Weifang (朱维方), protesting in front of the government. Photo from Weibo.

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.

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Related:

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.