Date: September 22, 2015
By Xiao Yun
Sep. 22, 2015
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US once again throws into the spotlight China’s human rights record, including that on freedom of religion. Despite China’s past, it is now generally acknowledged that Christianity is growing at a great rate. In 2007, it was estimated that the population of Christians was about 60 million. A good current estimate is that there are about 85 million Christians, more than there are members of the Communist Party.
Over the last two years, Chinese government officials have pulled down over 1,200 crosses from churches in the prosperous eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, known as the ‘Jerusalem’ of the east for its strong Christian presence. Meanwhile, one mega-church (Sanjiang) and a few smaller churches in the province have been demolished. Why?
Facts first. In late 2013, the Zhejiang authorities launched a campaign called “Three rectifications and one demolition”. Its aim was to target the increasing number of illegal constructions.
Unfortunately, many church buildings didn’t keep their building permits. When the Sanjiang Church was targeted, the situation quickly escalated.
In this case, the church had received permission to build a church on 20,000 square feet – about half an acre. The congregation instead built a church on 100,000 square feet, or nearly three acres.
Initially, local authorities only asked if the church would remove the cross. When the church refused, the local government threatened to demolish the building. Church members guarded their building day and night. International press coverage raised the stakes for the government officials, who were losing face during this standoff. In April 2014, they decided to destroy the entire church.
Since then, the campaign to remove crosses from church buildings has continued. In May 2015, new regulations were implemented, which prescribe that crosses should not be bigger than one tenth of the height of the building’s façade and should be placed on the side of the building, not on top of it.
The question is whether or not this should be considered unfair discrimination. It isn’t only churches that have been targeted by Zhejiang officials. Some Buddhist temples (though not as many) have also suffered. Most churches which have fallen victim to scrutiny are state-sanctioned churches, which violated their building permits.
However, it should be noted that the government officials who were responsible for the removal of crosses didn’t follow the correct legal protocols either.
A test run?
Some Christians fear that the Chinese central government is testing how Christians in Zhejiang respond to this pressure. They are concerned that this is an early stage of a new, nationwide wave of discrimination against Christians. Other Christians disagree. While it’s true that a small number of “house churches” were closed down recently, most church leaders outside Zhejiang don’t report any difference in government attitude towards them. Meetings and gatherings for training have continued as usual. There’s no evidence that points to an increase in discrimination on a national level.
In a recent private meeting between central government officials and 20 pastors of unregistered churches, the Christians were told the central government had nothing to do with the “anti-cross campaign” in Zhejiang province. This could well be true, since there’s often a disconnect between what the Chinese administration wants and what regional and local authorities implement. Besides, there are also struggles among officials within the Chinese government, especially since President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is in full swing.
It’s too early to say in which direction China will go. The facts don’t necessarily indicate a downturn in freedom of religion. What is a fact is that China’s main priority is social stability. Many cults, such as the Almighty God Cult (formerly known as Eastern Lightning), are responsible for destroying the lives of many individuals and families. Given China’s long history of religious groups militarising and posing a threat to the regime (the Taiping Rebellion being a prime example), the need for social stability has been a central feature of religious policy since dynastic times. Under Xi this emphasis has taken on a new intensity.
One example is the way Xi deals with human rights lawyers. He has said that he will tolerate no dissenting voices. Lawyers – some of them Christian – who have spoken out publicly about people or groups which the regime feels threatened by are watched especially closely. However, while some of these lawyers may be motivated by their Christian convictions, it is their actions, not merely the fact that they are Christian, that prompt official actions against them.
There is little evidence that the Zhejiang authorities are motivated by ideological reasons. Since no church meetings in the province have been stopped since the campaign started, it really seems that Zhejiang wants to deal with illegally constructed buildings.
Because of the Sanjiang incident, the Zhejiang government does take a very firm standpoint on violations of building regulations and doesn’t seem prepared to go to court to obtain legal permission to remove crosses. It isn’t possible to look into the minds of President Xi and other leaders, nor to understand why they don’t act against the Zhejiang authorities. However, it seems unlikely that the events in Zhejiang will lead to a rise in discrimination against Christians on a national level.