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Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?

There’s an official campaign on in Zhejiang 浙江 province, home of “China’s Jerusalem” (a.k.a. Wenzhou 温州, the epicenter of traditional Chinese Christianity), in which the government is either forcibly removing crosses from the tops of the church buildings or simply bulldozing them. One Catholic news site had documented 64 demolitions as of May 21. A Protestant human rights advocacy group puts the current total at around 360. And it continues with another one reported this week (Telegraph). Demolition crews come in at 3am, and churches are warned that if they don’t allow their cross to be removed then their whole building will be demolished just like that that huge, new, famous one. Church members are putting up resistance, though so far it’s been ultimately futile (see here for the first big clash that made international news, in which church grannies occupied their church building).

Why? If you answer, “Because they were in violation of building codes! We don’t tolerate that sort of thing in England and neither should the Chinese!” then YOU FAIL China 101 (and this panda facepalm is for you). If this campaign really was about public safety, building codes and zoning laws as the government claims, then they’d be flattening most of Zhejiang province, not zeroing in on churches (duh — I know I shouldn’t read the comments under news stories, but I still couldn’t believe how many times I saw this idea pop up). If you answer, “Because China’s run by atheistic anti-Christian Communists and it’s just like when Mao was alive!” then you’re slightly closer to the truth, but you’re still headed for summer school.

But the direction of your pet prejudices doesn’t matter because (as often happens) government documents have been leaked, showing us exactly why they’re going after churches. Ian Johnson, a 20-year veteran of Chinese state-religion reportage whom I’ve cited before for his reportage on the FLG, confirms in Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire (NYT) what seasoned China people should have been able to figure out from the details in Tom Phillips’ earlier reporting (Telegraph). I’ll quote bits of Ian Johnson’s latest to fill in the three bullet points below, but you should read the whole thing; there’s lots of important detail I’m leaving out here.

First, what started all this?

The church’s problems seem to have begun with a visit to the region in October by the provincial party secretary, Xia Baolong, a close ally of President Xi. Visiting a new economic zone north of Wenzhou, Mr. Xia was reportedly disturbed that a religious building, especially one seen as representing a foreign belief, dominated the skyline. The next month, members of the congregation said, they were told to remove the cross atop their church’s steeple.

“Xia Baolong came to inspect last autumn, and he saw the cross,” said an official in the Wenzhou government’s religious hierarchy. “He said: ‘Take down the cross. It’s so high, and it’s not appropriate.’ But the people said: ‘Well, we’ve already put it up there, and from a faith point of view, it’s our faith, the cross. How can we take it down?’ ”



“Public safety & zoning violations”? Srsly, guys?

The government has defended its actions, saying the churches violated zoning restrictions. However, an internal government document reviewed by The New York Times makes it clear the demolitions are part of a strategy to reduce Christianity’s public profile.

The nine-page provincial policy statement says the government aims to regulate “excessive religious sites” and “overly popular” religious activities, but it specifies only one religion, Christianity, and one symbol, crosses.

“The priority is to remove crosses at religious activity sites on both sides of expressways, national highways and provincial highways,” the document says. “Over time and in batches, bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the facade of the buildings.”
[…]
Officials argued that the church violated zoning rules, but the provincial policy paper suggests that argument was a tactical cover. The paper, called “Working Document Concerning the Realization of Handling of Illegal Religious Buildings,” said the policy would face international scrutiny so officials should be careful to cloak their effort under the guise of cracking down on building codes. “Be particular about tactics, be careful about methods,” it said, urging officials to focus on the idea of “illegal construction.” “This is crucial to investigate and prosecute from the perspective of laws and regulations to avoid inviting heavy criticism.”
[…]
“They said, ‘This will be your last church for 20 years, so make it big,’ ” said a member of the Sanjiang congregation involved in the negotiations. “They also told us that the development zone was a big project and needed a big church as a sign of how this was an outward-looking community.”

An official in the city’s religious affairs bureau acknowledged that “officials said it could be bigger, but perhaps this was a mistake.”

Why single out Christianity?

Protestantism is also linked to a national debate about “universal values.” Some Chinese Protestants argue that rights such as freedom of expression are God-given, and thus cannot be taken away by the state. These beliefs have led many Protestants to take up human rights work. A disproportionate number of lawyers handling prominent political cases, for example, are Protestant.
[…]
The leveling of the Sanjiang Church came amid growing tensions not only between Christianity and the Communist government, but also between Christianity and other religions. It was preceded by a local petition accusing the church of destroying the area’s feng shui, geomantic principles that underlie traditional Chinese folk religion.
[…]
Increasingly, those other religions are receiving greater support from the Communist Party. In March, Mr. Xi praised Buddhism for its contributions to China.
[…]
Just a decade ago, the Communist Party condemned fortunetelling, feng shui and many traditional funerary rites as “feudal superstition.” Now, these are protected under government programs to support “intangible cultural heritage.”

ChinaSource sums it up in It’s About the Space:

…while space for Christianity and religious belief IS expanding in China, it is still the government that has the power to determine the limits of that space. And every once in awhile it needs to give a visible demonstration of that power.

The on-going church demolition and cross-removal campaign is about the growing ideological and physical space that Christianity is occupying in China; this campaign is “a shot across the bow” of Protestant Christianity.

The Chinese authorities don’t mind tolerating a Christianity that is effectively socially marginalized — i.e. it stays out of public consciousness. But Christians will expand into as much space as they’re allowed, and in the more tolerant cities and provinces like Qingdao in Shandong and (formerly) Zhejiang, that space continues to grow. Sometimes newly developing business districts like to accessorize with a fancy church building; it makes them feel open and cosmopolitan. This was the case with the Sanjiang church above, which the Zhejiang government made an example out of. It’s also what appears to be happening fifteen minutes from our neighbourhood in Qingdao, where an elaborate new church building with fancy stained glass and a river sits beside a big new park and a block away from a shiny shopping centre in a sea of construction.

But in Zhejiang province at least, the local Christian presence has exceeded the current limits of the government’s comfort zone. At the highest levels Christianity is perceived as a tool for foreign antagonists, partly because of Communist China’s ideological heritage, and partly because in China as elsewhere throughout history, the connection between human rights and Christianity is becoming increasingly clear — Christianity is disproportionately represented among China’s human rights agitators.

Also from the Ian Johnson and the NYT:

P.S. – Here’s two related things — an explanation of the Chinese words for “church”, and a translated bit from a Chinese pastor, calling for Chinese Christians to re-think their focus on church buildings in light of the recent conflict. (Chinese Christians — and local governments developing new districts — do tend to have a ‘thing’ for fancy church buildings.) At the very least, it’s an interesting anecdote for how Chinese Christians are processing this particular campaign:

When it comes to our faith, the word jiaohui (church, congregation, fellowship) is not the same as jiaotang (church building). It may be possible to deal violently with a jiaotang, but not with the jiaohui. Christians shouldn’t be so sad. Maybe this is a good time to reflect and wonder if we have put too much focus on church buildings. With this jiaotang now destroyed, we should focus our efforts on building the jiaohui.
[…]
The church (jiaohui) is not a church building (jiaotang). The original meaning of the term church (jiaohui) is “a people called by God gathered together.” The key terms are “called by God,” “people,” and “gather together.” It does not say that that “gathering together” must be done in a church building (jiaotang). Protestant theology has always emphasized that the key functions of the church (jiaohui) are “preaching the Word” and “properly administering the sacraments.” These two principles define what a true church (jiaohui) is. It says nothing about a building.

P.P.S. — For some further perspective on persecution, consider that at the same time Zhejiang province is bulldozing church buildings, this woman just gave birth in shackles on death row and will receive 100 lashes before she is hanged… because she’s not Muslim.

15 thoughts on “Why are they removing crosses & bulldozing churches in China?”

  1. In the west, Christianity is losing its popularity, and most westerners don’t have faith anymore. So why those missionaries want to push their luck in China? Christianity and Muslim share the same nature, which is aggressive, ,self-centered, exclusive and holds strong superiority over others. Seriously, just let those stupid and miserable people have their peace, and stop disturbing them with delusion of heaven and love of White God.

    1. A provincial Chinese government abuses Chinese people, but you’re angry at foreigners and Christianity? Interesting reaction. Do you think this is a reasonable reaction to this situation?

      In the west, Christianity is losing its popularity, and most westerners don’t have faith anymore. So why those missionaries want to push their luck in China?

      Missionaries are not involved in this situation. There are more practicing Christians outside the West than in the West.

      Missionaries spread the teaching of Jesus everywhere because they think it is true and good.

      They don’t decide what is true according to what is popular. Do you choose what you think is true according to what is popular?

      Christianity and Muslim share the same nature, which is aggressive, ,self-centered, exclusive and holds strong superiority over others.

      Christianity is exclusive? So is logic. But as for “aggressive, self-centered and superiority over others”, I think you have it backward:

      — Jesus chose to die instead of fight; he forbade his followers to fight for him even when they were ready and willing. Compare that to Islam.

      — A central teaching of Jesus is selflessness: “Deny you self, take up your cross, and follow me.”

      — Another central teaching of Jesus is “servant-leadership”: before he died for them, Jesus washed the feet of his own followers, which was the lowliest job, just to teach them this point.

      Seriously, just let those stupid and miserable people have their peace, and stop disturbing them with delusion of heaven and love of White God.

      Or, we could respect the Chinese people enough to give them free access to all information so they can decide for themselves what they think is true. In this situation in Zhejiang, who is disturbing the Chinese people and disrupting their peace?

      1. I think when Isaac Liu calls Christianity “aggressive, self-centered and exclusive”, what he refers to is the fact that Christians, just like Muslims, claim to possess the only and absolute truth about the world, and think it would do everyone else good to share their beliefs. Many of them still believe that unless you are a Christian you are going to hell.

        Compare this with traditional East Asian religions, which don’t claim to possess all the truth in this way.

        By discussing what Jesus was supposed to have done (we will never know up to what extent those stories are true), you are missing the point.

        1. I know what his point is. ;) He’s a troll. I was just making my own point.

          Don’t you think it’s a bit of a double-standard, though? It’s wrong for Christians or Muslims to try to persuade people about certain ideas and values, but not wrong for other groups with other ideas (economic, political, moral, etc.) to do the same?

          It’s wrong for them to think they’re right and others are wrong?

          1. No, it’s not wrong for anyone to try to persuade anyone else about their own ideas and values. I totally agree, and I’m not against proselytism on principle.

            It is however a bit different when you have a religion which claims that it’s god is the only true god, and everyone who doesn’t follow it won’t be saved and will face eternal damnation. This belief seems to me to be rather intolerant by modern standards.

            Luckily not all Christians still believe this in the literal sense.

  2. Where’s religion freedom when your parent became Christian? Shouldn’t children have their own rights to decide if they want to become a Christian, or not? The statistic show the number of the families would not push their kids to share the same religion with parents are very low. Once you become a Christian or a Muslim, there’s no religion freedom for your generations anymore. The west should stop abusing the true meaning of religion freedom in a way to impose their religion upon others and cause the cultures of other races disappear. The world has already seen so many cases, and none can deny that fact.

    Sorry to say that, but Christianity is outdated and not suitable for the future generations just like Islam and Jewish, and that’s why the west is getting rid of it gradually. If a religion is not suitable for the future or for the west, certainly it’s not good for China. It would not bring peace but more chaos in the long run.

    1. Thank you for replying. But please answer the questions I asked you in my first comment above.

      Where’s religion freedom when your parent became Christian? Shouldn’t children have their own rights to decide if they want to become a Christian, or not?

      Of course. That’s how Christians do it. In Christianity, you cannot *force* someone to believe, because if the belief isn’t genuine then it doesn’t count. Christian kids are told from the time they’re little that they have to decide for themselves as they grow up, that they can’t just “use their parents’ faith.”

      Once you become a Christian or a Muslim, there’s no religion freedom for your generations anymore.

      Christians and Muslims are very different concerning the freedom to choose what to believe. In Christianity it’s not possible to force someone to believe; that kind of “belief” doesn’t count in Christianity. You don’t seem to understand very much about Christianity.

      The west should stop abusing the true meaning of religion freedom

      According to you, what is “the true meaning of religious freedom”?

      …in a way to impose their religion upon others and cause the cultures of other races disappear.

      How and where is “the West” “imposing” “its religion” on other cultures and races?

      A provincial Chinese government abuses Chinese people, but you’re angry at foreigners and Christianity. Do you think this is a *reasonable* reaction to this situation? In this situation in Zhejiang, who is disturbing the Chinese people and disrupting their peace?

      How do you decide what you think is true? According to what is popular?

      1. “Of course. That’s how Christians do it. In Christianity, you cannot *force* someone to believe, because if the belief isn’t genuine then it doesn’t count. Christian kids are told from the time they’re little that they have to decide for themselves as they grow up, that they can’t just “use their parents’ faith.”

        Yes, but seriously now, how can a child decide freely? Of course they are going to believe whatever their parents and the people around them tell them to believe. If Christian parents really want their kids to decide for themselves, then they shouldn’t take them to church, and shouldn’t even talk to them about religion until they are old enough to decide themselves. Of course that never happens, and understandably so. Parents are going to pass their beliefs onto their kids, it’s only natural.

        1. They decide freely when they are old enough to decide for themselves. About everything. Not just which parts of their parents’ beliefs to retain and which to discard.

          Don’t take them to church, don’t talk to them about “religion”? How could it even be done, if the parents wanted to do it that way? The parents are going to live as if they aren’t who they are just so that they won’t “unfairly” influence their children? How many areas of life does this apply to?

          I agree that there are bad ways to influence children regarding the God question (both for or against). But I don’t think “teach them nothing” is a solution to that problem, and I can’t see how it’s even doable in real life. The way you live teaches your kids things — beliefs, values — whether you like it or not.

          1. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

            But are most Christian children really told that they should decide for themselves when they grow up? Or are they told that being a Christian is the right and proper thing to do and it will save you from hell?

            Whatever the answer is nowadays, most Christians throughout history certain haven’t had such an open minded view as you do. Until a couple of hundred years ago not being Christian was hardly tolerated at all in Christian Europe. People certainly were forced to believe all the time. There was a lot of forcing going on when Christianity was spread through Europe in the first place.

            I strongly suspect that not forcing people to believe in things is just a modern value, rather than a Christian one.

  3. Seriously, it’s the same thing that American went crazy when Muslims want to build Mosques in American.

    People around the world with common sense certainly would not like that kinds of religions, saying our God is the true and only one, which sounds aggressive, self-centered, and holds strong superiority over others.

    1. Issac, I’m happy to discuss your ideas and criticisms. But it has to be a *discussion*: that means I respond to what you write, and then you respond to what I write. I’ve responded to everything you’ve said so far, but you ignore all my responses. If you can’t have a real discussion then we’ll have to stop.

      Seriously, it’s the same thing that American went crazy when Muslims want to build Mosques in American.

      Did the American government bulldoze or damage hundreds of legal religious buildings, and destroy millions of dollars of private property?

      If the Americans had bulldozed hundreds of mosques, would it have been right?

      What does America matter to what happens in Zhejiang? How does what happens in America make the Zhejiang government’s actions right?

      People around the world with common sense certainly would not like that kinds of religions,

      Many of the greatest thinkers ever were and are theists.

      Also, “religions” are not all the same. It doesn’t make sense to talk as if they are all basically the same thing.

      saying our God is the true and only one, which sounds aggressive, self-centered, and holds strong superiority over others.

      In Christianity, there is only one true God. And every single person has the same amount of value and is equally loved no matter what race, gender, rich or poor, powerful or weak. In Christianity God loves and values you just as much as God loves and values me. Where’s the superiority?

  4. Is building a big church in China no different from one in Saudi Arabia? And, why not US and the West push religion freedom into Saudi Arabia, other Islam countries, or Israel??

    Like Saudi Arabia and Israel which US and the West have no problem with their own religion laws, it makes sense that every country has it own way to deal its religion problems. US would like to use its cunning legal system to accuse Mosque of violating some construction regulations. Next, with some latitudes held by govt officials, the project of Mosque will most likely be killed in the bud. For American, It’s acceptable that those American muslims should keep low-profiled and gather in some not-so-islamic constructions to do their prayers. China govt is doing the same thing with its swift legal system.

    Stop using those quotations from Christian Bible to reason or debate, it makes no sense since everyone of them could be interpreted in a dozen ways. Besides, those words work for Christian only, and like you said, it’s Christian’s God, not China’s God. For example, you cannot debate with Muslim using quotations from Christian Bible and his from Koran. It’s stupid.

    1. When a provincial Chinese government abuses Chinese people and there are no foreigners involved (foreigners didn’t build those churches), do you think it’s reasonable to react angrily against foreigners?

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