Chinese church grannies stick it to local authorities, occupy church building to save it from gov’t bulldozers [UPDATE]

[UPDATE: After supposedly striking a deal to save the church building, gov’t seals off access and tears it down. Scroll to bottom for more photos and quotes.]

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Here’s my soapbox: People need to update their understanding of Christian persecution in China. And a recent Chinese-officials-try-to-bulldoze-a-church incident that’s hit international news is a fine opportunity to illustrate what I’m on about here. Like it or not, the relationship between Chinese authorities and Chinese Christians is… not super-simple.

Does the Chinese gov’t persecute Christians?
First of all, it’s Chinese governments — plural — as in local, provincial, and national levels that are often at odds with one another, and never mind that levels of tolerance and policy implementation vary greatly from region to region. “The Chinese gov’t” is a complicated collection of departments that vary hierarchically and geographically, and each one has latitude re: its attitude and posture toward Christians within its territory. If some Chinese Christians are in trouble, we need to ask who’s giving it to them; “the Chinese gov’t” isn’t specific enough to be a useful answer. A given instance of Christians-in-trouble usually has little if anything to do with Beijing.

Second, this is a bad question, because if you’re talking about the whole country, the answer is:

  • “Sometimes, but not usually.”
  • “All the time, at least somewhere.”
  • “Systematically marginalized? Yes. Actively persecuted? Not so much.”

Chinese authorities leave most Chinese Christians alone most of the time (within a status quo of effective, systematic social marginalization). So a more useful question is, “What factors are most likely to provoke trouble from the authorities?” There’s a list.

But let’s get to the sensational persecution story. This one’s actually kind of fun. Christians brazenly defy lower levels of gov’t while appealing to higher levels of gov’t. From The Telegraph:

Christians form human shield around church in ‘China’s Jerusalem’ after demolition threat
Christians have flocked to defend a church in eastern China after Communist Party officials claimed it was an “illegal construction” and announced plans to demolish it

…specifically, by painting “demolish” and “illegal construction” on the outside of the building. I suspect that got church-goers’ attention:

If you see these kinds of (sensationalized) headlines and (understandably) get the impression that Beijing is literally plowing churches into the ground across the country, look at the details in more than one report. In this case, one province let churches get out of hand, so they’re reducing the number of extra-high, extra-conspicuous steeples and have picked a couple buildings for demolition. Here’re some hand-picked excerpts:

the Sanjiang church is part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, China’s officially sanctioned and government-controlled Protestant church, making this week’s stand-off highly unusual.

A woman who introduced herself as a representative of the local government rejected claims the Communist Party was persecuting local Christians.

“They can believe. This is free. We can’t control them,” said the woman, who gave her name as Zhang Biyao.

Ms Zhang said the church had been illegally built and was structurally unsound. The government wanted to protect “people’s safety,” she claimed.

Sanjiang’s congregation was unconvinced.

Parishioners believe their church was targeted after Xia Baolong, the provincial Party chief, visited the region and was unimpressed by the prominence of a church built to house thousands of worshippers.

“His behaviour is illegal. He has abused his power. The construction of the church is not against the law,” said Wang Jianfeng, a 47-year-old man from a nearby congregation who was among hundreds of people gathered on the steps outside on Friday in a show of force.

Wen Xiaowu, another visitor, said he believed China’s president would be “displeased” with his Communist colleagues in Zhejiang.

“Xi Jinping has said society should be harmonious. He is very open-minded about disciples of the Christian church.”

So:
— Local officials allow the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Church (or at least a legally-registered church; reports conflict) to build a big flashy church building.

— The provincial head comes into town and doesn’t like it. The unwritten rule is that Christianity must keep a low profile, and Christians in this province have been pushing that line for a while. In fact there’s a province-wide campaign to tone down the visibility of churches, mostly by making some (not all) churches take down extra-conspicuous steeples. See other articles here and here. This problem arose in the first place because churches across the province were given so much relative leeway that their buildings became too numerous and conspicuous for the comfort of provincial Party officials. In more tightly restricted provinces, churches aren’t allowed to become this conspicuous.

— So the local officials, who care first and foremost about their careers (which depend mostly on kissing up to their superiors) announce that the church building is illegal and, for the sake of “the People’s safety”, the “unsound” building must be destroyed, even though they’d previously designated the building a “model project”.

— So rank and file Christians publicly defy the local and provincial authorities, by [1] staging a sensational protest, [2] singling out the provincial Party head by name for blame, [3] appealing to higher levels of the Chinese gov’t (in this case the Chairman himself) [4] via domestic and international news media. (Using news media to apply pressure to the gov’t is common, though also dangerous.)

–> In other words, these Chinese Christians are appealing to the Chinese gov’t (President Xi Jinping) to protect their legal rights against persecutors from the Chinese gov’t (Zhejiang province Party head Xia Baolong and the local officials carrying out his orders).

If they get to keep their church building, will headlines read, “Chinese central authorities defend Christian church”? I suspect not.

Read the whole thing; while it may be short on solid info, it’s full of colourful anecdotes:

Sanjiang’s resistance has been organised with almost military precision. A makeshift kitchen behind the altar provides rice, pork and fried liver with leeks for those occupying the church while women hand out bottles of water and satsumas at the entrance.

By day, Christians from around the province crowd the church’s steps, with undercover security agents mingling among them, snapping photos and eavesdropping. By night, hundreds of worshippers take it in turns to keep watch, grabbing a few hours of sleep on cramped wooden pews between shifts.

Yang Zhumei, 74, said she had pleaded with officials to leave her church alone.

“I held their hands and said, “Comrades, don’t take down our cross. I can give you my head instead.”

The Christians have seen to it that the local and provincial authorities now have an embarrassing mess on their hands that will look much worse to their superiors than an overly-conspicuous church building would have. But even if the Christians win this round and keep their building, they’ll still be left with a ticked-off provincial Party head whose security forces know who every single one of those protestors is. For these Christians, things might not be easy until he retires or gets promoted.

It’s also worth comparing this to another recent local-government-hassles-legal-church-over-property incident.

Update: Demolition

(Images and quotes from this Telegraph article and @tomphillipsin.)

Near the root of this conflict are provincial and local gov’t concerns that Christianity in Wenzhou is growing out of control:

Provincial authorities deny they are waging an orchestrated campaign against Christian places of worship. However, Feng Zhili, the head of Zhejiang’s ethnic and religious affairs committee, complained earlier this year that Christianity’s spread had been “too excessive and too haphazard”.

See where this church sat along the highway:

And so they got the occupiers out and neutralized, sealed off access, and brought in the excavators:

After mounting their high-profile occupation in early April, many protesters withdrew from Sanjiang church after its leaders appeared to have negotiated a compromise with the government.

However, that deal appears to have broken down in recent days with reports that some church leaders and worshippers had been harassed and detained by security agents and officials.

“All the roads are blocked, you can’t get close to the church,” said a local Protestant leader, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the government.

Photographs sent to The Telegraph and posted on social media sites showed at least four excavators that appeared to be ripping down large sections of the church’s exterior.

Other images showed black police vans, military trucks and security agents standing on the main road outside.

Church members told The Telegraph authorities had attempted to silence the congregation and said they believed their communications were being monitored. “My phone is not safe,” said one.

Asked to comment on Monday’s demolition, a propaganda official from Zhejiang’s Communist Party Committee said, “I don’t know” before the line went dead.

(Full article here.)

There are still appeals to Beijing, even from the head of China’s gov’t-controlled seminary:

In an unusual step, Chen Yilu, the head of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, spoke out against the provincial government’s “crude and hard-line” handling of the Sanjiang church crisis.

In a strongly-worded commentary that has been circulating online, Mr Chen said the incident would damage the Communist Party’s image as well as harming “social stability”. He called on Beijing to “intervene as soon as possible to avoid further deterioration”.

But, as they say, “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away” (皇帝).


More from this particular soapbox:

The 2013 Grinch Award (is for your educational benefit) [Updated]

[UPDATE: For sober and informed analysis of Christianity in China, ChinaSource.org is the best single source I know of.]

Just because a Chinese Christian is in trouble doesn’t mean they’re in trouble just because they’re a Christian. Their Christianity may have something to do with it, or it may have almost nothing to do with. China being as it is, the “whys” are usually a little more complicated and a lot more pragmatic. This is not the Mao Era.

I haven’t gone searching for instances of Christmastime crackdowns this year. But this one did cross my news feed, and it’s a fine example for helping people see that “China cracks down on a church” stories are not necessarily a case of a communist atheocracy’s thought police persecuting ideological dissenters. I’m not saying that ideologically-driven persecution doesn’t ever happen in today’s China, just that for any given instance chances are far greater it’s:

  • [a] motivated by something more tangible than ideology (like money, land or face; they probably aren’t being harassed just because they’re Christians), and
  • [b] initiated by local, not the central, authorities.

In this one, it appears that greedy local authorities won’t give a local church the land that’s owed them (land grabs are hardly uncommon in China), so the church has lawyered up, and the local authorities are not taking that very well.

If we look at the details the picture that emerges isn’t so much one of snuffing out Christmas or Christianity; it’s about fighting/punishing a local organization who refuses to let the gov’t take its land without a fight.

Crackdown stymies China church’s Christmas meeting

The canceled meeting at the church in Henan province’s Nanle county came during a month-long crackdown on the church over a land dispute that pits its popular preacher against the county government […]

…their pastor, Zhang Shaojie, and more than a dozen of his aides have been detained by police for more than a month and denied access to their lawyers…

The case has drawn the scrutiny of rights lawyers and activists who say it exposes a county government’s ability to act with impunity against a local Christian church even if it is state-sanctioned. Supporters of the church say the county government reneged on an agreement to allocate it a piece of land for the construction of a new building, leaving them without a place of worship.

Now, it could be that this local government is on an illegal ideological witch hunt. It’s not like that hasn’t happened before in China. But, China being as it is, it’s much more likely that the local authorities see an opportunity to essentially steal land from a group whom they’ve calculated does not have the power to fight back and win. Land disputes in China are common as, well, dirt. Even we’ve known of legal, registered churches in land disputes with local authorities in both Chinese cities we’ve called home.

Anyway, point being that when you hear a Chinese church persecution story you must look at the details. These days Chinese Christians are relatively rarely persecuted for their beliefs themselves (generally speaking). More often it’s because of something related (or even unrelated): their church bucked the status quo, the government wants their land, they said something to foreign reporters that ticked off someone of consequence, they embarrassed the authorities by doing too much public charity, they caused trouble for the authorities by fighting injustice in the courts or media, there’s bad local history involving churches, the church leaders have bad/no guanxi, etc., etc. Some of those things are related to or a result of their Christianity, some aren’t. But either way, it’s much different from going after a group just because they call themselves Christians. In the above AP story, it’s apparently a legal, registered, “government-run” Three-Self Patriotic Church that’s in trouble.

Local officials don’t care what people believe; they care about money and about their careers — and if your group does something to mess with either of those two things (by not letting them rob you, or potentially making them look bad to their superiors), you risk retaliation.

Previous Grinch Awards:

***–> More on not thinking simplistically about Christianity in China: <--***

Evil Chinese cult money in Qingdao

Anyone else received this stuff? Chinese paper notes stamped with anti-Party and pro-“evil cult” messages?

I’d translate the messages for you — because they are interesting — but this particular group is officially designated an “evil cult” and is still a sensitive topic as far as I know. Plus the anti-Party bits are definitely taboo.

More stuff about this particular “evil cult”:

Stuff about another locally active Chinese “evil cult”:

Pro-life in abortion-saturated China — What do you do?

(Before we begin…)

  • If you or someone you’re close to has had an abortion, there is loving, compassionate help available here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
  • If you work in the abortion industry, there are former industry workers who will help you quit (quietly or as a whistle-blower), find a new job, and even provide legal help if needed.
  • If you’re pregnant and want help, you can find everything from a listening ear to a maternity home here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

(If you know of other crisis pregnancy or post-abortion resources, please let me know!)

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Abortion-saturated China

If you don’t read Chinese, what would you assume this ad — with it’s heart-shaped-hand-enveloped unborn child — is for?


Painless Abortion Surgery 无痛人流术
Give love the safest guarantee 给爱最安全的保障
Because of love — for / give the unmet child 因为爱——给未谋面的孩子
Ultimately / in the end, the best gift 最后,最好的礼物

Chinese abortion rates are so high that Chinese temporary residents skew their host countries’ abortion stats. “Pro-life” encompasses more issues than abortion, issues for which China also provides plenty of fodder (China executes more people than pretty much everyone else, for example). But I’m betting abortion is the one that’s most in-your-face.

The reasons for this are many: a big, bold abortion industry + general aversions toward the Pill or condoms + zero support for unwed mothers + the One Child Policy + male chauvinism + collectivist identity that doesn’t recognize the inherent worth or intrinsic rights of the human individual + abortion as an enhancement of China’s ongoing legacy of infanticide + poor sex ed + casual attitudes toward abortion… Point being that the chances of personally encountering abortion-related situations in China are very, very high, whether your looking for them or not.

For example, here’s a conversation a new coworker of mine had at her preschool branch just last week, on her 5th day in China:

Today the girls learned I had a huge family [she has 9 siblings]. One responded, “Your mother is very lucky, I dream of having many children in the next life.” Another responded that she already had her first child and needed to go have an abortion, do I have advice for her? Ahhh, what?!! I was like, “Oh, no! Are you sad?” She said, “Yes,” but remained totally expressionless, no big deal attitude and then kept on doing whatever she had been doing.

Imagine: it’s your 5th day in China, you’ve just learned “你好” and “谢谢“, you’re jet-lagged like anything, and a coworker asks you for advice on her impending One-Child Policy-mandated abortion.

Pro Life conscience, Abortion-saturated China

For those of you who realize that the unborn are living human individuals and who believe in universal human rights, that denying basic human rights to an entire class of human beings for the purpose of legalizing their slaughter by the millions is a gross injustice; and that offering (for a fee) to dismember alive or chemically burn to death the babies of women in hardship enables, perpetuates and profits from systemic inequality and male chauvinism, here are some questions (others are welcome to comment, too):

How do you handle living in this abortion-saturated society? What do you do? If you’re semi-literate you’ve seen the “3-minute” “painless” abortion ads. If you have Chinese friends you’ve probably had or at least overheard deceptively casual “Oh I’ve gotta go get an abortion”-type conversations. How do you respond? How do you think you should respond? How do you wish you’d responded differently in the past? Do you know of resources or opportunities for people who want to help (pregnancy and maternity support charities, adoption route options, sex education projects, etc.)? Contact me personally if you don’t want the information out in public.

Some of our own abortion-in-China stories (more are on the way), including a hospital experience and some translated conversations and advertising are here:

Abortion & China: