Christianity and Communism Conflict in China
With a population of some 10 million, Wenzhou, in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province, is one of China’s great coastal megacities. A 480km drive south of Shanghai on the East China Sea, Wenzhou is often referred to as ‘China’s Jerusalem’ as it is believed to have the largest Christian population of any city in China – possibly as high as 30%. Wenzhou is a business hub known for its many successful Christian entrepreneurs who actively promote Christianity in their workplaces. Whilst the Christian entrepreneurs do strive to maintain good relations with local authorities, that they hold considerable economic power in Wenzhou is doubtless one reason why the churches seem able to be quite active.
According to China expert Dr Kurt Selles, Wenzhou has some 1800 churches which operate openly despite most not being registered with the government. For more than a decade, the success of Wenzhou’s Christianity infused businesses has aroused government interest in the link between Protestant Christianity and successful capitalism. This demonstrable link has created a dilemma for the Chinese Communist Party, which is keen to exploit any business model that generates wealth, yet believes it must rein in and control Christianity lest it undermine Communist Party authority.
On 8 January 2014 Zhejiang’s Communist Party Secretary, Xia Baolong, was conducting an inspection in Zhoushan (northeast Zhejiang) and was shocked by the proliferation of large churches. While passing a church in Baiquan town, Xia reportedly objected that the cross atop the church was ‘too conspicuous’, and demanded that the local Religious Affairs Bureau ‘rectify’ the problem by removing it. The CCP might want to reap the benefits of Christianity, but it certainly does not want the Church to grow! And so began a campaign to deChristianise the landscapes and skylines of Zhejiang.
On 27 February officials from the Zhoushan Religious Affairs Bureau demanded that believers at the government sanctioned church in Baiquan, Zhoushan, help tear down the cross on top of their building. The Christians refused and a standoff ensued. The cross on a government sanctioned church in the Yuhang Disctict of Hangzhou (Zhejiang’s provincial capital) was forcibly removed on the same day after the authorities deemed it ‘too conspicuous’. Two other local churches reportedly had their crosses forcibly removed also that day. Believers told ChinaAid that forced cross removals were also taking place in neighbouring Anhui Province as well.
Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou’s Ou Bei township at eight storeys tall and covering 1000 square metres is large by any standards. It has spaces for worship, teaching and accommodating the elderly. The church is registered with the authorities and is part of the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement. The members, along with many relatives working overseas, raised the US$4.8 million for the construction. Everything was approved by the Wenzhou municipal government, which designated the church a ‘model project’ in September 2013. When the Christians refused to remove the cross and several spires from the rooftop, the authorities responded by threatening to demolish the entire building, falsely accusing the church of adding illegal structures in violation of building codes that rendered it structurally unsound. Meanwhile, demolition notices were reportedly also sent to churches in Taishun, Wencheng and Ruian townships. A church in Yongjia County also is understood to have been ordered to remove its cross and the top floor of the church.
On 25 March members of Sanjiang Church commenced a protest and on 3 April the pastors were notified that the church would be demolished by 18 April (Good Friday). Since then some 5000 local Christians have been participating in round the clock prayer vigils and sit ins, praying that the church might be saved from demolition. He Hongying (81) said she would stay in the church day and night for as long as necessary. ‘We feel at peace,’ she said, ‘and fearless when we are with our God’.
The struggle for Sanjiang Church has come to represent the struggle between Chinese Christians who are unashamed of the transformative power of the gospel and abusive CCP officials who love money and despise the Cross.1
- The Church was demolished on Monday 29 April.
Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. This Bulletin is issued as a ministry of the Evangelical Alliance.
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