21 August 2019
Zhejiang party boss Xia Baolong aims to curb the influence of Christianity in his province. Photo: Sina Weibo
Zhejiang party boss Xia Baolong aims to curb the influence of Christianity in his province. Photo: Sina Weibo

Zhejiang church crackdown: How far will it go?

Communist Party cadres in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang have been instructed to remove Christian Crosses from atop numerous churches in a province-wide campaign that began in February.

At least 229 churches in Zhejiang had their crosses pulled down as of the end of July, Yazhou Zhoukan reports, citing a local Christian leader. If adherents refuse to comply, the entire church would be demolished. In April, a large church called Sanjiang in Wenzhou, which was renovated less than a year ago, was razed to the ground after fierce clashes between local congregation and police.

The campaign against Church crosses, public symbols of the Christian faith, continued throughout the province despite international media coverage of the Wenzhou incident.

Zhejiang provincial communist party chief Xia Baolong (夏寶龍), a hard-core figure who became the province’s top official since 2012, is believed to be the mastermind of the campaign. Crosses are targeted in the name of Xia’s broader three-year campaign to demolish illegal and unauthorized structures.

Wenzhou, well known as a power house of China’s private economy, is also called China’s Jerusalem as the city is home to over 1,000 churches and has one of the country’s largest Christian communities — 1.2 million out of its nine million-population are said to be Christians. Thus, the city is on the forefront of all the controversy. Jiu En Tang, one of two cathedrals that got particular instruction from the provincial party committee with regard to the crosses, is also located in the city.

Policemen trying to break into Jiu En Tang while local Christians were desperately defending it — the pictures prompted some observers to comment that it looked like a siege. Yazhou Zhoukan notes that 500 policemen and even an anti-riot squad were deployed and that several adherents were severely injured in the violent melee.

Later, some local bishops and priests in the province, who are businessmen or factory owners themselves, were said to have been threatened by local cadres to obey the order. If they failed to do so, they would risk having their factories shut down or bank deposits confiscated, the Christian leaders were warned.

Feeling the pressure, some of them have softened their stance, but angry members of the congregation now call them Judas Iscariot, known in the New Testament for his betrayal of Jesus.

Now the local authorities in Wenzhou have given opponents two choices — pull down the cross and the rest of the cathedral will remain intact or lose everything like what has happened to the Sanjiang church.

It’s safe to say that Zhejiang party boss Xia objects to the bright, prominent crosses that some churches use to advertise their presence. He wants them to be replaced with smaller ones inside naves.

It is said that one night during Xia’s inspection visit to Wenzhou, he flared up at the sight of Christian Crosses shining brightly along expressways. He went so far as to question whether the city is ruled by the Communist Party or Christianity. Since then, all churches and cathedrals in the province have been told to switch off the illumination of crosses at night.

Given the party’s relentless emphasis on stability, one wonders about Xia’s logic behind the movement. Observers say it can be his way of showing political allegiance to party chief Xi Jinping, who has made a slew of speeches on ideological guidance and control since he took office in 2012.

Xia had been Xi’s subordinate and right-hand man when Xi was serving as Zhejiang party boss during 2002-2007. Xia was Zhejiang governor at that time. Clampdown on Christianity could be seen by Xia as a means to work his way further up China’s political ladder. Also, it is rumored that, like former top leader Jiang Zemin, Xi has a genuine fascination with Buddhism. 

The New York Times revealed earlier this year an internal government document, which made it clear that demolitions were part of a strategy to reduce Christianity’s public profile. “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.”

It’s still unclear whether Xia received Xi’s nod for the campaign, but since the party-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches and China Christian Council issued a rare statement condemning the Zhejiang authorities and as there are no reports yet of similar crackdowns in other provinces — it seems that Xia has volunteered, on his own, to squeeze the growing influence of Christianity within his province.

While it remains to be seen how far the campaign will go, one this is for sure: Xia will have to walk a fine line to ensure that things remain within control. Persecution could easily lead to social turmoil, something that Beijing would want to avoid at all costs.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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