HONG KONG — Christians in China sometimes paint their crosses red to remind them of the blood shed by the faithful when Chairman Mao Zedong's shock troops tried to obliterate their faith almost 50 years ago. Now, many of China's Christians fear that the current government in Beijing—which just won the 2022 Olympics by showing its friendlier face to the world—is mounting a more subtle campaign against them and their beliefs. In the name of “safety and beauty” and zoning regulations, it is bulldozing churches and tearing down crosses.
In the process, the Chinese Communist Party may be helping to create just the sort of opposition movement it hopes to eliminate.
Christianity has had a presence in China for over a millennium. The first missionaries arrived in the Middle Kingdom in the 7th century. The Taiping Rebellion of the mid-1800s, one of the bloodiest conflicts in recorded history, was led by a man who believed that Jesus was his older brother, and that it was his divine duty to carve out a Heavenly Kingdom on earth. Three and a half decades later, the Boxer Rebellion, backed by the Chinese Empress, was a movement that opposed foreign imperialist forces, and targeted Christian missionaries within the Chinese Empire. It was a tumultuous time, when American troops scaled the walls of Beijing, and Imperial China was in its final moments.
A couple of momentous changes in government later, religion and the freedom to practice it still remain touchy subjects, at times leading to violence. There are, of course, the cults led by figures of questionable sanity, like Eastern Lightning, which doesn’t bother employing a fig leaf in its mission to “overthrow the Great Red Dragon.” But most Christians in China don’t have a political agenda. And with it or without it, they face creeping persecution.
The government in Beijing has tried to regulate both the Protestant and Catholic churches of China, with clergy answerable to the government rather than to the Vatican or any other authority. But many of the faithful, not to mention a succession of popes, including Francis, have refused to recognize the government’s pastors.
Tensions are worsening rapidly in the eastern province of Zhejiang, south of Shanghai, which is home to a significant segment of China’s Christian population. The Zhejiang Christian Council estimates there are some 2 million Christians in the province. There are more than 1,200 churches. Wenzhou, the provincial capital, is known as “the Jerusalem of the East.”
While open worship is technically allowed, with permits issued by the Chinese government, the Christians of Zhejiang still clash with the authorities because of repressive measures taken by local party officials. The latest move by the Chinese Communist Party is the destruction of Christian crosses, ostensibly to preserve the land’s “safety and beauty.” Taking the harassment a step further, Chinese officials have deployed chanting Buddhist monks who also burned incense, which church members believe was a futile attempt to goad them into physical altercations.
As one pastor told the South China Morning Post, taking away the crosses is “similar to stripping off our clothes to humiliate us.”
The Chinese government began destroying crosses and churches in Zhejiang since early 2014, citing zoning laws, an infrastructure and land reform plan called San Gai Yi Chai (Three Reforms, One Demolition), and targeting “excessive religious sites.” The irony is that local officials in the recent past encouraged the construction of churches in hopes of developing them into tourist attractions for the region. All that seems to have been forgotten amid the rush of demolition orders.
To counter this campaign, the congregants of Zhejiang have staged peaceful sit-ins to block demolition crews from reaching their sites of worship. While they prefer this nonviolent measure as a means of resistance, there have been flare-ups as riot police, demolition crews, and church members clash. Last September, when the red cross of Salvation Church in Wenzhou was set to be confiscated (and presumably destroyed) by local authorities, congregants stood guard at their church gates for two months, enduring beatings meted out by riot cops.
All this inevitably raises the specter of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Red Guards. In a move to purge the nation of all traces of religious worship and folk superstition during the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, the Red Guards swept through the country and destroyed buildings and relics of all religious faiths. Large-scale iconoclasm and ransacking obliterated millennia of Chinese culture.
Now, surviving sites have been restored as tourist destinations, state-sanctioned religious sites, or even schools. But some churches and temples still bear visible traces of concrete or plaster that was slapped on haphazardly by quick-thinking priests, monks, or laymen and laywomen of faith to cover over religious symbols that made the buildings obvious targets.
Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that the nation’s citizens have freedom of religious belief, with the caveat that religious bodies and their affairs are not under the control of foreign powers. Chinese civil servants are prohibited from practicing religion, but religious affairs officials step onto the pulpit to inform churchgoers of government policy during Sunday mass at state-sanctioned churches.
Ironically and perhaps inevitably, the increasingly frequent repression of Chinese Christians coincides with the rising popularity of the faith. By some estimates, China is home to 100 million Christians, outnumbering the 87 million-strong Chinese Communist Party. The CCP sees Christianity as an increasingly popular social force with its own doctrine and agenda, a foreign organization with roots growing deeper in Chinese soil every day. The most ardent adherents to the CCP’s ideology see Christianity as a cultural invasion, akin to what the conservative mullahs of Iran call “westoxification.”
If the CCP fears grassroots organization that does not fall under its purview, then its actions and lack of foresight in Zhejiang has given fuel to local ideological resistance, much as Beijing’s misreading of Hong Kong’s protesters gave birth to a new generation of community organizers before last year’s Umbrella Movement occupied major roads.
The congregants of Zhejiang may not have had protest experience two or three years ago, but they do now, and they’re determined to protect their churches and their red crosses. The CCP can control Wenzhou’s skyline, but its actions are failing to win over minds or the spirits of the people there.