“They have gone too far. Countless worshipers are shedding tears of sorrow tonight.” –A Wenzhou pastor on April 28 after the sudden demolition of the Sanjiang megachurch.
Over the last two decades the church in China has experienced a gradual lessening of persecution and some stability in their freedom to worship and evangelize, with some exceptions.
However, events that became headline international news in April and May show that the situation for Christians—even those meeting under the supposedly safe auspices of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and China Christian Council—is still precarious. Large-scale persecution in China can still be unleashed without warning, with no rule of law to protect the believers.
In early April, thousands of Christians formed an around-the-clock blockade to protest the arbitrary demolition of their huge church in Sanjiang, Wenzhou by officials. The newly-constructed church, one of the largest in China, cost 30 million RMB (about US$5 million) and took six years to construct. As recently as last September, the provincial authorities were proudly advertising it as an “engineering feat.” However, Party policy is calling for tighter control of religion, especially Protestantism. Officials in Zhejiang Province, using the pretext of new laws that crack down on illegal structures, painted a red “demolish” sign on the walls and called for the bulldozers to move in. Wenzhou is the famed “Jerusalem of China” in southern Zhejiang Province, with some 15 percent of its 7 million inhabitants (more than 1 million people) being active Christians. The province contains the same number of Protestants as existed in the whole country prior to the Communist victory in 1949.
Mr. Li, a 56-year-old factory worker who had been sleeping in one of the church’s back offices said, “There are bad people out there trying to damage our church, so we must defend it.” Mr. Jin, aged 55, came from another church: “I’ve come here to show my support. A church is a sacred place and we are all brothers and sisters. Christianity has made a big contribution to society in many ways. Christians are good people.”
Wenzhou Christians rallied with prayer. Their strong reaction, which was captured on the news and spread like wildfire across the internet and via cell phones, seemed to have taken the authorities aback. For a moment, officials backtracked. They agreed to negotiate a compromise with the church leaders in which they would remove the huge neon-lit cross and knock down two stories from the top of the church building, but would leave the sanctuary untouched.
However, this now seems to be a ploy to subdue the thousands of Christian protesters. On the evening of Monday, April 28, with military precision, truckloads of police cordoned off the area, bulldozers were brought in, and the entire church was demolished, leaving a pile of rubble.
The shockwaves of this brutal incident have gone through the 70 million-strong Christian community throughout China as pictures of the demolition spread through social media. Chinese Christians have been stunned with disbelief, horror, fear and anger. Some are warning that nothing like this has happened since the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, and they fear the worst.
An unprecedented public statement was made by Mr. Chen Yilu, the current Head of the prestigious Nanjing Theological Seminary, the nation’s flagship Protestant seminary once led by Bishop Ding, as he openly denounced the government’s actions as “outrageous and utterly unjust.” He criticized the government’s “crude and hard-line” handling of the situation and warned that the demolition would damage the Communist Party’s image and harm the “social stability” it so often craves (Daily Telegraph, April 29, 2014). For 60 years, leaders of the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) have always obediently toed the Party line, but Mr. Chen bravely broke ranks. No doubt he was compelled by the gravity of the situation and was concerned that other legally-registered churches could be targeted and even demolished under the thin pretext of contravening planning laws. Ironically, just when China has again been attacked by Muslim terrorists, the government, at a stroke, has risked alienating tens of millions of its peaceful Christian citizens.
Some two dozen other churches in Zhejiang have been threatened with partial or total demolition. Two days before the Sanjiang outrage, a large Catholic pilgrimage center on a mountain saw a large, sacred statuary of Jesus, Mary and the saints walled off or carted off. An anti-religious drive appears underway in Zhejiang with the full approval of the highest provincial leadership. Targets are Protestant and Catholic churches and Buddhist shrines which are too prominent to the public view. The campaign is using the pretext of building regulations to accuse churches of having “illegal structures” or threatening demolition on the specious grounds that their red crosses are too prominent.
It is of great concern that this campaign of persecution is headed by no less than the Party Secretary for the whole of Zhejiang Province, Xia Baolong. Xia is known to have close connections with the very highest government authorities in Beijing, according to a report by ChinaAid on April 10, 2014. Xia has also warned against the supposed “infiltration of hostile Western forces.” If Xia has these connections, the persecution in Zhejiang cannot be dismissed as the whim of some Maoist local officials. There are also disturbing reports of some similar incidents occurring in other provinces with churches under threat in Anhui, Henan and the northeast.
The government has recently made it clear that it is happy to stress a return to traditional Chinese values based on Confucianism and Buddhism. Western culture and universal human rights are negated and, by implication, so is Protestant Christianity, which is wrongly stigmatized as Western, or even American. Thankfully, there are many in the Party who see Christians as a positive force in society who should be mobilized to help address the many challenges China faces: a large aging population, millions of disabled people, drug addicts etc. However, growing nationalism can be mobilized to create prejudice against Christians. At this point it is not clear which of these two conflicting currents will ultimately win out. However, we have known for two years from government publications openly on sale in Beijing that the Party’s top advisors on religion have warned that the growth of the Chinese church will soon be unstoppable.
There are some observers and those within China who believe the new wave of persecution in Wenzhou is a test case or trial balloon. This testing is often done by the Party, such as with its gradual winding-down of the One Child Policy by making new rules in select provinces to see whether the new policy could be unrolled nationally. If the government is doing a similar thing with churches, persecution in Wenzhou could be a prelude to nationwide persecution, with not even TSPM churches exempt from demolition and harassment under the pretext of safety and building regulations. This state of affairs would be an enormous backward step and destroy the goodwill China enjoys overseas. Let us pray that this campaign will wither away and die as common sense prevails.
(This article draws from news releases in the South China Morning Post, Washington Post, ChinaAid, Daily Telegraph, The Economist and various Chinese-language sources from April and May 2014.)
Editor’s note: We are not yet able to see the whole picture of how the Wenzhou Sanjiang incident will evolve. Let us continue to lift up the whole situation before the Lord.