What Actual Religious Persecution Looks Like — In China

A Chinese Christian prays in Beijing. CREDIT: AP
A Chinese Christian prays in Beijing. CREDIT: AP

Americans have been arguing for months over issues of religious liberty, with lawmakers and pundits locked in fierce debates over whether or not laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people and legalizing same-sex marriage constitute a “war on religion.”

But on the other side of the world in China’s Zhejiang province, a fight over religious freedom is far less abstract. Earlier this week, the provincial government of Zhejiang made public a new draft proposal calling for the removal of crosses from the tops of churches and outlining a rigid policy that would greatly restrict their display. According to the New York Times, the regulations will reduce the Christian symbol to obscurity, mandating that they only be installed on the side — not the top — of structures, be a color that blends into their surroundings, and extend no more than one-tenth the height of the building’s facade.

Carsten Vala, research fellow at Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, told ThinkProgress that the policy appears to be the latest move in a sustained effort by local officials to reduce the visibility and influence of Christianity in Zhejiang, whose unusually large Christian presence — roughly 10 percent of the local population — has earned the city the nickname “China’s Jerusalem.” Despite heated protests, the government has forcibly removed the crosses from several churches in the province over the past year, and even tore down the 180-foot spire of state-sponsored Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou, China last May.

“We thought the storm of toppling crosses had stopped,” one pastor from Wenzhou told the Times, “but it hasn’t.”

But while Vala stressed that the situation in Zhejiang is somewhat localized, he acknowledged that it is also part of a long history of anti-religious sentiment on the part of the Chinese government.

“The larger context here is the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party to limit the public influence of Christianity,” he said.

Indeed, the news comes just two weeks after the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom unveiled its 2015 report, which listed China alongside 16 other nations as a “country of particular concern” for inhibiting the religious expression of its citizens. The report detailed various restrictions Chinese authorities have placed on Christians, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and other faith groups, noting that “people of faith continue to face arrests, fines, denials of justice, lengthy prison sentences, and in some cases, the closing or bulldozing of places of worship.” Zhejiang’s cross policy also follows the recent jailing of a local pastor, Huang Yizi, who spoke out against the removal of crosses and blasted the government for beating more than 50 parishioners who gathered outside his church to stop officials from taking down a cross. Yizi was sentenced to one year in jail for his activism.

This antagonistic approach to religion emanates from the ideology of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which is officially atheist and bans openly religious individuals from joining its ranks. The government formally recognizes five religious groups in the country, but they have maintained tight-fisted control over their affairs: authorities only allow state-sanctioned versions of religion to worship freely, national committees hand-appoint all bishops of the Chinese Catholic Church instead of the Vatican, and last year the State Administration for Religious Affairs announced plans to create their own state-sanctioned version of Christian theology, citing unhappiness with existing Protestant beliefs.

But Vala noted that all these attempts to squash religious belief could backfire in the long run, especially the kind of policies implemented in Zhejiang, which are targeting state-sponsored religious groups that are supposedly guaranteed relative freedom by the government. Chinese Christians, he explained, often respond to oppression by flocking to one of the country’s many unsanctioned “house churches.” Leaders from these congregations are regularly arrested and detained, but that hasn’t stopped believers from organizing new “black market” worshipping communities — with or without government approval.

“In many ways it is likely to transform Christianity rather than halt its expansion in the region,” he said. “If the government restricts official religion, then those Christians will then go into the unregistered churches.”

The government’s actions in Zhejiang could also hurt the local economy, since the new policies challenge a longstanding truce between the city and its Christians — many of whom are major players in local markets.

“A lot of those Christians are entrepreneurs, so they bring a lot of business and jobs,” he said. “When I interview people [in Zhejiang], they say Christians there only care about two things: God and making money.’”

Regardless of the immediate outcome in Zhejiang, however, the crackdown on religious groups runs the risk of inspiring a wave of faith-based protestors. Many of the key organizers during the 2014 Hong Kong pro-democracy protests were Christians, for example, a fact partially linked to concerns that the government will institute oppressive policies on religious denizens of the democratically-minded city.