Why are churches still being demolished in China?

A cross on an underground Catholic church is silhouetted in Tianjin, China, on Nov. 10, 2013. Church leaders have pledged to 'make the cross flourish throughout China' amid a government crackdown.Reuters

Over the past two years, countless stories of church demolitions and cross removals have come out of China. Estimates vary, but the total figure of churches affected is believed to be somewhere between 1,500 and 1,700 – a move that campaigners have branded unprecedented, or at least not seen since the harrowing days of the Cultural Revolution.

The demolition campaign began in Zhejiang province, on the east coast of China, in late 2013. The provincial government had launched a three-year 'Three Rectifications and One Demolition' campaign in March of that year, supposedly with the aim of exposing and removing "illegal structures" in the region. However, as the campaign got under way, it became apparent that religious buildings, specifically churches, were the real target.

Running in parallel to this, an increasingly negative government rhetoric regarding Christianity emerged. The ruling Communist party (CPC) was evidently becoming progressively more suspicious of the influence of Christianity in China, where the faith is experiencing monumental growth. Reports suggest that up to 10,000 people are becoming Christians every day and while there were just one million believers when the CPC came to power in 1949, there are now thought to be as many as 100 million. By 2030, one expert has estimated that China will be home to more Christians than any other country in the world.

'Hostile foreign influence'

Various Chinese officials have expressed concern at the velocity of this growth. On July 1, 2013, the Secretary of the Zhejiang Provincial Committee of the CPC, Xia Baolong, warned against the influence of the underground Church in China. In October of that year, he ordered a church to remove its cross, insisting that its height – and therefore visibility – was "not appropriate", marking the beginning of the cross campaign. In January 2014, Xia began undertaking official inspections of church buildings in the region, with more receiving orders to remove their crosses, or having them forcibly taken down.

President Xi Jinping in May called for religion to be incorporated into "socialist society", leading to concerns that the CPC is trying to nationalise Christianity.Reuters

As the province's top official, Xia is said to enjoy a close relationship with President Xi Jinping – previously Zhejiang's govenor – and there has been some speculation that his crackdown on Christianity is part of Xia's personal bid to cement political power. Speaking anonymously to Christian Today earlier this year, an expert on China said that President Xi has introduced a hard-line approach to various parts of civil society, including religion, since taking office in 2013. He has also expressed a desire for China to return to traditional beliefs, rather than 'western' religions, and it's possible that zealous party members like Xia are trying to prove their allegiance by promoting the demolition campaign.

Bob Fu, founder and president of human rights organisation China Aid, confirmed to Christian Today that Xia is a "close confidante" of Xi, and that overall policies on civil society "took a dramatic worsening turn" when the president took power. "We have all the hard facts indicating that under President Xi, more dissidents have been arrested than the previous two decades combined, and more human rights defenders and lawyers have been detained or are missing," he said. "Really the ideological war has already been started by Xi Jinping, so just one part of the war against Christianity has been lit up from Zhejiang, but it's not a new thing from a national level."

Indeed, Chinese religious policy has long indicated a serious concern that 'hostile foreign influence' could infiltrate society and subvert party power; foreign missionaries were forced out of the country when the CPC took over and there remains a legacy of distrust. China last year announced plans to introduce its own brand of national theology and in May 2015, Xi called for a curbing of outside influences.  "We must manage religious affairs in accordance with the law and adhere to the principle of independence to run religious groups on our own accord," Xi said at a top-level CPC meeting. "Active efforts should be made to incorporate religions into socialist society."

President Xi, Fu said, has a "very antagonistic perception against the Christian faith" and this seems to have been taken up by officials other than Xia. The chairman of Zhejiang's ethnic and religious affair committee, Feng Zhili, said the growth of Christianity was "too excessive and too haphazard" in speech early last year. He also criticised "deep-rooted" problems in the development of Christianity in the region, and condemned the way in which it he said it had caused "social friction".

According to Fu, Christians in Zhejiang play a very active role in society, from helping the poor and vulnerable to holding key roles in the public sector and this may have led to its targeting – "I think the Church has become a hub for many who need help, and essentially the CPC felt vulnerable," he explained. Interestingy, many of the churches that have had their crosses removed, or been entirely demolished, are in Wenzhou, a large city of more than three million people in the southwest of the province. Dubbed the "Jerusalem of the East", it reportedly has the largest Christian community in China.

Sanjiang Church was demolished in April last year, following a stand off between Christians and local police.Twitter

One of the most high-profile demolitions to date was that of Sanjiang church in Wenzhou. Thousands of Christians flocked to the church on April 3, 2014 to form a 24-hour human shield after it received a demolition notice claiming the building had been constructed illegally. As part of the government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the 2,000 seater building had previously been thought safe from the crackdown. Though officials initially agreed to rescind the notice, the church was eventually demolished on April 28.

"This is unprecedented since the founding of the Three-Self movement in 1953," Fu said of the targeting of government-sanctioned churches. "It's a major shock to the Three-Self church leaders; that's why the whole campaign has been met with very strong resistance and resentment."

A 'war of minds and hearts'

Though Beijing maintains that it is merely trying to reduce the number of illegal buildings, the New York Times reported last year that a policy statement by the Zhejiang provincial government in May 2014 "makes it clear the demolitions are part of a strategy to reduce Christianity's public profile." There are now concerns that the campaign will be rolled out across other Chinese provinces; Fu said that some churches in Fujian province, just south of Zhejiang, have already reported an order pending to carry out cross removals, but it seems to have been "paused or delayed" for now.

"At the end of the day, it is – to use the Communist party's own words – about a war of minds and hearts," Fu said. "The CPC's top leaders see they are losing the battle, because even many of their own in the party have chosen to go to church and become Christians."

The CPC is the largest political party in the world, with around 80 million members. It is officially atheist, meaning that members cannot publicly hold religious beliefs, and Fu said that in Zhejiang there has been a kind of "purging".

"Members have to re-register with a form, and declare if they are affiliated with any religion. If they are, they have to either leave the party or the faith," he said. "I think there is an anxiety, though I don't think [Christianity] poses an immediate political threat to the Communist party. I think it's rather in a panic mode."

The future of Christianity in China

"The campaign continues," Fu said. "We continue to receive demolition notices in different areas, so there is no sign of it stopping....Also Xia Baolong still holds his power tightly, and he is close to the central leadership in Beijing, which is a sign that the campaign will be spreading to other provinces."

But as for the future of Christianity in China, Fu is optimistic. "I think actually this campaign will bring more glory to God than to the Communist party," he said. He believes it will result in a significant independent church movement, and says that it has already served to unite Catholics and Protestants, as well as Three-Self and house churches. "It will instigate an even stronger growth of the Christian faith," he added.

"I'm very optimistic, and really feel this is one of the coolest things God has been instigating in China. The CPC has become a true servant of God."