by Ting Guo

What is behind the church demolitions in Wenzhou?

Recent demolitions of churches and destruction of holy statues in Wenzhou have raised the issue of official Chinese state policy towards Christians. The question is: are they being singled out for persecution, or are they victims in a broader struggle?

When news first emerged during April of the attacks on Christian buildings at Longgang Hill, a Catholic pilgrimage site in the city of Wenzhou in the south-east province of Zhejiang more than 1400 miles south-east of Beijing, there was a chorus of protest, both in China and in the wider world.

The massive (Catholic) Sanjiang mega-church, big enough for 3,000 worshippers and constructed over the course of 12 years at a cost of more than US$4m to its parishioners, was bulldozed, whilst nearby statues built along a ‘Way of the Cross’ up to the church at the top of the hill disappeared behind hastily-constructed walls or were removed by crane. Forty-eight hours later, a Protestant church in the city was also destroyed on official orders.

The demolitions were resisted when they were first announced – strongly according to some reports, with thousands of Catholics initially mounting a round-the-clock defence outside the church, in an attempt to stop the demolition. “Even if the authorities determined that erecting religious articles on the site is against the law, they should allow us to appeal through legal means,” Joseph, a Wenzhou Catholic who declined to give his full name due to security concerns, told UCA News. “This could help build the rule of law in society and stop corruption.”

On the surface it looked as if the bad old days of the Cultural Revolution were on the way back. Then, in the decade from 1966-76, thousands of religious buildings – Christian, Buddhist and Moslem – were destroyed and believers were denounced and persecuted. However, events in Wenzhou cannot be explained as the actions of a single megalomaniac or even the declared policy of the Party. On closer inspection, however, these two events entail something more complicated that demands our attention.

Other media sources attempted to portray the demolitions as the result of a planning dispute, suggesting that the Longgang church had been constructed illegally, without conforming to local planning rules. But the local authorities had only declared the church illegal in March and had previously made no attempt to bar its construction.

While one can source freely among the numerous news stories and commentaries (and perhaps some unofficial buzz) on this event, there is an important facet that becomes crystallised in this sea of information; that is, the three-fold reality of religion in China, including the reality portrayed in overseas media, the reality described in Chinese media, and the reality lived by religious practitioners and religious leaders in different localities.

The explanation for what happened in Wenzhou is likely to be much more complicated than the government’s determination to destroy religious freedom, or a sudden whim to review provincial urban planning. While it is difficult to discern the truth from either the Chinese government’s or various media’s statement, this event implies something more important: the tension between local and central government.

This was a theme taken up by the well-informed South China Morning Post which suggested that the initial decision to allow the construction of such a prominent church, complete with its ceremonial way and massive cross, was a local decision, approved by local officials.

There is plenty of support for this view. Soon after the demolition, senior provincial officials in the Zhejiang province county of Yongjia announced plans to punish five more junior bureaucrats, accusing them of a breach of duty for failing to stop the construction of the Church.

Deputy county governor Dai Xiaoyong said that the his government has asked for the church’s demolition in December last year, as part of a provincial crackdown on illegal buildings – although church leaders said they had only been given 15 days’ notice of the demolition in March. Dai said the accused employees, all of whom work in the bureaux of land and resources and of planning for the Wenzhou suburb of Oubei, failed to act once it became clear that the church’s construction violated building codes, even though they knew the construction was illegal. Cynics might say that it looked like they were being hung out to dry.

The final straw, according to Dai came when church officials broke a pledge to demolish at least some of the smaller buildings by 3 April.

Somewhere in all of this, according to the SCMP at least, was a dispute between local and regional power. It appears that the church had all the necessary government approvals and even operated under the auspices of the Three-Self Patriotic Church. It had originally been designated as a ‘model project’ last September, but soon after attitudes began to change. One account says that most worshippers believe it was targeted following a visit to the area by Zhejiang party secretary Xia Baolong, who was troubled by the size of the eight-storey structure, which was more than ten times bigger than the original plans allowed for.

To really understand what is behind this story, we need to understand the political complications at both county and district levels, including shifting power dynamics between the centre and the periphery, between the governing powers and governed subjects in the locality, in the face of the growing uncertainties largely caused by the external social and economic factors.

Cities such as Wenzhou and Ningbo in Eastern China have enjoyed rapid economic growth and have developed into world outsourcing hubs, thanks to their family-owned manufacturing enterprises. But, crucially, they have also encouraged and accommodated the meteoric rise of Christianity. Wenzhou in particular is regarded as “the largest Christian centre in China”. It is also home to a high percentage of Chinese restaurant owners and workers in the West and many of the religious buildings have been financed from the repatriated profits of those businesses.

As Cao Nanlai’s study of “boss Christians”  in Wenzhou shows, those financially confident, politically ambitious – and mostly Protestant – entrepreneurs are eager to make a social impact, which certainly challenges the “fractured and fragile” image of Chinese Christianity. At the same time, they are also captured in a complex power-play between individual agencies and state discipline, between the local and central state apparatus and between the local and global capitalist systems. These are Christians who want to define themselves in terms of their religion, their work ethic and also their place in the world.

They have fought long and hard for the prominence they now proudly display through their buildings and achievements. Even since the Cultural Revolution they have faced persecution, as well as internal division. Their history is full of conflict and achievement in the face of opposition.

Take the example of Father Wang, who was appointed vicar general of Wenzhou (Yongjia) diocese in the early 1950s. In 1957 he was detained and sentenced to five years imprisonment for counter-revolutionary activities. He was arrested again in 1982 and sentenced to eight years in prison. In February 1990 he was sentenced to another three years.

When he was freed aged 75 in May 1992, reportedly in response to international pressure, he returned to Wenzhou city where he was subsequently denounced by some parishioners for celebrating masses at the government-sanctioned St. Paul´s Church in Wenzhou city. Later he left for his own church at Longgang in Cangnan county, 53 kms south of Wenzhou, where his parishioners were divided, with some saying that he had compromised with the government or joined the government-sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association.

According to a UCA report from the time: “The priest admitted that the rivalry between the underground and open Church in Wenzhou diocese is “very complicated” and would not be easily resolved. “We can only rely on God and our prayers,” he concluded.”

There was further trouble throughout the nineties and into the new millennium. In December 2000 it was reported that over 450 “religious venues” had been destroyed or closed in Zhejiang, most of them in Wenzhou’s Ouhai district – the same district in which the Sanjiang mega-church was located. Back then, at least three Catholic churches were amongst the buildings demolished.

So instead of seeing the church demolitions as a religious persecution, we can view this as a hidden agenda between different levels of government attempting to uphold and strengthen their own power bases. The multiplicity and complexity of contradictions in the new power synergies between the state, the local and private economic sectors in post-reform China, also result from the criss-crossing currents between the socialist governance and neo-liberal economics.

Of course, there is no doubt that the state is always trying to maintain social control at all times. However, the desired political outcomes from local economic practices are rather contingent, not necessary a product of state-craft that is explicitly formed through the direct effects of some long-term policies, regulations, and interventions. Even though the elusive state’s governing power is admittedly recognisable from all of those practices, this does not denote that the effort of the central state is highly coordinated, which resulted in conflicts within different levels of governance.

There is a danger of letting the Communist Party overwhelm every ideological event, as the central government’s power is assumed to be part of the local, and is reinforced or complicated by local forces which had already been shaping their own socio-political configurations. Therefore, the Western media’s dramatized analysis oversimplifies, if not overlooks, the relevance of the local-host power structure of governance whereby many social and cultural undertakings of Christianity have been fashioned and created.

How do Chinese Christians really live? It depends on where you look. Some guidance can be gained by reading The Missionary’s Curse, Henrietta Harrison’s enchanting stories of a Shanxi Catholic village which is almost separated from the outside world and has been Catholic since the seventeenth century. It provides a very different view of Christianity in China compared to that shown in recent times in Wenzhou.

These two distinctive examples demonstrate that the two contrasting outlooks of Christianity originated from the very complexity of modern Chinese society itself. And the complexity of Chinese society, in turn supplies detailed accounts of life in Christian communities that have been crucial to the development of the global Christianity discourse.

House churches in particular, as a distinctive phenomenon of Christianity in China, are variously described as autonomous, independent, unofficial and underground. Current scholarship and public media mainly focus on the church-state tensions and portrays house churches as a disempowered whole or an organisational political weapon.

For instance, Karrie Koesel, assistant professor of political science at the University of Oregon, compares the rise of house churches to the spread of communism, asserting that the organisational tactics of the church are designed to protect it in a hostile political environment. In particular, the different levels of house churches are insulated from each other, with limited knowledge of the members above and below. In this way, if anyone is raided by the authorities, the others can continue to function with little interruption.

Thus, the secretive, but highly effective “organizational weapon” developed by the Bolsheviks and recycled, for example, by the Chinese Communist Party in their struggle for power, has resurfaced many years later, but this time round the “vanguard” is a religious organisation.

Z. George Hong, of West Chester University of Pennsylvania, highlights the patterns of human poverty of house churches, including the poverty of materials, of capability, of rights and of motivations. Along this line of thought, the organisation and the structure of house churches are considered to be “fractured and fragile”, lacking a well-developed awareness of its own history. House churches as institutions are limited and disrupted by the government’s imposing power. In terms of their theology, it is generally regarded as orthodox and evangelical, “eager to hear and obey God’s word”. While the fact remains that they are unregistered religious groups, the reasons behind have to do with the strict state control over anything ideological and the power struggle between the local and the central authorities.

The popular portrait of house churches or unregistered Christians being in tension with the state and the officially sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and China Christian Council (CCC), may well make sense in a Western context, but possibly neglects the specific social and political configurations in China.

Such analysis indeed shows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s undeniable control. However, these works often lack the voice of the “actually existing Christians”, their worldviews and the diversities of their religious participation. Writing in the China Quarterly, Daniel H Bays points out that the emphasis on the tension between Christianity and the government might have been an analysis projected by the evangelical organisations which tended to speak for the house churches in their publications in Hong Kong and the West when the growth of Protestantism in China was first noted after 1980.

An anthropological perspective allows us to see some types of Christianity that proves otherwise. As we have seen from the example of Wenzhou’s Christians, their wealth and social status exhibit their uncompromising ambition. And the demolition of the church building is also highly likely to be a result of power struggle between the central and the local government and largely unconnected to religion per se.

This is not to deny the CCP’s overly sensitive attitude towards religions. Just a few days after the incident in Wenzhou, it is reported that even a TSPM church in Ningbo was forcibly demolished too, simply because the cross above the building was “too shiny”. Yet, as this article has tried to argue, there are more to this story than meets the eye, therefore any quick conclusion or judgment might be just too slippery.

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