Since the beginning of 2014, thousands of “oversized” crosses have been removed across the Zhejiang Province in southeast China. An already tense situation intensified after the forced demolition of a church complex that began in March 2014. The Three Rivers Church, a magnificent landmark building, became the focus of attention at home and abroad. Although hundreds of Christians gathered spontaneously or organized themselves into efficient human shields, the government refused to compromise. As its base was blasted, the 180-foot high spire finally collapsed, and the whole building was razed to the ground soon afterwards. The official explanation was that the building far exceeded the approved size. Was this all there was to it? What is the policy behind such demolitions?
In March 2013 the Zhejiang provincial government launched a three-year campaign known as “Three Reconstructions and One Demolition,” whose goal was to reconstruct old residential areas, former factory districts and villages in the city. In the course of its implementation, illegal buildings would be demolished. This campaign was swiftly put into action by local governments. The county government of Yongjia (in Wenzhou prefecture) responded energetically to the top-down campaign and straightaway initiated a project – “Building the Province’s Most Beautiful Highway.” In order that the project could be carried through, the Three Rivers Church was to be relocated and its new premises were completed in September 2013. The relocation of this church was selected as one of the model projects of Wenzhou prefecture. Even before the demolition, enthusiastic media coverage of the new church structure could be found on the official website of the Wenzhou government. But then, after the church building had been identified as illegal, the coverage was replaced by a revised one, from which the Three Rivers Church had been erased.
The Yongjia government declared that the Religious Affairs Bureau had given approval for an edifice of 1,881 square meters, but the new building actually measured 11,004 square meters, far exceeding the permitted size. It is worth remembering that this building belonged to an officially recognized church and had been accorded the status of being a model project; therefore local officials could not have been unaware of its construction. It is not uncommon in China for churches, even registered ones, to be built without formal permission first having been sought, usually because people are aware that strict official control of religious venues usually makes obtaining normal approval impossible. In many cases, churches are accorded official recognition after, rather than before, they have been constructed.
The central government never lifted a finger to halt the Zhejiang provincial government’s campaign. What could have been the policy behind these recent demolitions? Scholars of Chinese religions have been looking at a speech by Xi Jinping (President of the People’s Republic of China and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party) in April 2016, hoping to dig out potential trends in religious policy through a nuanced understanding of the wording. The movement advocating church demolition and the removal of crosses was not once referred to in the speech. Nevertheless, the fact that Jiangsu province, adjacent to Zhejiang, was promoted as a model of “the elimination of simple, rough-and-ready work methods that could result in extreme individual or group events,” that is: in opposition to the Zhejiang Movement, has led scholars to infer that the CCP Central Committee has a negative attitude toward Zhejiang. In spite of the fact that the Zhejiang movement was ignored in the speech, the continuation of the demolition project now suggests that this interpretation was a mistake. The Zhejiang Movement is still very much alive.
Xi Jinping and his administration have launched a series of political movements devised to strengthen ideological control. The current political situation has led academics to suppose that the Zhejiang Movement that targets Christianity so explicitly actually reflects the intention of the top leadership. It is increasingly likely that the central government’s acquiescence in the provincial government’s harshness toward Christianity reflects the fact that the top leaders questioned the efficiency, and consequently the political loyalty, of local officials. It may be that Zhejiang should be seen as a pilot province, and that the new regulations on religious buildings will be applied to all religions across the country.
Given the complexity of religious policy and variability in political atmosphere in today’s China, it is not uncommon that, in many instances, scholars of contemporary Chinese Christianity have to conjecture the true intentions of the top party-state leadership.
Originally published by Leiden Religion Blog, Jan 23, 2017: