Aug 18, 2014

Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire

Ian Johnson
May 29, 2014
New York Times

WENZHOU, China — For nearly a year, the Sanjiang Church was the pride of this city’s growing Christian population. A landmark in the fast-developing northern suburbs, its 180-foot spire rose dramatically against a rocky promontory. Wenzhou, called “China’s Jerusalem” for the churches dotting the cityscape, was known for its relaxed ties between church and state, and local officials lauded the church as a model project.

Late last month, however, the government ordered it torn down, saying it violated zoning regulations. After fruitless negotiations and a failed effort by the congregation to occupy the church, on April 28 backhoes and bulldozers knocked down the walls and sent the spire toppling to the ground.

“People are stunned,” said one member of the congregation, who asked that she be identified only by her English name, Mabel, out of fear of government reprisals. “They have completely lost faith in the local religious authorities.”

This urban area of nine million in eastern China, nestled between rugged mountains and a jagged coastline, has moved to the center of a national battle with a Communist Party increasingly suspicious of Christianity and the Western values it represents. Since March, at least a dozen other churches across Zhejiang Province have been told to remove their crosses or have received demolition orders, a significant escalation in a party campaign to counter the influence of China’s fastest-growing religion.

The government has defended its actions, saying the churches violated zoning restrictions. However, an internal government document reviewed by The New York Times makes it clear the demolitions are part of a strategy to reduce Christianity’s public profile.

The nine-page provincial policy statement says the government aims to regulate “excessive religious sites” and “overly popular” religious activities, but it specifies only one religion, Christianity, and one symbol, crosses.

“The priority is to remove crosses at religious activity sites on both sides of expressways, national highways and provincial highways,” the document says. “Over time and in batches, bring down the crosses from the rooftops to the facade of the buildings.”

The Sanjiang demolition in particular drew national attention because the church was officially sanctioned, not one of the independent, underground churches that often run afoul of the government. Moreover, a central ally of President Xi Jinping played a decisive role in its destruction.

The case created a backlash even in government-controlled religious circles, with prominent theologians at government seminaries publicly criticizing the handling of it.

“Nothing hurts the people more than bulldozing their church,” Chen Yilu, head of the government-sponsored Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, the country’s most influential, said in an interview. “It was handled too aggressively.”

Gao Ying, dean of the official Yanjing Theological Seminary in Beijing, said: “The Sanjiang Church was a legal and registered congregation. I think they deserved a better outcome.”

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The leveling of the Sanjiang Church came amid growing tensions not only between Christianity and the Communist government, but also between Christianity and other religions. It was preceded by a local petition accusing the church of destroying the area’s feng shui, geomantic principles that underlie traditional Chinese folk religion. Others complained that churches were crowding out traditional temples, which compete for space in the hilly region.

“As Christianity becomes stronger, it jostles up against other religions,” said Mayfair Yang, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has done field work on religious land conflicts in Wenzhou.

Increasingly, those other religions are receiving greater support from the Communist Party. In March, Mr. Xi praised Buddhism for its contributions to China. And late last year, on a visit to Confucius’ hometown, he picked up two volumes on Confucianism and, in a reversal of the party’s longtime antagonism, issued a rare endorsement: “I need to read these books very carefully.”

While churches in China are mainly privately financed — Sanjiang was built with $5.5 million in donations — traditional religious sites have expanded with strong government support. The government has also made a U-turn on how it treats indigenous religious practices. Just a decade ago, the Communist Party condemned fortunetelling, feng shui and many traditional funerary rites as “feudal superstition.” Now, these are protected under government programs to support “intangible cultural heritage.”

Christianity, however, is seen by some in the government as a colonial vestige at odds with the party’s control of political and social life.

“There’s also uneasiness that some of these Christian religions are getting infusions of logistical and financial and doctrinal support from abroad,” Professor Yang said.

Protestantism is also linked to a national debate about “universal values.” Some Chinese Protestants argue that rights such as freedom of expression are God-given, and thus cannot be taken away by the state. These beliefs have led many Protestants to take up human rights work. A disproportionate number of lawyers handling prominent political cases, for example, are Protestant.

Fenggang Yang, a professor of religion at Purdue University, said that Protestantism did not directly challenge the state, but that leaders had come to see it that way.

“The political threat of Christianity to the regime has been exaggerated by some officials,” he said. “So much so that it’s become a shared perception by top officials.”

Officials refused to comment for this article, but in reports in the government-run news media, they have said they are simply trying to come to grips with the sometimes anarchic construction in this freewheeling city.

Wenzhou has demolished 32 million square feet of buildings, mostly commercial properties, since last year, according to news reports. Officials were quoted as saying that Sanjiang Church was built without proper zoning, taking up five times the 20,000 square feet allowed by its permits and sitting on land zoned for agricultural use. Non-Christian religious sites are being torn down, too, they said, including a smaller folk religion temple near the church.

“Right now, certain believers online suspect that the government ‘selectively operates law’ in the case of forced demolition of Sanjiang religious facility,” a Wenzhou official was quoted as saying in the government-run Morning Express newspaper. “Here, we’d like to restate that we will continue to abide by the party’s religious policy, respect religious freedom of the people and provide protection for legal religious venues.”

The church’s problems seem to have begun with a visit to the region in October by the provincial party secretary, Xia Baolong, a close ally of President Xi. Visiting a new economic zone north of Wenzhou, Mr. Xia was reportedly disturbed that a religious building, especially one seen as representing a foreign belief, dominated the skyline. The next month, members of the congregation said, they were told to remove the cross atop their church’s steeple.

“Xia Baolong came to inspect last autumn, and he saw the cross,” said an official in the Wenzhou government’s religious hierarchy. “He said: ‘Take down the cross. It’s so high, and it’s not appropriate.’ But the people said: ‘Well, we’ve already put it up there, and from a faith point of view, it’s our faith, the cross. How can we take it down?’ ”

Officials argued that the church violated zoning rules, but the provincial policy paper suggests that argument was a tactical cover. The paper, called “Working Document Concerning the Realization of Handling of Illegal Religious Buildings,” said the policy would face international scrutiny so officials should be careful to cloak their effort under the guise of cracking down on building codes. “Be particular about tactics, be careful about methods,” it said, urging officials to focus on the idea of “illegal construction.” “This is crucial to investigate and prosecute from the perspective of laws and regulations to avoid inviting heavy criticism.”

The document is undated, but government religious officials say it was issued last summer by the Wenzhou administration of religious affairs in conjunction with a government bureau charged with demolishing illegal buildings.

In March, the government increased the pressure, saying if the cross was not removed and most of an auxiliary building torn down, the entire church would be demolished.

Senior members of the congregation and Wenzhou officials tried to broker a deal. But in interviews, they said they were opposed by a majority of the congregation, who would not agree to remove the cross, and by provincial officials working for Mr. Xia, who insisted that the church was illegal and must be torn down.

The 2011 agreement to build the church had been signed by the congregation and by the local bureau of religious affairs, representing the government. That the religious affairs bureau now says it did not get the land rezoned strikes many as an internal government problem. So, too, does the argument that the church was bigger than planned, a violation that officials and members of the congregation agree the government encouraged.

“They said, ‘This will be your last church for 20 years, so make it big,’ ” said a member of the Sanjiang congregation involved in the negotiations. “They also told us that the development zone was a big project and needed a big church as a sign of how this was an outward-looking community.”

An official in the city’s religious affairs bureau acknowledged that “officials said it could be bigger, but perhaps this was a mistake.”

The provincial government announced this month that it had arrested two Wenzhou officials and was investigating another three in connection with the church. The accusations against them appear to be that they approved the church’s prominent location and size.

Sim Chi Yin contributed reporting from Wenzhou. Lucy Chen and Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.