‘God’s United Front’ and the Battle Over China’s Crosses

This article first appear in Chinese on September 2 in Hong Kong-based outlet The Initium Media. Foreign Policy translates with permission, with edits for brevity and clarity.

On the evening of August 16, nearly one hundred pastors, ministers, and church elders gathered in the assembly room of Trinity Chapel, a small village church in the port city of Wenzhou in China’s eastern Zhejiang province. In this city, the tallest, stateliest buildings are often the churches. But over the past year, a major government campaign has sought to reduce Christianity’s visual—and assumedly spiritual—footprint in the province by demolishing hundreds of church crosses.

Hailing from Wenzhou’s Pingyang district, those gathered at Trinity on August 16 were leaders in the struggle to protect the symbols of their faith. The church leaders, usually rowdy during lectures, sat rapt and listened as Zhang Kai, a lawyer with the Xinqiao Law Firm in Beijing and a fellow Christian, spoke. “If a region such as yours, with over a dozen churches per district, can’t keep a cross from being destroyed,” Zhang charged, “then how can we hope that churches tucked away on the mountainside, or in cities where there is only a single church, will be able to resist?” As he spoke at the assembly that evening, Zhang paced back and forth, his voice lifting an octave. “Today, with Wenzhou facing this kind of coercion, I believe that God has a greater plan. It’s only through completing this test that Wenzhou’s churches will be able to assume the leadership of the mission of the church in China, and deserve the title of China’s Jerusalem.”

In addition to forming human walls and other siege-like defense tactics that local church-goers have utilized in order to physically prevent demolition, legal defense has become a new weapon in the arsenal that Wenzhou Christians use to keep their crosses. Those listening likely knew how valuable Zhang’s expertise as a leading rights defense lawyer could be for their congregations; but surely none realized how limited their time to learn from him would be, for Zhang would disappear into China’s opaque, quasi-legal detention apparatus just nine days later.

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Authorities have taken down crucifixes all across Zhejiang province—more than 1200, according to statistics from the government-backed Zhejiang Christian Council—but it’s in the coastal hub of Wenzhou that the government campaign has faced the toughest resistance. Wenzhou was one of the earliest destinations for foreign Protestant missionaries in China, with Scottish Protestant George Stott of Britain’s China Inland Mission arriving in 1866. That early mission work seems to have had lasting influence; the port city is often known as “China’s Jerusalem” for its many churches and its large number of Christians, which at an estimated 10 percent of the population is the highest in all of China. During the political movements of the 1950s and 1960s, when Party enthusiasts sought to root out perceived enemies of communism, campaigns to eradicate religion swept the city multiple times. But church activities persisted despite fierce oppression.

Local Christians now believe that state repression has returned to Zhejiang with the central government’s tacit blessing. In April 2014, the first wave of demolition notices went out to about 40 churches in Wenzhou’s Pingyang county, and the crosses of several were removed. In August 2014, the State Administration for Religious Affairs began calling in earnest for the creation of a “Chinese Christian theology,” or what many believe to be doctrinal justification for the subjugation of the church to the ruling Communist Party. From the perspective of many Wenzhou church workers, these were signals that the government wants to exercise complete control over churches. “Such forceful cross demolition is clearly aimed at humiliating Christianity,” said Li Daohui, a pastor in Pingyang county who wished to use a pseudonym to avoid official reprisal. “It has allowed everyone to see clearly that this is religious oppression.”

But seven churches in Pingyang, including Xianqiao Church and Zengshan Church, resisted. They mobilized believers from surrounding areas to come protect their crosses day and night. Zhu Kuayi, a pastor from neighboring Cangnan County who wished to use a pseudonym to avoid official reprisal, recalls that every day the parish would arrange people to go protect each church, sending them over in buses. Every day there were hundreds of people stationed at each threatened church.

This method, however, largely failed. The government acted quickly to contain the mutual aid network. According to church leaders, their flock has been subject to pressure and threats from local officials, who demanded that they stop protecting the sanctuaries. Many Christians, especially those who owned factories or small businesses, stopped participating because of the pressure. Government demolitions also increased in scope, and gradually, six of the seven churches eventually lost the battle, and their crosses.

Zengshan Church was the last standing, relying on the full participation of the county’s large Christian population to help protect its single cross. “On October 11, [2014], we called a meeting of all the churches in Pingyang county, everyone who had tried to protect the crosses,” said Zengshan Church elder Fang Shou’ai, who wished to use a pseudonym to avoid official reprisal. By this time, the church had been fighting the demolition for more than 100 days, and the energy of the church members was depleted. “We explained to everyone the danger we were in,” said Fang. The resulting meeting reached a consensus: They would concentrate the resources of the whole county on protecting this one house of worship. Starting the next day, one thousand people came to watch over Zengshan Church almost every day. “God’s united front” is what Fang called it.

At Zengshan, activists deployed all the tactics they had learned so far in the struggle to protect church crosses: Place large stones in front of the main gates so that vehicles could not approach. Cover the main gate with black cloth so that no one can see in. Construct a couple of small structures directly behind the gate and let the young and strong sleep there at night. Place barbed wire atop the fences surrounding church property. Install surveillance cameras all around the facility, so that intruders can be detected at a moment’s notice. Install a loudspeaker warning system to call for help if needed. Prepare special teams to go protect the cross with their own physical bodies if needed in an emergency. That was how Zengshan alone has been able to keep its cross safe.

But such a strategy is only feasible if a large Christian population concentrates its collective effort on a single sanctuary; in the face of a province-wide onslaught, many churches will inevitably be left in the cold. Lawyer Zhang has encouraged Wenzhou houses of worship to use legal means to protect themselves through a strategy called “defense as offense,” in which congregations hire lawyers to flood local authorities with lawsuits, hopefully becoming enough of a nuisance that officials cease their attempts to remove the crucifixes.

Xialing Church in Wenzhou’s Lucheng district demonstrates how effective “defense as offense” can be. On December 2, 2014, the church received an ultimatum—vacate the church immediately, or the cross will be forcible removed. “We received the notice at 11 a.m., and by 2 p.m. Zhang Kai was saying he would come to Wenzhou,” said Xialing Church minister Chen Zongyi, who wished to use a pseudonym to avoid official reprisal. “We held a meeting that evening. Everyone agreed that since it’s reached this point, we need to get a lawyer’s advice.” After Zhang arrived and listened to the full details of the church’s situation, he proposed an array of rights defense measures, explaining to the church staff that it would cost from $50,000 to $80,000 to implement. The church agreed to his proposal, saying it would borrow the necessary money.

A week later, a team of 11 lawyers arrived at Xialing Church, where they proposed four lawsuits—requiring the government to compensate the church for the stairs that had been damaged in its previous attempt to remove the church cross; claiming that the government, in an administrative violation, had switched off the church’s water and electricity without explanation; filing an administrative suit against the government for its announcement that it would be demolishing “illegal” construction; and requiring that related government offices publicly disclose information related to the demolitions.

This legal counterattack seemed to shock the Lucheng district authorities, who began a weeks-long dialogue with the church.

In the end, the authorities and the church reached a tacit understanding: If you stop coming after me with lawsuits, I won’t tear down your cross. Things have remained quiet at the church ever since. The success at Xialing made Zhang famous in Zhejiang. By August 2015, the number of churches he represented had grown to almost one hundred.

Other churches have instigated a game of crucifix whack-a-mole with local officials. One morning at the beginning of August 2015, with the sun already high in the sky, several hundred Christians surrounded Mingli Church in Pingyang county, whose staff requested the church use a pseudonym to avoid official reprisal. The heads of those present all tilted upwards looking at a single point—two wooden boards nailed to each other and painted red, being lifted to the top of this small chapel. It was their third time putting up a new cross.

“Near the cross, near the cross, be my glory ever”—it wasn’t clear who started it, but soon the church members were singing the old hymn “Near the Cross” over and over again. Few used to sing this song, but in the past year it has become a virtual anthem, sung at every gathering of those fighting to protect the symbols of their faith. According to statistics kept by local Christians, about one quarter of the Pingyang county churches whose crosses have been destroyed have already rebuilt them, in some cases multiple times. Mingli Church had put up a new cross just five days before, only to see it stealthily removed that very evening.

The idea of legal defense has made inroads here as well. The congregation had also put up surveillance equipment, but that was removed along with their cross, and authorities refused to return it. “If they take down our cross we’ll just put up a new one, but we had wanted to get footage of them stealing the cross so we can use it to sue them,” said one of the church elders. Last year, churches wouldn’t give interviews, but now they even allow reporters into their policy meetings. Multiple churches in this parish have signed agency agreements with Zhang. “The struggle here needs attention and support from outside,” one parish elder told me.

In May 2015, Zhejiang provincial officials introduced what is known as the “five enters and five changes” policy, meaning that religion should be localized, management should be standardized, theology should be localized, finances should be transparent, and doctrine should be adapted. There is no direct evidence proving that Zhejiang’s official “five enters and five changes” policy is connected to the idea of the sinification of Christianity, but according to Pastor Li, those who resist cross demolitions in Zhejiang link the two in a single sentence: “We hope that China will Christianize, but they hope that Christianity will sinicize.”

The specific implementation of “five enters and five changes” is far from clear. But on August 24, the day before Zhang and the other activists were detained, the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of Zhejiang issued a policy draft indicating that any “violations” relating to religious sites, schools, activities, funds, and communications would be subject to punishment, fines, and confiscation of property—though the draft did not delineate what such violations might entail.

Despite the success that Zhang’s legal approach afforded to his church, Xialing pastor Chen feels pessimistic about the future of Wenzhou’s sanctuaries. “Most churches can’t hold up under this,” he said. “But such churches are no longer God’s churches.”

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It was after 11 p.m. when the August 16 meeting at Trinity Chapel finally drew to a close. Zhang had come to Pingyang district at a critical time for many of its churches in their struggle to protect their crosses. Over the course of the evening, representatives from different congregations had converged upon Zhang one after another, asking him almost desperately for advice. Some churches represented at the meeting had members who had formerly been detained and were still under surveillance or out on bail. Some congregations had a large number of business owners, and their factories had been threatened by government authorities due to their congregation’s resistance; these church members wanted to withdraw from the fight. Others had already been working to protect their houses of worship for an entire year, and they were physically and mentally exhausted.

But after almost two hours of discussion, while many in the audience had not yet grasped what a full legal rights defense would entail, a new fervor seemed to have spread among those present. “I agree strongly with Lawyer Zhang Kai’s line of thinking, and we have already signed him as our lawyer,” said Zhang Chongzhu (no relation to Zhang Kai), pastor of the Divine Love Church in Wenzhou’s Gaosha Village. “Whether or not it works, we’ll just have to see how things turn out.” After the meeting had ended, Zhang Kai sat on the church steps, eating sweet rice porridge while the snores of the faithful, staying the night at the chapel, rose around him.

Nine days later, late at night, police stormed Xialing Church and detained Zhang Kai along with 12 others, including minister Zhang Chongzhu and two lawyers. Zhang Kai’s partner, lawyer Yang Xingquan, has confirmed through the Wenzhou public security bureau that Zhang Kai is suspected of endangering national security and gathering a crowd to disturb social order, both vague allegations Chinese authorities invoke to detain dissidents, lawyers, and protesters. Zhang Kai may be held under surveillance in an undisclosed location for up to six months, likely without access to a lawyer or family visitation. These detentions mark a heavy blow for the “defense as offense” strategy.

“We were surprised, but it wasn’t beyond our expectation,” said young minister Wang Xunzhu, who wished to use a pseudonym to avoid official reprisal. “We are angry, but we also feel compassion for the ignorant people [who have done this]. We are always prepared; what will come will come.”

Translated by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.