Last week, Sanjiang church in Wenzhou, a Chinese coastal city 230 miles south of Shanghai, was demolished by the local government after weeks during which members of the Protestant congregation occupied the building round the clock, forming a human shield. Local-government officials say that, given its cathedral-like size, 80,000 square feet, the church building violated zoning standards. It may have, but it was twelve years in the making, so you would think that the government might have noticed and stepped in at some point before the ribbon was cut last December.
A plausible explanation of what happened is that, while local officials thought that the architecture did Wenzhou proud and that Christians tended to make peaceable good citizens, provincial officials saw it differently, saw it late, and prevailed on the local government to pull it down. On the ground in the city of Wenzhou, the rise of Christianity over the years may well have impressed local authorities as a largely benign development needing only light management. To provincial leaders entering the city on occasion, the mushrooming of steeples and crosses may have appeared alarming.
Earlier this year, the head of Zhejiang’s Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee said that the growth of Christianity, presumably throughout China but perhaps with a tacit nod to Wenzhou, widely regarded as China’s most Christian city (its Christian population is estimated by the Chinese government to be 1 million but is almost certainly higher) has been “too excessive and too haphazard.” The provincial Communist-party chief, who has been in office only since December 2012, has complained that crosses on church facades are “too conspicuous and too flashy.” Local residents report that other churches have been ordered to remove or at least lower their crosses.
For Christians given to expressing their faith through architecture, the mandate for them to belittle it must have been especially distasteful. Cao Nanlai, an anthropologist at Renmin University, says that “Wenzhou people are very well known for their entrepreneurial spirit, and they express their Christianity through real estate,” an observation that should bring a smile to the faces of our friends at the Acton Institute. But Weibo user Pastor Yang took the church demolition as an opportunity to comment that
when it comes to our faith, the word jiaohui (church, congregation, fellowship) is not the same as jiaotang (church building). It may be possible to deal violently with a jiaotang, but not with the jiaohui. Christians shouldn’t be so sad. Maybe this is a good time to reflect and wonder if we have put too much focus on church buildings. With this jiaotang now destroyed, we should focus our efforts on building the jiaohui.
Around the time of the demolition, authorities removed Catholic statues and Stations of the Cross from a local hilltop. And two years ago, police detained the underground Catholic bishop of Wenzhou in an effort to pressure him to join the Catholic Patriotic Association, the party organization whose mission is to control Catholicism in China. The events in Wenzhou these past couple of weeks have occurred against a background of widespread persecution of Christians by the Chinese government at various levels, although I hesitate to say “persecution,” if only because I don’t want to use up that word and then have nothing stronger to describe the gruesome treatment that, for example, Christians in Nigeria suffer at the hands of Boko Haram. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the American Christian lawyered to distraction and possible penury by a government that insists he cut corners on his conscience in order to comply more fully with the different conscience, informed by different values, that the government assumes and enshrines in increasingly small-minded regulations.
In each of these three cases — overreactive secular government in the West, the Communist party in China, and Boko Haram — Christians are perceived as a threat to some commonsense notion of the good society. Where secular government is insidious, the anti-Christian terrorist is literally cutthroat. The Communist party in China borrows a little from the spirit of both.