Written by Jackie Sheehan.
The massive Sanjiang church in Wenzhou, designated a model project last September as its six-year £3 million construction was completed, lies in ruins only seven months later. Before and after pictures of the demolished church offer some support to the official explanation that it was an illegal structure, having reached about ten times its originally-approved size of 880 m2, not including the basement or the car park. But the version of events that has the ring of truth about it is the report that Zhejiang’s provincial CCP Secretary, Xia Baolong, expressed disquiet at the scale of the building and the visibility of large crosses on other churches while touring the area, sending local officials into a frenzy of demolitions and cross-removals as soon as he left.
Support for this explanation can be found in the sheer number of Protestant churches affected by what the Wenzhou government claims is a crackdown on all illegal structures. Wenzhou may be known as “China’s Jerusalem” for the size of its Christian population, but even there, churches don’t constitute a majority of all buildings. And these are not house churches, which are all illegal unless and until they register with the government and agree to abide by the restrictions it imposes; they are affiliated to the state-controlled Three Self Protestant Movement (TSPM).
Yet across Zhejiang and Anhui, a striking number of churches have now had their crosses removed, while others have been left with only the cross remaining on the last bit of wall standing after members of the congregation gathered to protect it from the JCBs. Of three churches targeted in Yueqing City, two had buildings used as Sunday schools or nursing homes earmarked for demolition, while if the third was an illegal structure, the authorities had had roughly a hundred years to notice it and take the appropriate action.
Zhejiang and Anhui, along with Henan and Fujian, may have China’s largest provincial Christian communities as a percentage of their total populations, which also supports the officials-spooked-by-skyline-crosses thesis. I can only say “may” as, once we include house churches in the calculation, we are guessing at both total numbers and growth rates. Figures from some missionary sources suggest China is barely 20 years away from becoming a Christian country, yet these claims are clearly self-interested – nothing gets the donations coming in like reporting success in converting the most populous nation on earth – and often out of line with estimates from other sources. They also tend to assume that growth rates have been constant over the entire post-Mao reform period, when what evidence there is suggests that an initial very rapid increase in the number of Christians in China from the early 1980s has slowed significantly since the 1990s.
But anyway, there are a lot of Christians in China now. Does this make it safe to be one? In a recent test case which will be used by the Home Office to decide asylum claims by Chinese Christians who fear persecution if returned to the PRC, the presiding Immigration Judges accepted expert evidence that most Christians in China have absolutely nothing to fear from the authorities unless they deliberately set out to provoke their own martyrdom, and rejected alternative evidence that repression of unregistered churches is not only rather severe in China, but has been getting worse over the past few years. Was this choice made because Determinations in these test cases nearly always prefer the evidence that enables the Home Office to turn down the largest number of outstanding asylum claims? You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.
The Determination rejects the classing of all interference with Christians’ freedom of religion in China as persecution – fair enough, as the definition of persecution for asylum purposes is very specific and sets the bar high for what qualifies as a real risk of serious ill-treatment. But the judgment also seems to me to strain to downplay any mistreatment or repression of Chinese Christians brought to its attention. For example, where one elderly worshipper was pushed to the ground and three others hit by police during a raid, the original source’s term for this incident, “abuse”, is put in inverted commas in the Determination, but what else would we call that kind of violence or assault – extreme clumsiness? Conversation with attitude?
The judgment’s preferred expert, a clergyman, academic, and regular visitor to China, believes that proselytizing Christians in the PRC face little threat from the authorities. US church leader Dennis Balcombe said something very similar in 2011 – that’s the same Dennis Balcombe who was himself detained by police in Henan at a house-church service in April 2013, just as several Christians there received jail sentences of up to 7½ years for their religious activity.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has just designated China a country of particular concern for its “systematic, egregious, ongoing” violations of religious freedom for the 15th consecutive year, but the Immigration Judges in the test case were crucially unconvinced by the claim of Bob Fu, founder of the ChinaAid NGO, that China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) is three years into a ten-year plan to force all house churches to register and abide by the restrictions of the state-controlled churches or to destroy them. Fu has not produced documentary evidence for this (given what just happened to journalist Gao Yu, probably a wise precaution against incriminating its source), but SARA’s own website confirms phase one of the plan, the compilation of exhaustive records on house-church personnel and premises, and hints at the others. You wouldn’t expect a Chinese government department’s website to spell out what it is really doing in this area; the Tibet section for 2013 makes no mention of forcing Tibetans to fly Chinese flags on their houses and shooting at those who protest and throw the flags into the river, but four Tibetans in Driru were killed that way and many more injured.
Some Chinese Christians in the UK refuse to give evidence in support of asylum claims by their co-religionists because they want them to return to China and continue to fight the good fight. If they are right, the CCP government’s house-church suppression strategy could prove fatally flawed. The party might not know enough about church history to realise that martyrdom is an ineffective deterrent to faith and perseverance, but its own early years are an example of what a dedicated minority convinced of the rightness of its cause can endure, and what it can sometimes achieve.
Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork.