The Cross of Chinese Christians and Their Resistance to Suppression

In: Review of Religion and Chinese Society
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  • 1 January 27, 2018

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The Christian cross has appeared in many shapes and colors as Christianity has spread across nations during the last two millennia, from crude wooden sticks bound together to carefully crafted intersecting golden bars decorated with precious stones. In contemporary China, the typical Christian cross is a short horizontal beam on a longer upright post with clean lines and a bright red color. In traditional Chinese culture, red represents joy and celebration; in modern times, it has acquired a new layer of meaning: revolution. For Chinese Christians, however, the bright red color of the cross also symbolizes Jesus Christ’s blood, sacrificed for human salvation, and the blood shed by martyrs persecuted for their faith, reminding believers to follow Jesus and to imitate the piety of martyrs, even if it means bloody sacrifice. There are crosses in other shapes and colors in China, but the simple red cross has become the most common form and may be seen inside and outside churches and homes.

Christians remain a small minority in China today, comprising at most 5 percent of the population, but the number of Christians has been increasing rapidly. Therefore, in spite of governmental restrictions on church construction, bright red crosses have kept popping up on church buildings in rural villages and on the changing skylines of urban areas. The large, elevated red crosses are often conspicuous, especially in the midst of overcrowded high-rise apartments and commercial buildings. In the night, many of these crosses are lit by neon, penetrating a darkness that is often filled with smog. The conspicuity of the red cross on church spires has become so upsetting to some Communist officials that from 2013 to 2016, authorities in Zhejiang carried out a province-wide campaign to demolish all crosses on church rooftops. Indeed, the conspicuity of the Chinese cross is a social and political phenomenon in China today, and the political campaign in Zhejiang has only made it more prominent. Unsurprisingly, many scholars have watched the campaign closely and conducted systematic research. Consequently, the Review of Religion and Chinese Society has received a number of manuscripts on this topic. This special issue of the journal is thus devoted to scholarly analysis of Chinese Christianity and the campaign to demolish church crosses.

The first article, by Fenggang Yang and his research team, provides a temporal and spatial analysis of the campaign. It argues that even though the campaign to demolish church crosses was carried out under the guise of a larger operation of landscape improvement, the campaign’s political intention to suppress Christianity, which is evident in secret and published documents of the party-state, was likewise recognized by many Christians in Zhejiang and beyond. More importantly, the article demonstrates that the campaign failed on multiple fronts. The provincial government failed to remove most of the crosses on top of church buildings (no more than one-third were taken down), and it failed to subdue Christian opposition to the campaign; indeed, many pastors resisted, rebelled, or resigned from the party-sanctioned “patriotic” associations. Finally, the Zhejiang policy failed to become a model for broader implementation in China.

In the second article, Zhidong Hao and Yan Liu explore the case of the Sanjiang Church demolition, a major clash in the early days of the campaign. Examining the interactions around this particular church building, the authors argue that the “mutual accommodation” of the church-state relationship—one of the central tenets of the government’s religious policy since the 1990s—may have worked to a certain extent, but it broke down when the provincial authorities determined to clamp down on Christian protesters and carry on the campaign. The third article, by Fuk-tsang Ying, focuses on Wenzhou prefecture, the area that was hardest hit by the campaign, but also the area where Christians showed the firmest and widest resistance. Through interviews and documentary analysis from a religio-political perspective, Ying offers a detailed account of the roles of the Christian leaders and party-state officials in Zhejiang. In the fourth article, Mark McLeister turns his attention to Christians in another province, analyzing the unintended and faraway impacts of the political campaign in Zhejiang on popular Christianity in another province. He argues that the Zhejiang events have heightened millenarian beliefs in the Protestant community in the other province.

China, however, is a vast land with diverse communities. What happened in Zhejiang Province, no matter how fierce and shocking the campaign appeared to the locals and interested outside observers, had little or no impact on many Christians and Christian communities in other provinces. Instead, they had their own daily crosses to bear. The fifth article in this issue, by DUAN Hua, serves as a good reminder of this reality. Immediately after the end of the demolition campaign in Zheijiang, Duan conducted fieldwork in another province among women pastors, who see themselves as double-burdened mothers to their families and their congregations. As a result of her narrative inquiry, Duan found that her subjects “face the challenges of dealing with complicated interpersonal relationships, a lack of male leaders and workers, and weak faith within their congregations.”

The campaign to demolish church crosses in Zhejiang was carried out inconsistently across different prefectures, counties, and towns. Moreover, this political campaign had an evident though unintended impact on a Christian community in another province, while the article on the women pastors in yet another province fully focuses on their local ministries without mentioning the campaign. This reality, as examined in the five articles in this issue, has important implications: church-state relations in China may follow a treacherous path in the coming years, but no attempt at suppression can be uniformly enforced throughout China with the same impacts or consequences everywhere. As the Chinese saying goes, “When the east is dark, the west is bright; when the south is blackened, there is still the north” 東方不亮西方亮,黑了南方有北方. A comparable saying in English goes, “When one door closes, another opens.”

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