In China, the Cross is Once Again a Symbol of Dissent

Saturday 4 June will mark 27 years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre, also referred to as the Tiananmen Square Protests, or simply the June Fourth Incident. On 3 June 1989, Chinese army tanks rolled into Beijing’s famous square and began to fire at unarmed protesters who had been camping out there for weeks to call for democratic reform. Students, workers and bystanders were shot down by their own “people’s army”, at the command of their country’s leaders. Estimates of the number of people killed range from hundreds to several thousand. More deaths followed as workers were tried and executed for their part in the protests.

Tiananmen as a turning point

The protesters were not calling explicitly for the right to freedom of religion or belief. Yet the massacre had a significant impact on some of the most prominent defenders of religious freedom in China today. A disproportionate number of human rights lawyers in China are Christian, and many veteran lawyers say that June Fourth had a profound effect on their personal journey towards both the Christian faith and the defence of human rights. Christian activists living outside China, and influential pastors inside, also refer to 1989 as a personal turning point. The intervening 27 years have seen rapid growth in the Protestant church; as some space opened up for religious activities, the church grew in leaps and bounds both in terms of size and visibility. Part of the reason was a rising curiosity among the urban young, not only about Christianity but about religion, belief and spirituality more broadly. Religion has also played an important and visible role in charity work and in some cases addressing social injustices.

The cross returns as a symbol of dissent

There have always been limits, however, on what a church can do and how it can do it.

This is true both for registered and unregistered churches. Under Xi Jinping, the threshold for what the Communist Party of China (CPC) will tolerate has changed: Xi’s rule has been marked by a hyper-sensitivity to anything perceived as dissent, maintaining vigilance over online comments, classroom discussions, domestic and foreign media, workers’ groups and non-governmental organisations.

Religious communities have also come under pressure. According to the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN), at least five priests in Hebei, who belong to Catholic communities not recognised by the government and often referred to as the “underground” church, were detained by the authorities in April.  Other news outlets have also reported the detention or disappearance of priests in Fujian.

In Zhejiang, the authorities have removed hundreds of crosses from churches across the province, sometimes demolishing whole churches, under the guise of a campaign against illegal buildings. Ironically, the campaign has drawn greater attention to the crosses and the churches beneath. Historically, most churches there concentrated on their own internal religious programmes, as well as evangelism. Since the cross removals began in early 2014, Catholic and Protestant, registered and unregistered churches have come together in unity against the actions of the authorities. They have protested, discreetly and more publicly, displaying home-made red painted crosses in their homes and cars. With its relatively large Christian population, one might imagine that before 2014, churches were part of the scenery in Zhejiang: now, the cross is once again a symbol of dissent.

Religion Comes Under Closer Scrutiny from Government

By itself, the Zhejiang cross removals could be regarded as a provincial phenomenon but the fact that the authorities’ campaign has lasted so long gives rise to the suspicion that it must have the approval, at least, of Beijing. There are other indications, as well, that the government is looking carefully at religion, and Christianity in particular. In February 2015 Party authorities in Zhejiang warned that applicants to the CPC would be rejected if they were found to have “embraced religious beliefs”. While this is not a new policy, the notice reflects a broader concern that religious beliefs may have “infiltrated” the Party – views that have been echoed in state media. In April 2016, at the highest-level Party meeting on religious work in 15 years, attended by both President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Xi called on authorities to “adhere to the leadership of the CPC, and support the socialist system and socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

He also warned against religions interfering with government administration, judiciary and education, and against “overseas infiltration” via religious means, an idea that has been particularly central to the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, but also has significant consequences for Tibetan Buddhists and Protestant groups with overseas connections, as well as the Catholic Church.

So what does the future hold for churches in China?

There are some things we can be fairly sure about. One is that Christianity in China will not decline or disappear anytime soon. As things stand, it is also extremely unlikely that all of China’s Christian communities will agree to join the state-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). This means that non-Three Self churches will continue to exist: what form they take is up to both the churches and the government.

The government could allow registration or recognition outside the TSPM. How palatable this is to the independent “house” churches will depend on the terms. Alternatively, the government could clamp down further on independent religious activity, pushing churches to register or disband. This could force churches which have existed outside state sanctioned structure to step back from public sphere, but based on past experience, it is unlikely this will prevent the church from growing.

The third and least likely option is for the government to maintain the status quo, allowing some non-Three Self churches to exist in a kind of “grey space”, and turning a blind eye to their “illegal” religious activities. This does not seem likely, however. Amidst a host of pressing issues including a slowing economy, environmental concerns, and regional instability, religion may not be a top priority for Xi, but it’s on his agenda – and that in itself could spell change for China’s religious communities.

By CSW’s China desk officer.