Authorities in eastern China's Shandong province have allowed dozens of market stalls to be set up in front of a Catholic cathedral after the Chinese premier stressed promoting small-scale businesses to push the communist country's sluggish economy.
Since early June, some 20 stalls have appeared in front of St. Michael's Cathedral in Qingdao selling toys, home decorations and ornaments with the permission of local authorities but without the knowledge of parishioners.
The cathedral has yet to reopen for religious activities after it was closed to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus.
Before the pandemic, thousands of tourists visited the area daily, primarily to see the magnificent cathedral built by German Divine Word missionaries in the early 20th century. Shandong had a strong German trade presence at the time.
A member of the cathedral parish told UCA News on June 17 that the local administration allowed the stalls in response to Premier Li Keqiang's call for promoting street businesses to boost the sagging economy.
During a visit to Yantai City in Shandong province on June 1, Li reportedly stressed the importance of small stalls, shops and street vending in boosting employment and vitality.
Since then, the phrase "street vendor economy" has become popular throughout China, and provincial governments have responded by allowing street vendors in approved zones.
A video clip posted on a social media platform on June 6 shows stalls in front of the closed cathedral.
Maria Chen, a Catholic in Qingdao, said the square in front of the cathedral used to have occasional stalls before the pandemic started. Vendors then carried their goods in a bag or a basket, ready to run when authorities arrived.
"But in early June, there were suddenly a lot of stalls selling all sorts of things," she said. Vendors told Chen that they had paid a fee to the local administration to set up their stalls.
The Church used to own the square in front of the cathedral but local authorities later designated it as government property. "It is now a free market, but without the consent of the parish and without any rents given to the parish," said a parishioner seeking anonymity.
Chen said many people regard it as a messy marketplace. "It surely affects the sacredness of the church. It's just too hard to pray inside the church when screaming goes on outside the door," she said.
A priest who requested anonymity told UCA News that the government allowing a market in front of a church shows their attitude. “It is not that they didn't know it was inappropriate. They want to show they have no respect for religion and consider it trivial, or they don't give a damn about it."
Paul Ma, a parishioner, said churches are closed purportedly to avoid people gathering and spreading Covid-19. "But they then open a market just outside the church and allow people to gather without any restrictions. It is clearly an injustice to Christians," he said.
Zhang Ming, a visitor from Zhengzhou, said: "I'm sure I'll never go there again. I never thought that my visit to Qingdao would make me feel differently about the Catholic faith.”
Zhang said the cathedral also collected an entry fee from him. “I don't understand why … I've never seen churches asking for money for entry. It's like a temple. Too vulgar," he said.
Shandong social observer Xu Houjia said the free market in front of the church is an example of "blind execution of top leadership ideas by local authorities."
Besides hurting epidemic prevention, such actions would also create conflicts between churches and governments. "The government departments have no sense of innovation and service to the public," he said.
He said it was a desperate move by the Chinese Communist Party in the face of economic pressure. But the stress on the street economy is "not an innovation … it was the original business model," he said.
In May, China's National Bureau of Statistics said retail sales were down for the fifth month in a row, dropping an unexpected 2.8 percent from May last year. This was despite increases in sales of cars and groceries and a rise in online purchases.
Reports suggest that millions of ordinary people are reluctant to spend their money in the face of unemployment and loss of businesses caused by the pandemic-related shutdown of businesses and services across China.