A cross-bearer prepares to enter the church as he attends Mass at a Catholic Church in Beijing on Dec. 24, 2015. (Photo by AFP)
Two years ago, the provincial government of Zhejiang held a campaign against places of worship, which led to the destruction of more than 1,500 crosses and a few churches.
Since then, the international media has continued to denounce the Chinese government's actions as anti-Christian.
These articles about crosses in Zhejiang offer little new information about the current situation and use a limited framework in which everything in China appears black and white. After two years of the same discourse, one might wonder if there is really nothing new about Christians in Zhejiang?
A closer look reveals a situation that is subtle but stable for now.
A recent visit to Wenzhou and its region confirms that almost 1,500 crosses have been removed in the area. However, during the past few months there has been no additional destruction. Half of the massive red crosses typical of Zhejiang churches are still perched on top of their steeples and no one can say if they will be removed. Sometimes, on a single street, some churches still have a cross while others do not.
In Wenzhou city, the four Catholic churches still have their Christian symbols. In some cases, the municipal government has even facilitated construction and renovation of churches, as in helping the Wenzhou Diocese find new land to build a provisory church during renovation of the cathedral.
Observation indicates that most of the time, churches which are unregistered or extremely visible, close to highways or railways, have been especially targeted by local officials during the anti-cross campaign. But no general rule can be clearly deducted out of this policy.
One visible Protestant Church removed its own cross and replaced it with a banner with a printed red cross, which appeared to be a suitable solution and remained untouched by the authorities. Also, local Christians reported that even officials were not happy about this campaign, which had clearly been imposed by provincial leaders.
While the Western media has focused almost exclusively on the destruction of crosses, this is indeed a larger campaign against the construction of religious places. In Zhejiang, it is not only Christians who are flourishing. Buddhist and Taoist temples are multiplying.
In this region of China, religious buildings are found at every corner and increasing in size. Temples and crosses are growing in size, increasingly dominating the landscape. Rivalry between religious groups is also getting sharper.
Behind these buildings, there are local clans and networks competing for prestige, resources and influence. However, international journalists seem to have failed to report a few thousand of these Buddhist and Taoist buildings have also been partially destroyed during the recent campaign. Obviously, the Chinese administration tries to frame all religions, not only Christianity. However, it seems that for the Western media, only Christians matter.
In the Chinese context, destruction of religious places does not necessarily mean persecution. First, it is important to recognize that almost all buildings in China have been rebuilt over the past few decades. In this context, construction and destruction do not reflect the same symbolic meaning as they might in the Western context. When local officials destroy a cross or a church, it does not automatically signal religious persecution!
Westerners should not forget that large churches erected by Chinese Christian networks embody more than faith.
Also, Chinese government religious policy still maintains a clear distinction between the five officially recognized religions (Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism), and sectarian groups. The Chinese government's position against banished religious groups such as Falun Gong and Eastern Lightning demonstrates how the Chinese state can act against these groups.
By comparison, adherents to one of the five officially sanctioned religions benefit from some measure of governmental protection and support. Indeed, recognized religions including their registered and unregistered groups in China enjoy some degree of freedom, which deserves to be acknowledged.
However, it is still true that the Chinese government is putting more pressure on religion in Zhejiang. The ultimate goal is still vague though, even for local officials. Despite what Western media claim, the Chinese government is not simply trying to minimize the influence of religion.
A closer look shows that the administration is more concerned to channel and orient religious activities and resources toward its own interests, as almost all governments do. The Chinese government wants to bank and channel religious vitality. A new political campaign on "Five Integrations and Five Developments" promoted over the last several months demonstrates this attempt. The overall agenda seems to be about promoting social services.
According to the Chinese government, human and financial resources of religious groups should be oriented toward social care. For instance, one unregistered Protestant community (House Church), which owns a large building with a big cross atop, is heavily engaged with disabled people.
Also, this last decade, thousands of homes for the elderly have been opened by different religious institutions, often with governmental support. So far, it is mostly Christian communities who have taken advantage of this new opportunity. Some of them have even been able to open kindergartens!
The situation is more complex than most media accounts would have us believe. When it comes to Chinese religious policy, little is certain.
But one point remains true: the media are certainly not helping Chinese Christians by demonizing Chinese authorities and encouraging antagonism.
Michel Chambon is a French-Catholic theologian pursuing a doctorate in anthropology at Boston University in the United States. He is currently in China for one year of fieldwork among local Protestants.