Over the Christmas holiday I saw three very different large gatherings, each of which demonstrates a prominent trend in contemporary China. Taken together, these three crowds say something profound about the direction that China and her church are headed.
Crowds of Security Forces
Christmas Eve 2015 was set apart from pervious years’ celebrations by the marked increase in police presence. As I walked through the main shopping area in the center of our city—the area where the main Protestant church happens to be located—the security state was everywhere evident. Large numbers of young men in matching camouflage fatigues with hard to see “badges” were deployed throughout the area to manage “crowds.”
They seemed to be concentrated around major intersections and the front entrance to the church. A fire truck was parked directly in front of the church, with several firemen in full kit posing by the grill of their big rig behind a TV reporter mugging for the camera.
I was especially intrigued by a troupe of five enormous men—a head taller than everyone else—parading through the streets in single file. With their Darth Vader helmets, red armbands, and what appeared to be lengthy metal shepherds’ crooks they were a very imposing sight. I can only imagine what they were supposed to do with those stainless steel poles.
To anyone who has been watching the Xi regime’s efforts at improving “social management” [社会管理] none of this will come as a surprise. From all the new video cameras popping up on the streets (and even alleys) of China’s cities, to the shiny new facial recognition software and riot gear that is filling up the budgets of China’s security forces, flexing at Christmas is almost to be expected.
Still, I was surprised to see local schools supporting the state’s demonstration of Christmas control. The following is a text sent by teachers at one school to parents on December 23:
平安夜、圣诞节即将到来，希望各位家长在平安夜、圣诞节期间不要带自己的孩子外出或进入教堂等场所，避免拥挤踩踏等意外事故的发生，确保学生的生命安全和社会稳定。[Christmas Eve and Christmas are upon us, and we hope that during Christmas Eve and the Christmas season parents will refrain from taking their own children out or into churches or other locations, in order to prevent crowding, trampling, or other unfortunate accidents from happening, and to ensure the safety of the students and social stability.]
Lest anyone miss the political motivation behind this notice, that final phrase rings out, awkward but clear: “social stability.” The crowds of security personnel visible around the church and throughout the city on Christmas Eve were the physical representation of this desire to control. As I wove my way through the throngs that evening, I could feel the weight of a state working hard to control what happens on Christmas.