The horrific death by suffocation in April of Ding Cuimei, a pastor’s wife in Henan province, drew condemnation from believers worldwide. Ding was buried alive by a demolition crew as they attacked her and her husband’s church with a bulldozer.
News reports of the incident drew immediate parallels with the widespread cross demolitions in Zhejiang province, seemingly confirming fears that a nationwide crackdown on Christianity was underway.
Indeed, Ding’s case does point to a nationwide problem, but it actually has nothing to do with religion.
Unlike in Zhejiang, where local officials specifically targeted churches, the issue in Henan was not the church itself, but rather than land on which the church stood.
In a drama that has been repeated tens of thousands of times across China, Ding and her husband attempted to stand their ground against developers who were intent on taking their property. Whether the developers had the support of the local government remains unclear. Following the incident, the two workers responsible for the murder were arrested, and local officials confirmed that the property did legally belong to the church.
Ding’s case stands out as particularly horrendous, both due to the extreme outcome as well as to the fact that it involved a church. Yet, as China has developed at breakneck speed, incidences of land grabbing by greedy developers, with or without government backing, have unfortunately been all too common.
The heartbreaking ramifications of this underside of China’s modernization were recently captured in a New York Times documentary on the mayor of Datong, a city in northern China. Watch as townspeople attempt in vain to prevent the destruction of their homes in the name of progress.
The documentary exposes not only the brutality but also the complexities of local government. From villain to hero, the mayor’s image was gradually transformed in the eyes of these same people as they began to see him as an ally who had their best interests in mind. The documentary ends with the townspeople turning out en masse, not to protest, but to bid a tearful farewell to their beloved mayor on the day he was transferred to another city. This confusing, seemingly contradictory portrait speaks volumes about the paradoxical nature of life in China today.
If there are parallels between the tragedy of Ding Cuomei in Henan and the hundreds of crosses removed from churches in Zhejiang, the parallels have more to do with the unchecked and often arbitrary power of local officials than with restrictions on the religious freedom of China’s Christians.
Despite our desire to define their plight in black and white terms, many of the struggles faced by believers in China’s defy simple explanations. They, like most Chinese, have learned to live with a certain degree of ambiguity. To truly understand their situation requires that we do so as well.
Image credit: Minidozer by Matthew Stinson via Flickr.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio