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Why Crosses? Why Zhejiang?

The massive campaign against church crosses in China’s Zhejiang province is in the news again with the release this month of the US State Department’s 2015 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Commenting on the report, Rabbi David Saperstein, US Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, made a point of mentioning that the cross removals, now in their third year, have so far been limited to Zhejiang, and that similar incidents have not been seen in other provinces.

Saperstein’s remarks raise the obvious question of why such a conspicuous and egregious attack on the universal symbol of the Christian faith is being carried out in one location in China, while churches elsewhere are undisturbed.

Loyola Marymount political science professor Carsten Vala responds to this question in a VOA podcast appropriately titled, “What’s Behind China’s Unusual Removal of Christian Church Crosses.”

According to Vala, the conspicuous attack on crosses is tied to the conspicuous nature of Christianity in Zhejiang, particularly in the city of Wenzhou, where for decades massive churches topped with crosses have dotted the skyline. When Zhejiang’s provincial Communist Party head visited the city some years ago, he was taken aback by this blatant display of religion, which he saw as an affront to the Party’s image.

The podcast raises a second important question, namely, why the campaign seems to be targeting registered churches while leaving Zhejiang’s thriving house church movement relatively unscathed.

For Vala, the attack on the visible image of the cross and, by extension, upon the church’s public presence, is rooted in the Party’s deeper concern about any group in society that may pose a threat to its power. Christianity has attracted younger, more well-educated followers in recent decades, who have developed not only a strong personal loyalty to the faith but also relational ties to Christians overseas. The draw for many of these young believers, has been the perception that the strength of the United States is due in part to its strong religious culture and organizations.

Asked if the frontal attack on churches in China will dissuade this new generation of believers, Vala acknowledged that some might fall away if their initial attraction was simply to the tall, majestic spires holding aloft the crosses in Wenzhou. For some of China’s Christians who did not experience the persecution of the past, the current crackdown may serve as an eye-opener. Yet, as the history of Christianity in China has shown time and again, persecution may result in a lull in the expansion of the church, but it is invariably followed by more growth.

Vala questions whether China’s Party officials understand this history, given the likelihood that open persecution will push believers toward clandestine activity, making them more difficult to control.

If the main purpose of the anti-cross campaign is to reduce the church’s visibility, however, perhaps what is happening in Zhejiang is less about control and more about the “not-in-my-backyard” attitude of Party officials toward the church’s public presence. In any case, whether in public or in private, the church will continue to thrive.

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

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