Chinese Church Voices

Church-State Relations in Light of the Cross Demolition Campaign

Chinese Church Voices is an occasional column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

On July 16, the website of the Pushi Institute for Social Science published a long piece titled "Considering the Future of church-state relations in China after the 2-14-2015 Zhejiang Cross Dispute." It had originally been published in the Christian Times. It’s a rather long piece so we have decided to excerpt two parts.

In the first half of the article, the author reviews the yearlong campaign to demolish “illegally constructed” churches and remove crosses from the rooftops of the ones left standing.

She then turns to the importance of viewing the controversy within the context of the ever-changing nature of church-state relations in China, suggesting that both parties in the dispute bear some responsibility for the situation at hand:

With the development of society and the expansion of the public sphere, both the government and church have come to play increasingly important roles in society. There is a saying about society: “a moving part will affect the whole.” With this in mind, we need more public awareness of the communal nature of the issue. However, viewed from another perspective, it’s obvious that the cross dispute has become increasingly intense because both the government entities and religious communities have exhibited a stubborn streak.

‪Although the government has indicated that its reason for this move is “rectification,” in reality the very public forced demolitions have demonstrated an attitude of ruthless law enforcement.

Last year China’s Supreme Court made it clear that a formal notice regarding demolitions must be made in advance, even in the case of illegal structures, and especially that night demolitions are unacceptable. Despite this ruling, in reality many law enforcement officials have been consciously breaking the law throughout this dispute. Even many legal churches who have completed the proper certifications complain that their crosses were forcibly removed during the night, and as of this writing no explanation of legal justification for these acts has been offered.

‪The fundamental reason why those in power failed to seek the truth in examining the illegal construction issue rises from many complex historical factors; among other things, in recent decades urban planning has been lacking, with no mindset toward sustainability in economic and environmental development.

Especially in recent decades, the church has been a marginalized community with many restrictions on development and growth. Even though a church may need a larger meeting point due to an increase in the number of believers, the local government is generally unwilling to approve the request for more space. If a church needs 10 acres, it often only gets approval for two to three acres. This attitude is the result of a historical legacy from previous decades of church-state relations.

What is most disconcerting is that some of the targeted churches were not only constructed as part of local government planning and development processes but the buildings were also classified as “model churches” (designed to be a prototype for other churches, in accordance with government regulations).

This broad-brush treatment of the cross issue shown in recent times fails to take into account history, lacks respect for previous related policies, has been both simplistic and crude, has not been carried out in a calm manner, and is ultimately irrational and unreasonable.

‪On the part of the churches, when faced with unfair treatment, there was a lack of sufficient, calm-minded examination of legal rights and areas in need of improvement, and no venue for processing which things are worth addressing. During the past few decades the church has largely been marginalized in its relationship to the state. The church has failed to realize that as the number of Christians has grown, so has its influence. Christianity has become a public institution and can no longer be ignored. Since there has been no change to a more “public” way of thinking regarding their influence on society, the resulting excessive self-righteousness in dealing with public affairs has resulted in further intensification of the conflict on both sides.

‪In reflecting on church-state relations, the widespread nature of this conflict, with so many churches coming under the pressure of the State’s “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” policy, we need to consider multiple sides. 

On the one hand, it is undeniable that in the early years there were many issues with churches operating in violation of land use regulations and many church structures, in fact, did exceed size limits, among other transgressions. Indeed, many problems have arisen as a result of the historical legacy of illegal construction, where the church itself failed to build in accordance with legal guidelines. Therefore the church is not completely blame-free in this current crisis.  

On the other hand, these violations occurred in a climate where the local governments were not overly scrupulous, and local leaders remained ambiguous regarding basic regulations. 

When the effects of this “Rectification” policy became apparent, many churches responded with an overly intense attitude of opposition, and failed to act in compassion and empathy towards local leaders, further intensifying the conflict.

‪It is because both the political and religious parties failed to act in a calm and wise manner that the cross dispute has continued, even to the present. Now, already 17 months into the conflict we urgently need a new approach in order to see breakthrough.

In the last section of the piece, she highlights the lessons to be learned from the Zhejiang cross dispute:

‪First, it teaches us that as participants in the public sphere we must refrain from headstrong or impulsive reactions. Neither the church nor the state must be too stubborn.  Both sides need to be more rational and mature in their responses.

‪Second, the state (as the one with greater power) must be reminded that the people expect to be able to actively participate in public affairs. However, they need a guiding approach as opposed to the recent heavy-handed authoritarian attitude that came in with a simplistic, crude, broad-brush plan of attack. Without this realization the situation will naturally become more difficult.

‪Worth noting is that over the past decade our government has increasingly moved away from it’s previous “patriarchal” role towards a modern state governance role. One aspect of the core philosophy of modern governance is  “rule of law,” that is, using legal theory to solve problems arising in the social sphere. On the other hand, if we don’t use a system of values in discussion, or seek  common ground and avoid a commanding and controlling nature the conflict will only intensify.

‪A closer look at these two approaches reveals that one establishes a foundation for solving the problem from a position of rigidity, while the other offers flexibility in establishing consensus in the midst of conflict.

As a modern state we must face the issue of church-state relations, recognizing both as equally indispensable.

‪At its core, the Zhejiang Cross Dispute has revealed that in light of the backdrop of a new society, neither the church nor the state has sufficiently prepared to enter into a mature and constructive dialogue; nor have they shown a readiness to settle their differences and conflicts on the basis if the rule of law. 

‪Of course we cannot place blame prematurely. Whether it is management of the state or the church, each side must consider the rule of law as well as their public actions. Neither side has it easy, and both sides must be willing to adjust their positions, and act with more maturity. This will undoubtedly be a long process.

‪But the key is that in this process both the church and the state need to learn, reflect, and dialogue. The government needs to ensure that there is further discussion on these issues and also needs to make more space for that discussion; likewise, the church needs to give these issues more attention and thought.

‪Third, the church (as the weak party) needs to remember that, even though she has had to bear excessive pressure and unfair treatment over the past year and a half, compared with the treatment of the second half of the last century, (especially during the Cultural Revolution), there has been much improvement in the the religious environment in China today. Even though the Zhejiang cross dispute has been the greatest challenge church-state relations have encountered since the Reform and Opening, the nature of this challenge is very different from the nature  the persecution which occurred during the Cultural Revolution.

‪Looking at the cross dispute as a whole, it is worth noting there were contradictions in the attitude of local governments. On the one hand, they used numerous methods and tactics  to specifically come against the church crosses. On the other hand, they repeatedly made clear that this was an act of “building rectification” and not an aim at religious beliefs. They were still allowing Christian beliefs, but requiring consideration to proper expression in the public square.

This allows us to see that, having moved through the Cultural Revolution and extreme leftist line, the ruling party has become aware that religion is a natural part of normal society. As such, they will not return to the previous extreme attempts at putting a complete end to religion.

‪At the same time, the social backdrop of this era is increasingly pluralistic. How the church will coexist within a community holding different values to itself is an urgent question. In this sense the Zhejiang cross dispute is destined to become one of the “pain points” in the history of the church’s development. Having paid this price we must wake up and learn from this event.

From a spiritual perspective, the origins of this cross dispute are not only external and environmental in nature. We cannot fail to examine the reality of a breach within the church itself. In constructing the physical buildings of the church too many believers were still operating under the “luck” mentality of local indigenous religions. When the dispute began, the church failed to first examine herself and draw out any spiritual lessons needed to correct her own errors but instead fell back on the former ways of responding found in folk religions. In this they did not respond to the situation with humble, law-respecting attitudes, recognizing the public nature of this issue. This failure ultimately lead to more losses than necessary.

‪The lesson we learn in Christianity is that the most fundamental issue is to first examine ourselves and to repair the breaches in our own walls. We must not allow any room for trusting in luck, because God’s eyes are brighter than the eyes of the world. We must fear God more than we fear the world. Walking with integrity before God is more important than integrity before man. The Apostle Paul urged the Corinthians to carefully construct their “spiritual building.” Each of us must be careful how we build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other the one we already have—Jesus Christ. A person uses gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. Ultimately everyone’s work will be made manifest.

‪The Zhejiang cross dispute has provided us with a great spiritual lesson.

Today, as the church is expanding we still need to keep in mind the exhortation of scripture: “It is not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord of Hosts.”

‪Most worthy of deep reflection for the church is this: is the heart and essence of the church to focus on lofty and flourishing physical structures or is it Jesus Christ, who emptied himself, humbled himself, and denied himself? And what of the spirit of the cross, which is one of loving God and loving people? When the greater focus is on the outer things, we cannot truly be salt and light, manifesting the beauty of Jesus, and have no ability to live out a merciful and compassionate heart before the world, becoming a living testimony of Jesus Christ.

‪In particular, although in recent decades the church in China has become increasingly developed and increasingly materially blessed, we should not forget the real “spirit of the cross.” We need to bear in mind the teachings of scripture, namely that the real blessing is that because Jesus became poor we became rich. Moreover, we must follow the example of Christ in doing good works through which we become [spiritually] rich.

The apostle Paul so warned his successor Timothy, also a leader in the church: “Charge them that are rich in this world to not be conceited and do not trust in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to trust in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. And also command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”

Original article: 从浙江2014-2015十字架事件思索未来政教关系走向 (originally accessed at

Image credit: Dalian Skyscape by egorgrebnev via Flickr.

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