On July 25, 2014, over 10,000 people took part in the demolition of the cross from the Wenling Church in Zhejiang Province.
A distinctive clock tower stands on the Chengguan Church in Wenling, Taizhou city, Zhejiang, on which once towered a bright red cross. Today, the cross is long gone, but that high clock tower is a reminder of events four years ago when the cross was forcibly removed, on July 25, 2014. On that day, over ten thousand people from the SWAT police, people’s armed police, traffic police, and local officials participated in the cross removal. Over a thousand Christians remained at the site for three days and nights, trying to protect the cross. Nearly 200 members of the congregation were arrested.
A Cross of Utmost Sorrow
There were media reports that Zhejiang provincial Party Committee Secretary Xia Baolong was passing by a Christian church in Baiquan town on his way to an inspection in Zhoushan on January 8, 2014, when he said that the cross on the church was too ostentatious and demanded its removal as quickly as possible. He asked, “Is this the domain of the cross or the Communist Party?” A pastor said that the words of Xia Baolong were representative of the attitude of Chinese Communist authorities.
Later, when all levels of the Zhejiang government were dismantling crosses and demolishing churches, authorities came up the slogan of “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” (rectify old residential areas, old factories, and remaining rural villages within cities, and demolish illegal buildings). The primary target of this campaign was Christianity.
On February 27 in 2014, the cross over the doorway on the Huanghu Christian Church in Yuhang district of Hangzhou, Zhejiang, was taken down. After that, Zhejiang’s demolition of crosses and churches gradually drew a high level of domestic and international attention. The cross-removal campaign intensified, and in early July it reached the Wenling Christian Church in Taizhou.
Wenling Deputy Mayor: “I’ll quit unless the cross is taken down.”
The Wenling Church, established in 1873, belongs to the government-controlled Protestant Three-Self Church. Located initially at Wenling’s north gate, a new church building was built on May 13, 2010, to accommodate meetings of nearly 10,000 people. A grand 68-meter cross towered over the Wenling Christian Church.
One day in early July 2014, executive deputy mayor of Wenling, Zhang Yongbin, and members of his staff went to the Wenling Christian Church to notify church members that they must take down the church’s cross. Zhang Yongbin threatened, “I’ll quit unless the cross is taken down.” Soon, surveillance cameras were installed on Jiuding building B on the church’s north side and Jintai Garden building on the church’s southeast side. Later, staff from Wenling’s Taiping subdistrict began recording the names of family members and occupations of the church members. They searched out the leaders and members of the church’s 27 small worship groups and conducted door-to-door ideological work, telling them not to resist the removal of the cross, or the jobs and prospects of their family members might be negatively affected.
Zheng Xin (pseudonym) is an influential member of the congregation. She happened to be praying together with other church members when the local government employees arrived. Despite the weakness of her body, Zheng Xin persisted in going to the church every day to continue her prayerful vigil. When the workers asked her why she had to be at the church, Zheng Xin asserted that believing in Jesus was a good thing and asked why the government wanted the cross removed. Grasping at straws, the officials responded, “What if a typhoon came and knocked over the cross, harming others?” Zheng Xin retorted, “The cross is very firmly attached and can withstand wind and snow.” Lacking a response, the officials threatened Zheng Xin, warning her that if she obstructed the removal of the cross, it would cause trouble for her close friends and family. They stressed that “The cross will come down no matter what!” Zheng Xin’s husband was also threatened, warned not to go to the church when the cross was being removed.
SWAT Police Stationed at the Site, and Mobile Phone Signals Are Jammed
On July 22 and 23, the government of Wenling assembled a large group of public security police, people’s armed police, and SWAT police officers at the site, along with officials and staff from the local townships and subdistricts, over 10,000 people altogether. They set up checkpoints at the intersections surrounding the Wenling Christian Church and prepared to remove the cross forcibly.
The removal had not yet been accomplished because of the weather, and on the evening of July 24, members of the congregation stacked up benches at the church entrance to stop the removal of the cross and prevent government personnel from entering the church.
Nearly 1,000 people forced their way into the Wenling Christian Church: provincial and city government law enforcement personnel together with people’s armed police, and SWAT police with dogs. The large group dispersed the congregants praying inside and searched every room of the church. They pried open every door and carried out the materials in the reference room in the general building and the computers recording video for fire safety.
In the early morning of July 25, a 500-ton crane was brought from Shanghai and parked at the Wenling expo center. The crane, together with other long-armed cranes and transport trucks carrying lifting accessories formed a formidable fleet. The police, behaving brutally, set up checkpoints at the intersections on Xinghua Road and Daheshan Road near the church’s entrance and put up a police line outside the eastern side of the church along a small residential street and other places surrounding the church. A large group of SWAT police was stationed from Jintai Garden on Daheshan Road to the Tianyangcun Culture & Sports Activity Center and restricted all vehicles from bringing Christian congregants to the church to resist. The reception of any mobile phone user near the church was blocked so they could not communicate with anyone outside the area.
Government Orders to Arrest Congregants at the Site
At 5:15 in the morning on July 25, the electric power to the church was cut off, and the church’s tower clock stopped. Congregants dispersed from the building and remained outside on Xinghua Road and Daheshan Road, where they continued to sing hymns and pray. Later in the morning, the Chinese Communist government ordered the arrest of congregants at the site, and plainclothes police among the crowd acted immediately. Some congregants were grabbed and thrown into vehicles; some were thrown to the ground. Anyone holding out a mobile phone to photograph the scene was immediately stopped and compelled to delete anything they had recorded.
Statistics show that nearly two hundred congregants were arrested and confined in the classrooms of Wenling vocational schools. Only a portion of the congregants had been released by 5 p.m. that afternoon after the cross had been removed.
The Dismantling of the clock tower cross began early in the morning of the 25th, and by around 3:30 p.m. the cross had been removed and hauled away. At 11:30 a.m. on the 25th, the cross over the protruding top of a gate on the church’s east side was also removed. Over a thousand Christians kept watch for three days and nights at the Wenling Church, but in the end, both the large and small crosses were forced by the government to come down. It is said the government spent 4-5 million RMB to have these crosses removed.
Heartfelt Voices of the Congregation
A congregant surnamed Zhang said, “From the start, I did not agree with the dismantling of the crosses. Members of our whole church all opposed it!”
A church co-worker surnamed Lin: “The crosses in many places across the country are being taken down like this. National flags are going up on churches, even portraits of President Xi or Chairman Mao. The Communist Party is lawless; this is an evil thing to do!”
A church co-worker surnamed Zheng: “In the past, I thought the Chinese Communist Party authorities only persecuted house churches, but in the last few years as they’ve nationally taken up the removal of crosses and destruction of churches, the authorities are even persecuting state-controlled Three-Self churches! There are officers in plainclothes monitoring the sermons, and only the content permitted by the state can be taught; what kind of religious freedom is this? Such a big fat lie!”
Chinese Communist Government’s Persecution of Christianity Continues to Increase
Between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) taking power in 1949 and 1976, countless Christians suffered arrest, imprisonment, and torture, and the CCP killed many. The CCP’s various methods of reforming and suppressing Christianity almost wiped it out from China. However, by the end of the 1970s, the number of Christians began to increase, even under oppression. The proliferation of churches and crosses in Fujian and Zhejiang and other provinces, in particular, frightened the CCP.
After Xi Jinping came into power, the CCP once again embarked on a large-scale suppression of Christianity. In a teleconference promoting the “Three Rectifications and One Demolition” campaign hosted by Zhejiang on March 28, 2014, the government clearly stated that the purpose of removing crosses was to “take control of the ideological leadership.”
The Zhejiang provincial Party Committee planned and executed measures that severely suppressed Three-Self and house churches, forcing the demolition of so-called illegally-built churches and removing church crosses throughout the province. As of late 2015, the crosses of over 1,700 churches in Zhejiang had been removed. Over the last few years, the intensity of this national trend of demolishing crosses and churches has increased. Churches and meeting places have been closed, and the number of Christians arrested continues to climb.
With the new Regulations on Religious Affairs coming into force in February 2018, the government control over religion has intensified. In late March, the Bible was prohibited from being sold on the Internet, which is a clear manifestation of the continuing escalation of the CCP’s oppression and persecution of Christianity.
Bitter Winter reports on how religions are allowed, or not allowed, to operate in China and how some are severely persecuted after they are labeled as “xie jiao,” or heterodox teachings. We publish news difficult to find elsewhere, analyses, and debates.
Placed under the editorship of Massimo Introvigne, one of the most well-known scholars of religion internationally, “Bitter Winter” is a cooperative enterprise by scholars, human rights activists, and members of religious organizations persecuted in China (some of them have elected, for obvious reasons, to remain anonymous).