WENZHOU, China (Christian Examiner) – Zhejiang Province officials previously have denied accusations it is persecuting Christians, but the latest decision by regional leaders to renew its ban on church members joining the Communist Party adds more evidence to the contrary.
In the past year, the province has removed crosses from more than 400 churches, according to China Aid, a Texas non-profit, and in some cases entire structures were demolished. Local officials, who have a lot of leeway from Beijing, appear to target Christians in part because the religion is thriving here.
Wenzhou, a city with about half of the province's 4,000 churches, is referred to by natives as China's Jerusalem. But Wenzhou is but a reflection of the surging growth of Christianity across China—about an eighth of the city's 8 million in population claim to follow Christ.
In 2006, Xiaowen Ye, head of the Communist Party's State Administration of Religious Affairs reported Protestants in China numbered 110 million. Christian leaders estimate the number could be as high as 165 million in 2015, almost double the 85 million members of the ruling Communist Party.
The New York Daily News reported, "In August, Beijing rounded up Christian pastors and religious scholars in a national seminar with the edict that the Christian faith must be free of foreign influence but "adapt to China," a euphemism for obeying the Communist Party's rule.
Then in December, authorities in Wenzhou banned all Christmas celebrations of related activities among kindergartners and grade school children.
An article published by Radio Free Asia quoted Bob Fu, founder and director of China Aid as claiming province officials are piloting "a test run for ways to curb the spread of Protestant Christianity" and especially for counteracting the religion's impact on children.
"They want to curb missionary work among young people under [the age of] 18, and they are requiring local governments to work with schools and primary schools to spread an atheist message."
The effort to prevent Christians from joining the Communist Party reveals officials' suspicions and fears of infiltration by Christians to key leadership spots.
Officially, the Peoples Republic of China has freedom of religion, but the Communist Party has always explicitly forbidden its members from believing in any religion. Consequently, the latest publicized reinforcement of the ban suggests leaders have concerns about Christianity's influence on present members and, at least as far as school children are concerned, future ones, too.
Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, in 2012 wrote "Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule."
"By 2030, China will almost certainly have more Christians than any other country and the Communist party is very alarmed," Yang said in a Financial Times article. "Chinese officials often cite the experience of Poland, where they believe the Catholic Church helped destroy communism and, although the two situations are not really comparable, the party still sees Christianity as a very serious threat that it needs to suppress."