Although the Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist, the country’s constitution allows “freedom of religious belief,” and the practice of formal religion has expanded in China, in fits and starts, for decades.
The number of Chinese professing Christianity, in particular — estimated at more than 70 million — is rising so dramatically that, by some projections, China will have the world’s biggest Christian population by 2030.
The profusion of churches seems to have unnerved some Chinese authorities, who have undertaken a campaign to tear down hundreds of crosses, and in some instances entire churches, in Zhejiang, a coastal province where a prosperous Christian community and large numbers of churches have taken root.
The government’s move against churches, after years of widening religious tolerance, reflects its continued resistance to the rule of law and, with it, the potential for any challenge to the Communist Party's monolithic grip on political power.
The government’s insecurity revealed itself in late August when a highly respected rights lawyer, Zhang Kai, who had taken up the cases of dozens of churches in Zhejiang protesting the demolition of their crosses, was detained by police.
The fact that he is being held in secretive detention, with no access to his lawyers, colleagues or family, and on trumped-up charges — endangering state security and “assembling a crowd to disrupt social order” — only underscores the authorities’ fretfulness.
What’s more, Zhang was seized by police just a day before he was to meet with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, who was in China partly to discuss the travails of Christian churches. The detention came less than a month before Chinese President Xi Jinping is to meet President Barack Obama at a U.S.-China summit, so it also represents a slap at the United States.
Obama should not let it go unmentioned when Xi visits Washington.
The detention of Zhang augments a crackdown in which hundreds of Chinese human rights lawyers have been arrested and interrogated by police since July for having championed sensitive causes that make the government nervous.
The sweep has targeted lawyers who have represented environmental activists; parents of children who became ill from consuming tainted powdered milk; a Beijing research assistant for a prominent German newspaper; women’s rights activists protesting sexual harassment; and pro-democracy campaigners, among many others.
In all, according to Amnesty International, more than 230 lawyers were detained, at least briefly, and at least two dozen were still being held weeks later.
A confident government in Beijing could surely countenance growing civic activism whose common thread is the service of human dignity; and indeed, China’s authoritarian system, despite its intolerance of dissent, had allowed a proliferation of issue advocacy, at least on a case-by-case basis, that stopped well short of threatening the regime itself.
Now, by attempting to muzzle and intimidate lawyers and activists like Zhang, and tear down church crosses by the hundreds, the government is only drawing attention to its tenuous legitimacy and the limits of China’s rule of law.