Now you see the giant church, now you don't. Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Now you see the giant church, now you don't. Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

In Wenzhou, sometimes known as China’s Jerusalem for its thriving Christian community, the needs of residents have long outpaced the government’s ability to meet them.

So, for example, small businesses unable to find financing elsewhere have enthusiastically patronized the city’s huge shadow banking sector, obtaining loans at usurious rates. (According to Bloomberg News, almost 90 percent of Wenzhou’s residents have tapped the quasi-legal lenders.) Likewise, local entrepreneurs in search of spiritual fulfillment but underwhelmed by the modest official offerings, have built as many as 1,200 churches in the city and its environs. Of these, the biggest by far was the 85,000-square foot Sanjiang Church -- which on Monday was demolished by order of regional authorities.

Officially, the Protestant church was condemned for violating local building codes and having a permit that licensed it for one-quarter its gargantuan size. Yet Sanjiang was hardly the first building in China to ignore local codes, and it won’t be the last. The real issue seems to be something more ominous: fear that Christianity is growing far beyond the parameters that China’s religious authorities have set for it. Sanjiang Church -- giant, looming and located in a city where Christianity has been allowed to develop without significant interference in recent years -- made for a convenient example.

China’s Communist Party is an officially atheist organization, and though the Chinese constitution provides for religious freedom, there has long been tension between those who desire to exercise that freedom and those who want to regulate it. In the early 1950s, not long after the Communists assumed power, the state established “patriotic” religious organizations that were, in a sense, loyal to both God and the state. In opposition, some believers formed “underground” churches unlicensed by the government.

In reality, the distinction between the two sides has never been completely clear, in part because the “open” state-sanctioned churches have never had the resources -- churches and clergy, in particular -- to serve a Christian population that the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project estimated at 67 million in 2010. In Wenzhou alone, Chinese state media have claimed that 1 million citizens -- or roughly 15 percent of the population -- are Christian. Were it not for the efforts of the city’s “boss Christians” -- successful entrepreneurs who’ve applied some of their healthy profits to building churches -- most of them wouldn’t have anywhere to worship.

The city’s religious authorities have a practical streak, and they’ve long allowed the development of these privately funded churches. Like the ill-fated Sanjiang, most are licensed. From the government’s perspective, having lots of licensed churches makes much more sense than encouraging lots of underground ones that can’t be monitored as easily, and which offend the state’s sense of authority. (In Wenzhou and its environs, there are plenty of these churches as well.)

But if local authorities were comfortable with a skyline dotted with bright red crosses, their superiors apparently no longer were. In early April, the Daily Telegraph reported that the top religious affairs official for Zhejiang Province, home to Wenzhou, had declared Christianity’s growth “too excessive and haphazard.” Similar words might have been used in 2012, when national authorities determined that the city’s shadow banking industry needed regulation. To be sure, Wenzhou’s churches aren’t failing financially or placing the regional economy in danger. But in both cases, Communist higher-ups seem to have determined that Wenzhou, a town whose onetime isolation allowed it to develop an economic, social and spiritual independent streak, could benefit from some additional regulation.

Needless to say, knocking down the biggest church in town probably won’t stem the growth of Christianity in Wenzhou or China. Indeed, it’s unlikely to accomplish much beyond reminding Chinese Christians that, despite the existence of a thriving, state-sanctioned church, there’s still a vast distance between China’s Christians and a Chinese Communist Party that seems determined to control them. At a time when the Party itself is struggling for legitimacy, that can only be a boon for those who hope to grow the ranks of the faithful.

To contact the writer of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor of this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net