One of the dangers of being a ‘China Expert’ is that as people look to you for expert analysis of China, it always feels to me to be a bit risky, kind of like predicting the weather. Even with my years of experience in China, and the people on the ground I have feeding me the latest information, I often offer analysis knowing that things can change quickly in China. I often downplay the role of ‘China Expert,’ given China’s long, 4,500 year history (there’s a lot to learn!) and the unpredictable nature of China’s current leaders and the perplexing predicament they are in. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to rule the world’s most populous country in a modern society with a Communist heritage and backdrop to work with. When someone refers to me as a ‘China Expert,’ I’ll often say something like, ‘I’m not sure about that. I just know a little more about China than you.’ It’s also hard because just as you think you’ve got a particular part of China figured out, an event or situation pops up that totally blows up what you thought was true.
Such is the case with the recent events in the city of Wenzhou, where as you probably know by now, the former provincial Governor, Xia Baolong, now the Party Secretary in Zhejiang province and a member of the 18th CPC Central Committee, was on a tour of the province and was disturbed by all the churches with crosses placed up high and within view of the new interstate highway going through Wenzhou. So he ordered that they come down, much to the chagrin of those in the churches, including the church grandmas who took to sleeping in the churches to protect them, and to Christians worldwide. This situation has caused me particular ‘麻烦’ (trouble) because I’ve been touting for a long time that incidents of persecution of Christians has been going down over the last 10 years or so. I’ve shown statistical data to prove my point and while I still stand by my claim, especially since a little persecution in Wenzhou doesn’t mean this same type of persecution is happening throughout China, it’s a little hard for me to explain how their tearing down churches and church crosses in Wenzhou while persecution is down throughout the country. I guess this confusion of my message is to be expected given China’s size and variety of political leaders and is just a part of doing analysis on China, but I’ve wanted to know more about why this happened and how I can explain it to those who follow my ministry and read my writing.
A few weeks ago, I was back in China and I had the distinct pleasure to visit with several top China watchers from the West living in China. One colleague in particular really helped me understand how something like the situation in Wenzhou could happen. His take of Chinese government officials is similar to my own: The top 5% of National level Government leaders are really smart, effective men. They know China’s place in the world, understand World politics and are really quite effective. The next 25% of leaders are what he would call ‘Bulldogs.’ It is this group of leaders who want to be in the top 5%, but have not been chosen for top leadership. They still have quite a bit of influence though and enough muscle to largely push through their agenda. They are referred to as ‘Bulldogs,’ or as I’ve called them ‘Pit Bulls’ because they abuse their power at times and don’t have the savvy to restrain themselves when needed. It is amongst this group that President Xi Jinping’s current ‘anti-corruption’ campaign is occurring, since many within this group have been without restrictions on their power or spending.
Enter Xia Baolong, former Zhejiang provincial Governor and current Party Secretary in Zhejiang province. As a Pit Bull, in Zhejiang province, he sets the rules. There’s no one in the province who outranks him. He works within a system in China that has not yet gotten to true Rule of Law and where the longstanding Rule of Man is still at play. As it has been for centuries in China, Rule of Man dictates that each official can determine for themselves what a law means and how it should be administered, so although the churches in question have the legal authority to exist and got approval to build the church and put up the cross, if Mr. Xia doesn’t like the cross that high, he feels like he has the ability to take it down. And in reality, until laws on religion are evenly enforced, he will have the authority to exercise his will in this way.
So what do we learn about China and about Christianity in China in this situation? A few key things: First, we learn that China still has a bit of work to do on administering the laws evenly. We also learn that men like Xia Baolong can cause trouble for people of faith without seemingly many consequences. Second, we learn that most of what I’ve been saying about Christianity in China is true. House churches in major metropolitan areas are still operating with a level of openness they’ve never seen. We also learn that just because Mr. Xia wanted some crosses taken down, it doesn’t indicate a nationwide crackdown on Christianity in China, as some major news outlets are reporting. Many novice China watchers will often see something like this happening and assume it’s happening throughout the country, but that is almost never the case. Thirdly, we’re still seeing the growth of the Church in China in unprecedented numbers, and there’s little to suggest that will be slowed. And finally, I hope that Xia Baolong got a phone call from President Xi Jinping after seeing the worldwide response to the tearing down of Churches and church crosses to never do anything like that again, lest he become the President’s next target in his campaign to reign in wayward ‘Pitbulls.’