China Power

The Boss Christians of Wenzhou

Could an economic crisis in Wenzhou bring about dark times for China’s Christians?

The Boss Christians of Wenzhou
Credit: Chinese church image via Shutterstock

By some accounts, China will soon be home to the world’s largest Christian population. For now, though, much depends on Wenzhou, often called “China’s Jerusalem,” a city in Zhejiang province and the nation’s most Christian town. Around 11 percent of people in Wenzhou are Christian, almost six times higher than the national average. Wenzhou is also one of the nation’s wealthiest cities and for Wenzhou Christians, these two facts are not unrelated. More importantly, they may not be for Chinese leaders either.

A July 2010 NPR report featured a woman named Yao Hong, who considers Christianity patriotic. “If you look at the U.S. or England […] their churches are rich,” she said, “because God blesses them. So I pray for China.” This brand of capitalist Christianity, which some would argue is self-contradictory, is best exemplified by the boss Christians, or laoban jidutu, so named because they are in fact Christian bosses of their companies. The article describes one such person, Zheng Shengtao, the biggest boss Christian in Wenzhou, and one of the richest men in China, who believes he serves God by making money.

The economic value of the boss Christians seems to support the theory, popular among some Chinese, that it was Christianity that contributed to the success of Western nations. Whether or not this is true, Wenzhou’s economic success, typified by small businesses in what is known as the “Wenzhou model,” may earn it a measure of leniency from the government when it comes to matters of faith. But even with such success, Beijing will not embrace religious tolerance overnight. In the past, its approach to Wenzhou has been simply to impede it, for example by banning vehicles from entering downtown on Christmas Eve 2006, allegedly for the sake of traffic safety.

Yet not all government regulation of religion in Wenzhou has been unreasonable; last Christmas the education bureau banned all Christmas activities in Wenzhou schools, sensibly enforcing the separation of church and state.

But more recently, Beijing has gotten tougher. Last year, the local government announced a policy called san gai yi chai (three reforms, one demolition), which led to the destruction of many churches in the region as well as the removal of crosses from atop buildings near main roads. The official reason for this was to bring buildings in line with zoning codes, which is smart; after the 2009 Sichuan earthquake, it was discovered many schoolhouses had been built with cheap materials in order to cut costs and had subsequently collapsed, killing thousands of children. Zhejiang province has one of the nation’s highest rates of corruption, so strict zoning regulations are a good thing.

But there is also worry that this is merely a pretense for stamping out Christianity in the region. Further, the policy has offered examples of brutal state oppression and cover-up, as seen last September, when the government blocked CNN’s coverage of Wenzhou police, armed with clubs, beating their way through a crowd of churchgoers.

While the government’s position against religious freedom is questionable, it isn’t irrational. Neither is it simply a matter of Communist policy. Christianity was historically an instrument for foreign intervention in Chinese affairs. Plus, the bloodiest civil war in human history, the Taiping Rebellion, was a revolt against state oppression led by the Chinese Christian Hong Xiuquan, who established a short-lived Christian theocracy in the south. Christianity, then, is viewed as a force of foreign intrusion and native rebellion; the state has always been in competition with religion for the loyalty of Chinese hearts and minds.

The view that Christianity poses a threat isn’t entirely wrong either, despite people like Yao Hong, who consider Christianity patriotic. For example, in May 2014 The New York Times reported that some Chinese Protestants consider freedom of expression a God-given right, and that human rights workers are disproportionately Protestant. This clearly poses a threat to the state’s status quo. Still, as long as the “Wenzhou model” of business remains a model for the country, it may remain a model for Chinese Christianity as well.

This may soon be changing, though. In September 2012 Bloomberg reported that shadow banking is thriving in Wenzhou (over 90 percent of China’s small businesses cannot get bank loans) and many Wenzhou residents have been burned as a result. In the first half of 2012, there were over 58,000 lawsuits in Zhejiang, 20 percent filed in Wenzhou. Others have gone bankrupt, left town, or even committed suicide. What’s bad for business is bad for religion, too. If the “Wenzhou model” fails, and the boss Christians go down, Beijing will have less reason to tolerate the region’s faithful.