Warsaw, Poland — When Sr. Teresa Yu, a Chinese Sacred Heart nun, was allowed to attend a Catholic colloquium in Poland this autumn, she was struck by the freedoms enjoyed by the church in the once communist-ruled country.
But she was also dismayed by the contrast with church life at home in China, where there have been signs, after three decades of relative liberalization, of a new hardening of regime attitudes.
The most dramatic has been the mass dismantling of crosses, which began in China's Zhejiang province and has now been accompanied by the demolition of churches and arrest of human rights lawyers.
"The Communist Party numbers 80 million, so it's hard to say what the predominant view of religion really is -- and how much this apparently new policy is just guided by the personal interests of local officials," explained Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
"But there must be something behind these nasty actions. You don't provoke popular anger by burning and ripping up crosses unless you want to achieve something. Someone at the center of power has clearly sanctioned the latest campaign."
As a Chinese senior Vatican staffer, Hon has played a part in on-off negotiations between Beijing and the Holy See. But the intermittent diplomatic contacts have told only part of the story. At a local level, many Christian communities are now under pressure -- and facing bleak prospects.
Police began tearing down crosses in the coastal city of Wenzhou in late 2013, citing building regulations, and have since removed more than 1,200 crosses throughout Zhejiang.
The campaign was protested by China's state-approved Catholic and Protestant associations, as well as by Cardinal John Tong Hon of Hong Kong, who appealed to Communist Party chiefs in August to "return to the right path."
However, Catholic sources say up to 4,000 crosses may have been targeted for removal from spires and towers, while churches have also been bulldozed and numerous Christians arrested for protesting.
In September, China's United Front Work Department, which oversees religion, announced new curbs on foreign involvement in faith communities, and a fresh ban of religious activities by Communist Party members.
In October, China's official newspaper on religious issues, Zhongguo Mingzu Bao, confirmed that "foreign influences" were to be restricted, and all religious practices supervised by organizations within China.
An American professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, Richard Madsen, thinks the campaign signals a government failure to contain the rapid grassroots expansion of Christianity in China, and believes this has impelled distrustful local officials to pursue their own "ad hoc policies."
However, a French priest from Hong Kong's Holy Spirit Study Center points out that China's current president, Xi Jinping, was previously Communist Party first secretary in Zhejiang, and thus clearly knew about and approved the anti-cross campaign.
"Christians are clearly being warned not to go too far -- and being reminded the regime is still in charge and can do the same elsewhere," Fr. Bruno Lepeu, who works with Catholic youth groups in China, told NCR.
Catholicism and Protestantism are among five recognized faiths -- alongside Buddhism, Daoism and Islam -- that are governed in China by a State Administration for Religious Affairs and managed by officially approved patriotic associations.
Both Catholicism and Protestantism have expanded rapidly since the 1980s -- placing China on the way, by some counts, to having the world's largest community of practicing Christians.
Could all of this now be under threat?
The Catholic church, estimated unofficially at 14 million members, has around 100 dioceses with 104 bishops, of whom 35 are not recognized by the Chinese government. The church boasts some 4,000 priests, with 860 ordinands studying at 22 official and unofficial seminaries.
Although male religious orders are banned in China, diocesan female orders are permitted under strict control and currently number more than 5,000 members in 90 congregations, roughly the same as before the 1949 communist revolution.
The country's first contemplative convent was founded in 2014 in Shanxi province, and female orders currently run 120 clinics, 30 homes for the aged, 20 kindergartens, six orphanages, and 14 family care centers, according to church sources, as well as drug-rehabilitation, AIDS and leprosy units.
Here, too, there are growing problems. Chinese officials have begun demanding licenses, and some Catholic-run charities have had to close. Meanwhile, vocations have fallen as families have become less willing to see their children enter orders.
Although Catholic nuns run catechism and Bible classes in many Chinese parishes, their work is increasingly impeded.
"While we can generally conduct activity inside church premises, we face problems when we step outside," confirmed Sr. Hyacinta Zhang Yunling of the Holy Spirit Paraclete order in Hebei province, which is home to 1,700 officially registered and non-registered Catholic nuns.
"But we're now also lacking recruits and novices, especially in rural communities where economic conditions are hardest."
Fr. Paul Han, director of the Catholic church's Jinde Charities organization, fears government moves were underway to reduce the "visibility of Christianity." But he cautions against a militant response, and against reviving "martyr complexes" from the past.
"Whether this now becomes a harsher clampdown could depend on how Christians react," the priest, based in Shijiazhuang, told NCR. "If the government feels church members are doing work for society which complements that of the regime, it will tolerate them. If it can decree they're colluding with imperialists against China, there'll be no negotiation. It's essential the church doesn't give them a pretext for this."
Some observers think problems have also been fueled by China's lack of a legal framework for religious activities.
Liu Peng, director of Beijing's Pushi Institute for Social Sciences, says China's communist regime has a "better understanding" now of the importance of religious rights, but says some government officials are still stoking conflicts by employing "old Soviet-style methods."
"In the current situation, religious people are unhappy, the government isn't satisfied and China is being criticized abroad -- the regime has to decide whether it's going to be positive, negative or neutral towards religion," Liu said.
"Since we have only general constitutional provisions on religion, but no primary laws to define and codify it, Chinese courts can't rule effectively in this field."
The latest cross removals coincided with the summer ordination of priests by two of eight Catholic bishops who have been excommunicated by the Vatican for having no papal mandate.Such developments were on the agenda when Chinese and Vatican negotiators met in Beijing for their latest talks in early October.
UCA News said the six-member Vatican delegation visited Beijing's National Seminary during its brief stay, and was welcomed by Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin, president of China's government-approved bishops' conference, which isn't recognized by the Vatican.
It added that the summer ordination of Bishop Zhang Yinlin of Anyang, the first in three years with both government and Vatican approval, has been a positive sign, as was the Chinese regime's decision to permit a secretly ordained bishop, Wu Qinjing of Zhouzhi, to practice his ministry publicly.
However, with no official information given about the visit, the agency cautioned, it was clear that no agreements were reached -- highlighting once again the precarious uncertainty facing China's Catholics.
Archbishop Hon admits to being unsure about the purpose and extent of the current anti-Christian campaign.
The "emptying out" of communist ideology in China has enabled citizens to become "rich and powerful consumers" without gaining alternative values. But he agrees Chinese Catholics should be "very careful" not to be provoked into violence while seeking to protect their churches and crosses, and says the Vatican will urge them to "follow the Holy Spirit" rather than recommending any "concrete action."
Sr. Yu, who recently visited Poland, says she was shocked by the Zhejiang anti-cross campaign, which came "like a hurricane." She described how lay Catholics wept, prayed and chained themselves at targeted churches to show they were "ready to die."
She insists Catholic communities have helped confront the "psychological emptiness" felt by many Chinese, and says the church's recent growth has enabled many to "break new ground for spreading the Gospel."
Like others, however, she's uneasy about what lies ahead.
"For a country with a rapidly developing economy, the dominance of hedonistic mentalities, consumerism and spiritual emptiness brings a great deal of tension and trial," the Sacred Heart nun told NCR.
"But we're still hoping and praying for religious freedom -- so that we can provide a light of holiness in today's challenging environment of secularism and materialism."
[Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance writer covering European church news from Warsaw, Poland, and Oxford, England.]