As Christianity begins to reshape the nation, TIME learns new details about a crackdown on one church.
Several weeks after the attack, the witness is still trembling. "Everyone knew trouble was coming," the man says, describing the day last month that haunts him still. A fit-looking fortysomething wearing a T shirt and jeans, the man was a volunteer working on a half-completed church in a suburb of Hangzhou, a picturesque lakeside city 112 miles southwest of Shanghai. Financed by local Christians, the church was to serve a community of 5,000 parishioners. Hundreds of them gathered at the site on the afternoon of July 29, some joining the construction crew building the church. Others, many of them elderly parishioners, sat on plastic chairs surrounding the church, singing hymns.
The Christians surely knew they were testing the patience of local government officials, who insisted the building was illegal and had to be torn down. But few were prepared for what happened next. Witnesses told TIME that at about 2:30 p.m., thousands of uniformed police and plainclothes security officers appeared at the construction site. The police cleared a way through the crowds for a few drill-equipped backhoes, and the authorities then demolished the church. Witnesses say police bludgeoned people indiscriminately with nightsticks. "They were picking up women--some of them old ladies--by their hair and swinging them around like dolls, then letting them crash to the ground," says a man who watched the clash from across the street. A statement faxed to TIME by the information office of the Xiaoshan district government describes the scene differently, claiming that about 100 Christians "attacked and injured government officials" and that although the police detained a few protesters, none were injured. But the volunteer interviewed by TIME produced receipts from the local hospital attesting to his treatment for broken ribs, which he says many others suffered as well. "They treated us like dead dogs," he says. "Some of them scoffed at us as we lay there, saying, 'Where is your God now? Why can't he help you? If you want to go to heaven, we'll help you get there right now.'"
The crackdown in Hangzhou may seem unremarkable for a country where a public demonstration of any kind can still trigger a brutal government response. For openly religious Chinese, in particular, that's a constant threat. Human-rights groups regularly report cases of harassment, temporary detention and even long-term imprisonment of priests and their followers. But the Hangzhou episode is also unmistakable evidence that Christianity is transforming Chinese society.
Read the entire article on the Time Magazine website (new window will open).