Christians in southeastern China have been hanging crosses from windows and cars in protest at Beijing's latest drive to remove public symbols of faith. Authorities in the province of Zhejiang have been stripping churches of crosses deemed to be 'too visible' for the past three weeks.

At the end of May, Zheijang's provincial government published new rules requiring churches to remove the crosses towering over their rooftops and attach them instead to the building facade. Authorities are also planning to limit the cross size to one twentieth of the surface area of the corresponding church. Finally, churches must take on a "Chinese architectural style".

Since the beginning of June, authorities have removed several crosses in Wenzhou in Zhejiang province. But the new rules have sparked outrage amongst local Christians. With 1.2 million followers, or 10% of the port city's population, Wenzhou is home to one of China's biggest Christian communities. They've rebelled against local government policy by making their own crosses out of wood and painting them red. The crosses have rapidly become a symbol of defiance, with locals hanging them from the windows of cars and homes and wearing them as brooches.

Photo posted on Weibo by a Christian in Wenzhou.

It wouldn't be the first time that Zhejiang's authorities have tried to get the region's churches to fall into line. At the end of 2013, under the pretext of a campaign targeting 'illegal construction in industrial zones', authorities tore down a megachurch that had cost 30 million Yuan [Editor's note: Four million Euros] and taken 10 years to build in the province of Sanjiang. The monument's destruction signalled the start of a brutal period of repression.

Recognised churches and "underground" churches

This government-led clampdown has sparked a rising number of protests over the past month. In China, there are two types of Christian churches. There are those controlled by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, an organisation that sprung out of the ruling Communist Party. These churches are the only ones recognised by Chinese authorities (though they aren't recognised by the Vatican). However, a parallel network of 'underground churches' thrives outside Beijing's official framework. Up to 60 million people are thought to make up China's network of 'underground' Christian churches.

In a surprising twist, representatives of China's official Catholic Church recently voiced their outrage at the government's latest clampdown on the country's Christians for the first time. In an open letter published this week, Wenzhou's priests called on Christians across China to come out in force against the campaign.

  Authorities removed the cross from Ma Bu Gao Sha Catholic Church on July 31, 2015, Video posted on Twitter by our Observer, T.

"A 'Chinese style' church is no longer a church"

Zhang works as a pastor in an official church in the Wenzhou suburb of Pingyang. He called on Wenzhou's Christians to protest peacefully against the restrictive measures by making their own artisanal crosses.

Altogether there are some 30 churches in my city. Before September, all the crosses on these churches will be pulled down. For now, the campaign has focused on my region, but I reckon that it won't be long before all the churches across China are subjected to the same repression.

In Catholic churches supervised by the Communist party, you have to sing Communist chants before mass. The new rules are ridiculous. From now on, churches have to conform to Communist ideology and the 'Chinese style'. But a 'Chinese style' church is no longer a church. It doesn't make any sense to have churches without crosses on top of them. The authorities go on about 'Chinese-style Christianity', like they talk about Chinese socialism, the 'official' term peddled by the Communist party. For me, this campaign heralds the start of an effort to control every aspect of religious life in China..

There are certain churches that were demolished during the last campaign against Christianity. But even before that, the process of getting authorisation to build a Christian place of worship was already corrupt. You have to put in a request to local authorities. But they clearly try to discourage us by either giving us land that's too small or far away from the town centre. Often, people do manage to build large churches in good locations on large plots of land... but they have to pay and use their connections. It's the only way to get a suitable church built here. All of that, just so that now they decide that these churches are illegal. Officials interpret the rules according to how they feel, and there has never been a vote or a consultation to decide on putting them in place.

Authorities also removed the cross from the top of He Bian church in Pingyang on July 31, 2015. These pictures were posted on Twitter by our Observer, T.

"'Unrecognised' Christians are forced to keep their beliefs confined to their private lives"

T. works as a missionary for an unrecognised church.

In most parts of China, Christians who don't go to churches recognised by the state gather in so-called 'family' churches. A few families gather in someone’s home to say mass. They have no links with the ruling party, but they don't have the right to have a church.

But in Wenzhou, the situation is different. Here, the Christian community is so important that they're allowed to build churches that aren't affiliated with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. There's also a large and wealthy diaspora of Christians from Wenzhou living abroad who are able to put pressure on local authorities if they tried to clamp down on the churches.

Practising Christian beliefs in underground churches outside of Wenzhou is very difficult. As a missionary, everything that I say is monitored. They've tapped my phone, and my Weibo and Wechat accounts are also censured [Editor's note: Weibo is China's foremost social media network]. In general, 'unofficial' Christians are obliged to be discreet and to confine their beliefs to their private lives.

Members of a Catholic church in Wenzhou protest in front of city hall. Photo posted on Weibo by the pastor of a Catholic church.

Roughly 7% of China's population - around 100 million people - are thought to be Christians. There are 13 million more Christians in China than there are members of the ruling Communist Party, which counts 86.6 million members. The country's 1987 constitution allows people to engage in religious practises, but, in reality, religious gatherings are strongly supervised by the ruling party. All religious organisations must be approved and registered by the ruling regime, and religious gatherings are often monitored. According to China Aid, an American NGO committed to promoting freedom of religion in China, more than 1,200 Chinese churches have been forced to tear down their crosses since 2013 across the country.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Weiyu Tsien (@WeiyuQ).