Christians in the industrial boomtown of Hangzhou say decrees enforced by Xia Baolong, the Communist party secretary for the coastal Zhejiang province, have resulted in the destruction of hundreds of crosses and churches in the region over the last few months.
Police showed up in August at a church in downtown Hangzhou and took down the cross, saying it violated height restrictions. Congregation members vehemently denied that was the case.
Earlier this year, authorities in Zhejiang reportedly issued demolition notices to more than 100 churches, saying they violated zoning regulations. In April, the majestic Sanjiang church in Wenzhou was razed.
In other parts of the province, officials have used cranes and blowtorches to remove crosses from church exteriors.
Churchgoers in the nearby city of Taizhou squared off with as many as 4,000 police officers in an attempt to stop officials from removing two crosses from a church. The New York Times reported that as many as 40 people were detained.
"Even if it's illegal construction, it should have been taken away by city administration officials, not by the police," churchgoer Xiao Dihua said Friday of the removal of the cross in Hangzhao.
Another parishioner suggested the removal of the cross made it difficult for her to worship.
"Without a cross, it's very hard to face God," said the woman who would only identify herself as Zhu.
"How can you have a church without a cross? We have a cross in our hearts."
Harper met Xia at the state guest house, an elegant lakeside building surrounded by lush willows and cedars. The two discussed strengthening Canada-China business ties.
A spokesman for the prime minister said religious freedom was discussed, but didn't say whether the churches were specifically mentioned.
The Prime Minister's Office says Harper plans to raise China's human rights record when he meets the country's president in Beijing over the weekend.
The Conservative government has frequently criticized China for its treatment of Christians.
Christianity is one of China's fastest-growing faiths. There are now an estimated 100 million Christians in China compared with 86.7 million Communist party members.
The prime minister's latest visit to China was almost scrubbed entirely due to tense relations between the two countries in recent months. Harper accused China of cyberspying over the summer, while China accused a Canadian couple living in China of being spies.
Some Conservative cabinet ministers, including Jason Kenney, are uneasy about forging closer ties to China, in part due to human rights concerns.
But with China's middle class exploding, business groups have urged the government to strengthen the relationship.
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25