Dec. 30, 2019, was a day when people who live in the free world were busy planning ahead and getting ready for New Year’s Eve celebrations. But for China’s outspoken Wang Yi, the founding pastor of China’s most famous house church, the Early Rain Covenant Church, there was no such celebration. After being detained by Chinese authorities for more than a year without an actual charge, in a closed-door legal proceeding Wang was sentenced to nine years in prison for trumped up convictions of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business activities.”
Throughout the proceeding, Wang’s lawyer wasn’t allowed to defend him. In addition to jail time, Wang will be stripped of his political rights for four years, and the Chinese government will confiscate about $7,000 worth of his personal assets. According to Bob Fu, president of China Aid, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization advocating for basic rights of Chinese Christians, Wang’s sentence is the harshest of any house church leaders in China.
Why Pastor Wang Engaged in ‘Faithful Disobedience’
I had first written about the injustice Wang and his church faced in early December 2019, which marked the one-year anniversary of his detainment. Wang and more than 100 of his church members were arrested during a raid just before Christmas, which the government initiated to “root out” a number of prominent Christians and house churches back in 2018.
Most Early Rain church members were eventually released after enduring various degrees of interrogation and torture. Wang, however, lost his freedom ever since that day. His whereabouts are still unknown to his family. In a strange way, the recent year-end sentence was comforting to Wang’s family because at least it signaled he is still alive.
The government’s charges against Wang are spurious, to say the least. China’s Constitution states that Chinese citizens should be able to enjoy the freedoms of religion and expression. Wang practices his faith openly. He posts his sermons online. He has been an outspoken critic of Chinese Communist Party leader Xi’s “Sinicise religion” policy, which demands the Communist Party actively “guide” every religion to “be compatible with socialism and implement measures to Sinicise the religion” to foster patriotism.
All religious believers in China are required to “let the Party lead, listen to the Party, and walk behind the Party.” As a result, many government-sanctioned churches begin their services by singing patriotic songs praising the Communist Party and the motherland, followed by bowing to giant portraits of Xi. Many believers are so repulsed by such compulsions, they choose to worship in house churches.
Wang criticized the Chinese government for compelling Christians to treat Xi as a god, as well as China’s ruthless persecutions against its Christians. Knowing the government treats any criticism as “inciting subversion of state power,” Wang made it clear in his now-famous letter, “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” which he wrote several months before his arrest, that he isn’t interested in “changing any political or legal institutions in China,” because “the goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world.” He also declared:
Regardless of what crime the government charges me with, whatever filth they file at me, as long as this charge is related to my faith, my writings, my comments, and my teachings, it is merely a lie and temptation of demons. I categorically deny it. I will serve my sentence, but I will not serve the law. I will be executed, but I will not plead guilty.
Wang’s letter is probably the most influential document of faith among Chinese Christians.
Religious Persecution in China Reaches New Highs
With the jarring sentence imposed on Wang near the year’s end, China managed to conclude yet another year of unconstitutional and brutal persecution against religious believers. China Aid publishes a report on the “Chinese Government’s Persecution of Christians and Churches in Mainland China” annually, and Wang’s case is only one of many Christian persecution cases. In 2018 alone, more than 10,000 Protestant churches in China were forced to shut down.
Besides Early Rain, some other notable cases include:
- The demolition of Linfen’s Golden Lampstand Church. The church properties were looted. Dozens of church leaders were arrested, and four were found guilty of “illegal occupation of agricultural land” and “assembling a crowd to disturb traffic order.”
- Local government dismantled crosses from at least seven churches, including three government-sanctioned churches in Henan province.
- After Zion Church in Beijing rejected the local government’s demand to install surveillance equipment at worship locations, church members were subjected to numerous harassments and threats. Eventually, the Beijing government banished Zion Church, claiming the church’s religious activities were not registered and that the church violated regulations regarding public gatherings.
Furthermore, China Aid pronounced that the persecution against Christians under Xi has been the worst in China’s history since Mao’s “Cultural Revolution.”
In fact, Xi has declared a war against all religious believers. As the world discovered through leaked documents, Xi was personally responsible in formulating the policy that incarcerated some 3 million Uighur Muslims into so-called reeducation camps without any attested charges.
Inside these camps, Uighurs are reportedly “forced to pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and to renounce Islam, in addition to singing praises for communism and being forced to learn Mandarin. Many reported prison-like conditions, with cameras and microphones monitoring their every move and utterance.” An international tribunal also found evidence of forced organ harvesting inside these camps.
I am alarmed that Pastor Wang Yi, leader of Chengdu’s Early Rain house church, was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison on trumped-up charges. Beijing must release him and end its intensifying repression of Christians and members of all other religious groups.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 31, 2019
Under Persecution, Christianity Is Spreading
Xi’s cold-blooded persecution of all believers of faith is a displaced manifestation of his and the Communist Party’s insecurities. Throughout China’s 3,000-year history, religious movements were often the precursors to armed uprisings against the ruling class.
In addition to China’s history, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also learned the indispensable role Pope John Paul II played in helping to bring down communism in 1989. Thus, the CCP is concerned that any religion and any form of organized gathering could be a potential challenge to its rule. The CCP has been especially hostile to Christianity and Islam because of these religions’ close ties to the outside world.
However, increased persecution has failed to curtail the growing number of of religious believers in China. China has more than 100 million Christians today, already more than the 90 million members of the CCP. China’s Christian population is on track to grow to 250 million by 2030, within just a decade. Such growth is a testament to the power and the glory of God.
In Wang’s words, it is as if God “decides to use the persecution of this Communist regime against the church to help more Chinese people to despair of their futures, to lead them through a wilderness of spiritual disillusionment and through this to make them know Jesus.”
Some compare Wang to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor during World War II who was an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Just like Wang, Bonhoeffer founded an underground church. The Nazi regime hanged him just one month before Germany’s surrender in 1945. Bonhoeffer remained faithful until his last breath because he firmly believed “the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh.”
The Nazi regime is now at the bottom of history’s dustbin, while Bonhoeffer is universally respected and his writings on Christianity and its role in the secular world are still influential today. The Nazis’ downfall should teach the CCP a lesson: An evil regime may seem mighty and powerful temporarily, but God will eventually overthrow it, if for no other reason than “God’s righteous punishment and revenge for this evil.”