Priest Ng See Wai leads an Early Rain Covenant Church service in Hong Kong on Dec. 23, 2018. Wang Yi, the church's founder, has been jailed for nine years after a secret trial where he had no legal representation. (Photo: Philip Fong/AFP)
China’s ruling Communist Party has fired a warning shot to the fast-growing underground Protestant churches in the country by jailing Wang Yi, founder of Sichuan province’s Early Rain Covenant Church, for nine years after a secret trial where he had no legal representation. The US State Department has demanded his immediate release.
The sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business activities” became public on Dec. 29 when the court that convicted the preacher issued its judgment. He was found guilty during a closed-doors trial on Dec. 26 on what the State Department described as “trumped-up charges.” Pastor Yi and his wife Jiang Rong were arrested with dozens of other congregants on Dec. 9, 2018, during a crackdown on Chengdu’s largest unregistered church.
Wang has been deprived of his political rights for three years and 50,000 yuan (US$7,160) of his personal property was confiscated as part of his sentencing. Jiang’s whereabouts remain unknown, although a congregant posted on the internet that she was being held under residential surveillance.
Plainclothes officials were stationed near the court, according to one witness who was detained and later released. Only government-appointed lawyers were at the trial, US watchdog group China Aid said in an online report. “No members of Pastor Wang’s family or members of Early Rain Covenant Church were invited to the proceedings.”
Wang had been active in resisting tough new rules on the practice of religion issued in early 2018, leading to the co-issuing of a September 2018 statement with over 100 pastors on how to resist the rules.
"This country is launching a war against the soul. Although the ranking of this war is not the most advanced, it is the most important war. In Xinjiang, in Tibet, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Chengdu, the rulers of this country are launching this war, but they have established for themselves an enemy that can never be detained, can never be destroyed, will never capitulate nor be conquered: the soul of man ... so they are destined to lose this war and are doomed to fail,” Wang said in a sermon in September 2018.
Various Protestant pastors have been reported as saying the heavy sentence will frighten some churches but others have vowed to continue their quest for religious freedom.
Wang’s sentence will also send a shiver through China’s underground Catholics who represent up to 50 percent of the country’s 10-12 million faithful. The September 2018 deal with the Vatican on bishop appointments was seen by Beijing as a way of asserting better control over Chinese Catholics, but few underground clerics and bishops have agreed to move across to the “official” Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
In January 2018, renowned Chinese expatriate author Liao Yiwu, who escaped to Germany via Vietnam in 2011 after being harassed and repeatedly refused permission to travel, wrote a plea for Wang, saying his arrest and jailing were only a matter of time and that he was following in the footsteps of fellow dissident Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize but died in prison before his sentence could be served out.
Zheng Peihong, a lawyer engaged by Wang’s father in the days after his arrest, was interrogated by police for six hours, had all related legal documents and was stripped of his right to provide counsel.
At the same time as Beijing is increasing repression, the Donald Trump administration has continued to step up its criticism of China’s religious program
“We are alarmed that Pastor Wang Yi, leader of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison in connection to his peaceful advocacy for religious freedom. We call for his immediate and unconditional release,” State Department spokesman Morton Ortagus said in a Jan. 1 statement.
“This is yet another example of Beijing’s intensification of repression of Chinese Christians and members of other religious groups. We continue to call on Beijing to uphold its international commitments and promises made in its own constitution to promote religious freedom for all individuals, including members of ethnic and religious minorities and those who worship outside of official state-sanctioned institutions.”
Under the Trump presidency, the US has increased its criticism of Beijing’s latest program of religious repression, which began in earnest in 2015 and has focused on what the Chinese government describes as the “Western religions” of Christianity and Islam.
The officially atheist Communist Party recognizes five religions: Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Daoism and Buddhism. It also officially forbids its 90 million members from being member of religious congregations. And while this is not followed in practice, the organization reiterated these rules once more in 2019.
Protestantism is the fastest-growing religion in China, according to the Pew Institute, and other prominent underground churches have been shuttered in recent years.
Wang had previously worked as a human rights lawyer and was an author and poet. He and Jiang were baptized in 2005 and the next year Wang and other Chinese Christians were received by President George W. Bush in the White House. In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Wang and Jiang founded the Early Rain Covenant Church in their home.
Since then, they have been repeatedly harassed by the police and interrogated over 20 times. Wang Yi later became the chief pastor of the Early Rain Covenant Church and the most controversial political pastor among China’s underground churches.
In targeting the underground church’s unofficial leader, Beijing will be hoping, to use an old Chinese proverb, “to frighten the monkeys by killing a chicken.” But the resilience of Christian believers may prove it wrong. Unfortunately, even tougher measures are in store if it does.