The Struggle for Freedom: The Christian pastor convicted of subversion against the Chinese regime

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Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute
President George W. Bush meets with Chinese human rights activists, from left: Li Baiguang, Wang Yi, and Yu Jie in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House. (White House photo by Eric Draper)

Wang Yi, the pastor of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China, anticipated his imminent arrest in the fall of 2018. He deliberately gained weight to help him withstand prison conditions and drafted an essay setting forth his posture toward the Chinese Communist Party. 

In “My Declaration on Faithful Disobedience,” he accepted that “this communist regime has been allowed by God to rule temporarily” but vowed to “use nonviolent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God.… [M]y savior Jesus Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws.”   

At his direction, the essay was posted on the internet 48 hours after he, his wife Jiang Rong, and 200 Early Rain parishioners were arrested during a raid on his church on Dec. 9, 2018.  

Jiang and the parishioners were eventually released, but Wang was convicted of “incitement to subversion of state power” and sentenced to nine years in prison at a closed trial in December 2019. His wife last had contact with Wang in 2021. She and their son are under house arrest. 

Repression of Christianity and other religions is a hallmark of Chinese Communist Party rule. However, the intensity of persecution has fluctuated, declining after the extreme repression of the Mao era from 1949 to 1976 and then gradually increasing again over the past two decades.  

With the ascent of China’s leader Xi Jinping in 2012, repression of human rights has intensified, fueled by Xi’s hostility verging on paranoia toward universal values of democracy, human rights, and constitutional government. The party portrays these as a Western subversion plot rather than the inalienable rights of individuals.  

With regard to religion, Xi launched a campaign to “Sinicize” China’s religions in 2014, leading to arrests of clergy, removal of crosses, demolition of churches and confiscation of Bibles, according to Human Rights Watch.  

“Sinicization” is an inapt and misleading term for what Xi and the party are trying to do.  

“All the religions that came from outside of China, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, had long been Sinicized,” Lian Xi, the David C. Steinmetz Distinguished Professor of World Christianity at Duke University told me. “Christianity first entered China in the Tang dynasty [between 618 and 907] and became Sinicized more than a thousand years before the CCP was born. The issue is really dominance, absolute control of the church [more akin to] `party-ization.’”   

From human rights law to Christianity 

Wang was born and grew up in Szechuan province, 80 miles northeast of Chengdu, one of China’s largest cities.  

Three days after his 16th birthday, on June 4,1989, People’s Liberation Army troops massacred democracy protesters around Tiananmen Square in Beijing and in other cities.  

For Wang, and for many other Chinese, the massacre led to “complete disillusionment with communist rule and the leaders of China,” according to Lian. “There was nothing to fill the vacuum of belief. They began to search for a new world view that would give their life meaning.”    

Wang first pursued a career in law, teaching at Chengdu University and gaining prominence as a human rights lawyer. Although he had not become a Christian, he was part of a phenomenon of “Cultural Christians,” which started in the 1990s, according to Lian. The term refers to intellectuals who appreciated Christian culture but often remained uncommitted to the Christian faith.  

Ultimately, Wang’s rights defense work and his contacts with Christians under pressure from the government led him to convert in 2005. Wang, “was moved by how members of the underground South China Church refused to bear false witness against their leader even when they were tortured,” Lian told me.  

As part of his support for human rights advocates, President George W. Bush welcomed Wang Yi, the lawyer Li Baiguang, and the writer Yu Jie to the Oval Office in 2006. Li Baiguang died unexpectedly in a Chinese military hospital in 2018. Yu Jie was granted asylum in the United States in 2012.  

Leading Early Rain 

Wang left his legal career in 2008 and founded what became the Early Rain Covenant Church the same year.  

Early Rain is an “unregistered church,” which means it operates without the approval of the Three-Self Patriotism Movement (TSPM), the government body that supervises Protestantism. (The name refers to “self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation,” which originated among British and American missionaries trying to develop indigenous Chinese Christian churches beginning in the 1850s and was later appropriated by the Communist Party.)   

The TSPM and other bodies that regulate faiths – including Buddhism, Islam, and Catholicism – are part of the party’s United Front Work Department. The purpose of united front work, “is to control, mobilize, and otherwise make use of individuals outside the party to achieve its objectives.…The party then claims the right to speak on those groups’ behalf and uses them to claim legitimacy,” Peter Mattis testified to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in March 2023.  

Wang’s conscience led him to operate outside the party’s supervision. He also declined to hide the church and its activities. Wang posted his sermons online and the church held services in an office tower – rather than secretly in someone’s home – where it also ran schools and a library.  

In the forward to a collection of essays about the house church movement by Wang and others, Ian Johnson, the author of The Souls of China, described Wang’s approach as “radical openness.” While that approach entailed risks, Wang felt it was essential.  “I feel that the bigger risk is being underground,” he told Johnson, “We won’t have a free attitude if we don’t act free. A basic attitude of being a Christian is to be free. But you can’t act free if you think you’re a criminal.”  

As for the party’s effort to portray Christianity as alien and dangerous to China, Wang considered it neither “`Western’ nor ‘foreign’ but a universal faith that just happened to have been founded in the part of the world that we today call the Middle East,” Johnson wrote.    

By the time the authorities raided Early Rain and arrested Wang, it had grown to several hundred members. Part of the appeal was Wang’s sermons, according to Johnson.  

These “were not homilies he squeezed into the service quickly so everyone could get to the parish hall for coffee and donuts,” Johnson wrote. Instead, “they were beautifully crafted, logically organized educational experiences in Christianity.… He didn’t present Christianity as an obligation or chore but as an essential part of making sense of the society around us.”   

`In the Face of Persecution, What Will I Do?’ 

Wang also wrote another document in the months before his arrest: “In the Face of Persecution, What Will I Do?” consists of a series of detailed pledges he said he would keep before his arrest and while in prison.  

He said he wouldn’t admit guilt or accept “ideological reform,” which is coercive indoctrination that the party conducts in prisons and labor camps. He planned to continue “sharing the Gospel whether in the police station, detention center, prison, or any other detention facility.”  

Wang also resolved to “request the freedom to obtain and read the Bible during my breaks from inquiry and interrogation. If I cannot acquire or am forbidden to read the Bible, I will disobey in a peaceful manner and will not cooperate with the police’s inquiry and questioning.”  

A caveat runs through the document: Wang would uphold his pledges “unless the police torture me brutally to the point of crushing my health and spirit.”    

The lack of news about Wang is troubling.  

“No one has been able to verify his mental and emotional health,” Rana Siu Inboden of the Robert S. Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin told me. “The Chinese government refuses [to let] Wang Yi’s family or international experts to visit him. If the Chinese government has treated him well and is respecting human rights as they state, they should allow unfettered access to Wang Yi and other prisoners of conscience.”  

President Joe Biden didn’t mention human rights, democracy, or political prisoners in his State of the Union Address in March, when he listed the ways he said his administration is “standing up” to China – such as on Taiwan and trade.  

Biden has also argued that the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism will “define our future.” That struggle will be won by individuals like Wang Yi, who sacrifice their freedom, health, and sometimes their lives. The United States should do everything it can to support them.