Pastor Wang Yi, the founder of the underground Early Rain Covenant Church and staunch critic of Xi Jinping’s heavy-handed policies, has been sentenced to nine years in prison for “subversion of state power” and illegal business operations. Wang was one of over 100 members of the Early Rain Covenant detained in Chengdu last December as part of a crackdown on unregistered churches, mosques, and temples–itself part of a broader campaign to “Sinicize” religion in China. Wang’s wife, Jiang Rong, was also detained in the roundup on suspicion of “inciting subversion,” but was released after six months. At The New York Times, Paul Mozur and Ian Johnson report:
As part of his sentence, he will also be stripped of his political rights for three years and have 50,000 renminbi, or almost $7,200, of his assets seized, according to the statement.
[…] Mr. Wang had become known for taking high-profile positions on politically sensitive issues, including forced abortions and the massacre that crushed the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.
[…] The government in November sentenced another church leader, Qin Defu, to four years in prison for the charge of illegal business operations.
[…] While the charge of inciting to subvert state power reflects Mr. Wang’s political views, the illegal business operations highlight a more widespread and troubling problem for the government: Early Rain and hundreds of other unregistered churches across China are no longer just small, underground gatherings of believers in people’s homes, but are large, sophisticated organizations. [Source]
At NPR, Emily Feng reports further on Wang’s trial, his church being targeted in the crackdown, and the context of eroding religious freedom in China:
The sentencing is the latest incident in an ongoing crackdown on organized religion in China. Early Rain Covenant Church, which Wang founded in2008, attracted about 500 followers and was considered one of the most influential “underground churches” in China, operating independently of the state.
[…] Most of Early Rain’s congregants were eventually released after a period of days or months. Several congregants have since escaped to Taiwan and are applying for asylum in the U.S.
[…] China has previously sentenced prominent dissidents or activists in closed trials over holidays such as Christmas or announced multiple sentencings on the same day in an effort to minimize media attention.
[…] China nominally guarantees freedom of religion. But in the past six years, it has arrested believers, shut down several prominent Christian churches and detained or imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang. [Source]
Coverage from Reuters and the South China Morning Post report that Wang was sentenced for the lesser charge of “inciting subversion.” The two charges are often confused, and their distinction was clarified in 2012 by Siweiluozi (via CDT).
On Christmas day, the Los Angeles Times’ Alice Su interviewed members of the Early Rain congregation and other underground Christian churches about the ongoing crackdown:
[…] One pastor in Hong Kong, who spoke on the condition that his name not be published, said the message was made clear when a group of Chinese officials visited in 2016.
“You keep talking about separation of church and state,” he said they told him and other theologians. “But Chinese tradition is that state leads and church follows…. In China, you are a tool to transform the people.”
The pastor said the campaign in some ways was repeating history.
In the 1950s, the newly established People’s Republic of China co-opted Protestant leaders with the Three-Self Church’s anti-colonial slogan: “Self-governance, self-support, self-propagation.”
But by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, all religion was violently purged. Even the Three-Self Church was not immune, and many of its founders were tortured, sent to labor camps and worked to death. [Source]
The New York Times’ Ian Johnson earlier this month described the emergence of a state-sponsored “civil religion” attempting to reinforce Party ideology with “traditional Chinese values” as the flip-side of the ongoing crackdown on religions such as Islam and Christianity:
This new state-guided religiosity is the flip side of the government’s harsh policies toward Islam and Christianity. Officials believe these two global faiths are hard to control because of their foreign ties, and they have used negotiation or force — diplomacy with the Vatican, arrests of prominent Protestants, internment camps for Muslims — to try to bring these religions to heel.
Yet Beijing’s recent turn to tradition may be even more significant. Even though Islam and Christianity are world religions, in China they remain minor, with the number of their combined adherents amounting to less than 10 percent of the population. Most Chinese believe in an amalgam of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and other traditional values and ideas that still resonate deeply.
[…] Xi Jinping’s rise to power in late 2012 marks a new era, the third, in the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s religious policies. Instead of the destruction of the Mao years and the relatively laissez-faire approach of the reform period, the state has embarked on a form of highly curated revivalism.
One part of its approach rests on a deep suspicion of Christianity and Islam. The party’s policy toward Islam has been the most draconian. Some believers, especially Uighurs in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, have been subjected to a policy of forced secularization. This has included sending hundreds of thousands of Muslims to re-education camps, compelling restaurants to serve pork and alcohol, and forbidding fasting during Ramadan. […] [Source]
Read more about the crackdown on underground Christian churches throughout China, and on the human rights crisis facing the predominately Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang, via CDT.