40 years ago China opened its doors to the world and launched a series of ambitious reforms that would create one of the world’s largest economic engines. “China is now the world’s second largest economy, largest manufacturer, top trader of goods, and the second largest consumer of goods and recipient of foreign investment,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said during a speech in Beijing celebrating the 40th anniversary of the landmark reforms. “December 18, 1978, was an important day to be remembered in the history of the Chinese nation,” Xi added, saying that it marked the “start of a great journey of reform, opening-up and socialist modernization.”
But unlike Deng Xiaoping before him who wanted to reduce the power and influence of the Communist Party over civil society, China’s current leader believes in the absolute power of the Party and wants his government to exert control over every aspect of Chinese life. Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has severely cracked down on human rights, religious freedom and freedom of expression. Christians are experiencing some of the worst persecution in decades. Under President Xi, the government has tightened control over Christianity in its broad efforts to force religion to support the government and the Communist Party.”
The recent arrest of a prominent church pastor underscores the level of persecution against Christians. Authorities in the city of Chengdu, in China’s southwest, recently arrested pastor Wang Yi, along with his wife and 100 members of his Church. Authorities shut down the church and charged pastor Wang with “inciting subversion of state power.” Ian Johnson, who has written extensively on Christianity in China and knows pastor Wang personally, said, “One can only hope and pray that he will come out of jail or that the sentence will be light, but given the current climate I’m not so sure.” Wang and his wife could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Members of Wang’s Church have been blocked from entering their building. With their leaders facing jail, churchgoers are praying and worshiping outside. The Church, like scores of other congregations, is outside government control as part of China’s burgeoning so-called underground or house church movement. Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs, says this movement has touched every corner of China. “All across China, there are house churches, or what they call ‘family churches’ and the reason the Communist government is so worried is because there are far more Christians in China than there are members of the Communist Party,” Nettleton said.
In recent months, Beijing has waged a brutal and widespread crackdown to stop the growth of these unregistered churches. “This crackdown is a direct response to the fear of the Communist Party leaders who see the church growing faster than the party is,” Nettleton said. Fenggang Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, says what started several years ago as a small campaign against unregistered churches has turned into all-out war. “The campaign started first in Zhejiang province from 2014 to 2016,” Yang said. “Now, it is a nationwide campaign.” Now authorities routinely target houses of worship, destroy crosses, burn Bibles and arrest pastors.
Mr. Fenggang says the government, headed by Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, are trying to establish a totalitarian rule of Chinese society and the Christians are standing in the way of totalitarianism, so that’s why they’ve become a target.” Foreseeing his arrest, pastor Wang wrote a letter with instructions that it should be published if he went missing for more than 48 hours. In it, Wang vowed to use non-violent methods to stand against Chinese laws he believed were against the Bible and God. “My saviour Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws,” Wang wrote.
Wang continued “I am filled with anger at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime, at their wickedness in depriving people of the freedoms of religion and of conscience. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely. The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that are contrary to God’s word. Separate me from my wife and children, ruin my reputation, destroy my life and my family, the authorities are capable of doing all of these things,” Wang warned. “However, no one in this world can force me to renounce my faith; no one can make me change my life.”
Wang is no stranger to authorities. He was once one of China’s most prominent civil rights lawyers and intellectuals. In 2005, he had an encounter with Jesus and converted to Christianity. In his book, The Souls of China, author Ian Johnson features pastor Wang prominently. “He is one of the most gifted and intelligent pastors I had ever come across,” Johnson wrote on his website. “Maybe because of his background as a human rights lawyer, or just because he was filled with the Holy Spirit, Wang Yi gave riveting sermons about a huge variety of topics, from problems in society to Biblical history. I felt I learned more from him than probably from any other pastor.”
Wang gave up his law career to pursue his calling as a pastor and started Early Rain Covenant Church. His sermons, many of them widely circulated on social media, soon made him a rising star and an important player in the Christian revival that was sweeping China. All that has come to a screeching halt with his arrest and the closure of the church. “Wang Yi had long predicted his arrest,” Johnson wrote upon hearing the news of Wang’s detention. “But, it still came as a shock, making clear the government’s intention to rein in independent churches.” Still, members of his congregation vow to keep meeting, despite the risk of arrest.