China’s state-run Global Times newspaper condemned Western human rights defenders Thursday for standing up against the sentencing of Pastor Wang Yi over founding the Early Rain Covenant Church without Communist Party consent.
Possessing religious faith without the approval of the Party, or practicing any religion not run by the Party, is a crime in China. Wang, a former legal scholar and human rights defender, founded what is believed to be one of the largest “illegal” Christian churches in the country, believed to boast a membership of over 400 people. Chinese police raided the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu in December 2018 and arrested hundreds of people.
Last week, a Chengdu court sentenced Wang to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion” and running an illegal “business,” triggering widespread condemnation.
The Global Times argued that Wang was not a true Christian but an agitator “brainwashed by Western values.”
“It is easy to tell that Wang is not an ordinary pastor through the coverage of Western media without extra information. Westerners praised him as a dissident and rights activist,” the Times alleged. “However, what Wang did in China not only includes founding an illegal church, but also using it to cover up his anti-government activities.”
“Objectively speaking, ordinary Chinese people can understand what Wang did is against the law. It seems that Wang is a bit conceited, or maybe he has already prepared to face the law,” the newspaper continued, arguing that faithful Chinese communists have no problem with repressing religious practices that do not benefit the Party. “There are some dissidents in China who are brainwashed by Western values. They do not accept China’s political and legal systems at all.”
The Global Times then claimed that Wang’s arrest and sentencing would occur in the United States if he had been “continuously instigating people to confront the U.S. Constitution by words and actions.” In the United States, the quality of the provisions of the Constitution and how to improve upon it are matters of constant, legal public debate. Public outrage against the Constitution’s Eighteenth Amendment banning alcohol resulted in the Twenty-First Amendment repealing it. Currently, many on the American left regularly call for the overturning of the Constitution’s Second Amendment, which grants Americans the right to bear arms. China bans all private ownership of firearms.
The newspaper also claimed that, “as is known to all, freedom of religious belief is fully guaranteed in China.” This claim is false. Only five religions are “legal” in China: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism, and “Christianity.” These religions may only be practiced under clergy chosen and approved of by the Party. The Communist Party runs its own Catholic Church separate from the Vatican and all other Christianity under the Three-Self Patriotic Church, which does not teach Christianity but promotes the interests of the Party. Christians like Pastor Wang, who wish to legitimately worship Jesus Christ, must do so outside of the safety of Chinese communist law.
The Global Times goes on to accept this. “[J]ust like the two sides of a coin, freedom of religious belief and religious activities must be conducted in accordance with Chinese law,” it asserted. “Any establishment of religious group [sic] in China needs to be authorized and religious organizations cannot engage in political activities prohibited in the secular world. Those who end up in prison are the ones who break the law.”
In late 2018, as Early Rain Covenant Church congregants prepared for Advent and Christmas, Chinese officials shut down the social media accounts of known Christians who worshipped with the church to keep the from communicating with each other before violently raiding the church.
According to the Christian advocacy organization China Aid, church elder Li Yingqiang managed to post a letter on Facebook warning of the impending crackdown before his arrest, reading in a statement attributed to the Apostle Peter, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
On Monday, the Chengdu court trying Wang announced that he was “inciting subversion of state power” and that he would face nine years in prison, a $7,000 fine, and lose his “political rights” for three years. Another 53 members of the church faced similar charges of inciting subversion.
The U.S. State Department condemned the court’s decision.
“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,” spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a published statement. “We call for his immediate and unconditional release.”
“This is yet another example of Beijing’s intensification of repression of Chinese Christians and members of other religious groups,” the statement concluded. “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.”