Pastor Wang Yi (46) of Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) in Chengdu, capital of China’s southwestern Sichuan province, was arrested in December 2018 with his wife Jiang Rong (46) and around 150 other church members. All have since been released (including Jiang Rong, who was released on bail in June 2019) apart from Pastor Wang and elder Qin Defu, who are serving prison sentences of nine and four years respectively. Prior to the arrests, the authorities had repeatedly harassed ERCC members and they continue to do so.
LATEST NEWS (MAY 2020): According to a member of ERCC, Pastor Wang was recently transferred from Chengdu City Detention Centre to a prison, but his family has not been told which one. According to prison regulations, once an inmate has been transferred to a prison the family has the right to apply for permission to visit, but Pastor Wang’s parents have not received permission (prison visiting in China has been virtual since the outbreak of Covid-19).
Before his conversion and baptism in 2005, Wang Yi was a well-known civil rights lawyer and writer, working as a professor of law at Chengdu University. He established a home fellowship in 2005, resigned from teaching in 2008 to become a full-time preacher, and in October 2011 was officially ordained pastor of ERCC. The church now has a membership of about eight hundred Christians. He also founded a primary school, a Bible school and a group to aid families of political prisoners. ERCC is unregistered, and Pastor Wang has been outspoken in his stance on the separation of church and state.
The pastor and his wife were seized on the night of Sunday 9 December 2018 during a coordinated overnight operation to detain ERCC members, and police raided and ransacked the couple’s home. By the end of the week, more than 150 members had been taken into custody, and on Sunday 16 December, members arrived at the church premises (two floors rented in an office building) to find it locked and guarded by police officers.
It was not known where the couple had been taken, but Jiang Rong was later confirmed to be under “residential surveillance at a designated location”, a secret incarceration outside the state prison system, often involving torture. Shortly after being detained, Pastor Wang and his wife were charged with “inciting subversion of state power”. Jiang Rong had a senior role in the church, leading prayer meetings and women’s groups and hosting Bible studies at their home. In June 2019, she was released after six months’ imprisonment. China Aid President Bob Fu explained, “She has been released under bail, which means she could be re-arrested at any time; that is one method the Chinese government uses to restrict her freedom of speech and movement.” Chinese law allows the authorities to hold detainees for six months without trial, but after that they must be criminally detained, formally arrested or released on bail. Jiang Rong was reunited with her 11-year-old son Shu Ya, but was put under house arrest at her brother’s apartment in Chengdu.
In July 2019, Pastor Wang’s lawyer Zhang Peihong learned that he would face an additional charge of “illegal business activity“, due to claims that the church printed and sold Christian books without a proper licence.
On 26 December 2019, Pastor Wang was tried at Chengdu People’s Intermediate Court. His parents were brought to the court to attend the trial but Jiang Rong was not allowed to attend. During the trial, he pleaded not guilty and said that no matter how long his sentence was, he would not appeal. Those who attended the trial said he was much thinner than previously but was in a good mental state. No verdict was announced, but four days later the authorities announced that Chengdu People’s Intermediate Court had found Wang Yi guilty of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business operations” and had sentenced him to nine years in prison, fined him 50,000 yuan (approximately €6,400) and deprived him of political rights for three years.
Wang Yi and Jiang Rong’s son Shu Ya, then aged eleven, was placed in the care of Pastor Wang’s mother Chen Yaxue (74) when his parents were arrested. Shu Ya and his grandmother were kept under police surveillance and followed when they went out. Jiang Rong was reunited with Shu Ya on her release, but they are living under house arrest in a secret location and kept under surveillance. Shu Ya – now aged 13 – used to attend a Christian school but has been forced to attend a public school, to which the police bring him. He is reported to be doing well at school.
Wang Yi has not been permitted to see his family since he was detained. His parents have been under surveillance since December 2018 and – until the outbreak of Covid-19 – were only permitted to walk around their local community and were not allowed to move freely. They are permitted to see Jiang Rong and Shu Ya once a month, under surveillance.
Wang Yi and Jiang Rong also have an adult daughter, Ruolin. At Christmas 2018, her father wrote that she “has been growing and serving this year” and that she had moved from a sales internship with Muji to assistant in a design firm.
Early Rain Covenant Church
Chengdu’s Early Rain Covenant Church is one of the most prominent unregistered house churches in China, with more than eight hundred members. The church began in the home of Wang Yi, a former law professor who is now lead pastor. Members practise their faith openly, posting sermons online and evangelising on the streets. The church runs a Bible school with about one hundred students and a primary school with forty pupils.
Harassment of the church intensified in December 2018, when police detained over 150 members. While many were released quickly, 54 were held for days or months. Some released members reported being deprived of food and water in custody and said they were tortured in an attempt to extract false evidence against Pastor Wang. Many released members have lost their jobs, been evicted or had their bank accounts frozen, and some have been sent back to their home towns in an apparent attempt to weaken the church leadership.
The authorities also closed ERCC’s premises (two floors rented in an office building) in December 2018, since when members have continued to meet in smaller groups in homes or even outdoors. Many of them are under surveillance and police officers have gone to some members’ homes, intimidating, threatening and detaining them. Communication networks between church members have been blocked and mobile phones are monitored.
12 May 2018 Police raided ERCC to prevent the congregation holding a prayer vigil to mark the tenth anniversary of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Police detained two hundred members until late that evening and held Pastor Wang over night, accusing him of “picking quarrels and causing trouble”.
28 May 2018 Twelve church members, including Pastor Wang and a lawyer, were detained overnight when they visited Caojixiang Public Security Bureau to file a legal complaint about the raid. Several were handcuffed, and Christians gathered outside were beaten.
4 June 2018 More than twenty police officers broke into ERCC’s premises and arrested 17 members as they prepared to hold a prayer service to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Pastor Wang was detained with Jiang Rong, four preachers and eleven other members.
8 December 2018 Pastor Wang published a 7,300-word manifesto on social media, Meditations on the Religious War, in which he condemned the Chinese Communist Party, likened President Xi to Caesar and Pharaoh and urged Christians to embrace civil disobedience.
Sunday 9 December 2018 Pastor Wang and Jiang Rong were seized when the authorities conducted a mass overnight arrest of around one hundred ERCC members. By the end of the week, at least sixty more members and Bible school students had been seized in their homes and workplaces or on the streets and taken into custody.
10 December 2018 The Chengdu Religious Affairs Bureau issued a notice stating that the activities of ERCC were violating China’s revised Religious Affairs Regulations.
Sunday 16 December 2018 ERCC members not in detention arrived at the church premises to find every entrance guarded by police officers who prevented worshippers from entering. Some members started a small worship meeting in a nearby park, but police shut it down.
Sunday 24 February 2019 Police raided two ERCC meetings in private homes and arrested 44 people at the meetings and later that day, including elderly people, pregnant women and eleven children. At least eleven of those arrested were given ten to 14 days’ administrative detention. The same day, Pastor Wang’s mother Chen Yaxue was beaten, kicked and held down by police officers after she refused to reveal her PIN to them at an ATM.
Sunday 21 April 2019 Police seized at least seven church members, including children, who were meeting in a park to celebrate Easter. They were interrogated for several hours and held until the early hours of the following morning.
4 June 2019 On the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, ERCC families were ordered not to leave home or meet with others. Police surveillance was stepped up and some houses had power and water cut off. At least two church members were detained for questioning for several hours.
11 June 2019 Jiang Rong was released on bail with her sister Li Xiaofeng. The authorities then sent Li Xiaofeng away with her husband to Guangxi province.
July 2019 Pastor Wang’s lawyer Zhang Peihong learned that he is facing a new charge of “illegal business activity” in addition to the existing charge of “incitement to subvert state power”. The new charge is due to claims that the church printed and sold Christian books without a proper licence. A local Christian who asked for anonymity told Radio Free Asia that the new charge is probably based on the fact that there is scant evidence to support the subversion charge, saying: “They want to charge Pastor Wang Yi with inciting subversion, but even they know that this isn’t a very persuasive accusation. So they are hoping for a breakthrough using economic [crimes].”
6 November 2019 Zhang Peihong received notification from the prosecutor that he would not be allowed to represent Pastor Wang in court. On 6 June, a prosecutor had told him he had too many ties with Pastor Wang and his church. Zhang Peihong had never been allowed to meet his client. Later in the month, Pastor Wang appointed two approved lawyers to represent him and was allowed to meet them to prepare for his trial.
26 December 2019 Wang Yi was tried at Chengdu People’s Intermediate Court. His parents were brought to the court to attend the trial but Jiang Rong was not allowed to attend. During the trial, Pastor Wang pleaded not guilty. In his closing statement, he said that no matter how long his sentence was, he would not appeal. Those who attended the trial said he looked much thinner than previously but was in a good mental state.
30 December 2019 The authorities announced that Chengdu People’s Intermediate Court had sentenced Wang Yi to nine years in prison, fined him 50,000 yuan (approximately €6,400) and deprived him of political rights for three years. The court found him guilty of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business operations”. Pastor Wang has decided not to appeal his sentence.
The same day, China Partnership published “A statement from Early Rain Covenant Church regarding the severe sentencing of Pastor Wang Yi”, which said: “The books printed by the church have never been printed for profit but only for the pastoring of believers and for the spreading of the gospel. He has never conducted so-called ‘illegal business operations’.”
May 2020 According to a member of ERCC, Pastor Wang was recently transferred from Chengdu City Detention Centre to a prison, but his family has not been told which one. According to prison regulations, once an inmate has been transferred to a prison the family has the right to apply for permission to visit, but Pastor Wang’s parents have not received permission (prison visiting in China has been virtual since the outbreak of Covid-19).
(Barnabas Fund/China Aid/China Partnership/Chinese Human RightsDefenders/Christian Solidarity Worldwide/Early Rain Covenant Church/International Christian Concern/New York Times/Radio Free Asia/Release International/Voice of the Martyrs Canada)