Pastor Wang Yi (46) of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, capital of China’s southwestern Sichuan province, was arrested in December 2018 with his wife Jiang Rong (45) and around 150 other church members. Most have since been released, including Jiang Rong, who was released on bail in June 2019, but Pastor Wang and elder Qin Defu remain in criminal detention in an undisclosed location. Prior to the arrests, the government had repeatedly harassed Early Rain Covenant Church.
LATEST NEWS (NOVEMBER 2019): On 6 November, Sichuan authorities fired Pastor Wang’s lawyer Zhang Peihong. On 6 June, a prosecutor had told him he had too many ties with Pastor Wang and his church. Zhang said it is very likely that the authorities will appoint their own lawyers for Pastor Wang. China Aid reports that the investigation period of the case will come to an end soon, and it will advance to the prosecution stage.
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. In 2008 he founded Early Rain Church in his home, and in October 2011 he became its senior pastor. 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. Early Rain Church 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 Early Rain 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”. If convicted, they could face over ten years in prison. 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, Jiang Rong 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 home, where no one may visit her except immediate family members.
Most of the church members who were detained have been released, but Pastor Wang remains in criminal detention with elder Qin Defu. Their family members have not been allowed to see them.
Wang Yi and Jiang Rong’s 11-year-old son Shu Ya 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 the authorities sent them to live with Jiang Rong’s brother, where they are 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 has moved from a sales internship with Muji to being an 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 Early Rain’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 Early Rain Church 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 Early Rain Church 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 Early Rain 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 Early Rain Covenant Church were violating China’s revised Religious Affairs Regulations.
Sunday 16 December 2018 Early Rain 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 Early Rain 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, Early Rain 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 sold Bibles and 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 Sichuan authorities fired Pastor Wang’s lawyer Zhang Peihong. On 6 June, a prosecutor had told him he had too many ties with Pastor Wang and his church. Zhang said it is “very likely” that the authorities will appoint their own lawyers for Pastor Wang. China Aid reports that the investigation period of the case will come to an end soon, and it will advance to the prosecution stage.
(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)