The Dangerous Work of Defending Religious Freedom in China

People attend an Easter Vigil service at a Catholic church in Shanghai, China, April 3, 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)
Freedom of religion or belief is not just a concept. It’s about people — real individuals who fight for their rights.

‘This country is launching a war against the soul . . . In Xinjiang, in Tibet, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Chengdu, the rulers of this country are launching this war . . .”

These are the words of Chinese pastor Wang Yi, leader of Early Rain Church, shortly before he was detained and later sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting to subvert state power” and “illegal business operations.”

In reality, Pastor Wang was only “guilty” of criticizing the government’s oppression of religious communities. Images of this “war against the soul” have since become commonplace: churches stripped of their crosses or demolished completely; Uyghur families torn apart and thrown into “re-education” camps; the grieving families of Tibetan Buddhists who have died in prison, their bodies bearing signs of torture.

There are many victims in this war, but also many soldiers: those who risk their own safety to stand up for the rights of others.

This includes the hundreds of human-rights lawyers working tirelessly across the country despite grave risks. Pastor Wang Yi himself was a lawyer before he was a pastor. Human-rights lawyers in China have long been harassed, threatened, and worse in retaliation for their work defending the most vulnerable in society, who include victims of discrimination, corruption and landgrabs, the forcibly evicted, and religious minorities. These lawyers pay a price for their work that is difficult for many of us in the United States to even imagine.

If you were one of these lawyers, the trouble may start when you first take on a “sensitive” case, perhaps that of a Falun Gong practitioner or a house-church Christian. First, your boss might receive a call from a higher-up, asking them to pressure you to drop the case. Then an agent, not a uniformed officer from the local police station, but someone else, without a badge number, calls you directly. They tell you that it is in your interest to walk away from the case. Soon after, you might realize that you are being followed. Your spouse might notice the same thing — someone is watching your whole family, including your children. A camera is mysteriously installed near the entrance to your apartment.

If you take on an additional case like this, or two, the pressure intensifies: more threats, more phone calls — sometimes in the middle of the night. Eventually you are summarily detained — no formal arrest, no paperwork, just days or weeks or months in a basement in a “tiger chair” (a metal chair with leg and arm restraints used for interrogations) with no sleep for days on end. You will be questioned relentlessly, trying to make you “confess.”

Meanwhile, your family is panicking. Your spouse is threatened with eviction and dismissal from his or her job; your child was supposed to be starting school, but suddenly there’s no space for them in the class. Your family hired a lawyer to represent you, but the authorities say that because your case is top-secret, no one, not even your lawyer, can see you.

In the best-case scenario? You are released, but disbarred, and maybe handed a devastating fine.

In the worst case, you simply disappear.

This is what has happened to Gao Zhisheng, a Chinese human-rights lawyer who was well known for defending religious minorities. He was first detained in 2006 by the authorities and subsequently subjected to multiple forced disappearances, beatings, and torture, and served a three-year prison sentence. He was released in August 2014, only to disappear again in 2017. Since then, no member of his family has been able to meet with him. They do not even know if he is alive.

On April 19 of this year, Gao’s wife, Geng He, made a statement outside the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco. She has had no news of her husband’s whereabouts or well-being since his disappearance. She reported that police in the northern province of Shaanxi had finally admitted to holding Gao, but had denied her any opportunity to speak with him.

Geng said: “It’s not just that there is no news of Gao Zhisheng; the authorities’ persecution of his family has been very severe too. . . . The ID cards of everyone in the family have been confiscated by the authorities over the past 10 years, so that they aren’t able to leave their local area, let alone go looking for him.”

Tragically, Gao’s family is not alone. In February, Chen Zijuan, the wife of another imprisoned human-rights lawyer, Chang Weiping, released a statement about her husband’s case and its impact on their family. The statement details the authorities’ attempts to silence his family by placing his parents under house arrest.

As a result of frequent, late-night visits to her home, Chen’s seven-year-old son is “scared to the point of insomnia, constantly tossing and turning at night, unable to sleep. . . . He even asks what he would do if the police hold a gun to his head.”

What can the world do in the face of such brutality?

We must listen. We must help. We must hear from the people who know better than anyone the true situation of religious freedom in their country: More than this, their voices should be center stage.

The International Religious Freedom Summit being held this week in Washington, D.C., is an important opportunity to unify a coalition to push back on this brutality in China — and all over the world — and to stand up for those who so bravely care for the voiceless.

Freedom of religion or belief is not just a concept. It’s about people — real individuals who fight for their rights. Security concerns mean that engagement with Chinese human-rights lawyers is often difficult if not impossible, but we must try. Both their inestimable courage and experience, and their personal suffering, must be recognized to get a full picture of freedom of religion or belief in China.

They are the hope for change: We must do everything we can to keep that hope alive.

Sam Brownback formerly served as U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. Kori Porter is the CEO of CSW-USA.


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