Held in Turkey on charges of espionage and terrorism, facing a life sentence for doing the work of the church, American Pastor Andrew Brunson’s dramatic release was the work of high-powered diplomacy and prevailing prayer
On Sept. 21, 2016, human rights advocate Huang Yan stepped out of the Liwan District Detention Center in a bright yellow blouse, breathing fresh air for the first time in nearly a year. Her ankles and calves were covered with infected cuts where heavy shackles had dug into her skin—her punishment for yelling slogans at the guards until her throat grew hoarse. Huang, then 47, suffered from late-stage ovarian cancer and diabetes. Police released her so that she wouldn’t die inside the prison.
But escaping China’s Communist regime isn’t so easy for political targets like Huang, who is also a Christian. After she left the prison, two Chinese hospitals, apparently under government pressure, refused to give her needed surgery for her cancer. She ultimately had to travel to Thailand to get medical treatment.
Even outside mainland China, Huang faced harassment, and she says hackers sent viruses to her cell phones. Back in China, local officials harassed her husband, ransacked their home, and tried to entice her to return.
After surgery in Thailand and a temporary stay in Indonesia, she booked a flight back to Beijing, but made a getaway during a layover in Taiwan: Before landing at Taoyuan International Airport in late May of this year, Huang tore up her People’s Republic of China passport. At the airport, she walked up to immigration officers holding only her United Nations refugee card and asked them for asylum.
Huang, a former evangelist, has spoken out against government oppression in China for 14 years. Chinese authorities have tried to silence her multiple times, arresting her without notice, jailing her on spurious charges, and beating her brutally. Now in Taiwan on a temporary visa, Huang is seeking U.S. asylum at a time when the Trump administration has restricted the number of refugees admitted into the United States.
The island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own, is not part of the UN and cannot accept refugees. Despite facing the ire of Beijing, the Taiwanese government granted Huang a temporary visa to stay on the island until a third country grants her asylum. Leaders of the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights (TACHR) sponsored Huang, and the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan provided her with housing, medical care, and living expenses.
‘I believe in God, so even if you sent in an army to confront me, I wouldn’t be afraid.’
“It’s a big moment for the Taiwan government,” TACHR President Yang Sen-hong told Taiwan’s The News Lens. “You cannot force her to leave this country and face persecution in China. The [Chinese Communist Party] is manufacturing refugees, and we should do something to rescue them. Taiwan is the Noah’s Ark of human rights.”
When I sat down with 49-year-old Huang at the red-brick Chi-nan Presbyterian Church in Taipei in September, it seemed a decade’s worth of trauma had taken its toll on her. She at times cried and at times railed angrily against the Communist Party for its cruelty. Even after leaving China, she still doesn’t feel safe from the Chinese government.
Yet one of her biggest sorrows is the theft of her motherhood: She has miscarried two babies as a result of government beatings, she says. That violence and ovarian cancer have left her barren. At times it leads her to question the justice of God.
“If you do evil [in China], the government reveres you; if you do good, it suppresses and persecutes you,” Huang said. “I believe the Chinese government has reached an all-time low. … There’s no way God will let Xi Jinping off for demolishing crosses and destroying churches.”
Her voice quavered and tears fell from her eyes as she added, “If God lets him get away with it, I don’t think I can believe in this God anymore.”
HUANG GREW UP IN A CHRISTIAN FAMILY in Jingzhou city in Hubei province, where her parents owned a successful candy factory and used its profits for ministry. Huang became an evangelist, spreading the gospel while running a bridal shop. Once, Huang prayed for God to heal the bedridden owner of a local steel factory. When her health suddenly improved, a grateful factory manager hosted a revival meeting, and many in the area professed faith in Christ.
Huang continued evangelizing until 2004, when the persecution of Christians intensified and several of Huang’s fellow evangelists were imprisoned. She fled to Beijing, where she stayed at the home of prominent house church Pastor Cai Zhuohua and his family. Government officials arrested Cai in September 2004 for illegally printing and distributing Bibles. Huang accompanied Cai’s mother in seeking a legal team to represent Cai, and found some of the most promising young human rights lawyers, including Gao Zhisheng.
Gao, one of WORLD’s 2012 Daniels of the Year, had irked Communist officials by representing victims of land seizures, Falun Gong practitioners, and other persecuted minorities. He also documented the torture of political prisoners and wrote open letters criticizing the government. In retaliation, authorities disbarred him and detained and tortured him multiple times.
In 2004, Huang knew little of the human rights world and didn’t realize Gao was a politically sensitive figure. During Cai’s trial, Huang snuck into the courthouse and marveled at the authority with which Gao spoke. “This is a real Chinese lawyer who isn’t afraid of persecution,” she thought. In the end, Cai was sentenced to three years in prison.
As Huang befriended Gao and his wife Geng He, she began to see firsthand the injustices in Chinese society under Communist rule. Yet her involvement in the human rights community—and friendship with Gao—came at a price. Every time Gao and Geng visited her, Huang would be arrested and detained the next day, she recalls.
Huang brought Gao to church, and he came to profess faith in Christ. One day while driving to church, Chinese secret police tailed them and purposely rammed into the car. The next day, she remembers, the police arrested her and threatened to imprison her if she continued bringing Gao to church. Huang said the police threats never frightened her.
“I believe in God, so even if you sent in an army to confront me, I wouldn’t be afraid,” Huang said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Whenever police detained Gao, Huang alerted human rights activist Hu Jia, who passed the news along to international reporters. The government hated the publicity.
On Sept. 21, 2007, at 8 p.m., a group of police captured Gao while another group apprehended Huang. They covered her eyes and ears and duct-taped her mouth shut, leaving her to breathe only through her nostrils, Huang recalls. Someone pushed her head between her knees and bound her wrists together with cable ties. Security bureau officials hit her with unopened water bottles until bruises covered her entire body, she said. Later they sent her back to Hubei and placed her under house arrest for 30 days.
Gao, taken separately that night, later wrote about the torture he endured in an essay called “Dark Night, Dark Hood, and Kidnapping by Dark Mafia.” He described how the secret police beat him until he shook uncontrollably, pressed an electric shock prod over his entire body, and pierced his genitals with toothpicks. Guards threatened to go after his family and ordered him to write articles claiming that he was treated well in prison and that his Falun Gong clients had tricked him. After 50 days, they allowed Gao to return home to house arrest.
Huang stayed in touch with Gao through a secret cell phone and helped him sneak the torture essay out of his home on a USB drive. In January 2009, U.S.-based ChinaAid helped Gao’s wife, daughter, and son escape to the United States, where they received asylum. Gao was arrested a month later and since then has either been in prison or under house arrest.
As Huang continued to advocate for Gao and other human rights lawyers—holding up posters in parks, traveling to Hong Kong to protest the Communist Party’s actions, writing posts on social media—her detentions continued. She says her “kidnappings,” in which government agents apprehended her without warning, are “too many to count.”
Torture and mistreatment severely affected her health. Twice officials beat the pregnant Huang so hard that she miscarried, she said. The second time, officials burst into the bathroom where she had just miscarried her child and continued to beat her, according to reports by ChinaAid. Officials beat her even after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
In November 2015 police showed up at Huang’s home in Guangzhou and detained her on suspicion of “deliberately disseminating terrorist information.” A month later, they arrested her on nonsensical charges of “obstructing official duties.” In prison, guards confiscated her cancer and diabetes medicines.
In her prison cell, Huang screamed at the police, calling them scoundrels and wolves for detaining an innocent woman. Guards refused to let her shower, and they beat and shackled her, according to China Human Rights Defenders. Huang lost 30 pounds in one month due to a poor diet. Without access to diabetes medicine, she could barely see, and she couldn’t walk due to injuries sustained from the shackling.
Officials finally transferred her to the prisoner’s ward of Guangzhou Armed Police Hospital, also known as Wujing Hospital. They wanted to perform surgery on her, but fellow prisoners warned her that many had died on the operating table, Huang said. Terrified, she began yelling in hopes that passersby would hear: “Wujing Hospital helps Guangzhou police commit murder!”
One day she told the guards that if anything happened to her in the hospital, word would get out: She was well-known in international media, and her sister had alerted the U.S. Embassy about her situation. “If you kill me here,” Huang told them, “my sister will make sure justice is done.” The guards soon sent her back to prison.
As her health continued to deteriorate, officials acquitted Huang and finally released her in September 2016.
After her release, Huang checked in to Sun Yat-sen University No. 1 Hospital in Guangzhou for surgery to remove her left ovary where tumors had grown. Yet the day before the scheduled surgery, her doctor suddenly canceled the procedure and told her to leave the hospital. The doctor claimed he was simply obeying his superior’s instructions, said Huang. Another doctor at Zhujiang Hospital of Southern Medical University who had years earlier removed Huang’s right ovary also refused to perform the surgery.
After Radio Free Asia reported on her situation, the original doctor agreed to do the surgery as long as she signed a waiver absolving the hospital of responsibility if anything happened to her during the operation. Knowing this could be a tactic for the government to “rid” itself of a nuisance, Huang refused to sign.
Instead, with the help of ChinaAid and pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmakers, Huang traveled to Hong Kong and from there flew to Thailand in late December 2016, where she received the surgery and chemotherapy she needed.
SINCE HUANG LEFT MAINLAND CHINA, government officials have frozen her bank account, refused to allow her to collect insurance reimbursements, and sold her house in Hubei, Huang said. Her husband, still in China, continues to face harassment: Police have detained him overnight, beaten him until he couldn’t walk, and broken into his home. They also monitor his communications.
Huang’s initial 90-day Taiwanese visa has expired, but the government has allowed her to extend it. She’s waiting to confirm whether the United States will accept her as a refugee. She has family in the United States and believes it’s where she would be the safest from the Chinese government.
“I’m not afraid to die, I believe in God, I believe God has planned everything in my life,” Huang said. “Perhaps God sees this injustice, and he gave each Christian different levels of wisdom and courage, different amounts of blessing. Maybe God gave me the ability to withstand these trials, maybe that’s the blessing He bestowed on me.”