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Holiday in jail

While most residents of China celebrate Chinese New Year, 14 church members remain in state custody

Holiday in jail

Drummers perform during Chinese New Year celebrations in Beijing. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

The world’s largest annual migration is currently underway as Chinese people return home to celebrate Chinese New Year this week. Chinese citizens are expected to make a whopping 2.99 billion trips by train, plane, and automobile between Jan. 21 and March 1, according to Lian Weiliang, the deputy director of China’s National Development and Reform Commission. 

Tourist attractions around the world are also packed with Chinese tourists, as 7 million people plan to travel internationally over the Chinese New Year holiday, according to Chinese ticketing company Ctrip. Big cities like Shanghai and Beijing have cleared out, the normally congested roads eerily empty and nearly every shop and restaurant closed. It’s the one time of year that extended family can gather around the table for home-cooked feasts. Grandparents hand out red envelopes of money to gleeful grandchildren, and nosy aunts and uncles pepper single young people with questions about their marriage prospects. 

Yet for 14 church members of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, there won’t be a joyful Chinese New Year reunion this year. Instead, they’re stuck in unknown prisons cells without access to their families or their lawyers. The 14 include Pastor Wang Yi and his wife, Jiang Rong, as well as the church’s four elders: Li Yingqiang, Qin Defu, Matthew Bingsen Su, and Li Zihu. Authorities have monitored and followed their family members and frozen their bank accounts. Last week, several church members took Wang’s 11-year-old son Shuya out for a haircut, an ordeal that required a three-officer escort. According to a church post, Shuya said he felt like he was locked up with his parents as officers monitor and guard his grandmother’s home where he now lives. 

No one knows how Wang and Jiang are faring or where authorities are holding them. Officials have charged the couple with “inciting subversion of the state,” the same charge leveled against Christian human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who went missing in 2017. Jiang’s official notice revealed that she was placed under “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL), a Chinese legal term for solitary confinement in a secret location outside the judicial system. It is likely Wang is also in RSDL.

Gao, a former WORLD Daniel of the Year, in his 2016 book Unwavering Convictions described his horrific treatment in RSDL: Guards tortured him with electric shock batons and beat him until they lost their breath. Others who experienced RSDL detainment said that they were force-fed unknown medicines and that interrogators threatened to harm family members until they agreed to film scripted confessions. 

In my reporting on Early Rain Covenant Church, I’ve interviewed Wang in person three times, once at an eye clinic after a church member was beaten by police for passing out pro-life flyers, once in his church office, once at a Starbucks by his home. What struck me most about Wang was that each word he spoke—even with his erudite turns of phrases—resounded with conviction. He was a man who had counted the cost of his actions, of the way he led his church, and of the potential pain his family would face, and decided that Jesus was worth it. 

“Separate me from my wife and children, ruin my reputation, destroy my life and my family—the authorities are capable of doing all of these things,” Wang wrote in a letter before his arrest. “However, no one in this world can force me to renounce my faith; no one can make me change my life; and no one can raise me from the dead.”

Free at last: 

Huang Yan, a dissident whom I profiled last year, landed in Los Angeles on Jan. 25 as she finally received asylum in the United States, according to China Aid. Huang, a Christian, was tortured in prison for her human rights work in China.