Muzzling China's House Churches
One of the main characters in The Souls of China is Wang Yi, a dynamic pastor in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
In the book, I followed him and his congregation, Early Rain Covenant Church, for more than a year in 2012 to 2013, and was amazed at how he managed to walk a fine line, almost being arrested but managing to stay out of jail and continue to lead what became a huge church of more than 500 people--all outside government control. This included a seminary, grade school, and eventually a second church.
Wang Yi wasn't perfect. He was arch-conservative, once expelling a couple from the church because the wife had studied theology and wanted to preach. I also found him infuriatingly judgmental about other faiths and at times dictatorial. It often felt that he had some of the excessive fervor of the newly converted.
But he was also one of the most gifted and intelligent pastors I had ever come across. Maybe because of his background as a human rights lawyer, or just because he was filled with the Holy Spirit, Wang Yi gave riveting sermons about a huge variety of topics, from problems in society to Biblical history. I felt I learned more from him than probably from any other pastor, and it made me wish I lived in Chengdu--he made you want to go to church, and I could see why his church was such a success.
For my book, he and Early Rain were ideal to profile. The church represented an important trend--the rise of big, urban churches that attracted increasingly well-educated white-collar Chinese people. And while Wang Yi's overt political orientation wasn't typical of most pastors, it was still a key part of the story of faith's rise in China. It's no coincidence, for example, that about a quarter of the human rights (weiquan) lawyers in China were Christian.
All faiths have a social component, but at this point in Chinese history, it was Protestantism that most clearly spoke to a large group of social concerned Chinese, helping to make it the fast-growing religious group in China. These socially interested Chinese included many public intellectuals, like the essayists Yu Jie and Ran Yunfei (who later converted and joined Wang Yi's church), or the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (who didn't convert but was inspired by the Bible). This was a fecund, dynamic period in China from the 1990s to the 2010s, and churches like Wang Yi's Early Rain were at the center of it. (You can read an excerpt of my book focusing on Early Rain in this excerpt published in The Atlantic magazine.)
Slowly, though, government policy has changed. On Dec. 10, 2018, Early Rain was closed, possibly forever, with Wang Yi's detention along with one hundred other members of his congregation. A few days later, we learned that he and his wife, Jiang Rong, have been charged with "inciting state subversion," a very serious political offense that can result in up to fifteen years in jail. This wasn't a surprise: Wang Yi had long predicted his arrest and in my book I wrote about that possibility as well. But it still came as a shock, making clear the government's intention to rein in independent churches.
The New York Times asked me to write about these developments and on the day of his detention I wrote this short daily, and then a few days later this longer piece on the political sermons that might have resulted in his detention. One can only hope and pray that he will come out of jail or that the sentence will be light, but given the current climate I'm not so sure.
This doesn't mean that China's religious revolution is over. Instead, it marks the continuation of trends that began earlier. If in the past the government had a relatively laissez-faire attitude toward all religions--viewing them all skeptically but largely tolerating them--now we are in an era where some religions will be in ever-deeper conflict with the state and others will be courted by it. Unfortunately for Wang Yi, his faith--Christianity--is on the wrong side of this divide.