Then-President Bush met with Chinese human rights activists in 2006. Left to right are Bush,  Li Baiguang, Wang Yi and Yu Jie. (Photo: REUTERS/Eric Draper)

Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy. This article is based on a eulogy delivered at a memorial service for Li Baiguang organized by China Aid on March 22.

Li Baiguang was a Chinese human rights lawyer who died on February 26 under suspicious circumstances in a military hospital in Nanjing, China. He had been detained and physically attacked many times for his work, the first time in 2004 when he had brought legal action on behalf of 100,000 peasants who had been forcibly evicted from their land. In 2010, when he became the consultant to China Aid, a group that that defends religious freedom in China and provides legal support to prisoners of conscience, he started traveling across China to provide legal help to persecuted house churches. This work also earned him the enmity of the Chinese government.

Li never gave up in his peaceful battle to defend the democratic rights of all Chinese citizens. Just months before his death he was kidnapped and beaten in Zhejiang province for defending a group of farmers whose land had been stolen from them by the Communist Party. His kidnappers threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave the area by the next morning. He reported the case to the police, for which he received repeated death threats. And now he is dead.

How can we not believe that Li was murdered? Did the writer Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was imprisoned and denied medical attention for nine years, die a natural death in July? Did the Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche die a natural death in July 2015, after 13 years of prison, torture and abuse? Li was in Washington for six days in early February to attend the National Prayer Breakfast. No one saw any indication that he was in ill health. He returned to China on Feb. 11 to continue his work and was dead just two weeks later. Why?

As it happens, that very same month the Chinese regime unveiled new regulations on the practice of religion that put unregistered churches beyond the pale. The laws impose stiff fines on worship in unregistered churches, restrict donations to religious institutions and tighten controls over online religious content. They make it more difficult for believers to go abroad to attend religious conferences and workshops, and they crack down on religious schools and camps for young people.

The Economist has reported that the Communist Party “worries that Protestantism is spreading quickly among young, educated urbanites whose talents it needs to help modernize the country.” Its worries are well-founded, since “the religious awakening in China now seems uncontrollable,” according to a report last month in AsiaNews.it, with polls showing that “more than 60% of Chinese university students in Beijing and Shanghai are eager to learn about Christianity.”

This hunger for religion shouldn’t be surprising, given the death many decades ago of communist ideology and its replacement by an asphyxiating combination of cynical power worship, rampant materialism, massive corruption, environmental degradation and harsh repression that now passes for the “Chinese dream” in Xi Jinping’s dictatorial dystopia.

Xi has just overseen a colossal exercise of centralizing power in his own hands: He is now the Chairman of Everything for Life. He is trying to project China’s influence throughout the world through the multi-trillion dollar One Belt One Road Initiative, the expansion of its military forces and “sharp power” information tools, its bullying of anyone who believes that Tibetans have rights, and the declaration issued at the 19th Party Congress that China is not just a rising economic power but also an ideological rival to liberal democracy, “a new option for other countries.”

And yet with all of this power, Xi fears the peaceful house-church movement and a non-violent lawyer like Li Baiguang – all because he knows that people in China are increasingly turning to a higher power that the party cannot touch.

When Li received the Courage Award from China Aid last year, he cited a sentence from Romans 13 that captured his sense of the deepening crisis in China: “The night is nearly over, the day is almost here.” That chapter opens with a message that resonates today in China and that gave Li the hope to carry on: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” it reads, and “whosoever therefore resisteth the power … shall receive to themselves damnation.”

Li is now dead, but his spirit and belief in a higher power live on in the hearts of countless Chinese citizens who will carry on his struggle for a more human and lawful society. That struggle for the realization of a different Chinese dream deserves our unwavering support.