CHINA’S POLITBURO has conferred on President Xi Jinping the flattering honorific “people’s leader,” similar to an accolade once given to Mao Zedong. This cult-of-personality deference only highlights the fear he seems to feel of his own people. At about the same time party bosses were further glorifying Mr. Xi, they were intensifying their persecution of a genuine people’s leader. Wang Yi, pastor of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, was sentenced to nine years in prison on utterly baseless charges of subversion and illegal business activity that are intended to silence him and destroy his Protestant church.
Mr. Wang founded Early Rain, along with a seminary, an elementary school and a group to aid families of political prisoners, all unofficial and beyond government control. The church and others like it have been popular among middle-class Chinese, and they have expanded from hidden, underground meetings — often in houses with the blinds drawn — to fully public and thriving institutions. In a healthy democracy, these churches would be considered an essential part of civil society and encouraged. But China’s party-state does not tolerate what it cannot manipulate and bully. Mr. Xi has led a crackdown on all freethinking institutions: churches, news and social media organizations, universities and more.
Trained as a lawyer and with experience as a blogger, Mr. Wang joined human rights activists in a meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House in 2006. He had spoken out about sensitive issues such as the Tiananmen Square massacre. More recently, he voiced objections to Mr. Xi’s abolition of term limits and other authoritarian measures. This put him in the crosshairs of China’s state security, which arrested him, his wife and 100 parishioners in December 2018. Most of the others were eventually released, but Mr. Wang never came out of detention. The charge against him, “inciting to subvert state power,” was also leveled against dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who died in custody in 2017. The illegal business activity charge, added later, stemmed from the church’s sale of Bibles and other books without registering. To China’s leaders, an unregistered bookstore is a threat — a source beyond their control of criticism, knowledge and, who knows, even truth.
Mr. Wang’s trial took place in secret Dec. 26 without family or church members present. The sentence is one of the harshest in recent years, although other unofficial church leaders have also been harassed and prosecuted. Reform in China has stimulated a surge of interest in religious belief as old values are discarded and people seek counsel and comfort about moral and spiritual questions. China has been particularly harsh in its treatment of Christians and Muslims who refuse to accede to state control. It has established concentration camps to wipe out the culture of the ethnic Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province.
Mr. Wang is a paragon of the noble aspiration that people be allowed to think, speak, worship and assemble freely. China ought to have more faith in people’s faith.