Pastors or fraudsters? Neither registered nor unregistered religious leaders are safe from the Chinese Communist Party’s false allegations

Under China’s current religious regulations, only government-approved faith leaders can carry out government-approved religious activities in government-approved sites. As a result, there are many situations in which a religious leader can find themselves on the wrong side of the law in China, even facing charges that have no apparent connection to religion but can carry lengthy sentences.

The widely-reported cases of Pastor Wang Yi and Pastor Yang Hua highlight how the Chinese authorities prosecute leaders of unregistered Protestant churches with flagrantly baseless criminal charges: ‘inciting to subvert state power’ and ‘illegal business operations’ for Wang and ‘divulging state secrets’ for Yang. Alarmingly, fraud charges seem to have become one of the most damaging tools that the authorities use against pastors, for persecution as well as defamation.

Elder Zhang Chunlei

On 1 May 2021, the day the new administrative measures on religious clergy came into effect, Love Reformed Church received a notice saying their leader Zhang Chunlei had been officially arrested ‘on suspicion of fraud’. To this, the unregistered church in Guiyang in Guizhou province expressed incredulity in a prayer update issued on the same day.

Citing the constant harassment, including repeated groundless summons by local police that several church members were subjected to in recent weeks, the statement says: “Some Christians are called to be elders and serve God by serving the church, and some Christians are called to be saints and obey God by providing for the church and servants of Christ: this is how it has been for the past 2000 years. What has it to do with fraud?”

Zhang Chunlei. Source: Facebook/张春雷

A look back on the developments of the case tells us the Church has good reasons for believing Mr Zhang has been falsely accused.

On 16 March 2021, the authorities raided a private Christian gathering and detained some members of Love Reformed Church. Later that day, Mr Zhang was also detained for ‘illegally operating as an association’. On 1 April 2021, reports emerged that Mr Zhang had been criminally detained and was now facing a new charge of ‘fraud’. Those familiar with the Christian leader bitterly remarked that the turn of events was something like an April Fool’s Day joke.

Sui Muqing, a human rights lawyer, revealed that Yang Aiqing, Zhang Chunlei’s wife, was served a criminal summons on 21 April 2021, also ‘on suspicion of fraud’. Ms Yang was continuously interrogated by Guiyang police’s Yunyan branch for 24 hours, during which she was made to wear handcuffs and leg shackles. “All the questions [the police put to Ms Yang] were about Christian faith and church operations, nothing to do with so called fraud case,” said Sui. He added, “This type of summons or interrogation is obviously used to torture people and to cause fear.”

The authorities took Mr Zhang into custody before searching for evidence and interrogating and intimidating his co-workers and relatives, obviously to embarrass and build a case against him. The alleged ‘fraud’ case against Zhang Chunlei reveals particular procedural justice violations routinely committed by the Chinese authorities.

It is the latest in a string of known cases of church leaders accused of ‘fraud’.

Pastor Hao Zhiwei

Pastor Hao Zhiwei serves in an unregistered church in Ezhou in central Hubei province. She was detained, together with two female co-workers, on suspicion of fraud on 31 July 2019. Before that, her church had been repeatedly raided by local authorities; church property was confiscated, members were brutally beaten, and several people were placed under administrative detention for ‘illegal gatherings’, a charge frequently levelled against unregistered religious communities by the Chinese authorities.

In December 2019, Pastor Hao and the two co-workers were formally charged with ‘fraud’. The indictment issued by the prosecutors suggests that Pastor Hao “accumulated wealth by unfair means”, referring to “tithes” and “offerings”, without the approval of state-sanctioned associations, and alleges that she and the two other defenders “defrauded others of money with the aim of unauthorized possession using the fake facts as means and hiding real facts.”

Si Weijiang, a Christian lawyer representing Pastor Hao, said the charge of fraud is “totally groundless” because “there is a real church and a real purpose [for using the donations]”, despite the fact that the pastor was not approved by the [Three-Self Patriotic Movement] and [China Christian Council]. He asked: “Is a child without a household registration not a real child? Is a church that is not part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement not a real church?”

While her co-workers pleaded guilty, Pastor Hao has insisted on pleading not guilty. After over 22 months in custody, all three individuals are still awaiting trial. The pastor is facing at least 10 years in prison if convicted, said Mr Si.

In July 2020 Mr Si visited Hao at the Ezhou Detention Centre, after which he remarked: “I am not optimistic about this case, but Pastor Hao is very optimistic. While she is detained, she is very much at peace. She said that some Biblical questions that she used to find difficult have now become much easier. I asked her why. She said that is because of God’s presence amidst trials.”

Pastor Bao Guohua and Pastor Xing Wenxiang

Pastors Bao Guohua and Xing Wenxiang are a married couple that used to lead a government-approved church in Jinhua, Zhejiang province. In August 2015, they were detained, together with several church workers. Chinese state media accused them of dipping into church funds to make money, robbing the faithful and leading a luxurious life.

Bao Guohua (left) and Xing Wenxiang (right). Source: RFA

In February 2016, they were convicted of embezzling money from their congregation, illegal operations, hiding financial accounts, and disturbing social order, and sentenced to 14 and 12 years’ imprisonment respectively. These particularly harsh sentences are widely seen as retaliation by authorities for their public opposition to the cross-removal campaign in Zhejiang since 2014.

They have remained imprisoned ever since. In January 2018 an anonymous Christian who met with the couple raised concerns in particular for Pastor Xing, who they described as in “poor health,” adding “The heavy labour work is too much for her… She has a painful stiff spine, and her abdominal tumour has been on the verge of malignant transformation. She is particularly concerned about the church. She is at peace about her 12-year sentence. She was prepared for imprisonment over 10 years ago[…]”

“One more weapon”

Leaders of unregistered and registered religious groups in China have come under increasing scrutiny and pressure in recent years. The cases illustrated in this piece are examples of ‘illegal’ pastors being targeted for serving ‘illegal’ churches, and ‘legal’ pastors being punished for not following the lead of the Party.

Undoubtedly, the new regulations for religious staff will be used, to quote a Chinese human rights lawyer, as “one more weapon in [the Chinese authorities’] arsenal” for arbitrary harassment and persecution against faith leaders, both state-sanctioned and unregistered. Yet alongside the regulations, the authorities are using fraud accusations to target church leaders as individuals as a way to stop their church activities.

Of course, there will be genuine cases of clergy scammers in China, as elsewhere. However, the fact that the Chinese judicial system does not guarantee a fair trial complicates the situation. If any church leader can be accused of fraud or illegal business operations just for collecting offerings, it leaves pastors, and particularly unregistered pastors, vulnerable to arbitrary interference, harassment, and even imprisonment at any time.

It is all the more concerning because it further damages the credibility of the church in question and could even increase public support for a stronger ‘crackdown’ on religious communities. Let us hope that charging religious leaders with scamming believers will not become a routine way of reining in religion as part of the ‘China under the Rule of Law’.

By CSW’s China Team