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Peacefully holding aloft banners calling for an end to corruption. Peacefully protesting outside government buildings. Peacefully gathering to commemorate historical anniversaries. These efforts have in recent months led to activists in China being charged – and in some cases sentenced – for such “crimes” as “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order.”

Zhang Shaojie, a pastor in Henan province, was sentenced on July 4 to a shocking 12 years in prison on this charge and on a second charge of “fraud” after attending church meetings and assisting congregants to seek redress in disputes with local officials. The fact that his church was registered with local authorities, and that no aspect of his conduct presented during legal proceedings could remotely be construed as threatening public order, seems to have made no difference.

Interest in Christianity has surged across China in recent years. Official statistics suggest there are 23 million practitioners, while other surveys suggest there may be three times as many. But as that interest grows, authorities appear to be increasing their efforts to limit their religious activities.

Some of the strategies to limit Christians’ ability to practice their faith have been presented as land disputes, including the May 2014 razing of a massive church in Zhejiang province. But as reported by the New York Times, that demolition was the direct result of a provincial policy decision to limit Christians’ “excessive religious sites” and “overly popular” activities. Severe restrictions on the freedom of religion are already well-known to Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.

The Chinese government has multiple objections to religious freedom: authorities dislike organizations outside the immediate control of the party-state, and dislike individuals’ adherence to alternative beliefs. And these play out in an environment in which the government has moved to limit the already narrow space for the freedom of expression, the rule of law, the ability of independent organizations to operate, and the right to a fair trial.

Increasing social grievances and violence across China do not diminish the state’s obligation to provide public order. But its tactics – of crushing opportunities for peaceful free expression, practice of religion, and organizing – are utterly inimical to that goal. Pastor Zhang, and all others spuriously charged with “disturbing public order,” should be released immediately.

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