Li Dexian, one of the best-known Protestant pastors in China, was detained and released again in December and January. This is the most recent incident in a long series of threats, arrests, and beatings he has experienced for 20 years.
"I will preach until I die," Li reportedly said before one of his arrests in the mid-1990s. Amnesty International says police in China once beat Li, breaking his ribs, until he vomited blood.
One document from the mid-1990s, which Chinese Christians close to Li say is an authentic government report, claims that "Li Dexian is Gwangzhou's [Canton's] illegal religion organization's leader."
In 1998, during a new round of attacks, police told Li he was "creating a public disorder by illegal preaching."
The case of Li Dexian signals an increase in religious persecution in China. Stanley Roth, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, warns that "China's human rights record has gone backwards, in our judgment, in 1999."
One reason could be the significant social turmoil created by the move toward a market economy. "Everyone feels both ambitious and hopeless at the same time," says a Chinese government official who asked not to be named. "The basic criterion of social morality is changing. Modern commercialism has replaced traditional agrarian values."
The worship of money is China's main new religion. Social pluralism is giving everyone more freedom, whether to do good or evil. The growth of crime keeps pace.
Some people, including a few high-ranking officials, have unexpectedly turned to religion, including Christianity or the Buddhist-Taoist sect Falun Gong. Jiang Zemin, China's paramount leader, decreed last year that severe pressure should come against any religious group that threatens state stability.
"The bottom line is how far the government can allow you to go," the Chinese official told Christianity Today. "If you want to go … to young people to explain the gospel, that's some thing that the government really doesn't want. They have to stop you. They never tolerate these things."
Many significant Chinese Christian leaders, such as Peter Xu Yongze, have been arrested in the last two years (CT, July 13, 1998, p. 30). Some trials of Falun Gong leaders have ended in heavy sentences, with more to be completed soon.
Li has been detained at least eight times since October 1999. The October arrests attracted a great deal of publicity because of the subsequent arrests of an Australian, John Short, and Li's wife, Zhao Xia.
Police accompanied a wrecking crew that ransacked his church's building annex. "It looks like the aftermath of an earthquake," Li said at the time.
The main church building was saved when its excited landlord threatened to defend his property with force. Li was again detained in late December 1999, but was released in time to open the first service after January 1. About 600 people attend his two Bible studies every Tuesday at the church in Yongming Village in the Gwangzhou suburb of Huadu. An estimated 65-75 million people attend similar unregistered Protestant churches throughout China. In the meantime, police further downtown have also threatened pastor Samuel Lamb, whose church gained some protection after a visit from former President Bush.
"A big gap [remains] between the still-prevailing pattern of direct government control over religious bodies and the ideal of rule of constitution and law to regulate religious activities," a government official told CT. "The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] decided to stop work on religious legislation that might supersede government regulations. This decision will further inhibit any trend toward openness in religious affairs."
Pastor Li's friends remain wary and prayerful that the government will not exercise the option of sending him to a reeducation labor camp, which it can do without a trial.
See our earlier coverage of this story, "Li Dexian's Detention Extended for 'Showing No Remorse' | Three-year jail term possibly lies ahead" (Nov. 24, 1999) and "Chinese Pastor Released | Li Dexian free after 15-day detention" (Nov. 29, 1999)
Li Dexian's case is also discussed in the U.S. Department of State's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
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