In late October, the pastor of one of China’s best-known underground churches asked this of his congregation: had they successfully spread the gospel throughout their city? “If tomorrow morning the Early Rain Covenant Church suddenly disappeared from the city of Chengdu, if each of us vanished into thin air, would this city be any different? Would anyone miss us?” said Wang Yi, leaning over his pulpit and pausing to let the question weigh on his audience. “I don’t know.”
Almost three months later, Wang’s hypothetical scenario is being put to the test. The church in south-west China has been shuttered and Wang and his wife, Jiang Rong, remain in detention after police arrested more than 100 Early Rain church members in December. Many of those who haven’t been detained are in hiding. Others have been sent away from Chengdu and barred from returning. Some, including Wang’s mother and his young son, are under close surveillance. Wang and his wife are being charged for “inciting subversion”, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Now the hall Wang preached from sits empty, the pulpit and cross that once hung behind him both gone. Prayer cushions have been replaced by a ping-pong table and a film of dust. New tenants, a construction company and a business association, occupy the three floors the church once rented. Plainclothes police stand outside, turning away those looking for the church.
One of the officers told the Observer: “I have to tell you to leave and watch until you get in a car and go.”