BEIJING – The Rev. John Sanqiang Cao paid no more than three dollars for the trip that would end up costing him his freedom.
For years, he and fellow Chinese Christian teachers would cross the river on a narrow bamboo raft from a tree-shrouded bank in southern China into neighboring Myanmar, carrying with them notebooks, pencils and Bibles. The journey that enabled the missionaries to slip between the countries — a distance no greater than 9 meters (30 feet) — always happened in broad daylight, according to a U.S.-based missionary who traveled with Cao.
The ride on March 5, 2017, was different. Cao and a teacher were on a raft returning to Yunnan province when they saw Chinese security agents waiting for them on the shore. Decades of work in China’s clandestine “house” churches and unofficial Bible schools had prepared the prominent 58-year-old Christian leader for this moment. He quickly threw his cellphone into the water, protecting the identities of more than 50 Chinese teachers he had recruited to give ethnic minority Burmese children a free education rooted in Christianity.
But Cao himself could not escape. He was sentenced last month to seven years in prison for “organizing others to illegally cross the border” — a crime more commonly applied to human traffickers. His American sons and Christian colleagues — who have not been allowed contact with him since his arrest — spoke about the case for the first time to The Associated Press, arguing that the pastor’s sentence should be reduced in light of his humanitarian work.
“Nothing my father organized was ever political. It was always just religious or charitable,” said Ben Cao, the pastor’s 23-year-old son, a U.S. citizen living in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We hope that China will be merciful, and see that my father’s intentions were good.”
Cao’s punishment was handed down as Beijing pursues a plan to “sinicize” the country’s major religions, eliminate “foreign influence” and align faiths more closely with the atheist ruling Communist Party’s own doctrines. Analysts say the government increasingly views Christianity’s rise in China as a threat to its rule, and may be using prominent figures such as Cao as an example to intimidate nascent movements.
The pastor’s case also appears to show the party wants to extend its control over the activities of China’s faithful even when they are abroad.
“This reflects the tightening environment under President Xi (Jinping) against any kind of religious independence,” said Cao’s longtime friend Bob Fu, a Texas-based Christian rights activist. “In the past when they talked about foreign infiltration, they were referring to the activities of foreign missionaries inside China, but that has now expanded to include Chinese missionaries going overseas.”