A Religious Awakening in China that Seems Uncontrollable

Li Baiguang was a Chinese human rights lawyer who died on February 26 under suspicious circumstances in a military hospital in Nanjing, China. He had been detained and physically attacked many times for his work, the first time in 2004 when he had brought legal action on behalf of 100,000 peasants who had been forcibly evicted from their land. In 2010, when he became the legal consultant to China Aid, a group that defends religious freedom in China and provides legal support to prisoners of conscience, he started traveling across China to provide legal help to the persecuted house churches. This work also earned him the enmity of the Chinese government. 

At a ceremony in 2008 in the U.S. Congress when Li was presented with the Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Congressman Frank Wolf compared him with the great Soviet dissidents and Nobel Laureates Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. Li belonged in their company because of his utterly selfless devotion to the principle of human dignity and individual liberty, and because of his boundless courage. China Aid recognized in presenting Li last year with its own award “For Courage in defense of religious freedom and the rule of law.”               

Li never gave up in his peaceful battle to defend the democratic rights of all Chinese citizens. Just months before his death he was kidnapped and beaten in Zhejiang province for defending a group of farmers whose land had been stolen from them by the Communist Party. His kidnappers threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave the area by the next morning. He reported the case to the police, for which he received repeated death threats. And now he is dead.

How can we not believe that Li was murdered? Did the writer Liu Xiaobo, himself a Nobel laureate who was imprisoned and denied medical attention for 9 years, die a natural death last July? Did the Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche die a natural death the previous July, after 13 years of prison, torture and abuse? Li was in Washington for six days in early February to attend the National Prayer Breakfast. He also visited NED, the organization that I run. No one saw any indication during this visit that he was in ill health. On February 11 he returned to China to continue his work and was dead just two weeks later. Why?

As it happens, the very same month that Li was taken from us, the Chinese regime unveiled a new set of regulations that tightened controls on the practice of religion. The regulations impose new restrictions over online religious content and donations to religious institutions. They make it more difficult for believers to go abroad to attend religious conferences and workshops, and they crack down on religious schools and camps for young people. Most importantly, they put unregistered churches beyond the pale, imposing stiff fines on people who organize services in churches unsanctioned by the state, as well as on the landlords who allow their properties to be used for these purposes. Li belonged to such an unregistered church and, until his death, he defended their right to exist and the right of Chinese citizens to worship in them. 

Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Church in Chengdu has charged that these new regulations violate religious freedom and has called on Christians in China to resist them. According to the pastor, the Chinese government “has no authority to direct or examine religious groups and religious activities in their doctrinal teaching and governing,” or “to limit citizens’ religious activity to the time and location it decides. The logic and spirit of rule of law,” he said, “is actually very simple. It does not mean that without government permission, citizens cannot gather and engage in religious activities. Rather, it means that without constitutional permission, the government cannot restrict citizens from gathering and engaging in religious activities.”

This is what Li Baiguang believed in—the rule of law and religious freedom. That’s exactly why he was honored by China Aid. And for that reason, his work was intolerable to the reigning regime in China. 

Why can’t the Chinese government accept the principle of religious freedom? The reason given by The Economist magazine in a recent report is that the Communist Party “worries that Protestantism is spreading quickly among young, educated urbanites whose talents it needs to help modernize the country.” According to a report last month in AsiaNews.it, its worries are well founded since polls show that “more than 60% of Chinese university students in Beijing and Shanghai are eager to learn about Christianity.” The Communist Party would like to stem the growth of faith among young people, but according to this report, “The religious awakening in China now seems uncontrollable.” And why shouldn’t it be, given the death many decades ago of communist ideology and its replacement by an asphyxiating combination of cynical power worship, rampant materialism, massive corruption, environmental degradation, and harsh repression that now passes for “the Chinese Dream” in Xi’s dictatorial utopia?

Xi has just orchestrated a colossal exercise of centralizing power in the Communist Party and in his own hands—he is now the Chairman of Everything for Life. He is trying to project China’s influence throughout the world through the multi-trillion dollar One Belt-One Road Initiative, the expansion of its military and Sharp Power tools of manipulation and control, its bullying tactics against anyone who believes that Tibetans have rights, and the declaration issued at the 19th Party Congress that China is not just a rising economic power but also an ideological rival to liberal democracy, “a new option for other countries,” as dictator for life Xi puts it.

And yet, the Xi regime fears the peaceful house-church movement and a non-violent lawyer like Li Baiguang–because he knows that with all his power, there is a higher power that the party cannot touch, a power that excites the imagination and the spirit of ordinary people in China who continue to hear and be drawn to its still, small voice.

Li Baiguang heard that voice. When he received the Courage Award from China Aid last year, he cited a sentence from Romans 13 that captured his sense of the deepening crisis in China: “The night is nearly over, the day is almost here.” That chapter opens with a message that resonates today with unusual power in China and that I’m sure gave Li the hope to carry on: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” it reads, and “whosoever therefore resisteth the power…shall receive themselves damnation.” 

Li is now dead, but his spirit and belief in a higher power live on within the hearts of countless Chinese citizens, who will carry on his struggle for a more decent and lawful society.  That struggle for the realization of a different Chinese dream deserves our unwavering support.



Carl Gershman is the President of the National Endowment for Democracy.  This article is based on a eulogy delivered at a memorial service for Li Baiguang organized by China Aid on March 22. A shorter version of this article appeared in The Washington Post.

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