Crying Out for the Persecuted in China, Including a Pastor’s Wife Buried Alive

Whether they're buried alive in a churchyard or buried away in a Chinese labor camp, it's time for their American brothers and sisters in Christ to stand up.

By Faith McDonnell Published on May 15, 2016

The recent murder of a Chinese church leader’s wife and the nineteen-year imprisonment of iconic Chinese freedom fighter Harry Wu who died recently demonstrate the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Communist regime’s long legacy of repression and persecution. But advocacy by ordinary Americans could make a difference right now in the fate of another victim of the PRC – an imprisoned house church pastor falsely charged with “divulging state secrets.”

On Thursday, April 14, Ding Cuimei, the wife of Chinese Christian church leader Li Jiangong, was buried at the Beitou Church in Henan Province.

Ding Cuimei was buried alive at the church.

In an act of unbelievable callousness, members of a demolition team sent by the Chinese government to raze Beitou Church used a bulldozer to push both Ding and her husband, Pastor Li Jiangong into a pit and cover them with soil and rubbish. Advocacy organization China Aid reported that Li was able to dig himself out. But before he and others could rescue his wife, she died of suffocation.

According to China Aid, a local developer wanted the church’s land and Chinese authorities were facilitating the takeover. Like those who stood in the paths of tanks at Tiananmen Square, Li and Ding stood in the path of the demolition crew. And just as the Tiananmen tanks ran down some of those protesters, Pastor Li and his wife were no obstruction to demolition. China Aid says that the bulldozer operator was instructed by his superior, “Bury them alive for me. I will be responsible for their lives.”

Because of the international outcry over Ding’s shocking death, local authorities reneged on their promise to the developer and ruled “that the land belonged to the church and its pastor for use as a religious site.” It was a costly price for the church to pay.

China Aid is demanding justice. “We appeal to the Chinese authorities to hold those criminal perpetrators accountable with a fair investigation and standard judicial process with full justice and unhindered legal representation by Beijing based human rights lawyer Li Dunyong,” said China Aid founder and president, Bob Fu. In recent years, Chinese Christians and democracy activists have begun demanding their legal rights in a way that has taken the PRC by surprise.

The Passing and Suffering of Freedom Fighter Harry Wu

Freedom fighter and human rights activist Harry Wu who died on April 26th at the age of 79 was not literally buried alive like Ding Cuimei, but he spent 19 years in prison for his dissent against the Chinese Communist government. Like millions of other Chinese citizens, he was buried alive in the laogai, China’s system of labor camps. Wu was charged with being a “counterrevolutionary rightist” for doing nothing more than speaking his mind. But he later transformed that injustice into 28 years of anti-Communist activity, striving to bring more freedom to the Chinese people.

Harry Wu- 90000

Harry Wu, speaking on Capitol Hill

Wu related in an extraction from his autobiography in The Independent how in 1957, then at university, he was tricked into giving his (quite mild) political views as part of Chairman Mao’s “One Hundred Flowers Campaign.” The campaign purported to be a venue for free expression of ideas, but was really a Communist scheme to root out dissenters. For two years Wu was hounded by Communist authorities and students who were Party members. Eventually he was arrested and sentenced to labor camp for life.

There was no China Aid or other advocacy organization to come to Harry Wu’s defense in the late 1950’s, nor was there U.S. Congressional action for Chinese dissidents such as in following decades. But after 19 years of hard labor, near-starvation and both physical and mental torture, Wu was released from prison at age 42 because of China’s changing politics following the death of Mao Zedong.

In 1985 Wu came to the United States and struggled to survive as a visiting professor of geology at the University of California, Berkeley. Not being privileged with the social services that today are given to most refugees and migrants, Wu initially slept in bus stations and on park benches. “I couldn’t sleep in the office, so I walked the streets and returned at 5.30 in the morning,” he said. He finally got a night job in a donut shop. “It was wonderful,” Wu said. “The coffee was free, and so were the donuts.”

During his first years in the United States Wu said that he did not speak about China or his experiences. But in 1988 a student asked if he could write his thesis about him. He was invited by the student’s intrigued professor to give a lecture on his experiences. After years of holding in the pain, Wu recalls:

I had only just begun, when suddenly I stopped. I couldn’t prevent the tears from running down my cheeks. I was crying for probably 15 to 20 minutes. They let me cry. The first two years in the labor camp I cried, but, after that, never. No tears for 20 years. But in 1988 it all came out.

 In that moment, Wu later realized, he had returned from being “a beast” in the laogai, just trying to find enough food to survive. He received his vocation, his calling, to be a voice for the voiceless, nameless people of China.

Wu, who had been baptized as a Catholic at age 11, just months before the Communist takeover, understood that the only reason he had survived was because God was with him. And in a 1997 interview in Crisis magazine, Wu revealed that he had forgiven his tormentors, “the individuals – the captain, the policemen” but that he would not forgive the Communist system. “I will fight all my life to tear it down,” he declared.

And he did. Wu exposed the PRC’s treatment of dissidents and religious believers, challenging the U.S. government to defend human rights and maintain their connection to other foreign policy issues. Risking his life – or at least his freedom – Wu went back to China undercover four times in the 1990s:

I went to the prison camps, managing to get close or inside by assuming the role of someone in the police. First of all, I would walk around the whole area, along the walls and the watchtowers, take pictures and go in front of the gate. Sometimes I pretended I was in business, sometimes in the police, allowing me to get into the camps and film the police, the prisoners. Going back undercover allowed me to obtain evidence for the rest of the world to see what is going on.

The trips ended in 1995 when Wu, by then a naturalized American citizen, was discovered and arrested. He was held by the Chinese for 66 days and then sentenced to 15 years in prison for espionage.

Thankfully, by this time there were fierce human rights defenders in the U.S. Congress such as Chris Smith (R-NJ), Tom Lantos (D-CA), Frank Wolf (R-VA), Ben Gilman (R-NY), Howard Berman (D-CA) and others who sponsored a resolution calling on the PRC to release Wu. That resolution passed unanimously and pressured the Chinese into expelling Wu from the country rather than imprisoning him. He returned to the United States where he founded the Laogai Research Foundation and the Laogai Museum. Wu fought for freedom in China until his death.

Thanks to the continuing witness before Congress of Harry Wu and other former dissidents, members of Congress with a passion for human rights established such human rights monitoring groups as (the now-named) Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the International Religious Freedom Caucus, and, in 2000, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

House Pastor Yang Hua

At this moment, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China is working with China Aid and other advocates for the release of Chinese house church pastor Yang Hua. Yang is the pastor and founding member of Huoshi (Living Stones) Church, the largest house church in Guiyang, the capital of China’s Guizhou Province. As with Beitou Church, the Chinese authorities’ motivation for arresting Yang was connected to the church property. The pastor has been in prison since December of last year for “resisting government attempts to seize church property.”

But the Chinese regime’s argument with Christians is not just a property dispute. As Harry Wu revealed, speaking of his own experience in the laogai, the attack from the Communist system is on every aspect of personhood, to strip people of their identity and maintain control of them. And in the case of Christians, it is understood that their very personhood and identity are rooted in their faith in Jesus Christ.

The Communists cannot control China’s Christians by striking at church property and punishing pastors and church members when they resist. In fact, Christianity is growing in China as never before and Christians far outnumber Communist Party members! Still, the regime inflicts great suffering on Christ’s body through repression and arrests, identity-destroying imprisonment in the laogai, torture and death.

We may not be able to sneak into China and report on the human rights conditions as Harry Wu was able to do, but there are opportunities for American Christians to advocate for Christians in China. Currently China Aid has a petition on asking Chinese President Xi Jingping to free Pastor Yang Hua. According to long-time human rights advocate Michael Horowitz, the petition has the potential to impact the Chinese regime because the regime is “more sensitive to U.S. public opinion than is commonly supposed.”

Horowitz adds that “a broadly signed petition will also generate interest and priority attention in Congress and the State Department.” Just as Harry Wu discovered it was his calling to be a voice for the persecuted people of China, it is the calling of every Christian living in freedom to speak out for their brothers and sisters who are suffering.


Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).

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