Evangelist in chains
China uses dubious border charges to imprison a popular Christian leader
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In the summer of 2017, Amos Cao and his mother Jamie Powell flew from their home in North Carolina to Yunnan province, China, then bumped over dirt roads for five hours until they arrived at Menglian County along the China-Myanmar border. They had traveled halfway around the world to see the Rev. John Sanqiang Cao—Amos’ father and Powell’s husband. Chinese authorities had arrested him a few months earlier as he crossed the border back into China after visiting schools he helped build in Wa State, an autonomous region in the Myanmar mountains.
At the local police station in Menglian, police seemed polite and helpful, agreeing to drive Amos, Powell, and Cao’s sister to the local jail where Cao was held. But higher-ups quickly alerted them that Amos and Powell would not be able to see Cao because they were U.S. citizens. Only Cao’s sister, who lived in China, could visit him for about a minute under the watchful eyes of prison guards who banned any form of communication.
“We have a photo with my mom at the [prison] gate,” Amos said. “It’s surreal to stand there and think that 300 meters away my dad was sitting there … so close but still so far away.” They returned home, having come so far only to be turned away.
Amos, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, noted that his inability to see his father on that trip was a physical representation of the opaqueness that shrouded his father’s case: Why did the Chinese government arrest and sentence a 59-year-old missionary to seven years in prison on charges of “organizing illegal border crossings,” a crime usually applied to human traffickers? What had he done wrong by providing humanitarian aid and improving lives through education?
Cao’s family and friends are encouraged by the case of recently released U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson: Perhaps the United States could use similar pressure to help get Cao freed as well. Yet Cao’s case differs in that he is a permanent resident of the United States, not a citizen, even though his wife and two sons, Amos and Ben, are. Cao could easily have become a U.S. citizen but decided to keep his Chinese passport to continue ministering in China (and China does not recognize dual citizenship).
While Cao is unable to receive consular privileges, in June, nine U.S. lawmakers penned a letter to Vice President Mike Pence asking him to prioritize Cao’s case as he meets with Chinese leaders. Powell also spoke out about her husband’s case at the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July.
Longtime friend Bob Fu, founder of ChinaAid, believes Cao has been swept up in President Xi Jinping’s campaign to “sinicize” Christianity, specifically its crackdown on the growing missions movement among house churches. Cao’s foreign ties, his renown among house church leaders, and his ability to mobilize others to serve in Burmese schools may have prompted authorities to make an example of him.
His work in Myanmar, also known as Burma, seems to be a specific target: In September, the China-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA), the de facto leaders of the region, began investigating Christians, banning missionaries, and destroying churches in Wa State. They detained the Chinese missionaries teaching at Cao’s schools and sent them back to China—so far all but one has been released from Chinese custody, Fu said.
A NATIVE OF HUNAN, Cao first heard the gospel while studying in the English department at Hunan Normal University. Although the Chinese government closed all universities during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Cao was part of the first wave of students to take the resumed college entrance exam and attend university. At the age of 20, Cao met an American couple while walking down the street in the city of Changsha. The couple, who were Christians, chatted with Cao for a while and then handed him an English Bible. Cao began reading the Bible, listening to Billy Graham broadcasts, and asking the couple whenever he had questions about Christianity. Over time, Cao professed faith in Christ.
Lianchao Han, a classmate of Cao’s, remembers him as a considerate and gentle man who also possessed an aura of mystery, as Christians were uncommon in China at the time. As students readied for graduation, officials assigned each student a job. They assigned most graduates of the English department to positions at universities, but because of Cao’s faith, they relegated him to a high school in a remote area. Cao refused to take the job.
“He was the first one to not take an assigned job,” Han said. “He was the one who became a free man. … He stood out among the students.”
Cao took a completely different track: He worked odd jobs and traveled to different house churches preaching and teaching. With the help of the American couple, Cao moved to the States and studied at Alliance Theological Seminary in New York. He married Powell in 1988 and continued to minister both in North Carolina, where he pastored a Chinese church, and in China, where he helped build up house churches.
Amos and Ben spent their early years splitting their time between Southern China and the United States. Amos said his father always wanted them to learn the Chinese language and culture: “My dad is someone who is very patriotic about his country. … His work has never carried anti-China messages.”
Fu first met Cao in the early ’90s while pastoring a house church in Beijing. Fu’s first impression of Cao was that he was a tireless evangelist. Every time Cao would come up to Beijing, he would purposely ride the train from Guangzhou, which took a full day and night. He’d wear a specially designed jacket full of secret pockets for Bibles. “He’d share the gospel from the time he got on the train until the time he got off,” Fu remembered. “By the time he got to Beijing, he would have lost his voice.”
Later when Fu and his family fled to the United States in 1997, he remembers that on the first night Cao welcomed them into his home in North Carolina. Cao gave the master bedroom to Fu, his wife Heidi, and their then-2-month-old son, Daniel, as he slept on the couch. “We were so touched. That tells of John’s extraordinary love for others.”
IN THE 1990s AND EARLY 2000s, house churches mostly kept to themselves to stay under the government’s radar and because they didn’t trust other networks. But Cao became well-respected among the church networks and had contacts in every major city. In order to train house church leaders, he started more than 60 unregistered Bible training centers. He also built the first school among the Sui minority in Guizhou, recruiting students from his Bible schools to help run the school. Once the school got settled, he handed it over to the local government, which still runs it today.
“He really impacted a generation of house church leaders with wider world missions,” Fu said. “That’s why he was able to mobilize them to go.” Cao organized house church Christians to provide aid relief after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the 2015 Nepal earthquake. In 2012, he started visiting Myanmar to provide aid to refugee Kachins, a largely Christian ethnic minority living in the north near the Chinese border. Fighting between Burmese soldiers and the Kachin insurgents left more than 100,000 displaced, many living in abject poverty in the mountains.
Samuel Chao, head of Chinese Ministries International, accompanied Cao on several of these trips as his organization donated food and medicine for the Kachin refugees. Because border guards collected 100 to 200 yuan ($15 to $30) in bribes each way to cross the border, Cao and the other aid workers instead paid a boatman $1.50 to bring them across a 30-foot-wide river on a bamboo raft. A truck loaded with supplies would cross the bridge and go through customs while they crossed the river, and they’d reunite on the other side. Once inside the refugee camp, they passed out 2 tons of food, including much-needed rice, sugar, and salt to the refugees.
Later Cao traveled to the mountains where the Wa ethnic group lived in impoverished villages without schools. Cao offered to build and run schools in the villages so that the children could learn to read and improve their job prospects. All that he asked was that he could teach the students the Bible along with their Mandarin and English classes. The villagers agreed, and he began to raise funds from overseas and from Chinese house churches and to recruit graduates from his Bible schools to teach. By the time Cao was arrested in 2017, he had helped start 16 schools that served 2,000 students.
But his work often caught the attention of authorities, who have closed many of his Bible schools. He was tracked, followed, interrogated, and detained because of his involvement in training house church leaders and his foreign ties. Often state security officials invited him to “drink tea” in order to keep tabs on him: Cao was always transparent with them about his mission activities and complied when they asked him not to take certain trips.
That’s why it came as such a shock to Cao’s family and friends when they heard that authorities had arrested him. According to Fu, Chinese state security asked Cao to take this trip to visit the schools and then called to ask when he’d return to China. He told them he’d be back on Sunday, March 5. That day, as he and a co-worker crossed the river back into China, security agents awaited, arresting him for illegally crossing the border.
Border crossings of that kind are typically overlooked and done in broad daylight. At worst, someone could be fined 200 RMB ($29), but authorities arrested Cao and in a court trial a year later sentenced him to seven years in prison for “organizing illegal border crossings.” Cao’s lawyers are trying to appeal the charges, although without an independent judiciary in China, things look bleak.
“He was obviously trapped and singled out for punishment,” Fu said. “They want to send a chilling signal to other missionaries who are helping the Chinese church do foreign missions to stop.”
That signal became even clearer in September when the Beijing-backed United Wa State Party closed Cao’s schools and expelled its Chinese teachers. The party released a statement directing military officers and administrators to “find out what the missionaries are doing and what are their intentions,” according to Asia Times. It banned the construction of new churches, religious teaching in schools, and all foreign missionaries from Wa State. The UWSA has roots in the Communist Party of Burma and continues to have close trade ties with China, including a thriving illegal narcotics trade.
ACCORDING TO LAWYER LI GUISHENG, who visited Cao most recently in October, Cao is suffering from hemorrhoids, a herniated disc, and pain in his eyes and his teeth. He initially lost 60 pounds as the detention center only provided him with one meal a day until authorities allowed family and friends to send him money to purchase more food.
At first, Cao didn’t have a Bible in prison, so he devoted himself to prayer: Every day he’d pray for more than 100 people, the Chinese government, and a different country. He scoured the books in the prison library for Bible verses, finding many in books as varied as Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Nietzsche’s writings. By March 2018, Cao was able to obtain an English and a Chinese Bible, and every day he’d read, meditate, pray, and write short poems. “Every day, I meet with the Lord,” Cao told Li. “Every day I marvel at the greatness of God and feel His love … all thanks to the Bible.”
He went on to say that after years of ministry, he considered this time in prison his “Sabbath year.” When Li told Cao the schools were shut down and teachers sent away, Cao seemed calm. He expressed his sadness but added, “All this is God’s plan. We just follow God’s will, the results are in God’s hands.”
Han and his fellow college classmates, some of whom work in the government, petitioned for his release to little avail. “Everybody knows he’s a good person, they know that he would never do anything to harm the country,” Han said. “We’ve known him for many years. While everyone else tried to make money, he’s not the type to do that. He helped others, and people saw that.”
While house church leaders see Cao as a respected teacher, to Amos, he’s simply Dad: “I don’t think of my dad as someone who has traveled the world and brought tons of aid to people, I think of him as getting really sleepy after he eats and really distracted if the TV is on. He likes playing Chinese chess—all those personal attributes.”
Amos noted that before, when he read about religious persecution around the world, it seemed distant and unrelated to his life. But now that it’s hit close to home, he’s heartbroken. Depending on your circumstances, he said, “those people you read about could be your dad and it could be you.”
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