John Cao may not be having what most people would consider a Merry Christmas right now.
John Cao has been in a Chinese prison for more than two years, and on July 25, a Chinese court upheld a 7-year sentence against him. He was originally convicted in March after over two years in detention without trial. Cao is a 60-year-old Chinese Christian pastor, but he is also a permanent U.S. resident with a family in Greensboro, North Carolina.
He has lost 50 pounds while in prison and is in failing health. He is not allowed to see or talk to anyone except his lawyers.
In March 2017, the Chinese government charged him with illegally ferrying people across the border between China and Myanmar (formerly Burma). Cao had himself ferried across the river border between China and Myanmar nearly a dozen times in the previous three years in a humanitarian project to build schools and teach children. Neither government raised an objection until about two years ago when he and a fellow teacher were arrested.
According to Jay Sekulow with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), Cao was convicted on insubstantial evidence and was not allowed any cross examination of witnesses who were reputedly never made known and made only written complaints.
This was part of the current Chinese government general crackdown on religion, and especially Christianity. Many suspect Cao’s conviction was a high profile response by the Chinese Communist Party to counter the rapid growth of Christianity in recent years, which the party perceives as a cultural and political threat. Modern Communist China is decidedly different from the Communist reign of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) who ruled China from 1949 until his death.
However, although China has adopted more liberalized economic policies, it is still ruled by the Communist Party, which endorses materialist atheism and is strongly anti-Christian.
Mao’s totalitarian brutality and economic failures resulted in the deaths of between 30 million and 80 million people. More than half of this—between 20 and 46 million people—died in perhaps the greatest famine on record from 1958 to 1962, due to Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” which was Mao’s government controlled attempt to change China from an agricultural to an industrial nation in a just a few years. In 1966, Mao introduced the Great Cultural Revolution in which millions more perished in an effort to purify Communist culture and thought. Economic liberalization began with the influence of Deng Xiaoping from 1977 to 1989, but the Communist Party remained adamantly against anything but nominal religious freedom.
Despite Communist Party hostility toward Christianity and frequent general government crackdowns and attempts to exercise more control over officially state-sanctioned churches, many varied sources agree that Christianity is growing rapidly in China. Open Doors, a Christian organization, estimates there are over 92 million Christians in China or about 6.4 percent of China’s 1.438 billion people.
The Chinese government believes there are about 29 million Christians in China, but the Pew Research Foundation estimated there were 68 million in 2010. Some religious observers believe the number is already at 115 to 130 million. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the number of Christians in China was only about 6.0 million in 1980 but has been growing about 10 percent per year since 1979. Fenggang Yang of Purdue University estimates China could have has many as 160 million Christians by 2025 and 247 million by 2030. According to Yang,
“Faith-based organizations are perceived as one of the most serious threats to the Communist Party”.
The overwhelming majority of Chinese Christians belong to “House Churches” that usually meet in people’s homes and keep a low profile with government officials.
Cultural Buddhism and Taoism are also growing as Communist atheism fades.
Deng’s economic liberalism began in 1977 and followed the rabid excesses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This economic and social correction was not specifically tolerant of Christianity, but it opened the door to more freedoms generally. In June 1989, TV audiences around the world viewed a remarkable protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which demonstrated open defiance against government policies.
This also increased a yearning for freedom and reaching beyond the empty materialism and demonstrable failings of Communist ideology and doctrines. But of vastly greater importance, the prayers of God’s people, prompted by the Holy Spirit, were being heard, and no force or weapon can ultimately prevail against God’s decrees.
I first heard the name of John Cao in 1984, when I was State Finance Director for Senator Jesse Helms’s 1984 reelection campaign. A neighbor and friend in Cary, NC, called to ask if Senator Helms could exercise any influence to get John Cao out of China, so he could study at a Christian Seminary and train to be a missionary to China. By a series of rather miraculous events, John Cao did after a few years come to the United States and study at Alliance Seminary in Nyack, New York.
My friend is an investor and traveled globally looking for opportunities. He and his wife are fervent evangelical Christians. They had been traveling to the lesser known cities in China, when my friend decided to depart from the usual tourist traffic and enter a bookstore on a side street.
John Cao was a student who frequently visited that store. He was also learning English. He had never seen an American before but managed to gather the courage to speak to my friend. They struck up a friendship of mutual interests, and John Cao invited my friend to visit his home and see the small library he was very proud of.
He was also interested in Christianity, because he had heard about it on English language broadcasts of the Gospel into China. Before they left the city, my friend introduced his wife to John, and they also struck up a friendship of common interests. Afterwards, she corresponded with him frequently, answering his questions about Christianity.
At some risk, John’s group of college friends all began to listen to the American radio broadcast into China. They met frequently in their dorm rooms to discuss Christianity. They talked about how their Communist teachers said there was no God, but they now questioned among themselves how that could be true.
They had come to believe that the existence to God was self-evident, yet their Communist teachers denied it. Somehow they came up with the idea that they would get John out of China to go and study Christianity and come back. They sold their watches and bicycles to raise enough money to get John out of China, but the attempt failed, and John was identified as an undesirable by the Chinese National Office of Personnel, which meant getting a good job was unlikely.
An American oil company, however, was trying to fill an important technical position for its Chinese business office. He applied, but the Chinese Personnel Office blocked his application because of his religious leanings. Over a thousand people applied, but they were not what the oil company wanted. Finally, because the American oil company was critical to China’s needs, the Chinese allowed John Cao to interview the oil company.
They immediately wanted him for the job, but the Chinese Personnel Office said he was not the best and continued to send more applications. Finally, the oil company insisted on hiring John as the only one who could possibly do their job. The Chinese Personnel Office had to consent to keep the oil company interested in China. Through the oil company and many other influences, John Cao got to the U.S.
Later he stayed at our home near Birmingham, Alabama, a few days, where we became fast friends. John is both intellectually very bright and personable. He is also very dedicated to the Gospel and determined to help the Chinese and other Asian peoples. He is one of the bravest and most remarkable people I have ever known.
Along with the ACLJ, the U.S. State Department and several members of Congress have been working to free John Cao. On October 30, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also petitioned the Chinese government for his release.
I pray that John Cao will be released from prison in China and join his family in North Carolina.
But he told me once that what impressed him most about the older Chinese pastors in his early ministry was that when in prison and when released from prison they were never bitter against their guards. They maintained the honor of Christ by loving their guards and their persecutors.
Merry Christmas, John Cao, to you and your family, and to all our brothers and sisters in China and Myanmar. The Lord of Hosts is on your side.