Authorities in Guiyang, in China’s south-western Guizhou province, appear to have charged church elder Zhang Chunlei with an additional charge of ‘inciting subversion of state power’ on top of the charge of fraud he is already facing.
The charges against Elder Zhang, who leads of Love (Ren’ai) Reformed Church in Guiyang, have changed several times during his 11-month detention. He was initially detained by Guiyang police for ‘illegally operating as an association’ on 16 March 2021, and was officially arrested on suspicion of ‘fraud’ in May 2021.
According to a social media update posted by his wife Yang Aiqing in November 2021, a recommended indictment states that the Public Security Bureau in Guiyang accuses him of “not having the status of a state-approved religious clergyman while holding religious gatherings and swindling believers of about 100,000 RMB [11,600 GBP]”.
In January, Ms Yang reported that the authorities had denied Mr Zhang access to his lawyer from June 2021 until 5 January 2022 because “the case involves state security”, and that he was also being investigated by the State Security Bureau “for allegedly inciting subversion of state power”. On 25 January 2022, the procurators at Guiyang Municipal Intermediate Procuratorate told his lawyer that they were reviewing both alleged offences (‘fraud’ and ‘incitement’) as one combined case.
The recent change in charges against Elder Zhang is a cause for concern. The move indicates that he has been targeted not just for leading an unregistered church, but possibly also for being critical of the Chinese government’s religious policies. ‘Inciting subversion of state power’ is typically used by the authorities as a catch-all charge to target and imprison dissidents, as in the case of leading dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison on this charge in December 2009, and died in custody in July 2017.
Elder Zhang Chunlei was among the first signatories of a joint statement following the enactment of the Regulations on Religious Affairs in February 2018, which was also signed by Early Rain Church Pastor Wang Yi. Pastor Wang was jailed for nine years for ‘inciting subversion of state power’ and ‘illegal business operations’ in December 2019.
In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of religious leaders prosecuted with ‘fraud’ charges, which are more serious than ‘illegal business operations’ and could carry a sentence of more than 10 years.
If convicted of both charges, Elder Zhang Chunlei will face a lengthy jail sentence.
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “These new charges against Elder Zhang Chunlei are completely unjust, much like those levelled against him previously. We call for his immediate and unconditional release, as well as that of Pastor Wang Yi and all those detained on spurious charges designed to crack down on peaceful expressions of dissent. We also renew our calls on the Chinese government to stop the prosecution and conviction of religious leaders for practicing their religion and peacefully standing up for freedom of religion or belief in China.”