Christian pastor released after serving 7-year sentence in China, but must still endure ‘thought reform’

A Chinese pastor has been released to his hometown in China after serving a seven-year prison sentence, but he must still undergo supervision and “thought reform” from the local government for…

A Chinese pastor has been released to his hometown in China after serving a seven-year prison sentence, but he must still undergo supervision and “thought reform” from the local government for the next five years.

Pastor John Sanqiang Cao, 64, was tried in 2017 on the charge of “organizing illegal border crossings” and sentenced, even though he has no criminal record.

Multiple religious freedom groups and U.S. lawmakers had worked unsuccessfully to free Cao, who is married to an American.

“While I was imprisoned, I did not get sun exposure — I probably only saw sunlight about 10 times a year,” Cao said in a recent interview with Christianity Today. “Without sunlight and the vitamin D it produces, my body became weak. I was not allowed to go outside or to exercise. I could not even exercise in my room.” 

Many government officials and groups around the world had advocated on Cao’s behalf, questioning the severity of the sentence, which seemed to be based on his Christianity and ministry work. 

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2019 Cao’s Christian faith had caused him to be targeted. 

“When I learned about my seven-year sentence, I could not wrap my head around the fact that they would persecute me, even though the things I did in northern Myanmar were beneficial to China,” Cao said, noting his history of founding more than 20 schools, establishing drug rehabilitation centers, and distributing medicine, school supplies, books, and Bibles. 

“Once I was released, I realized that many pastors had been arrested. I came to realize that this is a crackdown against the house churches in China as a whole, and I just happened to be among the first few individuals.” 

‘An act of self-harm and self-damage’ 

Cao’s work took place around his hometown Changsha, which is in the Wa State known for its involvement in the methamphetamine-trafficking “Golden Triangle” region. 

He has permanent U.S. residency, as his wife and two sons are U.S. citizens. However, he did not apply for U.S. citizenship so he could keep his Chinese passport for the dual jobs of pastoring in North Carolina while continuing his ministry in China. 

He called the Chinese government’s persecution of Christians unfair and unjust because they are “not anti-government” and obey the nation’s constitution. 

“For the government to crack down on Christians, it is an act of self-harm and self-damage,” he said. “Not only do the Christians get hurt, but the government also hurts its reputation and is discredited.” 

After his release, Cao still faces many restrictions. Two government agencies continue to monitor him every month by visiting his house, and he has no Chinese ID. 

“Without my ID, I cannot move freely to other places, purchase a cell phone, register for accounts online, or see a doctor,” he said. 

Cao also remembered his years of imprisonment, which forced prisoners to endure hours of menial labor. 

“At Menglian Detention Center, we sewed pants and clothing, for which we received next to nothing. At Kunming Prison, I assembled paper bags for tea leaves, as well as gift and fruit bags, without getting paid.” 

Cao was also required to watch a state-owned news program every morning and learn “red songs” praising the Chinese Communist Party. 

“Since I could not speak to anyone when I was in the Kunming prison, I would pray and sing praise songs,” he said. 

“I did not have a Bible while in prison. Although both my mother and my lawyer brought Bibles to my prison, the correctional staff refused to hand them over to me. My mother would write down Bible verses in her letters to me. Yet the police checked our correspondence: If faith was mentioned in my letters, they would not be delivered.” 

House churches are considered illegal in China, but Cao can now participate in online and in-person church services. He is also requesting a Chinese ID so he can reunite with his family in the U.S. 

“Once I returned to China to spread the gospel, I knew that sooner or later I would be persecuted for my faith,” he said, adding he found “great peace” and even joy despite his arrest and imprisonment. “Jesus said we will go through what he had experienced. For whosoever will pursue his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for the Lord’s sake shall find it.”