Even with his case under the international eye, Cai Zhuohua's lawyers did not cherish much hope of winning their client an acquittal. They were right.
On Nov. 8, more than a year after his arrest, a Chinese court handed the Beijing house-church pastor a three-year sentence for "illegal business practices." That is, it convicted him of selling hundreds of thousands of Bibles and religious tracts he printed without a government permit. Mr. Cai began serving his sentence at a criminal prison after a year at Haidian Detention Center in Beijing.
The conviction, however, has little to do with business and everything to do with religious persecution. When authorities arrested him in September last year, they found 200,000 Bibles and copies of other Christian literature in a warehouse used by the pastor (see "Evil teachings," WORLD, Dec. 4, 2004). The 35-year-old Cai was not selling them, but giving them away. Despite having difficulty proving he intended to sell the material-even delaying the trial twice-prosecutors won his conviction.
If the harsh verdict was expected, Mr. Cai's case has delivered other surprises. Not just known as a pastor, he also carried a reputation as a publisher and gifted entrepreneur. This distinguished him from other underground leaders and his case netted wider appeal. For the first time, house-church Christians and China's larger pro-democracy intellectual elite united to fight for religious freedom.
For Christians, the case has "spurred debate about how the church should address the social justice issue and how the church should correspond with the Chinese intellectual community," said Bob Fu, president of the China Aid Association. "And the liberals have found a new field they have neglected in the past." Mr. Fu's group first broke news of Mr. Cai's arrest last year.
Eight Chinese human-rights lawyers volunteered to defend Mr. Cai. Authorities have already retaliated against one of them, Gao Zhisheng, suspending his law practice for a year. In addition to the pastor's three-year sentence, he has been ordered to pay a $20,000 fine. His wife, Xiao Yunfei, received a two-year sentence and $15,000 fine, while her brother must serve 15 years in prison. Though the court gave the pastor 10 days to appeal, it was unlikely he could get the verdict reversed.
One of Mr. Cai's lawyers, Teng Biao, told WORLD the trial was "absolutely unfair." "We believe all the defendants are innocent. But it's difficult for us to hope for an acquittal in a case like this in the context of the Chinese judicial system. In China, only a few people-perhaps less than 0.01 percent-get a verdict of 'not guilty' if they were authorized to be arrested."
Mr. Cai's verdict came barely three months after members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom visited China. On Nov. 9, a day after the verdict, the independent federal agency released a report concluding that the Chinese government was stifling religious expression, despite claiming publicly that it was increasing liberties. Advocates hoped that report would spur President Bush to raise the issue of religious freedom with President Hu Jintao-even the specific case of Mr. Cai-during a two-day visit scheduled to begin Nov. 19.
Members of the commission hope Mr. Bush might succeed where they could not. Chinese authorities did not allow commissioners to meet alone with religious leaders and denied their request to see Mr. Cai and other prisoners of conscience. "It was clear when we asked these questions they were uncomfortable-we were official and were supposed to see official people," said Michael Cromartie, the commission's chairman. "They were very friendly, gracious, hospitable, insecure, and defensive."
Although Mr. Cai could have received 10 years maximum in prison, he still faces years of hard labor and is reportedly in low spirits after a year of incarceration. Mr. Teng, who lectures at the China University of Political Science and Law, said the Communist Party fears a burgeoning house-church movement: "They chose Pastor Cai as an example to punish house-church leaders . . . they want to use this as a signal."