As U.S. officials began their annual human rights dialogue with Chinese authorities in Washington this week, stories abounded of human rights abuses in the communist nation.
Some examples: A handful of recent forced abortions in China drew international attention to a practice that's widespread because of the country's notorious one-child policy, well-known dissidents remain in Chinese prisons for defending religious minorities and writing about freedom, and Chen Guangcheng-the blind human rights activist who escaped house arrest in May-worried about his family back in China from his new home in New York.
But lesser known examples abound, too, including Chinese house church pastor Joshua Wang fleeing to the United States one month ago to escape escalating persecution by Chinese authorities. He feared the abuses endangered his family, so Wang sent them to America first. When unknown assailants smashed his car and brandished a knife, he decided to join his family here.
I spoke with Wang, 44, last week in a private home in Southern California, where he's contemplating a new beginning with his wife and two children. Part of his new life is staying connected to the old: The pastor meets with church leaders of his home congregation in China once a week via Skype.
Wang described the harassment his congregation has suffered for years, saying it's a common experience for many house churches. His church of 200 members regularly broke into smaller groups of 30 or 40 to meet in private homes or apartments in an effort to draw less attention. The members arrived in stages, drew curtains, and sang softly.
Still, authorities often discovered the meetings and forced the church to move. Wang said his group changed locations dozens of times over the last seven years. Eventually they met in a park, though police broke up those services, too.
Authorities also detained church members on occasion. That wasn't a new experience for Wang: Before converting to Christianity, he served as a student leader in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and spent more than year in prison.
More than a decade after that experience, Wang began reading the Bible and listening to Christian radio programs broadcast from Hong Kong. He eventually embraced Christianity and the ministry.
In the 15 years since, Wang has experienced relentless harassment that's common for many believers in China. When his wife discovered she was expecting their second child, authorities demanded she abort the pregnancy or pay a fee three times Wang's annual salary. He said they fled the area "because of our belief that we can't kill our child." After moving nearly 500 miles away to a larger city where they would draw less scrutiny, Wang began a ministry to local university students.
But that work did draw scrutiny, with the police constantly telling them that they couldn't share the gospel with college students. Wang said officials fear intellectuals embracing Christianity-a reality that's already unfolding across the country.
Back in Washington, human rights groups urged U.S. officials to use the human rights dialogue to press Chinese authorities about religious persecution, forced abortions, and imprisoned political dissidents. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the United States would raise the rule of law, justice for individuals, and the issue of equality.
It wasn't clear which cases U.S. officials would raise with Chinese authorities or if they would speak publicly about the talks after they end.
In the meantime, Wang said he feels compelled to speak publicly about government abuses against house churches in China, even as he encourages his own congregation to continue to remain strong under persecution. He reminds them of the words that the Apostle Peter spoke in the New Testament when he faced imprisonment of his own: "We must obey God rather than men."
And Wang remains hopeful about the future for Chinese house churches. "They are growing very, very fast," he said. "I believe God will protect them. I think the Chinese house church will change our country."