China Uses Illegal Border Crossing Charges to Imprison Christian Leader

Cao breaks ground on a new school in Wa State, Myanmar, in 2014. (Ben Cao via AP)

In the summer of 2017, Amos Cao and his mother Jamie Powell flew from their home in North Carolina to Yunnan province, China, then bumped over dirt roads for five hours until they arrived at Menglian County along the China-Myanmar border. They had traveled halfway around the world to see the Rev. John Sanqiang Cao—Amos’ father and Powell’s husband. Chinese authorities had arrested him a few months earlier as he crossed the border back into China after visiting schools he helped build in Wa State, an autonomous region in the Myanmar mountains.

At the local police station in Menglian, police seemed polite and helpful, agreeing to drive Amos, Powell, and Cao’s sister to the local jail where Cao was held. But higher-ups quickly alerted them that Amos and Powell would not be able to see Cao because they were U.S. citizens. Only Cao’s sister, who lived in China, could visit him for about a minute under the watchful eyes of prison guards who banned any form of communication.

“We have a photo with my mom at the [prison] gate,” Amos said. “It’s surreal to stand there and think that 300 meters away my dad was sitting there … so close but still so far away.” They returned home, having come so far only to be turned away.

Amos, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, noted that his inability to see his father on that trip was a physical representation of the opaqueness that shrouded his father’s case: Why did the Chinese government arrest and sentence a 59-year-old missionary to seven years in prison on charges of “organizing illegal border crossings,” a crime usually applied to human traffickers? What had he done wrong by providing humanitarian aid and improving lives through education?

Cao’s family and friends are encouraged by the case of recently released U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson: Perhaps the United States could use similar pressure to help get Cao freed as well. Yet Cao’s case differs in that he is a permanent resident of the United States, not a citizen, even though his wife and two sons, Amos and Ben, are. Cao could easily have become a U.S. citizen but decided to keep his Chinese passport to continue ministering in China (and China does not recognize dual citizenship).

While Cao is unable to receive consular privileges, in June, nine U.S. lawmakers penned a letter to Vice President Mike Pence asking him to prioritize Cao’s case as he meets with Chinese leaders. Powell also spoke out about her husband’s case at the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July.

Longtime friend Bob Fu, founder of ChinaAid, believes Cao has been swept up in President Xi Jinping’s campaign to “sinicize” Christianity, specifically its crackdown on the growing missions movement among house churches. Cao’s foreign ties, his renown among house church leaders, and his ability to mobilize others to serve in Burmese schools may have prompted authorities to make an example of him.

His work in Myanmar, also known as Burma, seems to be a specific target: In September, the China-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA), the de facto leaders of the region, began investigating Christians, banning missionaries, and destroying churches in Wa State. They detained the Chinese missionaries teaching at Cao’s schools and sent them back to China—so far all but one has been released from Chinese custody, Fu said.

A NATIVE OF HUNAN, Cao first heard the gospel while studying in the English department at Hunan Normal University. Although the Chinese government closed all universities during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Cao was part of the first wave of students to take the resumed college entrance exam and attend university. At the age of 20, Cao met an American couple while walking down the street in the city of Changsha. The couple, who were Christians, chatted with Cao for a while and then handed him an English Bible. Cao began reading the Bible, listening to Billy Graham broadcasts, and asking the couple whenever he had questions about Christianity. Over time, Cao professed faith in Christ.

Lianchao Han, a classmate of Cao’s, remembers him as a considerate and gentle man who also possessed an aura of mystery, as Christians were uncommon in China at the time. As students readied for graduation, officials assigned each student a job. They assigned most graduates of the English department to positions at universities, but because of Cao’s faith, they relegated him to a high school in a remote area. Cao refused to take the job.

“He was the first one to not take an assigned job,” Han said. “He was the one who became a free man. … He stood out among the students.”

Cao took a completely different track: He worked odd jobs and traveled to different house churches preaching and teaching. With the help of the American couple, Cao moved to the States and studied at Alliance Theological Seminary in New York. He married Powell in 1988 and continued to minister both in North Carolina, where he pastored a Chinese church, and in China, where he helped build up house churches.

Amos and Ben spent their early years splitting their time between Southern China and the United States. Amos said his father always wanted them to learn the Chinese language and culture: “My dad is someone who is very patriotic about his country. … His work has never carried anti-China messages.”

Fu first met Cao in the early ’90s while pastoring a house church in Beijing. Fu’s first impression of Cao was that he was a tireless evangelist. Every time Cao would come up to Beijing, he would purposely ride the train from Guangzhou, which took a full day and night. He’d wear a specially designed jacket full of secret pockets for Bibles. “He’d share the gospel from the time he got on the train until the time he got off,” Fu remembered. “By the time he got to Beijing, he would have lost his voice.”

Later when Fu and his family fled to the United States in 1997, he remembers that on the first night Cao welcomed them into his home in North Carolina. Cao gave the master bedroom to Fu, his wife Heidi, and their then-2-month-old son, Daniel, as he slept on the couch. “We were so touched. That tells of John’s extraordinary love for others.”

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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine, June Cheng