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Reporters overcome fears to expose faith crackdown in China

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The assignment always promised to be a challenge: talk with Christians in China about a state crackdown on their faith when many are afraid to speak out for fear of government retribution.

When reporter Yanan Wang, photographer Han Guan Ng and video journalist Emily Wang visited cities in China’s Christian heartland, they discovered the government’s campaign to “Sinicize” Christianity was far more aggressive than previously known. Hundreds of informal churches in private homes were shuttered. Gatherings were raided. Bibles were seized. Authorities ordered posters of Jesus replaced with portraits of President Xi Jinping.

For careful, persistent reporting to expose what experts and activists described as the most severe systematic repression of Christianity since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982, the three win this week’s Beat of the Week.

The push to “Sinicize” Christianity is part of Xi’s larger effort to infuse religions with “Chinese characteristics,” such as loyalty to the Communist Party.

Christians they interviewed were eager to tell their stories,but most did not want their names used,concerned they’d be punished. A few,however,allowed part of their names to be used in spite of the risk. The team saw the risks up-close. At one point,about 20 plainclothes officers surrounded them as they interviewed a source on private property. The AP journalists found themselves detained briefly and questioned. Then,they were tailed as they drove to another city.

The push to “Sinicize” Christianity is part of Xi’s larger effort to infuse religions with “Chinese characteristics,” such as loyalty to the Communist Party. The party has long been wary of Christianity because of its association with Western political values. When the AP’s China News Director Gillian Wong saw reports of a crackdown in Chinese Christian news outlets,citing anonymous believers, she suggested that Yanan Wang pursue the story.

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A demolished house church is seen in the city of Zhengzhou in central China’s Henan province, June 3, 2018 – AP Photo / Ng Han Guan

As Wang began reporting,she immediately encountered the pervasive fear among Christians about government reprisals. Several pastors at house churches told her they could not talk on the phone,concerned that their lines were being monitored.

They suggested she go to Henan province,the Christian heartland, to witness the impact of the crackdown firsthand. The team went door-to-door to churches to find anyone who would be willing to talk. They dug through the rubble of a demolished church to find a contact’s phone number. They found the number written on an internal newsletter from more than two years ago and tucked into a folder that had been left behind.

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A 63-year-old Seventh-Day Adventist sings gospel songs at her home in Zhengzhou in central China’s Henan province, June 3, 2018 – AP Photo / Ng Han Guan

Believers told them that the authorities’ approach to the faith shifted dramatically this year. In the spring,a plan to “Sinicize” Christianity was introduced. Over the last several months,hundreds of house churches have been shut down.

Han Guan Ng and Emily Wang had the difficult task of getting photos and video in a place where the sight of cameras can arouse suspicion. They had to make repeated trips to one church,for instance,to get a pastor on camera because he would not answer his phone,fearing government monitoring. Emily Wang,working with video journalist Brian Skoloff,was able to fill out the story with additional interviews with Chinese Christians now living in the U.S.

Dozens of members and customers used AP’s coverage of this little-known campaign. The story was retweeted more than 1,000 times and garnered more than 5,000 engagements on Facebook. On APNews.com,the story netted more than 26,000 page views.

For their intrepid reporting in the face of government pressure,the team of Wang, Ng and Wang wins this week’s $500 Beat of the Week prize.

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