Brother Zhang Wenbo tells Bitter Winter how he was suspended on a rope, beaten with a steel tube, and burned with cigarettes. His only crime? Preaching a banned religion.
By Ruth Ingram
Pitiless cruelty and wanton destruction
Tens of thousands hounded, over six thousand arrested, many of whom have been tortured, more than a thousand sentenced, and 19 killed, all in one year. But numbers alone do no justice at all to last year’s tally of brutality and sadistic harassment carried out by the Chinese government towards members of The Church of Almighty God (CAG). The vast scale of abuse can be only described as a sustained campaign of pitiless cruelty and wanton destruction of a group of people whose only plea is that they be allowed to practice their beliefs in peace. It defies explanation, motive or logic.
One victim of the persecution who managed to flee China two months ago is Zhang Wenbo, a 50-year-old husband and father from Lingbao City, Henan Province. He spoke to Bitter Winter from exile in Spain, where he is one of 564 CAG asylum seekers who wait there on tenterhooks, separated from loved ones and facing an uncertain future as their fate is debated.
This new Christian religious movement (also known as Eastern Lightning) was established in China in 1991 and believes that Jesus Christ has returned to earth incarnated as a Chinese woman, whom they call “Almighty God.” The CAG was persecuted since its early years but has come under special scrutiny and attack in the last few years, since Xi Jinping stepped up his sinicization drive, and has been singled out for intense persecution. Draconian new regulations on religious affairs have been imposed on every religion, with the ultimate aim to accelerate and promote the demise of religion and to establish China as a zone of atheism.
According to incomplete statistics included in CAG’s recently released yearly report on persecution, between 2011 and the end of 2019, more than 400,000 CAG members were arrested by the Chinese authorities, and the number of believers who have died as a result of persecution since the Church’s establishment has reached 146.
The story of Zhang Wenbo
Zhang Wenbo’s story started 21 years ago after a relative told him about the new CAG movement and their belief in Almighty God. Until this time, he had been a traditional Christian lead to faith as a young boy by an uncle who was a preacher in a local house church. From his earliest days, he remembers persecution from the authorities being central to their lives as believers. His uncle was arrested in 1978 and tortured for his faith and missionary work, and his family became key targets for government surveillance.
After joining the CAG in 1998, he determined to be a missionary and set about his new calling with enthusiasm. On one hand, he worked in the family business selling furniture, and on the other he spent as much time as he could sharing his new faith. For four years he travelled locally, talking with anyone who would listen, and narrowly escaped several arrests. But things took a turn for the worse in 2003, when after a long-term surveillance operation and stake out to monitor Mr. Zhang’s activities, one day more than a dozen police officers suddenly surrounded the building where he was meeting with four church members.
“Five or six of them broke into the room and escorted us to the town police station, where I was tortured to force me to give up the church leaders,” he said. In an attempt to break him, he was ordered to stand bending forward with his fingertips on the ground and then to maintain a half-squat position for a considerable period of time. A 1000-watt spotlight was shone into his face, causing extreme headaches and eye pain. He was beaten mercilessly if he tried to sleep at any time throughout the night. “I really couldn’t understand why they inflicted such harsh torment,” he said. “I had committed no crime. I just practiced my faith and preached the gospel.”
He was finally released on bail the next day with the help of friends, but this was followed by such relentless harassment by the local police, visits to his factory, ceaseless questioning, demands to abandon his faith, and summons to the police station, that he was left with no choice but to go on the run.
Between 2003 and 2012, he travelled, staying with CAG members or renting apartments, working wherever he could, and taking every opportunity to spread his message and preach to those who would listen. Some he preached to were receptive and others chased him away. Some harbored him but others betrayed him, forcing him to flee again.
Fear hounded him. Life was spent looking over his shoulders, listening for footsteps on the stairs, the knock at the door. He had many narrow escapes and was always ready to run. But time ran out in 2012 whilst on a preaching mission to Guizhou province.
Brutally tortured in Tongren City
“On December 17, I was meeting with four church members in a building which, we learned later, was being closely monitored by the CCP,” he recalls. “The director of Tongren City Public Security Bureau, together with over a dozen police officers broke into the room and took us to the Bijiang District Police Station of Tongren City, where they grilled me about the church leaders.”
Refusing to give anything away his face was slapped, he was punched and beaten. He was assaulted to the point of almost losing consciousness and covered in bruises.
From there, he was dragged into the basement where he was subjected to the “swing.” “I was handcuffed to the top of a door frame without my feet touching the ground,” he said. “They then tied my feet with a rope, which they used to swing me back and forth. As the handcuffs were clamped tightly to the flesh, I felt such excruciating pain in my wrists that I shrieked in agony.” He described how the other end of the rope was tied to a window frame causing his body to hang in a sloping position for half an hour, rendering his hands numb.
Worse was to come.
“They saw that I had no intention of confessing, so they laid me on the ground, turned off the surveillance camera in the corner, and started to hit my back, waist, shoulders with a 70 cm long by 3 cm diameter steel tube. My chest ached so much,” he said. Subsequent medical examinations revealed that one of his ribs had been severely damaged by this treatment.
Continuing their brutality, the police officers forced him to kneel on the ground, pressing the steel tube down hard and rolling it over his calves, causing unbearable pain as if his knees and ankles had been crushed. “In the face of their savagery all I could do was unceasingly call on God to protect me from betraying Him,” he said, remembering, he says, the suffering of Jesus which had kept him going.
“They tortured me in this way for some time and then handcuffed my hands onto the wall, one of them fixed above my head, and the other below my waist in a slanted cross shape. I could neither stand up nor squat down, but only hold this painful position by having one foot touching the ground. They also forced me to smoke two packs of cigarettes, blew smoke into my nostrils, burned my beard, kicked and punched me, and even applied an unknown liquid to my face. This liquid formed a mask, which made me itch so much that I couldn’t help but twist my body. Meanwhile my wrists were pulled so hard that a piercing pain shot through me. I only wished the time would go faster,” he recalled, before recounting the final humiliation and degradation he experienced during those dark hours.
“Then they stripped off my underwear, lit a cigarette, and used it to burn the pubic hair around my anus,” he said bitterly. “They started to insert the burning cigarettes into my anus one after another. I kept struggling and screaming out in great pain while the officers burst into wicked laughter from time to time.” He described these insults and humiliations as more painful than the physical torment itself.
“At that time, I wished I had died,” he said, longing to rebuke them and ask why they derived such pleasure inflicting the torment. “Are they demons from hell?” He asked describing the traumatizing effect of the torture which never leave him. Every time he uses the toilet, the scene replays in his mind. He can’t get rid of it. Severe colitis has been one of the lasting consequences of the ordeal which is with him to this day.
Beaten and insulted by other prisoners
On December 18, 2012, he was transferred to Bijiang District Detention Center in Tongren City. He was kicked to the ground on several occasions. He remembers the escorting officers laughing hysterically and saying to each other, “He is a believer in God, a political prisoner. Even if we beat him to death, we’d go unpunished in the court.”
During the detention, he was fed the minimum. Other prisoners took great pleasure in beating and insulting him, at the behest of the guards. Despite everything he endured, however, he considered it divine intervention that he was firstly put into a Detention Centre with a maximum stay of one month, rather than directly put into a Detention House which would have been a prelude to trial and sentencing. This administrative “fluke” allowed family and CAG friends to use their connections and get him released on bail. His freedom was bought with 16,000 RBM ($ 2,290), although the release fee was registered for only 3,000 RBM ($ 430). The rest was pocketed by the police.
After his release, he returned home only to find he had been placed under long-term surveillance. He was frequently interrogated; his phone monitored 24/7, and had to report every month. He was told he faced five years in prison if he continued with his beliefs. Refusing to abandon his faith and not wanting trouble to come to his wife and daughter he was again faced with no alternative but to go on the run.
After more narrow escapes while preaching in Sanmenxia City, Henan Province, in 2013, he resumed his pattern of moving from place to place.
Between 2013 and 2018, he almost did not contact his wife or daughter. “It was just too dangerous for us all,” he said. Hearing in 2016 that the police had stepped up their search for him, relatives sent urgent messages telling him not to return home or contact them. In 2018, severe colitis brought him to breaking point and he took refuge with an aunt where he was able to see his parents for the last time. The last straw came after hearing that the police had informed his parents that a body needed identifying in the morgue which required a DNA sample from everyone in the household. Realizing it was a trap, Mr. Zhang escaped again, but determined that somehow, he would have to leave the country.
Finally, he managed with great difficulty to obtain a visa in December 2019 and travel to Spain with a tourist visa. There, he contacted other CAG members and has applied for asylum. The agony of separation from his wife and daughter, the mental scars of torture and years of being hounded by police are with him daily. He is forever looking over his shoulder knowing that Beijing is determined to trawl back every last member of the CAG into its clutches, and his only dream is to get through the next day. It is not easy to contemplate a future without his wife by his side.
Hoping for asylum in Europe
Trying to explain the CCP’s relentless and vicious pursuit of CAG members at home and around the world is futile. A CAG exile in Britain I also interviewed has tried to explain the victimization through a Chinese proverb, Sha yi jing bai (杀一儆百) meaning killing one as a warning to a hundred. Heather, a CAG member living in Britain, and Emily, who also fled persecution and was granted asylum in the UK in 2019 suspect the CCP hopes its iron fist will deter others.
“But they don’t realize that persecution is actually what makes us grow,” Heather said. “They think that if they eliminate the leaders and take all our funds, they will succeed. Actually, they do not really understand what makes us grow. We are more than 4 million believers after only 30 years. They can take our money and kill our leaders, but we will continue to flourish,” she said.
Meanwhile, Zhang Wenbo waits in suspense for his asylum hearing. He pins his hopes on Spanish democracy and remembers it issued an international arrest warrant in 2014 against the former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, after an eight-year investigation into human rights abuses in Tibet.
He feels he has enough evidence for his appeal but is throwing himself on the mercy of the Spanish government. “This is why I came to Spain,” he said. “I know they are not afraid of China and I will be treated justly.”