Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang have formally detained a prominent human rights lawyer on social order and “national security” charges after he helped Protestant churches in the region dispute the removal of their roof-top crosses.
Zhang Kai's initial period of detention in an unknown location under "residential surveillance" reached the end of its six-month limit last week, and the lawyer was immediately held instead under criminal detention on suspicion of "disturbing public order" and "endangering state secrets," a fellow lawyer told RFA.
"The news we have today is that he has now been criminally detained," rights lawyer Wu Kouming, who is following Zhang's case closely, said in an interview on Sunday. "This is in line with our expectation."
Wu said the authorities were unlikely to release Zhang on bail, in spite of his televised "confession" last week, in the current political climate.
"The targeting of churches and their pastors is a really big thing right now," he said. "I don't think that Zhang's case will be different from those of the other human rights lawyers."
"I am not optimistic about this case," he said.
Chinese media aired footage of Zhang last Friday "confessing" to the charges, and accused U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid of supporting him.
ChinaAid said it would ignore the claim.
"Although China Aid was mentioned in the shameful Communist Party of China’s official propaganda in the broadcast as the 'overseas force supporting Zhang Kai’s legal defense work,' we will never be intimidated or cease to continue to promote religious freedom for all in China," ChinaAid president Bob Fu said in a statement on the group's website.
‘Confession’ was forced
Meanwhile, State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed deep concern Friday over the ruling Chinese Communist Party's treatment of Zhang, who was detained in August, a day before he was due to meet a U.S. religious freedom envoy.
Zhang was initially detained on Aug. 25 after police climbed the walls of Xialing Church where he and two assistants were working to defend local churches from forced cross demolitions.
According to ChinaAid, he has been refused permission to receive visits from family, lawyers and friends, which is permitted in Chinese law in cases involving state security.
Shandong-based pastor Zhan Gang, deputy director of the Protestant Chinese House Church Alliance, said he believes Zhang's "confession" was forced from him by the authorities.
"I saw the footage of him confessing, and there are clearly parts of it that appear to be forced or [where he appears to be] under duress," Zhan said, adding that he is worried about Zhang's well-being.
"He looked much older and thinner in the video ... and he seemed to be reading his confession from some kind of official script," he said. "There's no way that these were his own words."
Zhan said Zhang's involvement in Zhejiang had nothing to do with any "overseas forces."
"I have known Zhang a long time ... and his faith is very strong," he said. "It's perfectly normal ... for Christians and the leaders of house churches, who are one body, to have contact with their overseas counterparts."
"This claim that they were getting together with overseas organizations to oppose the government is nothing but a trumped-up charge," Zhan said.
Zhang's lawyer Tan Chenshou said he had been unable to confirm his client's station or location in inquiries made to the police department last Friday in Zhejiang's Wenzhou city, known colloquially as "China's Jerusalem."
"We lawyers haven't seen any of the case files yet," Tan said. "So we have no way of confirming or denying the claims made in the video footage."
Crackdown on churches
Zhang's formal detention comes amid a province-wide crackdown on churches and an urban "improvement" campaign which has seen crosses removed from dozens of buildings.
Last week, Zhejiang Protestant pastors and married couple Bao Guohua and Xing Wenxiang of the Holy Love Christian church were sentenced to 14 and 12 years' imprisonment respectively by the Wucheng District People's Court in Zhejiang's Jinhua city.
They were both found guilty of "encroachment," "running an illegal business," "disturbing public order," and "concealing financial records," their congregants told RFA.
The sentences came after the authorities detained at least 16 pastors and other church members in and around Zhejiang's Wenzhou city during confrontations with the authorities over a long-running cross removal program in the province.
China is home to an estimated 60 million Protestant Christians, some 23 million of whom are members of the government-backed Three-Self Patriotic Movement, as required by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Chinese religious believers may practice only five officially recognized religions, and only in officially approved religious premises.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party oversees every aspect of religious life, including organizations' activities, employee details, and financial records. It also appoints religious personnel, and vets religious publications and seminary applications, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its 2016 annual report.
Last year, Zhejiang authorities launched a regional campaign targeting visible church crosses for demolition as "illegal structures" in the name of civic pride.
But HRW cited an internal provincial directive as saying that the campaign is designed to reduce the prominence of Christianity in the region.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.