China’s most prominent Christian lawyer, Zhang Kai, who defended and gave legal counsel to a number of Christian churches throughout the country especially against the government’s cross-removal campaign, was carried off by police on August 25 and now faces up to six months of secretive detention.
Knowing full well that it could cost him his legal career and even his freedom, the Chinese attorney battled the Communist Party and successfully defended numerous Christian churches that wished to keep visible crosses on top of their buildings.
Organizing an impressive legal team of more than 30 lawyers to deal with religious freedom cases of the Zhejiang Province, Zhang was convinced that he had the law—and God—in his corner.
“It’s all in the books, I just read them. And I have God on my side,” he said.
But Zhang knew that opposing China’s Communist party was risky business. Two weeks before his arrest in Wenzhou on August 25, Zhang shared his thoughts with friends on WeChat: “The most they can do is imprison me. But if I remain silent, I will regret it for the rest of my life.” Not long after, he and his assistant Liu Peng were taken away.
Zhang Kai is a 37-year-old lawyer of the Xinqiao law firm in Beijing. In the midst of the campaign for the demolition of crosses in Zhejiang, Zhang was the most active of all the human rights lawyers in China. Starting in August of 2014, he joined together with the pastor of the Salvation church of Wenzhou, the Reverend Huang Yizi, moving to Wenzhou and serving as a consultant in many cases related to the destruction of churches and crosses.
On July 10, 2015, when Zhang was going to start a series of lectures entitled “Laws and Decrees,” he was arrested by police as part of a violent national crackdown on lawyers and interrogated all night long.
Later, in an interview with a reporter from Initium Media, Zhang said that officials had ordered him “not to hold illegal seminars in Wenzhou and to stay out of religious liberty cases in Zhejiang.”
But Zhang kept his residence at the Xialing church, meeting every day with the pastors and faithful of the whole Zhejiang province, exhausting every possible legal path to safeguard their rights.
A year ago, the Communist authorities had met with fierce resistance from the faithful of the Salvation church, who fought to prevent the removal of their cross. Many people were beaten badly during this conflict. Pastor Huang Yizi was eventually referred to as “the leader” of the resistance and sentenced to one year in prison on charges of “having convened a crowd to disrupt public order.” Zhang Kai acted as his defense counsel.
Scrupulously applying Chinese legal principles, Zhang mobilized 11 lawyers to help him, and repeatedly discovered instances where the authorities had broken the law. For example, state policy says that the suspects in criminal cases have the right to see a lawyer within 48 hours, but in the case of Huan Yizi this right was denied for more than 70 hours. Zhang demanded compensation.
Prison guards also prevented the pastor from receiving a copy of the Bible while in detention, so Zhang once again brought a case against them, the first case ever in China involving the reading of Scripture during police custody.
Zhang Peihong, a lawyer who has worked with Zhang on religious liberty cases in Zhejiang, said that Zhang has “created a new approach” in his method of dealing with religious liberty cases: “Do not leave a single legal stone unturned.” Peihong said that all Chinese citizens have the right to access official information that authorities have gathered on them, a provision meant to temper the state’s power. If the government is involved in illegal activities, it is natural to ask for an explanation and to open an administrative case, he said.
According to reports, Zhang’s aggressive legal pressure provoked anger and a sense of helplessness in the authorities, who were used to acting according to their own will without having their decisions questioned.
Zhang said that three months after he began with this strategy, the authorities of Wenzhou proposed a deal: if Pastor Huang Yizi would relinquish representation by Zhang as his lawyer, he would be released within a month. Zhang withdrew his patronage, but the authorities reneged and in March 2015 sentenced the pastor to a year in jail.
Now it is Zhang himself who has been imprisoned, under the charge of threatening state security, highlighting two elements of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to tighten control over church activities: a systematic campaign to harass and silence human rights lawyers and restrictions on the free exercise of religion.
Since July, more than 230 lawyers have been detained and questioned by the police, according to estimates by Amnesty International.
Yang Xingquan, a colleague Zhang’s from the Xinqiao Law Firm, said he had spoken to a police officer involved in the case who told him that Zhang was being held under a form of imprisonment known as “residential confinement.” This method has been traditionally employed by the Communist Party to detain dissidents in secret without trial or access to lawyers or family.
Local Christians said at least 11 pastors and church members had also been taken away by police in late August, in an effort to stifle Christian resistance to the cross removal.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome