Chinese state television has aired a confession from a Christian lawyer who had challenged the forced removal of church crosses, renewing fears that authorities are escalating a clampdown on Christianity.
Zhang Kai had played a central role in defending Chinese religious groups against state repression. Since 2013, authorities have knocked down more than 1,800 crosses in southern China.
Churches have been demolished and people jailed. On Friday, a court sentenced one pastor to 14 years in prison, and his wife to 12 years, on charges of corruption and disturbing social order.
Mr. Zhang was taken away by police on Aug. 25, and hadn't been seen until Thursday night, when he delivered a confession on state TV in the southern Chinese city of Wenzhou.
Critics said the confession appeared forced, although one pastor accused Mr. Zhang of stirring up trouble by inciting parishioners to protest illegally.
The 37-year-old Beijing man had helped organize several dozen lawyers to defend some 100 churches. Local authorities accused him of masterminding illegal religious gatherings.
In his confession, he said he had broken Chinese law, disrupted social order and endangered state security, adding that "foreign forces" had contributed to his work as part of an effort to "smear" China.
Mr. Zhang said he knew some of the demolished churches were illegal structures, but had instead told churches that they were being oppressed.
"These acts violated the law of China and went against the code of lawyers," he said, adding that he had sought fame and money.
The broadcast showed Mr. Zhang sitting alone on a chair wearing a black sweater – a posture that has become familiar in China, where authorities have used a new campaign of televised confessions to strike fear in groups that might stand against the government.
"I don't believe what he confessed on TV. Look at how much weight he lost – I think he's down by a third," said a shocked Li Guisheng, a lawyer who has represented Mr. Zhang, but was denied any access to him for six months. Instead, his client was put in front of the cameras.
"It's making the media the judge. How is that different from the way things were done in the Cultural Revolution?"
Besides, "it's legal for him to charge his clients."
William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, pointed to the irony of Mr. Zhang's supposed efforts to enrich himself.
"If there weren't such egregious violations of freedom of religion across the country, he wouldn't have the possibility of defending over 100 churches," Mr. Nee said. "This is a degree of double-think that's going on right now."
Mr. Zhang occupied a dangerous intersection – a human rights lawyer who represented churches. Since last summer, China has rounded up roughly 250 lawyers and assistants, and formally arrested at least 18.
At the same time, authorities have hauled off growing numbers of local Christian leaders. China Aid, a U.S.-based group that has monitored the continuing church crackdown, has documented the detention of eight church leaders in Zhejiang province since January.
Four weeks ago, authorities detained Gu Yuese, a pastor at the largest Protestant church in China, who had publicly criticized the cross removals. Efforts to rein in churches have more recently extended to other provinces, too. One church was demolished in Fujian; leaders have been arrested and parishioners harassed at another large assembly in Guizhou.
Congregations in Xinjiang, Anhui and Guangdong have all felt pressure, said China Aid president Bob Fu.
"This is the year of scaring monkeys," he said, in a play on the Chinese phrase "kill the chicken to scare the monkey."
With the year of the monkey just begun, in the months ahead, "conditions will further deteriorate. That is very clear," Mr. Fu said. He characterized Reverend Gu's arrest as a "demand for absolute loyalty and submission to the Communist Party's leadership."
In airing Mr. Zhang's confession, Chinese authorities also named China Aid as the "overseas force supporting Zhang Kai's legal defence work." In a statement, Mr. Fu said he would "never be intimidated or cease to continue to promote religious freedom for all in China."
The recent pressure on churches could be a prelude to a much larger clampdown, observers warn. Yang Fenggang, founding director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, said the Zhejiang cross removals look like a bid by local Communist Party Secretary Xiao Baolong for a promotion. "The leaders of other provinces, I think, are mostly in wait-and-see mode, to see what will actually happen after this. And if Mr. Xia gets promoted, as the rumour has been going around, then this could become national policy," he said.
One church leader, however, placed blame on Mr. Zhang rather than government.
Ms. Su, a pastor at Chengxi Church in Wenzhou who declined to provide her first name, said the lawyer had created trouble.
"We hired him to help communicate with the government. But instead he made our relations with government more severe, and also got our brothers and sisters detained!" Ms. Su said in an interview.
Churches paid him millions of yuan, she said, echoing government figures, but were "cheated." Rather than trying to smooth things over with authorities, Mr. Zhang "sent out uniforms to our brothers and sisters for street demonstrations, which interrupted the public order."
With reporting by Yu Mei