On the Eve of Gao Zhisheng’s Release

By Yaxue Cao, published: August 4, 2014


Entering late fall of 2011, the name of Gao Zhisheng appeared more and more frequently on my Twitter timeline. Entering December, the wait for Gao Zhisheng had become anxious. Among the daily news about arrests, torture, labor camps, and political prisoners, the fate of Gao Zhisheng was the most heart wrenching. Five years ago on December 21, 2006, Beijing First Intermediary People’s Court convicted Gao Zhisheng of “inciting to subvert state power” and sentenced him to three years in prison with a five-year probation and deprivation of political rights for one year. But for much of the five years, Gao Zhisheng had been “missing” and subjected to horrendous torture as we learned from his account. On December 20 of that year, he would have served the probation and was due to be free. People hoped to see him emerging before the world, alive and free at last.

Lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟)

Lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟). Click to enlarge.

At the time no one knew his whereabouts and whether he was alive or dead. Rumor had it that he had died, other rumors said that he was still alive and had been spotted in Inner Mongolia. The last time his relatives heard anything at all about him from the Chinese authorities was in early 2010 when his older brother, a farmer from the impoverished countryside of Shaanxi, made a trip to Beijing to inquiry about him. That Gao Zhisheng had “gone missing” while out on a walk last September was what the Beijing police told him. Gao Zhisheng’s wife and two children had already fled to the U. S. in 2009.  The last time he appeared was in April, 2010, when he gave an interview to the Associated Press, and the interview was published shortly before Hu Jintao’s American visit on January, 2011.

Those who had read Dark Night, Dark Hood, and Kidnapping by the Dark Mafia were probably anguished at  the likelihood of Gao being dead. I knew I was. “Around 8 p.m. on September 21, 2007 the authorities notified me orally that I should go for a mind re-education (reform) talk,” Gao Zhisheng’s account of more than 50 days of torture in 2007, began. “when I turned a corner, about six or seven strangers started walking towards me. I suddenly felt a strong blow to the back of my neck and fell face down on the ground. Someone yanked my hair and a black hood was pulled over my head immediately. I was brought to a vehicle and was put in it. Although I couldn’t see, it seemed to me that it had two benches with a space in the middle. I was put in the space in the middle on the floor. My right cheek was on the ground. All of a sudden a boot was put on my face holding me down.”

The text that followed is difficult to read — it crushes our minimal confidence in human beings.

“Wang yelled again, and someone kicked me in the back of my legs, and I collapsed to the floor. The big guy continued to pull my hair and forced me to lift my head to see Wang. At this time, I could see that there were five people in the room. Four of the men were holding electric prods, and one was holding my belt.”

“Wang then said, ‘Come on guys, deliver the second course!’ Then, the electric shock baton was put all over me. And my full body, my heart, lungs and muscles began jumping under my skin uncontrollably. I was writhing on the ground in pain, trying to crawl away. Wang then shocked me in my genitals. My begging them to stop only resulted in laughing and more unbelievable torture.”

“The two left in the room, put a chair in the middle of the room and pulled me up and setme in the chair. One of them had five cigarette butts in his mouth. One man stood behind me and the man with the cigarettes was in front. The man behind grabbed my hair and pulled my head forward and down. The other man used the cigarettes to fill my nose and eyes with smoke over and over. …… After a while I didn’t have any feeling except for some tears dropping on my legs.”

“‘You wrote that letter to American congressmen. Look at you, you traitor. What could you be given by your American lord? The American Congress counts for nothing. This is China. It is the Communist Party’s territory. To capture your life is as easy as stepping on an ant. If you dare to continue to write your stupid articles, the government has to make its attitude clear. Now, did you see that attitude tonight?’ Jiang spoke slowly.”

“‘You are correct, we torture Falun Gong. Everything is right. The 12 courses we’re going to give to you were practiced on the Falun Gong, to tell you the truth. I am not afraid of you if you continue to write. We can torture you to death without your body being found. ……You stinking man from the province, what makes you think you can make a scene in Beijing?” [translation modified for precision]

“I was lying down on the cold floor naked. I felt several times someone come and open my eyes and shine a flashlight in them to see if I was still alive. When I would come to, I smelled the strong odor of rank urine. My face, nose, and hair were filled with the smell. Obviously, but I don’t know when, someone urinated on my face and my head.”

“Three batons began shocking me. I was crawling all over trying to get away still naked. After more than 10 minutes, I was shaking uncontrollably again. I begged them. ‘I didn’t have an affair. It’s not that I don’t want to tell you.’ I heard my voice was quivering. “Are you becoming a fool? Let’s use the baton to light you and see if you start talking.” (Gao’s torturers demanded him to tell them about lascivious encounters with women) Then two people stretched out my arms and pinned them to the ground. They used toothpicks to pierce my genitals. I can’t use any language to describe the helplessness, pain, and despair that I felt then.”

“After the 12th and 13th day of my kidnapping, and when I could again partially open my eyes, I saw my body was in a horrifying condition. Not a single square centimeter of my kin was normal. It was bruised and damaged over every part.”

“From then on the physical torture stopped, but emotional torture continued. I was told the 17th Communist Party Congress was starting and that I had to wait for the higher authorities’ opinions about my case. During that time some officials came to visit my cell. Their attitude was softer, and I was also allowed to wash my face and brush my teeth. Some officials proposed to me to use my writing skills to condemn the Falun Gong instead, and that I could charge whatever I wanted for doing that. I said it is not a technical problem but an ethical problem. ‘So,’ they proposed, ‘if that is too hard, then write articles praising the government, and again charge whatever you want.’ ”

“Whenever I was at the point of starving, they would bring up “mantou” (steamed bread) and offer it to me. If I would sing one of the three famous revolutionary Communist party songs I could have some bread. My deepest desire was that I wanted to live until that was no longer possible. My death would be torturous for my wife and children.”

This wasn’t all. “During these more than 50 days, more horrible evils were committed than I told here,” and as brave as Gao Zhisheng is, he couldn’t bring himself to describe them. But careful readers would get the hints.

In the end, they forced Gao Zhisheng to state and sign that “the government didn’t kidnap and torture me and that they treated my family well.”

I quoted this difficult text paragraph after paragraph precisely because it is difficult. Because it is difficult, I feel we need to read it and read it again, and again. We need to plant Gao Zhisheng’s suffering and the acts of his torturers into the deepest recess of our memories.

For any China watcher, wherever your interest falls, I believe you need to possess this memory, because you and me, we are humans before we are anything else.

In December 2011, those around the world who were concerned about lawyer Gao Zhisheng did not receive the good news they had been hoping for. On December 16, five days before Gao Zhisheng’s probation expired and he was due to be free, the Chinese state media Xinhua News Agency issued the news, curiously in English only, that Gao Zhisheng’s probation was withdrawn and he had been “put back in prison” for “repeatedly violating the probation rules.”

I still remember that day distinctly. My heart wrenched and knotted in anger and pain. At the time I was just beginning to get a picture of persecution of dissent in the post-1989 years and since my leaving the country in 1991. The experiences of Gao Zhisheng, Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xianbin, Guo Feixiong, Ai Weiwei, and many victims of the non-existent Jasmine Revolution only confirmed my understanding of the Communist regime in China. It is a knowledge that grows in my body. I know their logic, their viciousness, their mentality and their impulses, as precisely as I know when I want to eat and when I want to sleep.

The decision the Chinese government made five days before Gao Zhisheng’s probation was due to expire was merely another self-affirmation of its baseness and injustice. I was so angry, I felt I could kill someone. Of course I wouldn’t, but the world has been witnessing eruptions of violence in China in search of justice, and it is only going to worsen.

Today we are again waiting anxiously for the return of Gao Zhisheng. Gao Zhisheng spent the last two years and eight months in Shaya (Xayar) Prison in the heart of  Taklamakan Desert. His relatives visited three times. The first time, in January 2012, they were rejected by the prison because Gao Zhisheng “had not completed his three-month education period.” Second time, in March 24, 2012, Gao Zhisheng’s older brother Gao Zhiyi and his father-in-law was permitted to meet him for half an hour with a glass partition, on the condition that they did not provide any information to the media and during the meeting they might talk about nothing but family affairs. In August 2012, two Beijing-based lawyers, Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵) and Li Subing (李苏滨) travelled a long way to Shaya but were denied meeting with Gao.

In January 2013, the family met Gao Zhisheng the second time, and has not been allowed to meet him again since. Please note the date: it was shortly after Xi Jinping took power.  In late 2012, shortly before the CCP’s 18th Congress that would crown Xi Jinping, Gao Zhisheng’s older brother received a letter supposedly from Gao Zhisheng with, supposedly, Gao’s fingerprint, saying that he did not want relatives to visit him again.

No one believed that the long-suffering and prison-bound Gao Zhisheng did not want to see his family, but it’s clear to everyone that the Communist Party in China, no matter who was at its helm, did not want to the world to hear and talk about Gao Zhisheng.

Gao Zhisheng is due to be free in less than three days. When his older brother called the prison days ago, he was told not to come to Shaya to receive Gao and the prison needed to hear instructions from Beijing. On August 1st, having heard no word from the prison, Gao Zhiyi once again set out for Shaya. He traveled from his hometown in Jia county, directly north of Xi Jinping’s ancestral home in Fuping in Shaanxi, to Yulin city, then to the provincial capital Xi’an. In Xi’an, he rode a train to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, there he transferred to a long-distance bus that would travel more than 800 kilometers to Shaya in the Aksu Prefecture mid-western Xinjiang. The total journey, some 3,400 kilometers or about 2,100 miles, takes three days and three nights. The Chinese government does not think it owes the family a notice. We don’t know whether Gao Zhiyi will be able to pick up Gao Zhisheng. We don’t know what news August 7th will bring us. Suppose Gao Zhisheng is freed without incident, we don’t know what awaits him.

In the face of evil perpetrated by the CCP, once again, we seem to be helpless besides being angry and anxious.

The persecution of Gao Zhisheng was a “major case” during Zhou Yongkang’s reign as the secretary of the CCP’s Law and Politics Committee. As it happens, the world is in the midst of cheering the downfall of Zhou Yongkang. Too many are too ready to put the halo of “reform” around Zhou’s fall. Media , TV and Internet, Chinese and English, is taking stock, with gusto, how big a fortune the Zhou clan has amassed, how many women he has bedded, and how intricate his web of connections are. Only a few are pointing out Zhou’s crimes against humanity, having thoughts of those whose lives have been destroyed, and asking what system would allow corruption and crimes to grow to be so monstrous and what a price the Chinese people are paying for them.

Too many seem to have determined not to see the obvious: What Xi Jinping removed is Zhou Yongkang, not the soil that breeds vices. Zhou Yongkang might be gone, but Zhou Yongkang’s practices remain intact and continue, because they are the party’s chosen practices to begin with. Xi Jinping, since his ascent to the party’s and country’s leadership, has crushed dissent, protest and expression harder than his predecessors. In this, Xi Jinping and Zhou Yongkang are brothers from the same parentage.

To the party, Gao Zhisheng is an inconvenience that needs to be covered up or eliminated, because he was the man who stood up and said no, and because he went down to the pit of darkness and witnessed the evil.

In anguish, we await the return of Gao Zhisheng. When in peace, I am an agnostic, but when thinking of Gao Zhisheng, I pray to a god I don’t know: Please bring back Gao Zhisheng, deliver him to us, and deliver him to the arms of his loved ones.




Dark Night, Dark Hood, and Kidnapping by the Dark Mafia, by Gao Zhisheng

Gao Zhisheng,  That “Radical” Lawyer, by  Chang Ping

For a biography of Gao Zhisheng, read New York Times’ profile in 2005.

7 responses to “On the Eve of Gao Zhisheng’s Release”

  1. avromil@aol.com says:

    Did you see the film by Wenjing Ma?

    Arthur Miller Teacher and China watcher`

    • Yaxue Cao says:

      I did, two years ago, when it was a documentary available on 新唐人电视台 website. But they have since removed it from the site.

  2. Great text. I translated a poem about Zhou Yongkang a few days ago. At first I thought it was about Mao, that’s what makes the poem remakable. Gao Zhisheng’s case has had far too little attention over the years. Ilham Tohti’s arrest and indictment is beginning to sound like what happened to Gao.

  3. […] more at Human Rights Watch. Yaxue Cao posted a reflection on Gao’s case at China Change, including lengthy excerpts from Gao’s own account of his “more than 50 days of torture […]

  4. […] On the Eve of Gao Zhisheng’s Release, by Yaxue Cao […]

  5. […] On the Eve of Gao Zhisheng’s Release, by Yaxue Cao […]

  6. […] On the Eve of Gao Zhisheng’s Release, by Yaxue Cao […]

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