By Yaxue Cao, published: August 15, 2014
Few Americans know Gao Zhisheng. He was a Chinese lawyer who ran a successful practice, until his insistence on the law being respected pitted him against reality in China where rule of law is no more than a stage prop, and the legal system itself, doing the bidding of the Communist Party, tramples the law underfoot.
Gao represented business owners whose properties were forcibly expropriated by the state, farmers whose land was taken and homes demolished illegally, victimized workers, and house church Christians. Victims of injustice from all over China thronged to his office in Beijing. When he couldn’t win cases for his downtrodden clients in a system where power overrides the law, he fed and clothed them. He was among China’s first human rights lawyers, ushering in the rights defense movement in the early 2000s.
When representing Falun Gong practitioners, the scale and cruelty of abuse shook him to the core. Late in 2005, he wrote three open letters to then Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, based on “faith in the basic humanity of the two senior men,” demanding a stop to “crimes against civilized society” that he detailed.
On the heels of the first letter plainclothes police in unmarked cars appeared outside his apartment, watching his every movement, 24/7. He and his family were harassed and threatened. In September 2006, he wrote a letter to the U. S. Congress detailing China’s human rights conditions, and voicing his objection to China hosting the Olympics. Shortly afterward he was kidnapped and put through torture that included electric shocks, being urinated on, and having his genitals pierced with toothpicks. His account of this torment, titled Dark Night, Dark Hood, and Kidnapping by the Dark Mafia, tests our confidence in humanity.
In December 2006, Gao Zhisheng was sentenced to three years in prison with five years of probation and one year of deprivation of political rights, for “inciting to subvert state power.” On December 16, 2011, five days before his probation was due to expire, Chinese authorities put him in prison for “repeatedly violating the probation rules.” This is despite the fact that, for much of the five years, he was “missing”—or as everyone understood, in the extralegal custody of Chinese security forces.
Gao Zhisheng was released on the 7th of this month to the company of his relatives, along with government minders. After eight years of torture, disappearances and prison, at age 50, he is in poor health, and has trouble eating solid food and communicating. New details issued by his wife paint a grim picture: in prison, he was placed in solitary confinement and fed little. Now out of prison, he is still under heavy guard and has not been allowed medical care. According to Chinese law, he is a free citizen and should enjoy the right to speak to whom he wants and to go where he wants, despite the continued one year deprivation of “political rights.”
We don’t know when or whether Gao Zhisheng will be truly free, but we have every reason to fear the worst.
Gao’s was a “top case” during Zhou Yongkang’s tenure as chief of the party’s Politics and Law Commission. Now that Zhou has been taken down on corruption charges, the world is waiting to see whether Xi Jinping will deal with Gao Zhisheng any differently.
Gao placed great confidence in the U. S. as the shining beacon of freedom. He read Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 when surrounded by Chinese secret police and quoted F. D. R. in his letter to Congress.
Since his release the State Department has urged China to allow Gao to, if he so chooses, come to the United States to be reunited with his wife and two children, who fled China in 2009. Congressman Chris Smith has made a similar public call. However, in the coming days and months, more concrete steps must be taken to secure freedom for Gao Zhisheng, one of China’s most courageous sons. President Obama should raise the issue directly with Xi Jinping at the APEC meeting in Beijing in November.
It is not just about saving one man; it is about preserving an ideal, a trust, and a future.
Yaxue Cao is the founder and editor of ChinaChange.org.
Chronology of Gao Zhisheng by Human Rights Watch, updated on July 31, 2014
Dark Night, Dark Hood, and Kidnapping by the Dark Mafia, Gao Zhisheng’s account of his torment in 2007.
Gao Zhisheng, Missing Chinese Lawyer, Described Torture Before Disappearing, AP, January 2011.
Legal Gadfly Bites Hard, and Beijing Slaps Him, by Joseph Kahn, New York Times’ profile in 2005.
On the Eve of Gao Zhisheng’s Release, by Yaxue Cao
U. S. State Department urges China to allow Gao Zhisheng to reunite with family if he so wishes, August 7, 2014
Congressman Chris Smith: Chinese Human Rights Defender Gao Should be Free to Leave China
Three ways to watch Transcending Fear, an extraordinary documentary about Gao Zhisheng (in English and Chinese):