Save Gao Zhisheng

By Yaxue Cao, published: August 15, 2014

Gao Zhisheng during his brief reappearance in April 2010.

Gao Zhisheng during his brief reappearance in April 2010.

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.

Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) in his law office in Beijing prior to 2006.

Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) in his law office in Beijing prior to 2006.

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



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

A sampling of media reports since August 7, 2014: The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, AP, AFP, Telegraph.


Three ways to watch Transcending Fear, an extraordinary documentary about Gao Zhisheng (in English and Chinese): 

12 responses to “Save Gao Zhisheng”

  1. fdawei says:

    I tried to post a comment but it was refused. Please explain. Thank you.

    • Yaxue Cao says:

      We have to screen comments to eliminate spamming. Don’t worry if your comments don’t display immediately. Thank you for your patience.

  2. Ezra says:

    Enough is enough. This extraordinary man, this super-human advocate, needs a sanctuary. This will only come about if the Chinese rulers can be prevailed upon. It must be possible. But how? It will be all the more difficult if they cannot save face. And it is hard to imagine that they can.

  3. […] rights groups such as are urging Obama to press Jinping directly on Gao’s situation at an economic meeting in November in […]

  4. […] China, it is extremely dangerous to defend Falun Gong practitioners. Gao Zhisheng, who was the first lawyer to investigate the persecution of Falun Gong, was punished with nine long […]

  5. […] Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) was detained in August 2006, Guo Feixiong issued a plea to the world: “I call on […]

  6. […] Save Gao Zhisheng, by Yaxue Cao, August 2015. […]

  7. […] Save Gao Zhisheng, by Yaxue Cao, August 15, 2014. […]

  8. […] Save Gao Zhisheng, by Yaxue Cao, August 15, 2014. […]

  9. […] Gao has been incommunicado for almost all of the last decade. The last news concerning his status was in 2017, when he reportedly attempted to escape house arrest in his native province of Shaanxi.  […]

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