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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):
As you’ve likely already heard, thousands of doomsday predictors have been arrested throughout China as part of the “evil cult” Eastern Lightning. Unfortunately many Chinese Christians are willing to dismiss them as a cult and agree with their treatment, but these arrests should concern everyone advocating for human rights in China and especially those concerned with religious freedom and yet there has been little discussion of this within the Western Media. Within this story are several important issues worth taking a moment to consider.
While Eastern Lightning meets many of the sociological definitions of a cult by urging members to cut off ties to their non-believing family members and friends, unquestioning faith in their charismatic leader, and exerting coercive pressure on those who try to leave (a piece focusing on the practices of this group appeared in Time magazine back in 2001); it has persisted for decades without facing mass arrests. What has changed is their growing public demonstrations, distribution of pamphlets and their calls for overthrowing the Party during a time when the Party is already nervous about their grip on power. While I may not agree with their beliefs and am concerned about abuses being committed by this group, they should still have a right to pray in public and distribute their information (and there is so far no evidence that these arrests are connected to concerns over abuses within the sect), however these basic rights are denied to all Chinese people. Their mass arrests do not seem to be based on rule of law as there has been no due process, but rather on an arbitrary label of “evil cult.” As noted Human Rights Lawyer Teng Biao tweeted, “The government has no power to determine what is a cult. The law can punish only actions, not thoughts.”
Furthermore, it should be considered in what kind of environment is the end of the world treated as good news? As the BBC reported, most of the arrests have come in Guizhou and Qinghai province, two of China’s poorest provinces. In China’s not so distant past, Falun Gong gained great popularity in the countryside as rural health care fell apart. Looking even further back, the Taiping Rebellion took route in Guangxi province and attracted people from the countryside who were looking for any other option than continuing their current lives. And while the Communist Party is not a religious movement, it was able to mobilize this same mistreated demographic. Many would argue that the key to a revolution in China is the “peasants,” and the concern from the Party is that cults grow most successfully among these marginalized groups, but their response of cracking down on believers ignores the roots – China’s rural citizens receive far less support than their urban counterparts.
So far, I have been incredibly disappointed by the media coverage on this important development, and feel that if thousands of Christians, dissidents, lawyers, or teachers had been arrested the coverage would have been vastly different. The idea that the cult members should be treated any differently from these other groups ignores many fundamental beliefs related to human rights. Within China (and every other country), it is not uncommon for major religious groups to act against “new” religious groups. In this case we see orthodox Christians acting against this heterodox sect, but in other cases we see Buddhists acting against Christian house churches in places where Christianity is growing quickly, and Atheists acting against Muslims in places where Islam and racial politics are difficult to unwind. Their complicit cooperation with the state’s desire to control religious practice is a major stumbling block for further improvement in human rights. Unfortunately, these groups are failing to see that their own ability to express their beliefs freely are wrapped up in the ability of others to practice freely.
So while it may be easy for many to dismiss the arrest of thousands of cult members, it should be difficult for us to ignore the trampling of the rule of law, the limitations on religious freedom, and the rights of individuals to gather and make themselves heard.
Picking up from where Hannah left off yesterday, I want to look at a couple ideas from Ai Weiwei’s essays that jumped out at me.
Chinese Contemporary in Dilemma and Transition
Ai’s essays provide a great reminder of why Ai was so popular in China before the West took an interest in him – he isn’t speaking to a western audience and he is directly challenging Chinese culture.
In fact much of his essay on Chinese art is in direct opposition to how the gov’t tried to paint him after his arrest; Ai is in no way infatuated with Western ideology, as he wants to see a strong and prosperous Chinese art scene, and by extension China. That Chinese artists should resist western influence, and instead look more deeply into their own history to inspire their works. These ideas that China should be treated as a wholly unique civilization, sounds in some ways similar to what one hears from Global Times when discussing issues like human rights and democracy, which made me pause for a moment to question whether the imprisoned Ai of 2012 would still agree with the Ai of 2004.
Then I began to realize that these ideas about art resonate strongly with Ai’s views on politics: that while the Party is not right for China, and that individuals must have their own voice within whatever system replaces the current one, it must still be a uniquely Chinese government. It should not blindly follow the path of the West, nor can it continue on it’s current destructive course.
As Ai warns against labeling Chinese artists as anti-establishment, it is also worth remembering that we should avoid assuming that all Chinese dissidents are pro-western, or that all of those opposed to the one-child policy are necessarily pro-life.
Uli Sigg’s art collection, which Ai admires for its breadth.
Who Are You?
In the next essay we read, “Who Are You?” Ai launches into a philosophical discussion of design and it’s need to label things. In one section he says,
“In certain social situations we may say: ‘I am you, and you and I are the same.’ In other circumstances we may say: ‘I am myself and I am different from all of you.'”
At this moment in China, the Party seems to be reasserting that all Chinese people are united as a single mass, but that this push has led to a growing call from the younger generation for individual and distinct identities. There seems to be an ebb and flow to this cycle throughout all cultures, and that in times of unity (or as Hu prefers to call it “harmony”), there is often an urge to reconsider the possibility of disunity.
Within the dissident community, I would hope to see much more recognition of the idea that their efforts are one in the same. The other day a friend sent me a link to an article decrying the problem of harvesting organs from Falun Gong practitioners, but shouldn’t we really be opposed to all forms of coerced organ harvesting? Or that Chinese Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uighur Muslims have yet to unite on issues related to the repression of their religious practices; opting instead to each go it alone (with few tangible results).
Ai also argues that, “People today expect to gain status, acceptance, or pleasure from the particular number of square meters in their homes or some set of fixed standards, a life of simply filling in the blanks.” This call for a counter-culture, in which we question whether or not the speed of development is worth the price, has begun to take shape in China over the last few years, especially after the train crash last summer.
Next week we will be reading three essays from Ai Weiwei and discussing them here on Thursday and Friday (the series will continue through August, as Ai Weiwei is a prolific essayist, and we want to make sure you get the most out of your book). They are: “A World without Honor,” “As Soon as You’re Not Careful…an Encounter with Idiocy on a Sunny Day,” and “Aftershocks.” If you are reading along, we encourage you to send your own reflections on the pieces to Hannah@SeeingRedinChina.com
By Yaxue Cao, published: June 1, 2012
When I last visited China in 2004, I did what a visiting overseas Chinese typically does: spending time with family and friends, sightseeing, and enjoying the food. In Beijing I felt like a time traveler arriving at a future time from a quiet, immobile past. I hardly recognized the city at all. When my brother drove me from Beijing to Shanxi on sparkling highways that stretched down the endless great middle plain and then through the mountains of Taihang (太行山), tunnel after tunnel, I had to remind myself that these were the same mountains I used to gaze at from the train and observe a rock or a hut basking in the lazy afternoon light. In my hometown, I had become a complete stranger too, and had to ask directions to find my high school.
The excitement about the 2008 Olympics was already in the air. A college friend in Beijing showed me the site of the future Olympic Forest Park, an expansive dirt surface out below her apartment windows. “Are you coming back for it?” She asked me. “Beijing will be so much prettier because of it.”
The 2008 Olympics was a grand showcase of China, and for the rest of the world that had had thus far not much of an idea of what China was like, the event set the tone.
Even though I had been on and off writing about China in the form of short stories, travelogues and memoirs, I sort of wrote off current China as something I don’t know and can’t write about, and limited my subject to the time I lived there.
Last fall though, soon after I started contributing to this blog, I opened a Weibo account to try to update myself (China’s Twitter-like social media while Twitter is blocked by the Great Fire Wall of China). I was dumbfounded to see one avatar after another with Chen Guangcheng’s picture. Up to that point, I had only a vague idea who Chen Guangcheng was, what had happened to him, and my most vivid impression was a photo from the New York Times of a man, against the backdrop of the countryside and a blue sky, brandishing a broom at, presumably, journalists trying to visit Chen.
On Weibo, Netizens were making rendezvous to visit Chen—not expecting to really see him but to campaign for his freedom. Those who came back recounted how they were beaten, robbed and thrown out. Well-known intellectuals, artists and journalists were on video condemning the persecution of Chen and demanding his immediate release from brutal house arrest. Chen Guangcheng-related posts covered my screen, page after page after page.
For me, this was something ten times more exciting than the opening ceremony of the Olympics. While I was nauseated by the grand, all-too-familiar sameness of the latter in the end, the online rally in support of Chen Guangcheng straightened me up with a complete otherness, something completely new!
Since then, I have learned more about this other China, and I am still learning something new every day.
Let me set my frame, say, on 2004, the year I last visited. When I was frowning at the blackened shirt at the end of the day in Beijing, wondering on my way to Shanxi what it was like behind the poplar trees lining the highways, and later recording my uneasy, 10,000-yuan banquet with a millionaire in a piece of writing entitled Hometown, I had no idea that……
In the same year, rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) represented plaintiffs in four cases: The first one had to do with forced demolition, and he lost. With the second one, also a forced demolition case, he didn’t even succeed in filing it. The third one involved the state forcefully appropriating private oil rigs in Shaanxi province using police and armed police. It ended with the lead lawyer of the legal team (not Gao) being arrested for “disrupting social order” and clients suffering crippling debt from lost property.
Later that year, he would represent a Falun Gong practitioner against forced labor. No court would take the case, and he was told “the court belongs to the Communist Party, the laws are made by the Party. No Falun Gong cases shall be filed, because the Party says so.” Helpless, he wrote to the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress appealing for judiciary independence and the rule of law.
He went on writing more letters and staging more protests. He would be kidnapped, disappeared, tortured in the most unimaginable manners and imprisoned. He is currently serving time in the remote Shaya (沙雅) prison in Xinjiang (新疆).
In 2004, Chen Guangcheng, a blind man from a village in Shandong, filed a lawsuit against the Beijing subway authority for violating regulations that allow disabled individuals free transportation. He won the case, and was cheered on by the media. He was among the first people in China who made the cross from defending consumer rights (e.g. from fake products) to defending basic human rights.
Like Gao Zhisheng, he insisted on the law being respected and observed.
But his victorious rights defending career took a turn for worse when he started helping defend villagers against brutal abortion and sterilization in the following year. He would be kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned, illegally detained in his own home until his recent, improbable escape. He has been denigrated as a “pawn for anti-China forces overseas.”
Between then and now, there have been the cases of Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇), Yang Jia (杨佳), who both killed gov’t officials; on the internet, Chinese citizens voiced their support vigorously for those who “committed crimes” to defend their dignity. There was the Wenchuan (汶川) earthquake, Tan Zuoren (谭作人) and Ai Weiwei. There was 08 Charter, and there was Shouwang (守望) Church. Last year Wukan (乌坎) captured the attention of the world.
There have been campaigns to end hukou apartheid and campaigns for safe food and campaigns for a cleaner environment. Independent candidates tried to compete to become people’s representatives despite intimidation and enormous odds. There have been more and more protests each year, tens of thousands of them, against land grabs, unfair working conditions, corruption, and all sorts of other social ills.
I was asked the other day whether there is a “movement” in China. I took the question to someone who I believe can answer better, but writing for a “foreign blog” can be a risk for this writer as it can lead to fresh accusations by the security police. Poorly equipped to answer such a question, I don’t think there is an organized movement due to severe suppression, but it seems to me and to many observers that things are moving (I have contacted an outspoken dissident, who is now working on a more detailed post on the subject). Voices from the educated class are urging for transitioning to a democratic, constitutional China; while people from the bottom of the society are increasingly demanding for “an explanation” of the injustice inflicted on them. Together they are the other China, a China that insists on fairness, reason and justice.
On May 29, Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永), founder of Open Constitution Initiative in Beijing that has been repeatedly shut down, posted a blog post titled China’s New Civil Movement. “China needs a new civil movement,” he begins. “…The aims of the new civic movement are a free China with democracy and the rule of law, a civil society of justice and happiness, and a new national spirit of freedom, fairness and love.”
Meanwhile, as June 4th (anniversary of Tian’anmen Square) approaches, the authorities are once again taking “sensitive people” out of Beijing and setting up police posts to watch more. On Twitter, over the last few days, reports of being summoned by police for “tea” keep rolling in.
The China Quarterly recently released it’s top ten most downloaded articles for free. Over the next few weeks I’ll summarize and comment on a few of these great articles (and save you 20+ pages of reading).
Belief in Control: Regulation of Religion in China By: Pittman B. Potter (link to full text)
Throughout China’s history, religion has been a source of opposition against imperial forces. Historically, religions that did not comply with current practices of the state were suppressed, which was exemplified by the Party’s efforts to destroy all types of identifiable religious practices under Mao.
In the post-Mao era the Party has maintained the view that religion is something that has the potential to undermine their authority and have sought to regulate and control religious belief and practice. At the same time the Party realizes the international value of creating the outward appearance of religious openness and tolerance.
“Document 19” which was drafted in 1982 showed that the Party’s view of the danger of religion had not changed, but that it was more convenient and more acceptable to let religion die on it’s own (as according to Marx), rather than to try and exterminate religion through force. This document helped to establish basic protections to the rights of belief for Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, and Daoists, but notably excludes folk religions. These protections only extend to “normal” religious practices though, which were never clearly defined.
These protections however are predicated on submission to State authority.
As of late 2000, the Party’s view toward the management of religion could be summarized with Jiang Zemin’s “Three sentences.” These were: 1) Enforce Party policy 2) Strengthen management of religion according to the law and 3) Actively lead the adaptation of religion and socialism. Around this time the promoted concept was to tolerate believers, but promote historical materialism and atheism among the youth.
Coincidentally, at the same time that the gov’t was cracking down on Falun Gong practitioners, many within the government were saying that it was important to limit interference with lawful practice (which Falun Gong technically was not, due to it’s origins as a folk religion outside of the legal protections), and accept religion as an integral part of society. Pan Yue, an important official from the Communist Youth League, even suggested that the Party drop its long standing objection to religious people holding Party membership (has not happened yet).
Presently, religion continues to create worrying situations for the Party in their efforts to control it. This is most visible in Tibet with Buddhism, and in Xinjiang with Islam, but can also be seen in the underground church movements in both Protestantism and Catholicism. This has lead the Party to incorporate political instruction alongside religious instruction into the curricula in theological institutions.
The author’s conclusion is that the Party’s mistrust of religion is seated in the conflict between individual’s loyalty to the Party and their devotion to a set beliefs that may be at odds with Party orthodoxy. However this insistence on controlling religion may actually further undermine their own legitmacy.
I just want to highlight two aspects of this article, one being the segregation of religion from the public sphere, and secondly, the conflict between political and religious ideology.
In China, it is rare to see signs of religion anywhere but on religious property, with the exception of the occasional Buddhist monk or nun wearing traditional robes. Churches (and other institutions) are very limited in how they are able to advertise their services and beliefs.
This exclusion of religion from the public space also means that people of faith are absent from discussions of moral issues.
Just this week I was talking with two doctors from the OB/GYN department about abortion in China. They seemed very uncomfortable with how lightly people treat the issue. They told me that it was upsetting to see parents choose to end a life over small physical imperfections. These two doctors felt strongly that there was a moral component to abortion, but it could never be addressed because of the politics related to family planning.
I am not arguing whether or not abortion should be banned, but like I’ve said before, I think there is value in having that debate.
Secondly, I think the Party may have run with the assumption that religion is counter to stability without first seeking to understand the possible benefits of religion. By disrupting the typical role of religion in local communities, they have lost the services that religious institutions commonly provide. Also one could argue that it is these policies that seek to limit the role of religion that are in many places causing instability. In the past year, 11 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest of gov’t interference with Tibetan Buddhism and the exile of the Dalai Lama.
Finally I would just like to note that it is my understanding that the Party has less interest in shaping theology, and more interest in promoting theologians that pose little risk to their policies. I’ve met some nationalistic preachers, but the majority have simply had no interest in politics. Both seem to be acceptable. In theological institutions there are patriotism courses, but if they are anything like the ones taught in universities they are largely ignored.
Note: “Patriotic Re-education” campaigns are being used in Tibetan areas, but these are not routine parts of normal religious life in China.