Lost in a Jungle of Injustice
An account of Gao Zhisheng’s decade-long government persecution.
Among the many prominent prisoners of conscience in China, dissident lawyer Gao Zhisheng is no doubt the most mysterious and fascinating. He is mysterious because for a long time his whereabouts were a state secret. He is fascinating because no ordinary human being could survive under the circumstances he has lived in. After a decade of repeated disappearances, torture, kidnappings, arrests, and imprisonment, Gao was officially released from prison on August 7, 2014. As his wife and children fled to the United States five years ago, only his brother and father-in-law remained to welcome him home in Urumqi.
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison til 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners, and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
Gao Zhisheng’s story will not end with his release. His ordeal is the consequence of a ten-year career as a defense lawyer for peasant entrepreneurs and persecuted religious believers. Gao’s life over the past twenty years represents China’s confusing political and social status quo in miniature. What has happened to the courageous self-made lawyer sounds like a thriller full of bitterness and inhumanity.
The 50 year old Gao was born in a cave near a remote village in Shaanxi province. He worked as a coal miner and cement worker to support his widowed mother and siblings. In order to make a better living he joined the army, where he served for six years and met his wife. Through self-education, he passed all the state examinations and became a lawyer in 1995. Five years later, Gao decided to devote one-third of his time and energy to people who could not afford an attorney’s fee. In 2001 the Ministry of Justice named Gao one of the ten “most outstanding lawyers” in China. Yet Gao did not want to become a regime collaborator or the ruling party’s pet. Through his law practice he realized that the Chinese Communist Party is the root of all evils, hindering the rule of law and generating social imbalance and injustice, and that corruption is imminent in the authoritarian system.
Like Hercules attacking the Hydra, Gao Zhisheng challenged the state power, fighting against the barbaric judiciary. In 2003, he took on a lawsuit in northern Shaanxi Province. Private enterprises were suing the local government for nationalizing oil fields owned by private investors. Over 1,000 companies, 60,000 investors and a huge amount of money were involved in the case. In 2004, Gao helped Falun Gong practitioner Huang Wei sue the government for conducting torture. Gao showed his courage and integrity as lawyer. Not many people in China want to have anything to do with Falun Gong, a hot button issue. In the following years, Gao became involved in other large lawsuits between the private economy and the state. These included the Tongchuan coal mine accident in Shaanxi Province and cases of police brutality in Shanwei and Taishicun. Gao also helped Guo Feixiong, Yang Zili, and other individual dissidents in their fight for personal freedom.
Gao Zhisheng’s Robin Hood deeds deeply annoyed the authorities. In their eyes, the following personal and professional behaviors particularly touched a nerve:
-Gao and his wife resigned their CCP membership in 2005.
-In support of the Falun Gong movement, Gao wrote three petition letters to the government, demanding respect for the Falun Gong practitioners’ human rights.
-After becoming involved to the underground church and converting to Christianity, he appealed for religious freedom in China.
-As a lawyer, Gao always stood on the side of private enterprises against the state monopoly. He always worked in the interest of the common people to resist the abuse of the police and judiciary.
-Gao had contacts in the Western media and gave interviews to foreign correspondents.
Because Gao was a threat, the government kidnapped him from his house with a black sack over his head and beat him up. They tortured him with an electric baton. The government threatened his family and the surveillance vehicles tailing him nearly ran him over in the street. Years ago, his daughter tried to commit suicide because could not endure the pressure. In 2006, Gao was sentenced to three years imprisonment and five years of probation for “inciting subversion”. Yet even after he finished the prison term, he was not free. He survived kidnapping and attempted murder, but could not escape state-sponsored violence. In 2010 he vanished into thin air. No one knew what happened or his whereabouts. Rumors spread. In 2011 the state media announced that Gao had received another three-year sentence, and in 2012 it was revealed that he was in a prison in the Xinjaing region. He had spent another three years in jail for violating probation.
Although the world media reported Gao’s release from jail, nobody is optimistic that he will enjoy his freedom. He could vanish again, with no hints or clues to his whereabouts. At the moment his body is free, but his mouth is sealed. He will not talk for another year. We do not know about the condition of Gao’s spirit. Could all the hardship break his will? But an important question should be asked: what does China’s brutal treatment of its own citizen indicate about its ability to work peacefully with other countries?