Gao is the thrice-nominated candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize (2007, ‘08, ‘10) whose work in the face of great personal danger has won him the sobriquet Conscience of China.Last week (April 30), after a brief release, he disappeared again; all of us in the democratic governance world should pressure the party-state to say where China’s best-known lawyer is now.
He represented the most vulnerable without fear—disabled children, dismissed workers, and death row inmates. He has also defended coal miners, house-church members, petitioners to the government, and home-demolition victims. He cares deeply for ordinary Chinese people and is indignant at the countless injustices of the legal system.
Three of his clients were Yang Maodong, Zheng Yichun, and Pastor Cai Zhuohua. Yang was detained for providing legal advice to villagers in southern China, who were attempting to unseat a village leader for corruption. Zheng, a journalist and former professor, was sentenced to seven years for his online writings. Cai was imprisoned for three years for printing copies of the Bible.
Gao was born in the hillside cave in which his family lived in northern China. His parents could not afford to send him to school, so he listened outside classroom windows to get a basic education. Starting as a migrant worker and then going underground as a coal miner at the age of 15, he later joined the People’s Liberation Army, where he met his future wife (Geng He), obtained a secondary education, and became a member of the Communist Party.
On discharge, Gao became a street vendor, but also studied to become a lawyer, and was among the one percent of the self-trained candidates who passed the bar exam in 1994. In 2001, China’s Ministry of Justice named him one of the country’s ten “honor lawyers” in a national television competition.
His representation of farmers losing their land to developers for little or no compensation and of Christians was serious enough to the party bosses. Doing the same for Falun Gong practitioners, after the regime had banned lawyers from representing them, was completely unacceptable.
Falun Gong is a spiritual discipline with qi gong exercises and meditations, which, when it first appeared in 1992, the party-state supported because practitioners improved their health. Its teachings won people of all ages and walks of life. Many party members also practiced. It grew so quickly that by 1999 the government itself estimated that there were from 70-100 million practitioners across China. The popularity and principles of the movement, including its core ones of truth, compassion and tolerance, terrified then president Jiang Zemin, so he banned it in mid-1999 and unleashed the merciless persecution which continues today.
The co-authors of Bloody Harvest , David Matas and I, concluded our independent investigation into allegations that Falun Gong practitioners were being killed for their vital organs thus:
“We have concluded that the government of China and its agencies in numerous parts of the country, in particular hospitals but also detention centers and ‘people’s courts’, since 1999 have put to death a large but unknown number of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience. Their vital organs, including kidneys, livers, corneas and hearts, were seized involuntarily for sale at high prices, sometimes to foreigners, who normally face long waits for voluntary donations of such organs in their home countries. Our conclusion comes not from any single item of evidence, but rather the piecing together of all the evidence we have considered.”
Law office closed
Beginning in 2005, Gao and his family were harassed, his law firm was shut, and his license to practice law was revoked after he wrote open letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. They called for an end to government persecution of Falun Gong, detailing a wide range of abuses adherents suffer in custody, including torture, sexual torture, beatings, and executions.
In a characteristic response, Gao made a public statement in which he resigned from the Communist Party in December 2005 and later publicly declared he was a Christian.
Gao, Geng He, and their two children were put under 24-hour police surveillance in the autumn of 2005 and were thereafter constantly followed and intimidated. Even his then 13-year-old daughter was beaten by police. Amnesty International reported in mid-January 2006 that Gao narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, planned as a traffic accident, that was probably ordered by Chinese secret police.
On Feb. 4, 2006, Gao, together with Hu Jia and other activists, launched a “Relay Hunger Strike for Human Rights,” in which activists and citizens fasted for 24 hours in rotation. The hunger strike was joined by persons in 29 provinces in China. Participants across China were arrested for these actions.
Abduction by officials
On Aug. 15, 2006, after numerous death threats and continued harassment, Gao was abducted by the Chinese secret police. On December 22, 2006, he was convicted of “subversion,” and sentenced to three years in prison. The sentence was suspended, and he was placed on probation for five years. Though the jail sentence was suspended, he was put under house arrest and closely monitored.
In Sept. 2007, Gao was abducted again and tortured after writing an open letter to the U.S. Congress to express his concerns about worsening human rights in China preceding the 2008 Olympics. He returned home in November 2007 and later issued a statement revealing his torture in custody. He detailed violent beatings, repeated electric shocks to his genitals and lit cigarettes placed close to his eyes. The pain and humiliation were so intense that he considered suicide. He added that his captors had threatened to kill him if he spoke publicly about the matter.
Gao Zhisheng’s open letters:
Gao’s advocacy on behalf of the Falun Gong community illustrates his willingness to come to the aid of any person or group treated unfairly without fear or favor. Undeterred by state propaganda and continuing vilification of Falun Gong, Gao insisted on their right to practice heir beliefs, to be free from torture and to be treated equally before the law.