Gao Zhisheng sits alone in what was once his law firm's Beijing office. His phone has been cut off. His Internet shut down. He has been surrounded by secret police for over 100 days and his family is under 24-hours surveillance. He is on hunger strike and he is optimistic.
Meanwhile, Zeng Jinyan feels paralyzed on her couch at home. Her husband, Hu Jia, a prominent activist for the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, was kidnapped three weeks ago and has not been heard from since.
“I have made a decision,” Zeng writes in her weblog. “From now on, besides water, I won't eat or drink anything. I will fast until the moment Hu Jia comes back.”
In a time zone exactly half a calendar day away, Wei Jingsheng has long since regained his freedom. One of the world's most prominent Chinese rights fighters had spent 15 years in detention for his pro-democracy lobby. Though in Washington, DC, he too is on hunger strike, his thoughts with the likes of Gao, Zeng, and Hu.
Early Monday morning, the “Global Relay Hunger Strike for Human Rights in China” broke new ground as thousands of participants across four continents joined Mainlanders from 18 Chinese provinces for a day of fasting.
The relay hunger strike started by Gao and his close supporters on February 4 has since snowballed into something much bigger. Chinese lawyers, journalists, persecuted Catholics, Falun Gong practitioners, political dissidents and others are now boldly pushing forth their human rights causes, this time united.
From Humble Beginnings to One of China's Top 10 Lawyers
Gao's story is a classic. Born in a Shaanxi Province cave, his family could not afford to send him to school, so he listened outside the classroom window. After junior high school he joined the army and entered the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), eventually becoming a lawyer and establishing the Shengzhi Law Office in Beijing.
Since then, Gao has taken on the full range of difficult cases: he has represented coal miners, who work under hazardous conditions that lead to as many as 20,000 deaths per year; he has represented a client whose home was confiscated in preparation for the 2008 Olympics; he has worked for Taishi villagers who came under suppression after they sought to legally impeach a corrupt official; he has investigated the persecution of House Christians; and he has sought to represent Falun Gong practitioners who have been tortured.
Gao became a star lawyer, winning what were thought to be impossible cases and being honored by the government as one of China's top ten lawyers in 2001. But through his legal work Gao became increasingly familiar with the hardships facing different sectors of Chinese society. Last fall, he began addressing open letters to CCP leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.
The letters were written with a tone of respect, hoping that, once they found out about the atrocities taking place across the country, the leaders would want to correct them.
“Based on the belief in universal values and respect for the rule of law,” he wrote last October, “I solemnly urge you to immediately stop persecuting the believers of freedom, to improve the relationship with Chinese citizens and to implement the policies of 'rule of law'.”
“If you put this into practice, you will receive boundless support from Chinese citizens and people around the world.”
Lawyer Nourished by Faith and Supporters
Extremely troubling to Gao was the subject of his third open letter: the six-year persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China. The campaign, started by former CCP leader Jiang Zemin in 1999, has taken the lives of at least 2,838 adherents, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center.
“This continuous, systematic, large-scale and organized persecution against Chinese people practicing Falun Gong” is a “barbaric atrocity,” Gao wrote in the same letter. Another letter in December documented accounts of gut-wrenching torture of Falun Gong practitioners in secret mountain chambers in northeastern China.
But Gao's letters were met with silence and then oppression. First his firm was shut down. Gao kept writing. Then his legal license was revoked. Gao kept writing and joined the millions of Chinese who have quit the CCP and its affiliate organizations over the last year. His family was then placed under 24-hour surveillance and his daughter followed to school. He kept writing.
On January 12 he was detained and released on the same day. Five days later Gao narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when a car stopped in front of him and then tried to run him over. His entire office staff has been arrested.
But Gao keeps writing online and has started a yearlong relay hunger strike project that has seen the Chinese human rights and dissident community both inside and outside China rally behind it.
A Christian, Gao says that faith, memories of his late mother, and the encouragement he has received keep him going. Phone calls, text messages, and letters of support have been pouring into his office from nearly every Chinese province.
Gao recalls how a government official from Hubei Province called to express his support. “My friends and I have been following your articles and applauding your actions,” Gao recalls the official saying. A teacher from a Beijing police institute called him in tears, saying she was concerned about his safety and offering to stand up for him and even help him financially if need be.
Now, as supporters visit Gao they need to overcome dozens of plain-clothed police officers. They are greeted with shouts of: “Gao Zhisheng is a bad guy and he deserves to die of hunger!”
Hunger has also been on the mind of Ms. Zeng, who posts her anxiety about her missing husband on her Internet blog.
Hu Jia had joined the hunger strike on February 6. “This has been an extremely upsetting Spring Festival,” Hu wrote that day. “First, I was put under house arrest for 14 days. Then I had to say farewell to Attorney Gao, who has been closely monitored for 3 months; then Freezing Point weekly magazine was banned…volunteer AIDS workers had to give up their work because of attacks from the regime's thugs; Attorney Guo Feixiong suffered torture…”
On February 16 Hu was kidnapped along with fellow hunger striker Qi Zhiyong, who lost his leg in the regime's 1989 massacre of students and other protesters in Beijing. While Qi's family has received notification that he is being held by the CCP, Hu's family has not received such a message.
Now missing for over two weeks, Zeng and others fear the worst. “Everyone says he will come back safe,” she writes in her blog. “Does 'safe' mean 'alive'? Or does it mean no harm will come to his spirit and his body?”
Hu and Qi are not the only ones who have been arrested, disappeared, or put under house arrest in what appears to be the CCP's crackdown on the hunger strikers. A February 22 Amnesty International press release highlights the two cases and six others.
“Many of these activists are defending human rights,” said Mark Allison, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International. “These detentions and other abuses seriously undermine claims by the authorities to 'respect and protect human rights,' a new provision introduced into the Chinese Constitution in March 2004.”
Prominent Overseas Dissidents Get Onboard
Wei Jingsheng knows the price that human rights defenders in China often pay. Wei has been calling for democracy in China since the 1970s and has spent 18 years in jail as a result. Shortly after Wei arrived in the United States in November 1997, however, he was criticized by fellow Chinese dissident Xu Wenli. But in a March 6, 2006 letter co-signed by prominent international hunger strikers, the two were listed back to back as being among those who joined thousands of others for a 24-hour hunger strike.
“In terms of major objectives people are definitely more solidified,” Wei said in a phone interview. While various Chinese dissidents have had disagreements in the past about how to go about reaching their shared goals, the relay hunger strike is providing a method that they can all agree upon, he said.
“Our hunger striking right now is to show our support in our attitudes towards those advocates in China who are fighting for democracy and human rights under difficult conditions,” Wei said.
The letter Wei co-signed calls for the release from detention of attorneys, political dissidents, and those arrested for their beliefs. It also calls for the release of several journalists, including Shi Tao—who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison based on information Yahoo! provided to the CCP, and Zhao Yan—the detained New York Times researcher.
“At present, the human rights situation in China has rapidly worsened and the political climate is steadily moving towards one filled with the criminal underworld society and terrorism,” their letter reads. “It has already reached an unbearable point.”
The list of participants in this leg of the hunger strike includes figures such as Wang Dan—who became famous as a leader during the 1989 student movement, Hong Kong legislator Albert Ho Chun-yan, Chen Yonglin—the former Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia, and Hao Fengjun—the former secret 6-10 Office policeman who defected there last June as well.
Chinese dissent took a heavy blow following the 1989 massacre with many of the student movement leaders jailed or exiled. Democracy activists in China did try to form an independent democratic party in 1998 but were immediately suppressed.
Then in July 1999 Falun Gong, a spiritual group that did not have political aims, found itself in a position of resisting persecution. Overnight, tens of millions of Chinese had to choose between giving up their belief system and becoming the new “dissidents.” While some did give up their practice, Falun Gong's response was unequivocal: practitioners appeared by the thousands on Tiananmen Square practicing meditation exercises in clear, though non-violent, defiance of the ban.
While the forms Falun Gong has used to resist persecution have changed over the last six and a half years—practitioners no longer protest on Tiananmen Square, preferring to distribute leaflets and hold more grassroots activities instead—the group's principled resistance has inspired many, including Gao, to stand up.
“Conversing with those persecuted Falun Gong believers has made me firm,” Gao says, adding that he has been really impressed by “their tenacity and resilience in protecting their own rights.”
“They are protesting for a beautiful tomorrow for our nation,” he says.
And since 2003, they are increasingly joined by others who are expressing public disapproval of CCP policies or of the CCP itself. In April 2003 Dr. Jiang Yanyong leaked information about the spread of SARS to overseas media, undermining the CCP's cover-up of the respiratory epidemic. Dr. Jiang was hailed as a national hero, with his face appearing on the cover of magazines. Encouraged, in February 2004 he wrote a letter to Party leaders, urging them to redress the 1989 massacre.
Meanwhile, China's “have nots” have been increasingly voicing their demands. Farmers and laborers with grievances over unfair taxation, local corruption, lack of health care or pensions, and land appropriation have taken their causes to the street in large numbers. According to officials CCP figures, which many believe are low, the number of recorded protests in 2003 was 50,000, rising to 74,000 and then 85,000 in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
In November 2004 the Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party was published, causing a stir in both Mainland and overseas Chinese communities. The series of articles that were turned into a book raised questions for many Chinese about the CCP's historical heritage and legitimacy. Discussing atrocities committed by the Party in its revolutionary days and since coming to power, the Nine Commentaries argues that the CCP has been responsible for the deaths of 60-80 million Chinese.
A letter from the Chinese “Relay Hunger Strike for Human Rights Support Group” shows the depth of the introspection some Chinese are now undertaking. “Just as the Nine Commentaries says: 'Each one of us should reflect on our innermost thoughts and examine whether our cowardice and compromise have made us accomplices in many tragedies that could have been avoided'.”
The commentaries' publication and spread in China has sparked a wave of renunciation of the Communist Party. Party members have been quitting the CCP, others nullifying pledges they made years ago to the Communist Youth League or to the Pioneer League. Some have posted their statements online while others have posted them on bulletin boards in Chinese towns. As of early March, over 8.5 million such renunciations have been recorded.
“I am an ordinary resident of Beijing, not a celebrity,” writes an anonymous person in an online posting. “However, today I would like to take action to support the worldwide relay hunger strikes, further the efforts of nonviolent resistance by those who are persecuted, and hope for the peaceful transformation of China.”
Additional reporting by Masha Loftus