China's 'Conscience' Missing in Action
Eight years ago, China's Ministry of Justice named Gao Zhisheng, a brilliant, mostly self-educated man, one of the country's top ten lawyers. In 2008, Gao received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for his human-rights advocacy work. Then, less than a year later, Gao disappeared when security police spirited him away.
Often called "the conscience of China," the 45-year-old Christian gained worldwide acclaim for his defense of workers, political activists, and religious groups. Todd Nettleton, spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs, said Gao had the "audacity" to tell the world how poorly China treats its people. In 2005, Gao criticized China's torture of adherents of Falun Gong, a traditional Chinese religion, and his comments triggered a brutal response. For over seven weeks in 2007, police tortured Gao with cigarette burns and electric batons, threatening to kill him.
About 30 days after Gao's disappearance on February 4 of this year, Christians and human-rights groups launched FreeGao.com, demanding his release. By late August, more than 100,000 had signed a petition and 440,000 e-mails had been sent to government officials pleading Gao's case.
In January 2009, China's Communist leaders set up a special committee called 6521, designed to control unrest linked to the commemoration of 60 years of Communist rule (October 1); 50 years since the Tibetan rebellion (March 10); 20 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre (June 4); and 10 years since the official ban on Falun Gong (July 20).
In June, China went further by refusing to renew the licenses of a growing number of lawyers who take on human-rights cases. Bob Fu, founder and president of the U.S.-based China Aid Association, told Christianity Today that as recently as 2002, few lawyers would accept human-rights cases. But today, he said, "More and more lawyers [are] waiting to speak up, in spite of the price. All of a sudden, if there's any major case of social injustice, there are at least a few dozen."
Nettleton said these lawyers teach individuals and groups about their rights under Chinese law. "It has helped with equipping and emboldening," he says. Consequently, he said, more and more people stand up to corrupt officials, demanding that the government follow its own laws.
Sarah Cook, researcher at the New York office of Freedom House and co-editor of Gao's 2007 book, A China More Just, told CT that these lawyers are "essentially seeking to place legally endowed rights in the primary spot—including above the Party." No one has done this more courageously than Gao.
This summer, Gao's wife, Geng He, granted CT an exclusive interview to tell her husband's story and draw attention to his case. Less than one month before Gao disappeared, Geng He and their two children fled China. The United States government granted them asylum. Geng He and the children are currently living in the New York metro area.
Born in 1964, Gao was a toddler when China's Cultural Revolution began. Over the course of a decade, the revolution purged China of its traditional customs, habits, and ideas. Millions suffered for years, and Gao's family was no exception.
With seven children, his family was destitute and lived in a cave. At age 10, Gao lost his father to cancer, and his family's poverty worsened. Even though all the children worked to support the family, Gao's mother insisted they also go to school. Gao completed a middle-school education and passed an entrance exam that would have allowed him to get into one of the best high schools in China. But he could not afford it.