Gao Zhisheng, nicknamed “the conscience of China,” is a remarkable Chinese human rights attorney and dissident whose story just blew me away after watching the documentary film Transcending Fear.
Gao Zhisheng began his life growing up in a cave in Shaanxi Province, China. People still live in caves there. It may seem strange to some, but this was his humble beginning in life. He came from a very poor family, and they did not have a clock. So his mother would stay awake most of the night to tell the time by watching the stars so she could wake Gao at 4 a.m. in the morning so he could walk three hours to his school to get an education.
His father died when Gao was 11 and he and his brother had to begin work to pay of the debt they incurred for his hospital fees. At 15, Gao and his brother worked in a mine, where his brother was in a mining accident and broke his leg. Gao carried him all the way home on his back, as they were dismissed from work without a cent after the accident.
His mother was the sort of person who would give beggars who walked past their cave corn from the only corn cob they shared for dinner. She instilled a heart of kindness and generosity in Gao.
Gao sold fruit and vegetables as he got older. These vegetables were wrapped in newspaper, and one day a customer threw the newspaper away, which landed open on a page in front of Gao with an article saying they were looking for 150,00 lawyers in the future. He decided to teach himself law and sat the bar exam, which is extremely difficult to pass. Normally, 1 in 500 pass, and he remarkably passed the first time.
When he began acting as a lawyer, he spent a third of his time each year providing free legal assistance to those who could not pay, mainly because he didn’t want to lose his connection to poor people—they offer him direct contact with the grassroots of Chinese society. But also, it was in his nature as he grew up very poor.
Gao Zhisheng: “I cry when I listen to the sad stories of these desperate people who come to me for help. So it’s been the way they approached me plus my personality that has made me accept such cases.”
In 2001, he was one of China’s top 10 lawyers in a national legal debate competition sponsored by the ministry of justice. He then opened his own law firm. At a time when pro-bono legal work was unheard of in China, Gao became known nationwide for providing free legal services to child victims of medical malpractice. Gao tried to help people who were victims of forced demolitions, but the Chinese Communist Party controlled the courts so he lost all the cases of this kind because they touched on the vested interests of powerful government officials and businessmen.
In 2004, relatives of Hung Wai, a Falun Gong practitioner, sent a request for representation. Hung Wai was an ordinary man who practiced Falun Gong, and was dropping his kid off to kindergarten one morning when four thugs came out and abducted him. He was taken to a detention center and sentenced to 3 years at a labor camp. He had no trial, and no chance to appeal even though he hadn’t committed a crime. It was just because he practiced Falun Gong, a mind-body cultivation system that follows the three principles of Truthfulness, Compassion and Tolerance.
With Hung Wai’s case, Gao went to three different judges, and all of them said, no, they don’t look at cases to do with Falun Gong. The regime blocked all avenues of legal appeal for people who practiced Falun Gong. He wrote an open letter to Wu Banguo, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress describing his encounters with these different judges. His reply was: “We received orders from above, and when it comes to Falun Gong, no case can be accepted.”
In Shandong Province, Gao interviewed dozens of Falun Gong practitioners who had been arrested by the regime, and he wrote an open letter to China’s top leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Xiabao and asked them to stop killing and torturing their own citizens.
An excerpt from his open letter:
“Dear Mr Hu, Mr Wen and all fellow Chinese:
“It is time for everyone of us to take a good, hard look at ourselves! In the history of the world, never has such a huge group of people suffered such severe and long-term persecution during peacetime, simply on account of their faith. This disaster has cost thousands of precious, innocent people their lives and has deprived hundreds and thousands of their freedom. This utterly inhuman persecution has caused over 100 million Falun Gong followers and their families to suffer. How absurd, treacherous and immoral this is! It is an onslaught against the Chinese people, civilization itself and the very moral fabric of the world! I would like to stress that if this evil crime does not stop then the day when Chinese society is stable and harmonious will never come.”
A day after drafting this open letter, Gao published a statement confirming his withdrawal from the Communist Party in what he calls “the proudest day of my life.”
Within a few days of that letter, Gao, his wife, children, friends, and family were put under even tighter police surveillance.
Gao was then kidnapped, tortured, and beaten within an inch of his life.
And the details of the forms of torture that were taking place are just too horrific for me to even write about here, as my heart sinks so heavy to think humans can be capable of this cruelty.
His family had police living with them while he was in prison, and they would not even let them turn the light off to sleep or have privacy in the shower or toilet. His law firm was shut down and his licence to practice law taken away.
Gao went on a hunger strike in 2006. Each day, a different set of people would fast for 24 hours, with people all over the world taking part. People from 25 provinces took part all on the same day to show their support, as tens of thousands of people came together for him. Human rights lawyers worldwide, along with Amnesty International, all petitioned the government to release Gao after he was arrested and the times he was abducted, with no one knowing his whereabouts.
In 2006, U.S. Congressmen were urging China to release Gao and re-instate his licence to practice law. Tom Lantos, a late U.S. Congressman, said these words about Gao: “Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”
Discussed in the film was this book, A China More Just, written by Gao and co-edited by Sarah Cook from Freedom House. It is a good read for those wanting to get hold of some grassroots knowledge of what’s happening in China. The book is banned in China, but has been published in English.
Just like Martin Luther King, Gao has an emphasis on non-violent means to create change.
To learn more about Gao Zhisheng’s story, go the Transcending Fear website to watch the film in full.
Human rights lawyer David Kilgour said: “The government is definitely afraid of him, just the same way the Apartheid regime in South Africa were afraid of Nelson Mandela. Then they begun to realize the only way they were going to be saved from terrible things happening to the regime was to let a man who believes in forgiveness and reconciliation to become a president of a democratic South Africa, and of course Nelson Mandela did exactly that. He didn’t seek revenge, he just wanted people to get along, and he did this perhaps better than any person in recent history. That’s what Gao Zhisheng would do for the Party in China. He would not take revenge on them the way the regime has taken revenge on him. That’s why I say he is like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.”
Gao’s daughter Gege talks about how her life has been affected by the state crackdown on her father. Earlier accounts are in the Transcending Fear film of the suffering she went through, the loss of education, her self harming, suicidal tendencies when her family were subjected to the loss of human rights under police watch in China. The family eventually fled China and are now safe in the U.S., but it is not over for them. Gao, their father, is still in China under house arrest. So although released from prison, he is still far from free.
There is a small thing as a reader you can do. You can support Gao’s wife through this time of separation with kindness by posting her family a letter.
The mailing address is: Geng He, P.O. Box 2697, Santa Clara, CA 95055, USA
She can read them out to Gao when they talk online to offer him encouragement.
Or take a photo of your note and post it on the Transcending Fear Facebook page to support.
Never underestimate the power of the pen.