Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

Disappeared: The Faces of Human Rights Activists Silenced by Communist China

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: January 28, 2022
Beijing, CHINA: A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard outside Beijing's No. 2 Intermediate Court where Hong Kong reporter Ching Cheong was sentenced to five years in jail for espionage on behalf of Taiwan, 31 August 2006. The verdict on Ching, who worked for Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, was handed down after a two week trial behind closed doors after being detained for 16 months on charges of spying for Taiwan in a case that rights groups have called a warning for Chinese and foreign journalists. (Image: PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)

In China, speaking out against the government can lead to your arrest, torture while in detention, or worse yet — a sudden dissapearance.

Human rights activists, lawyers, religious believers — these are just some of the individuals that have not been heard from or remain behind bars/strict surveillance after standing up for human rights or lending a voice to oppressed groups in the Communist-ruled country.

Wang Yu (王宇)
Human rights lawyer
Age: 50
Detained in: Tianjin No. 1 Prison

Wang Yu was the first attorney to be detained during the crackdown on China’s “rights defense” movement, known as the “709 Crackdown.” Wang disappeared from her Beijing home in the early hours of July 9, 2015. In October of that year, she was shown on Chinese state television being publicly shamed after activists unsuccessfully tried to smuggle her teenage son out of the country in hopes of seeking asylum in the United States. Wang is known as one of China’s most vocal activist-lawyers. Her clients have included victims of sexual abuse, feminist activists, Falun Gong practitioners, and Ilham Tohti – the respected Uyghur academic now serving a life sentence for “inciting separatism” in his native Xinjiang. Shortly before vanishing, Wang told a friend visiting her home, “Nobody is safe under a dictatorship.”

Wang has since been released but said she and her husband Bao Longjun are “struggling to exist” and remain under constant police watch. Wang said she was “banned from contacting the outside world” for over a week after she was given an International Women’s Day Award by the U.S. government in March 2021.

Human rights lawyer Wang Yu in 2018. (Image: via YouTube/Screenshot)

Gou Hongguo (勾洪國)
Businessman and activist
Age: 58
Detained in: Tianjin No. 2

Gou is a Beijing-based activist, businessman and an active member of the country’s underground house church movement. He was also detained during the “709 crackdown” against lawyers and activists in July 2015 and was held at the second detention center in Tianjin – one of China’s largest cities with close proximity to Beijing. During his arrest, authorities raided Gou’s residence and company in Tianjin, confiscating computers, books, cash, as well as freezing his and his family’s bank accounts.

Gou was then placed under residential surveillance at a secret location in the city’s Hexi District. After his arrest, Christian activists in China and abroad called on international communities to urge the Chinese regime to release Gou. In August 2016, Gou was released under a “suspended sentence” but remains under strict police surveillance.

Activist Gou Hongguo prior to his arrest. (Image: via Chinese Human Rights Defenders)

Hu Shigen (胡石根)
Dissident and church leader
Age: 67
Detained in:
Tianjin No. 1

Hu Shigen is a Beijing-based dissident writer, activist and underground church leader. On August 3, 2016, Hu was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison on charges of “subversion of state power” by a court in Tianjin Province and has remained in custody since then. Hu took part in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and five years later was sentenced to 20 years in a state prison for allegedly organizing and leading a counter-revolutionary group in Beijing. Hu continued his activist work after being released in 2008 and was again arrested in 2014 after attending a remembrance event for those killed in the 1989 protests. Hu is a prominent member of China’s “house church” movement and has been heralded as a hero by many in his native Jiangxi Province.

Hu Shigen during his trial where he was handed a 7 year sentence for his activist work defending vulnerable groups in China. (Image: via The New York Times/Screenshot)

Li Heping (李和平)
Human rights lawyer
Age: 51
Detained in: Tianjin No. 1

Li Heping, a father-of-two, was taken into a secret detention facility after being arrested in 2015. A devout Christian, Li was born and raised in Yangdian, a small rural village in Henan Province. He decided to study law in college after being outraged by the 1989 massacre of student protesters in Tiananmen Square. Li moved to Beijing in 2000 and decided to dedicate himself to helping marginalized groups in China by focusing on civil rights cases.

Since then, he has defended underground Christians, environmental activists and political dissidents – including well-known blind activist Chen Guangcheng. Since beginning his advocacy, Li has been abducted and repeatedly threatened by government authorities. He was held in a detention center in the city of Tianjin for two years, during which time he was denied any contact with his family. Li was released in May 2017 after pleading guilty to “subversion charges” but remains under government watch.

Human rights lawyer Li Heping in an undated photo. (Image: via Radio Free Asia/Screenshot)

Tang Jitian (唐吉田)
Human rights lawyer
Age: 53
Detained in: Unknown

Tang Jitian is a human rights lawyer who has taken on a wide range of civil cases – from land rights, HIV/AIDS victims, to defending adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual practice. Tang has also represented oppressed groups under religious and press freedom as well as political dissidents. As a result of his persistent activism, his license to practise law was revoked in 2010. However, Tang continued his human rights work since his disbarment and has been subjected to beatings, torture, surveillance, travel restrictions and arbitrary detentions on multiple occasions.

In November 2017, he attempted to enter Hong Kong from Shenzhen to seek medical treatment, but border control authorities in China told him he was not allowed to exit the country because of an active travel ban against him and on grounds of “endangering national security.” In June 2021, border control at Fuzhou airport prevented him from boarding a flight to Japan to see his terminally-ill daughter in Tokyo. Tang has not been heard from or seen since Dec. 10 of last year.

Tang Jitian prior to his disappearance in December 2021. (Image: via Front Line Defenders)

Xie Yang (謝陽)
Human rights lawyer
Age: 44
Detained in: Changsha, Hunan Province

Xie Yang is a Hunan-based human rights lawyer who represented the family of Xu Chunhe, a man who was shot and killed by police in Heilongjiang Province in May 2015. He has also represented the Chinese Democratic Party, victims of land grabs and members of the New Citizens’ Movement – a civil rights movement that started a decade ago to encourage China’s transition into a civil, democratic society.

Xie was also arrested in 2015 alongside hundreds of other activists and subjected to beatings and torture in the “709 Crackdown.” He was disbarred in 2020 and pleaded guilty to charges of subversion in exchange for an early release in 2017. Xie has not been heard from or seen since Jan. 11 and is believed to have been quietly arrested by secret agents in the city of Changsha after traveling there late last year to help a pregnant school teacher in Hunan Province. The teacher, named Li Tiantian, was forcefully committed to a mental institution after speaking out against government policy in rural Hunan. 

Lawyer Xie Yang prior to his arrest in China. (Image: via BBC)

Wu Gan (吴淦)
Activist and social media celebrity
Age: 49
Detained in:
Nanchang, Jiangxi Province

Wu Gan is an outspoken and well-known activist, better known as the “Super Vulgar Butcher,” or “Butcher Wu Gan.” Wu was known for taking to the streets and using social media boisterously to shame corrupt Party officials. He was detained in the city of Nanchang on May 10, 2015 and later linked to the Fengrui law firm at the center of the 2015 crackdown. State media subsequently launched a campaign against Wu, accusing him of “maliciously attacking the government.” He was arrested in December 2017 and sentenced to eight years in a state prison. Wu’s current status remains unknown.

Human rights activist Wu Gan, in a still image taken from a YouTube video. Wu is known as the “Butcher Wu Gan” for his public shaming of corrupt officials on social media.

Guo Feixiong (郭飛雄)
Human rights activist
Age: 55
Detained in: Unknown

Guo Feixiong, alias of Yang Maodong, is a well known figure in China’s rights defense movement and previously spent five years in prison for his human rights work. In 2005, Guo provided legal assistance and organizational support to residents in Guangdong’s Taishi village after the group sought help in removing a village chief accused of corruption. As a result of his involvement in this case, he was held by authorities for three months without an official charge in Guangdong’s Yangchung prison. During this time, he went on a hunger strike to protest his unlawful detainment.

In May 2016, NGO Front Line Defenders reported that Guo had continued this hunger strike for over two weeks and was denied adequate medical attention despite his rapidly declining health. Recently, Guo was denied the right to leave the country after the death of his wife Zhang Qing in the U.S on Jan. 10. He has not been heard from or seen since Dec. 5 after writing an open letter on Nov. 29 appealing to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in granting him permission to visit his then-terminally-ill wife.

Activist Guo Feixiong at his home in 2013. (Image: via Chinese Human Rights Defenders)

Gao Zhisheng (高智晟)
Human rights lawyer
Detained in:
Shaya prison, Xinjiang

Gao Zhisheng is one of the most respected and well known human rights lawyers in China. Throughout his career, he has defended numerous activists and religious minorities in high profile cases. Most notably, Gao landed on the CCP’s blacklist for defending multiple Falun Gong practitioners after the government banned the popular practice in July 1999. Gao came from humble beginnings and was born into a low income class family in Jilin County where he  worked as a coal miner before focusing on his passions in law and activism. After becoming a lawyer at 31, Gao set a goal for himself in making sure a third of the cases he took were pro-bono. He said: “I came from a poor family. I know how poor people feel so I know what I have to do … but helping others should not be an act of charity.”

At the end of 2005, his license to practice law was revoked and after numerous death threats and continued harassment, Gao vanished from the public eye in August 2006. Earlier that year, he was convicted of “subversion,” and sentenced to three years in prison. He was incarcerated in December 2011 for allegedly violating the conditions of his suspended three-year sentence. Gao was released from prison on August 7, 2014 but was kept under house arrest until August 2017. Since then, there have been no updates on his situation and it is believed that he is currently detained in the Shaya prison located in Xinjiang.

Acclaimed human rights lawyer and activist Gao Zhisheng in an undated picture. (Image: via Twitter/Screenshot)