Lessons on How to Love China

Gao Zhisheng is a Chinese firebrand lawyer-turned human rights activist. He’s taken up the cross for cases ranging from underground Christian sects to democracy activists, displaced homeowners and more. Gao’s opponent in and out of court has traditionally been one face or another of the CCP, and he’s been a thorn in the Party’s side for years. Himself an ex-member of the Party and former PLA soldier, Gao says the day he tore up his Party membership card was the proudest day of his life.

A cursory look at some of Gao’s statements gives an insight into just exactly what he is all about. In an open letter to the U.S. Congress in 2007, Gao declared:

“The only law that the communist regime treat with any seriousness is ‘the constitutional law ensures the permanent reign of the Chinese Communist Party in China.’”

Gao is no stranger to run-ins with the law. He was imprisoned and tortured for several months, and was finally coerced into admitting to “inciting subversion” by appealing to top leaders on behalf of a certain banned religious organization. Now he’s facing the same plight: Gao went missing from his Shaaxi home in early February 2009 and it is assumed that he’s been taken into custody by Chinese authorities.

Now it’s not just Gao Zhisheng that’s gone, but his wife and children as well. His family had been under house arrest and Gao’s 15 year-old daughter unable to attend school, spurring them to pay human traffickers a small fortune to carry them overland to Bangkok in January of this year. From there they flew to the United States, where they are currently seeking asylum.

Gao Zhisheng is neither the first nor last lawyer of his breed in China, but he is perhaps one of the bolder and, some might say, reckless human rights activists on the mainland today. Himself a victim of torture and imprisonment in the past, Gao understood well the consequences of his actions, once stating that “you cannot be a rights lawyer in this country without becoming a rights case yourself.”

Western observers of China should always be careful not to commit the sin of allowing our own prejudices and preconceptions to color our view of events that are entirely domestically Chinese. It’s instinctual for us to paint Gao Zhisheng as a flawless knight in shining armor.

A debate could be had over whether his particular brand of rights activism is preferable to more subtle approach. Zhang Sizhi, another lawyer known for advocating the rule of law in China, has argued that “If you go too far, you will only hurt the chances of legal reform, as well as the interests of your client.” Gao clearly understood the likely consequences of his actions for him and his family: he once ominously noted that he is “not sure how much time [he has] left” to carry out his activism.

Regardless of whether Gao’s career exhibited courageous daring or dangerously unsound judgment (which are certainly not mutually exclusive qualities), Gao Zhisheng’s experience is a lesson for any patriotic Chinese with an idealistic streak: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Progressive reform has consequences for individuals. Period.

Anyone that studies, reads, and writes about China can’t help but have an emotional reaction to Gao’s story in general and his family’s tragedy in particular. Foreign China observers, in general, are rooting for China: the rule of law and human rights are what we want to see. People that aren’t interested in those things tend to not stick around very long.

The jingoistic climate of 2008 is settling down: Carrefour protests are over and the Olympics weren’t thwarted by a certain wolf in sheep’s clothing after all. 2009 has had a few rough patches so far but it’s not unsalvageable. With any luck, people like Gao Zhisheng can teach other Chinese what it means to love China.

UPDATE: On another, related note, articles like this bug me. The heading mentions that Gao’s wife “defected” to America, which has very specific implications. Nothing in the body seems to suggest that it was anything resembling a change in political allegience, which leads me to believe that someone thought that word looked a bit more sexy so decided to throw it in without thinking about what it meant.

0 thoughts on “Lessons on How to Love China”

  1. Concerning your update…I had the same irritation with the Telegraph using sensational (or as you say “sexy”) words in a recent article about the Beijing professor who was demoted to a position teaching in a small Xinjiang university. Instead of saying that he had been “unfairly moved” or “drastically demoted” they decided that he had been “exiled”.

    Whoever’s writing these titles needs to settle down.


  2. I freaking hate bloggers who act all clever about Chinese human rights/anti-government activists. You’re not sure if he’s daring or reckless? I’m not sure if you’re just condescending or an absolute arsehole.
    Consider this: maybe he’s neither daring nor reckless. Maybe he’s just right. Correct. Absolutely 100% spot on. He’s committed to improving human rights in his country. He knows it can’t be done from inside the Party. He knows it is necessary to stand up in the courts and demand the respect that the law says his clients should get, over and over and over again. He also knows that this kind of campaign will involve great sacrifice, and he makes it.
    And the result? People like you, with your intimate knowledge of Party politics, label him “reckless”.
    Just consider – my rather confrontational style aside – the possibility that he knows more about his job than you do. Consider the possibility that he’s right. And now maybe locked up for being write. Then consider your tone the next time you choose to write about him.


  3. Hey Phil,
    I hope you can go back and read the piece again. I thought my tone was pretty supportive of Gao: that’s the whole reason I wrote it. The title is “Lessons on How to Love China,” and I thought this (along with the last paragraph) implies that I think Gao can teach people a lot. I thought that was clear.

    I am not arguing that he is reckless or not reckless, only presenting the view of (one) other Chinese rights lawyer that thinks Gao’s approach is too wild. Click on the NYT link in that paragraph to read it. I am totally unqualified to say which methods are best and which are wrong, I just thought it was fair to note that there are other ideas (from people on the same side of the fence as Gao) out there. It doesn’t represent my personal feelings, nor does it detract from my admiration for people like Gao Zhisheng.


  4. In retrospect I can see how this paragraph might be read in a way I didn’t intend:

    “Regardless of whether Gao’s career exhibited courageous daring or dangerously unsound judgment (which are certainly not mutually exclusive qualities), Gao Zhisheng’s experience is a lesson for any patriotic Chinese with an idealistic streak: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Progressive reform has consequences for individuals. Period.”

    My point wasn’t to blame Gao for what he did. I should say “lesson for any Western observers.”


  5. So, Phil, what you’re looking for is a blogger who will, without “intimate knowledge” of Party politics or of Gao’s job, confirm that he is doing everything perfectly? Isn’t that somewhat ridiculous or, to put it another way, downright irresponsible?

    Chris’s piece makes it perfectly clear that 1) he’s not claiming to be some human-rights law expert and 2) he supports Gao. If you didn’t get that, it’s because you didn’t read it carefully, period.

    It really is amazing, merely suggesting that it might be within the realm of possibility that someone criticizing the CCP might have, at some point ever, made some mistake attracts personal attacks like this. Honestly, Phil, what are you contributing to the dialogue here, other than making people who support your position look belligerent?


  6. Philip Pan, in his book Out of Mao’s Shadow, describes the debate within the weiquan movement as one between purists – like Gao – and pragmatists. When the government responds to legal challenges with intimidation, torture, extrajudicial imprisonment and other violence, the purists argue that it should be met with non-violent resistance. In other words, do not back down when the party’s violent nature reveals itself and instead continue to challenge an unjust system even when it results in personal sacrifice. The pragmatists argue that they should not challenge the party directly and instead pick their targets more effectively (i.e. local officials) and encourage the government to live up to its own standards and make incremental gains rather than challenge the whole system.

    It’s really a debate about tactics, and one that goes on within activist groups all over the world. What makes the debate more heated is the potential of the actions of those who challenge the party more directly to have a negative effect on everyone else working for change. However, the risk and potential reward of these actions is hard to know, so it’s impossible to know for sure where to draw the line between actions that are courageous and those that are irresponsible.

    As outside observers, I think it is important for us to both support those who have made sacrifices for their ideals and respect the choices of those who say that people like Gao are “reckless.” In the end it is up to the people involved to decide on what tactics should be used and what sacrifices they are willing to bear. I am someone who loves China but is not Chinese, so I would support all of those working to reform the system. But I would not presume to offer advice on the best way to go about doing that when I am not someone who has to face the real consequences of those choices.


  7. @ Kingsley

    “But I would not presume to offer advice on the best way to go about doing that when I am not someone who has to face the real consequences of those choices.”

    Yup. Exactly my feelings.


  8. I would argue that opting for one approach over another would do more harm than good to the drive for liberty and rule of law. As foreigners, whatever we do or do not know about China, it is a fact that those with power do not give it up easily – wherever you are, whatever culture you’re in. Some aspects of human nature are universal. So Gao Zhisheng’s combative approach is needed as much as Zhang Sizhi’s gentle nudging. As the Party would probably put it, “all out efforts must be taken” to win this fight for freedom. Besides, Zhang’s approach of engagement has proven time and again to be a futile one – just look at Burma and Asean.


  9. @ No Way Sis
    Interesting point. They say Ghandhi was able to do what he did in British India because the British were “civilized” colonizers (i.e., they generally wouldn’t resort to massacres, etc.). I am not trying to draw a comparison between the mainland today and British India because of course the differences are huge. But it’s interesting to question whether the CCP is a “civilized” government in the same way people say the British in India were supposedly “civilized.” I think the answer is obviously no. The potential might be there for a change in the medium-term future though, and how that evolves might have implications for whether Zhang or Gao’s approach is best.


  10. Yes, quite. But for me, it boils down to trust. And I do not trust the CCP. Of course it will accept gentle nudging, because it means it can kick reform into the long grass, buy people off, preserve its power. Thorns in the side are needed too.

    Re media words and terms that bug. I shouldn’t get too upset about them. They’re minor details in comparison to detentions and people having to flee an unreasonable regime. Those are the things that should make you angry! Besides, I’m sure such terms will disappear when dissidents stop getting jailed.

    I’m sure you didn’t overlook the Amritsar Massacre when you spoke of British civility in India.


  11. Nope, didn’t overlook it; the British were monsters in India too. The reason people say they were “civilized” is (I guess?) because in historical context, in comparison to other colonizing powers, they were nicer.


  12. @Chris Hearne

    A good post overall – very thought provoking.

    I have a small nit with this statement about the British colonizers in India which is somewhat tangential to your post:

    “in historical context, in comparison to other colonizing powers, they were nicer.”

    Uh, not sure you’ve considered the sacking and razing of Delhi in revenge for what the British call the “Indian Mutiny of 1857” (and some Indians refer to as the “First War of Indian Independence”). The British retaliation on Delhi is a not-so-widely-known atrocity graphically described in William Dalrymple’s 2006 work “The Last Mughal”.

    In Dalrymple’s words:
    “Finally, on the 14th September 1857, the British assaulted and took the city, sacking the Mughal capital and massacring great swathes of the population. In one muhalla alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 citizens of
    Delhi were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded Edward Vibart, a 19 year old British officer. “It was literally murder … The women were all spared but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful… Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference…” Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi was left an empty ruin.”


    Interview with William Dalrymple:

    Review of Dalrymple’s book:

    Also the wikipedia entry has some interesting bits:

    “The December 1857 issue of Charles Dickens’ Household Words contained an essay by Dickens and Wilkie Collins in which Dickens says,…. “I wish I were a commander in chief in India. The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental Race with amazement….should be to proclaim to them that my holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested; and that I was there for that purpose and no other, …now proceeding, with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.”

    Amaresh Misra, Indian historian and author, goes further to claim that this was a holocaust where British reprisals involved the killing of 10 million Indians spread out over 10 years.

    “”It was a holocaust, one where millions disappeared. It was a necessary holocaust in the British view because they thought the only way to win was to destroy entire populations in towns and villages. It was simple and brutal. Indians who stood in their way were killed. But its scale has been kept a secret,” Misra told the Guardian.”
    See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/aug/24/india.randeepramesh

    Not so nice and civilized. It’s kind of hard to say which colonizers were “nicer” when much of this history has been obscured by colonial historians and we don’t have a clear idea of what things they did. Doubtful that Gandhi would have survived the British massacre of Delhi in 1857.

    I think the “reason for Gandhi’s success” sounds like face-saving rationalization: “we British gave up India because we were too civilized” – when the more likely reason is that post-WWII Britain was in ruins and too exhausted to fight to hold on in the face of Gandhi’s independence movement. Also I find that the Gandhi story is often trotted out to justify violence against a demonized enemy by diminishing Gandhi’s achievement, so I suspect its just one of these unprovable assertions that don’t mean anything.

    On the other hand, I admit that I’ve no great knowledge on India other than reading Dalrymple. And I’m not saying all British were bad either – Dalrymple makes it clear there were genocidal fanatics among the British leadership and a bloodthirsty frenzy whipped up by the jingoistic British press in India and back home that led to the massacres. Not a shining example of a responsible free press.


  13. @ perspectivehere:
    I’ve gotta say I was totally ignorant about that incident, thanks for the heads up. Also I agree with you about the “face-saving rationalization” you talked about, though I would still argue that they compare favorably to a place like France (for example) that desperately clung to its colonies as long as possible, wasting lives and treasure in the process. The British as least knew when the game was over.


  14. To me, the British and Gandhi example is not a good framework. This rights issue, whether people want to acknowledge this or not– is an “internal” matter, meaning the activist is of Cn origins (and even having a CN citizenship) VERY hard to make a case this is like Gandhi vs. colonial Brits. [Plus, the Brits have a track record and– well, in the words of “The Wire” –it was time to for them to fall.]

    I think there’s an American reference that can help to echo and reframe this debate: “If you didn’t have Malcolm, ain’t nobody would know Martin.”

    In terms of arguing the historical point– even in an open democracy (let’s just assume pre-1960’s USA was one), you must have opposite sides of the spectrum to frame “public” discourse. White People’s fear of Malcolm X, drove them to embrance Martin Luther King Jr. and helped to support his rise and having a voice. You have to give people choices and show them the consequences of supporting either side. If supporting X leads to going to jail vs. supporting Y leads to less employment opportunities– you’ll get a much different make up of supporters.

    Samething in Cn, you have to have your extremists that are willing to go to jail, attack the fundamentals of society in order to have a contrasting group which is at first marginal, then get a place at the table and work towards compromise with the Gov.

    In Cn’s case, I would wager this group of “Martin’s” will come from within the Party or be affiliated with them. It’s unforseeable that you can simply rip the rug out of the Gov. This is not a tribal dispute, e.g. Congo.

    Unless you are talking succession or some kind of far-off situation, there is no power that can remove or restructure a gov’t that 1.) has relative legitimacy with its people (e.g. 300 million out of poverty, entering the WTO, lots of nice places to eat and house to buy) and 2.) has full and immediate control of its army.

    So, we should look and identify the Martin’s of Cn.
    That’s my 2-fen.



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