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.