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Attorney Gao Zhisheng And His Unwinnable Cases

Gao Zhisheng, a famous human rights lawyer, is one of the rare few in China willing to risk his career to take on the communist regime when it comes to justice. His courage and morale has won him the reputation of "China’s lawyer of conscience."

Public anger has been rising in China during recent years over the massive displacement of rural villagers. According to a World Bank report, over 171,000 people were relocated for the construction of the US$4.8 billion, 505-foot Xiao Langdi Dam. According to public security reports, there were some 20,000 property-related protests in 2004. In response to the protests, the communist regime has cracked down on displaced citizens who demand their property rights.

Instead of looking for help from the appeals system in the local and central government, more and more Chinese citizens, especially marginalized groups such as villagers who lost their land to infrastructural and urban development projects, have started to look for help from the courts. This trend has highlighted a major social problem: The court system in China is not independent from the rulings of the central government and the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, few attorneys dare to take this type of case for fear of reprisals from the regime authorities.

Gao Zhisheng is among a handful of lawyers who are willing to handle high-profile human rights cases involving rural land rights, labor activists, and religious freedom. Already one of the most prominent lawyers of his generation, Gao, 41, has taken a public stand to defend the most oppressed groups in China: democracy activists, victims of religious persecution, mine accident widows, and peasants who have had their land seized by the authorities. His law firm defended a group of workers who faced criminal charges after participating in mass protests in April 2004 against poor working conditions at two shoe factories in the city of Dongguan in Guangdong Province, which were owned by the Taiwanese firm Stella International. Thanks to the case put forward by Gao and his colleagues, the workers were eventually freed.

Other civil rights cases undertaken by Gao Zhisheng include his legal assistance to a worker named Wang Guilan, who in August 2005 was detained for trying to enter the United Nations office in Beijing and has since been sentenced without trial to 18 months of "re-education through labor." Gao is currently helping Ms. Wang, who was in the process of undergoing a series of operations after suffering severe facial burns several years ago, to sue the Enshi City police. In addition, Gao has been assisting the family members of miners killed in the November 2004 Chenjiashan coalmine explosion in the city of Tungchuan in Shaanxi Province. The families will seek up to one million yuan (US$125,000) each in compensation from the mining company.

Gao has become well known to those who need representation in human rights related litigation. As one might imagine, this does not sit well with the authorities. On November 4, 2005, the Beijing Bureau of Justice ordered Gao’s Beijing-based Sheng Zhi Law Firm to suspend all operations for one year.

His life has changed greatly since then. The following is a chilling account of a few days in December 2005:{mospagebreak}

"In the morning, a group of more than 30 petitioners met me in Beijing. That morning, all seven surveillance vehicles were in action. When I reached the destination, I went into the restroom. Six plainclothesmen even followed me in there to watch. I went into the lobby to wait for those who wanted to see me. Perhaps because the waiting took a long time and the plainclothesmen were bored, they said something into the walkie-talkies and soon each undercover person had the company of a pretty girl. Four hours later, the caravan of eight cars (including mine) headed back to my office, where the plainclothesmen continued with their duty of waiting downstairs."

"I went out early this morning to exercise in the park. Several plainclothesmen were around me. Compared to before, the scale of the surveillance has clearly gone up. On the way back home, several plainclothesmen shadowed me closely. After breakfast, my wife took my daughter to her music tutor. As soon as they stepped out, the plainclothesmen followed them. While my daughter took lessons for one hour, the plainclothesmen waited idly outside. Afterward, they followed them home. At noon, my daughter went to take English lessons. I took her downstairs and watched the small, thin girl being followed by two big, strong plainclothesmen. I felt very angry that a little child should have to be threatened by such filthy tactics 24 hours a day." (December 25, 2005)

"Today, the Chinese regime has suddenly raised its level of surveillance of my entire family. Six cars followed me today. Apart from the two old faces ("Beijing EP0030" and "Beijing E92673"), there is now a Mercedes-Benz and a BMW in the caravan. The signs are that there are more senior-level departments getting involved. Wherever I went, the cars would surround me and a group of about twenty strong men would run up. I don’t know if President Bush gets this kind of luxurious treatment, but things are definitely different from a few days ago.

"When I arrived at the office this morning, the landlord called to say that someone was causing him trouble for renting the office space to me. The level of tender loving care from the plainclothesmen is incredible. They can think about all the things that you can never imagine, and this is perhaps the unique attribute that they use to select plainclothesmen." (December 27, 2005)

Gao has written a series of open letters to Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. "I advised them to leave the Communist Party. It is not capable of reform. History teaches us that no dictatorship can last forever. One day, those with blood on their hands will face a trial by the people." According to news reports, the authorities imposed this punishment after Gao Zhisheng refused to retract a letter he sent to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao on October 18, 2005, calling for an end to the widespread detention and torture of Falun Gong practitioners in China, and after he refused to withdraw from other politically sensitive cases as demanded by Beijing officials. Gao posted his letter to China’s top leaders on the Internet and distributed it widely by email.{mospagebreak}

Many have contended that political liberalization in China will follow closely on the heels of increased affluence. One such person is Tony Blair, who said there was "unstoppable momentum" toward greater political freedom. Gao said that such an argument was just an excuse for the West to trade with a human rights violator.

Gao reserved his fiercest criticism for the two European countries that have done the most to build close relations with Beijing: "Many Chinese people think the governments of France and Germany are as terrible as ours. They are only acting in their self-interest and making a fortune from the misery of the Chinese people. There will be a price to pay one day for the so-called civilized foreign governments who are honeymooning with the Communist Party. I want people in the outside world to understand the situation in China. We face a Party with millions of troops. I have dozens of plainclothes police around my home. It is hard to use words like understanding and forgiveness with them."

"They threaten to arrest me and I say, ‘Go ahead,’" he says. "I am a warrior who does not care whether he lives or dies. Such a sacrifice will be nothing to me if it speeds the death of this dictatorship." Gao was urged to leave China by secret police in February. Such an anti-Party tirade would have quickly resulted in imprisonment or death under different circumstances, but Gao believes that he has been spared because the authorities are worried about domestic protests and an international outcry if he is arrested.

Indeed, the level of public support for Gao from inside and outside of China is high. "The Beijing authorities’ vindictive retaliation against Gao Zhisheng’s law firm is deplorable," said China Labor Bulletin director Han Dongfang. "It directly undermines the regime’s claim to be promoting the rule of law and a sound civil society. Gao is a front-line human rights defender, and an attack on him is an attack on citizens’ rights in general."

China Labor Bulletin called on the Chinese regime to show respect for its own legal system by immediately rescinding the closure order against the Sheng Zhi Law Firm.

On February 4, 2006, Gao and a dozen other Chinese weiquan (rights protection) activists started a hunger strike relay in China. The hunger strike was to protest the several recent physical attacks on weiquan activists in China by either state agents or by thugs hired by the Communist Party. Within 10 days, more than 20 organizations from 12 countries formed a support network for him, and hundreds of people joined the hunger strike relay. The effort has its own website at

Gao has received strong support from Chinese people in China and around the world. After many years of engaging in the weiquan effort, Gao has become a symbol for the movement. This fact was expressed very well in a statement that was signed by the "Global Association for Supporting Gao Zhisheng," an alliance of 119 organizations: "Attorney Gao has given his all in the Chinese non-violent weiquan movement. He is the symbol for human rights in China, and he represents the Chinese conscience."{mospagebreak}

So far, public scrutiny and support has stopped the Chinese communist regime from putting Gao in prison. The chief editor for China Affairs, Wu Fan, who was among the initiators of the "Global Association for Supporting Gao Zhisheng," had an explanation: "The Chinese Communist Party could not deny the facts revealed by Gao in his letters. The regime wants to get rid of this thorn in its side, but it is afraid of the ensuing backlash. All it can do is harass, follow, and threaten Gao in hopes that he will back off. The regime took Gao Zhisheng away on January 12, but it had to release him after one hour. They wanted to test the waters and see the reaction from the rest of the world. If there were not much reaction, it would have gone much worse. But because the reaction was strong and quick, the regime chose to withdraw for now."

This cat and mouse game is likely to go on for some time. Gao continues to draw attention and support from around the world for himself, as well as the weiquan movement. As for the question of how to succeed, Gao offered a simple approach—renouncing the Communist Party and believing in God.

On December 24, several dozen petitioners from Shanghai went to see Gao in Beijing. At the end of their conversation, Gao stated his opinion as the following.

"There is an easy approach to resolving the problems in China, and that is to renounce the Party and to walk on to the street openly. As long as people continue to renounce their Party membership, in two or three years, most of the Party members will have quit and refuse to cooperate with the regime. That would be the end of this murderous regime’s life. When the regime cannot hold on to its own life, it cannot kill people anymore. Renounce the Party and turn to God, that is something that we all can do."

Ann Lee is a correspondent for Chinascope.