Skip to content

Rising from Coalminer to Human Rights Defender

An early life full of hardship, along with the influence of his mother’s Buddhist faith and compassionate heart, laid the foundation for Gao Zhisheng to become a human rights lawyer defending socially disadvantaged people.

It was a cold winter day on January 20, 2006. Gao Zhisheng was driving back to his hometown, a village with a population of 200 in one of the poorest regions in northwestern China. It was a planned, five-hour journey. Mr. Gao was not alone: An entourage of over eight state vehicles escorted him on this homecoming trip. It was the 84th day since the police had put him under surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Because Mr. Gao has openly supported rights activists, victims of government abuses, and Falun Gong, the Communist Party views him as a priority security risk and ordered his law firm shut down. He has also been the target of an assassination attempt and death threats. The communist regime has investigated every member of Gao’s extended family in his hometown.

None of this appears to have affected Mr. Gao.

Mr. Gao’s Early Life

In 1964, Mr. Gao was born in a cave where his family lived. Their home was dug out of a hillside in the Loess Plateau in Shaanxi Province, northwestern China.

The family was so poor that the older brother regularly sold his blood to support the family. When Gao’s father died of cancer at the age of 41, the family could not afford a coffin.

Mr. Gao started out in life searching for Chinese herbs in the hills. With the help of an uncle, Gao attended junior high school. At the age of 15, he went to work as a coal miner. On his way home from the coal mine, he begged for food. One of the happiest moments in his life, as he recalled, was the time he was stranded far away from home and an old stone carver gave him 5 yuan (US$0.6 at today’s exchange rate), the old man’s wages for three days.

Gao Zhisheng was very close to his mother, who passed away in 2005. He recalled that during his childhood, his mother would invite homeless people to share their limited food and sleep in their cramped and shabby cave, even though his family often went to bed with empty stomachs. His mother called these homeless people "our relatives." Today Mr. Gao still provides financial support to some of these "relatives." His mother’s kindness and compassion toward the have-nots influenced Gao in his mission to assist the weak and downtrodden in his later years.

From Army to Attorney

In 1982, Mr. Gao joined the People’s Liberation Army in the hope of having a better life. Stationed at a base in Kashgar in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, he received a secondary-school education and became a Communist Party member.{mospagebreak}

There he met his wife, who was also in the PLA. Gao was not considered good-looking among the other young service men, as she recalled. In 1985, he was discharged from the service at the age of 21 and began working as a food vendor.

Fate intervened one day in 1991 when he picked a torn piece of newspaper up off the street. It had been left by one of his customers who had used it to wrap vegetables. He saw an article about how to become an attorney by means of a self-taught program.

Within two and half years, Gao had completed all 14 courses by studying wherever he went. Against all odds—the pass rate was one percent—he passed the bar in 1994.

Legal Career

By 1995, Mr. Gao was a licensed attorney in Urumuqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Anticipating a future as a public figure, he got up early in the morning and walked down rows of wheat, imagining the field an auditorium full of important officials. He delivered lectures in a loud booming voice to quivering stalks.

Victims of government abuses soon started to line up in Gao’s office for help: "Attorney Gao, whatever you say, we will do it. If you do not have a way, we still have one—suicide and self-immolation." He would draft a complaint for them or introduce them to the media. If nothing helped, he would pay for their trip home.

On July 15, 1998, Mr. Gao read an article in China Lawyers Daily that contained a plea for free legal representation for a boy, Zou Weiyi, who had lost his hearing due to an overdose of the antibiotic gentamicin at a local state hospital. The newspaper rejected Gao’s initial offer because "the retaining of a Xinjiang attorney would shame the 150,000 attorneys in Beijing." Gao was finally selected when no other attorney offered to take the case pro bono as he did. Gao eventually won a 100,000 yuan (US$12,500) payout for settlement on appeal, a headline-generating sum and the largest medical malpractice award in China at that time. However, the sacrifices this family made during the years they were seeking justice were enormous. "For over seven years the family was homeless. They slept in bus stations, on piers and along the streets, and begged for food," said Gao.

Several years later, Mr. Gao won another, similar case in which a boy, Zhou Chenghan, lost his hearing as a result of medical malpractice. Due to pressure from higher authorities on the court to rule in favor of the state hospital, the victims did not receive any compensation. In closing, Gao addressed the court: "Your honor, when morality, truth, and conscience lose power, the society loses power. Today, under the banner of justice in this court, what is really happening is that morality, conscience, humanity, and truth are all losing power. The police, the prosecutor, the court, the defendant hospital, the Public Health Administration, the Communist Party Committee, and the government are acting in unison against a disabled child."{mospagebreak}

Gao Zhisheng quickly developed a reputation for winning pro bono cases. In the case of a three-year-old boy who drank from a water bottle that contained a toxic solution to keep fish fresh in the farmers’ market, Gao opened his argument in court: "If the defendants are rational, what you lose is money—you compensate the boy. If you are not rational, you will lose integrity and the money." Gao won the case, but it was too late. The child died due to lack of early treatment.

As a result of his zealousness in helping the victims of government abuses, Gao was called "a pro bono mad dog." Gao disagrees: "As an attorney, pro bono legal representation is not my goal. It is, rather, an acceptance without choice. When you learn about their pain and suffering, their tears are your tears. What choice do you have?"

In 2001, the China Ministry of Justice named him one of the top 10 attorneys in the National Advocacy Competition, a title that the Ministry of Justice retracted in 2005 after Gao became a target of the communist regime.

Against the Odds

In the summer of 2005, the authorities detained Zhu Jiuhu, an attorney, for "disturbing public order” while representing private investors in oil wells that were seized by the communist government in Gao’s home province, Shaanxi. Mr. Zhu had sued the government for violating the rights of these investors.

Mr. Gao became an attorney in Zhu’s defense, joining a team of fellow attorneys and journalists. He camped out in local government offices until officials agreed to meet him. He told one Party boss in a recorded conversation, "You will forever be on the wrong side of the law and on the wrong side of the conscience of the people unless you let Mr. Zhu go."

Mr. Zhu was released from police custody in the fall of 2005 after an intensive publicity campaign mounted by his supporters and led by Gao. Since then, Zhu has been under a highly restrictive bail arrangement that bans him from practicing law.

Turning his enemies’ weapons against themselves is a typical Gao tactic, as is pushing a situation to its limit. Last year he went to Shaanxi Province to investigate the alleged confiscation of private oil wells by the regime authorities. On the way, he heard that the authorities were lying in wait to detain him. He drove to the police station and confronted the police chief. "I told him I had saved him a lot of bother so at the very least he should pay for my transportation costs," said Mr. Gao. "The chief reimbursed me my car rental cost and arranged for a police car to drive me home."{mospagebreak}

Of late, Mr. Gao has defended adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that the communist regime outlawed in 1999 as a major threat to its monopolized power.

The communist regime has prohibited any attorneys in China from filing lawsuits on behalf of Falun Gong. In November 2005, Mr. Gao slipped police surveillance to investigate claims of police torture and sexual abuse of Falun Gong in Changchun, the capital of Jilin Province.

After his investigation, he wrote an open letter addressed to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. In the letter, Gao said that the secret police had tortured Falun Gong members to try to make them renounce Falun Gong. "A mother and son died in police custody within 10 days of each other," he said. "Police told the boy’s father he had committed suicide by jumping from a window, but they wouldn’t let him see where the tragedy took place or his son’s body. They still have the corpse more than a month later. It is disgraceful." In his letter, he described a police-run, extrajudicial "brainwashing base” where, he said, Falun Gong members were first starved and then force-fed until they threw up. Female Falun Gong members were routinely raped while in police custody.

"These calamitous deeds did not begin with the two of you [referring to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao],” he wrote, "but they have continued under your political watch, and it is a crime that you have not stopped them.”

In addition to Falun Gong, Mr. Gao represents underground "house church" Christians. He is one of the attorneys for a house church pastor, Cai Zhuohua, in Beijing. Mr. Cai was arrested for printing and distributing Bibles to Christians in China and convicted of running an "illegal business operation" a year later in November 2005. On December 21, 2005, Gao issued an investigative report regarding persecutions against house church leaders and Christian believers in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. He quoted at great length from 13 Christians who have been subjected to intense persecution, including torture and inhuman treatment, while in police custody.

On December 13, 2005, Mr. Gao declared that he had quit "the cruel, untrustworthy, inhumane, and evil Party." "This is the proudest day of my life," wrote Gao. Later he was baptized and became a Christian in an underground house church in Beijing.

Many in China and elsewhere are closely following the events surrounding Gao. At a website sponsored by The Epoch Times, one posted a message: "There is a shining star high up in the dark night sky. It is not alone-people on earth are all watching it."

Xiao Tian is a correspondent for Chinascope.