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The Making of Martyr Gao


The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Public Security said on Friday that it has detained Gao Zhisheng for questioning for his suspected involvement in criminal activities.

Gao, 42, of Han nationality, was residing in Room 202, Unit 7 of Building 11, Xiaoguan Beili, Chaoyang District, Beijing, the bureau said in a brief press release.

As one of Chinese top ten lawers [sic], Gao has long been an expert in legal aid field.

- China Daily web site (via Xinhua news agency), August 18, 2006

The last time I chatted with Gao Zhisheng, he’d just finished watching Gandhi.

It was one of those late April days in Beijing when you can taste the dust. I was with Martin Garbus, the veteran First Amendment trial lawyer, whose case work with dissidents includes names like Havel, Sahkarov and Mandela. He wanted to meet Gao, one of seven children of cave-dwelling peasants, who’d emerged as arguably the most brazen figure in China’s widening network of “rights defenders”. We took our seats in a tiny room at a teahouse next to Gao’s apartment block, and asked Gao how he was getting along of late. The first topic out of his mouth was Gandhi.

“My conclusion [from watching the movie] is that no authoritarian system is like the Chinese Communist Party’s,” he said. “Gandhi’s persecution was different from mine. He was in prison, but he got out and was free. In China, even if you’re not in prison, you’re dead until you’re old.”

Gao had a big teddy-bear frame, a ruddy glow on his face, and cavalier streak in his oratory – features that bore no resemblance to Gandhi but rather a strong likeness to Mao Zedong. What fascinated Gao about Gandhi was his path to power; in certain respects, he could identify.

Gao had a similar motto:“no violence, no enemies, no bloodshed”. Like the young lawyer Gandhi, he had journeyed far and wide in China, defending Christians, AIDS activists and other lawyers, peasants fighting rigged elections and illegal land seizures, and practitioners of the outlawed spiritual movement Falun Gong. Then last December, Beijing officials stripped Gao of his license to practice. He’d been living under 24-hour surveillance during the months since. At home, his Internet access and phone line were cut. Whenever he went out, he was shadowed by Public and State Security agents whom he called a “black society” of “rogues” and “barbarians”. Four times, he said, he narrowly dodged “accidents” with their unmarked cars, and he credited his new-found faith in Christ for safeguarding him. On other occasions, he’d been roughed up.

But unlike Gandhi, Gao had never done any hard time. The last time he was detained came just outside his home on February 6, and, Gao gloated, “Everyone in the world knew about it.” His wife had called reporters and friends, spamming out the news by email. Cell-phone text messages reached distant provinces. “Within just a short time, around 4,000 people in Beijing alone had gotten the message that I’d been captured,” Gao recounted. “The message told people to come to the gates of my home and launch a hunger strike to protest.”

So began a rolling hunger strike that made international headlines.

“This little battle showed the Communist Party, in just a short period of time, that capturing me would make things even more troublesome for them,” Gao asserted. “In one hour and nine minutes, I was let go.”

Now, colleagues fear, Gao could face charges of subversion, and be put away for years. For months in Spring and Summer, authorities held two close associates of his for questioning without explanation. Gao was working with overseas Chinese academics drafting a new constitution, and communicated daily with the Epoch Times, the U.S.-based voice of Falun Gong.

Gao’s capture came off more smoothly this time around. In a matter of minutes, a dozen plainclothes officers from Beijing hooded him and whisked him away from his sister’s home in Shandong province. His wife and two children, meanwhile, were sequestered at home. It took three days before police confirmed his detention.

It’s possible he could end up joining two other leading rights advocates who were locked up last week. Journalist Zhao Yan, the former New York Times news researcher accused of leaking state secrets, received a three-year jail term on a lesser charge of fraud. Chen Guangcheng, the blind “barefoot lawyer” who exposed how officials in his home county were illegally forcing abortions and sterilizations on thousands of women, was sentenced to more than four years for instigating a peasant disturbance that he played little role in, according to his many lawyers. One of them was Gao.

Coming in rapid-fire succession, these developments have led observers to conclude that Beijing is tightening the noose on “right defenders”. Perhaps. But the significance could be all the graver should Gao go to jail. As when they housed renegade democracy party founders and Tiananmen “black hands” in the 1980′s and 90′s, the nation’s decrepit prisons may once again be the scene of an identifiable political opposition.

It didn’t have to come to this. Yes, in the past few years, we have witnessed the strongest grass-roots political challenge to the Communist Party bureaucracy since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. But the latter manifested a naked democracy movement. It grew in part out of dissidents’ demands for wholesale systemic change. It ended in bloody failure.

The civil rights activities that gathered force circa 2003, after the SARS epidemic and other scandalous cases of egregious injustice, seems to constituted something much different. A new Communist Party leadership began to champion “rule of law” and the lot of the under-classes, and lawyers, journalists and environmentalists began to test that platform at lower levels of government, case by case, locality by locality. Some of them still recoil at the word “movement”.

But as their struggles mount, that’s a harder label to avoid. In the past year, particularly, rights defenders have been forced to come to the defense of each other. Some have grown more radical.“Elements of a democracy movement have become more and more evident,”according to Chengdu University law professor Wang Yi.

There are internal rifts, though. Dissidents such as Wang are taking a very different tack from Gao’s. Blacklisted in 2004 for his writings on democracy, he’s concentrating on religious freedoms for Christians. In online rows, he and others have argued for compartmentalizing the vast range of rights issues. They’ve criticized Gao and his clique for courting disaster with a more revolutionary agenda. Even still, a large community of liberals are rallying to Gao’s aid . Two of Gao’s recent detractors, Yu Jie and Ding Zilin, were among the signees to one petition demanding his release.

For central government leaders, perhaps the main dilemma was not whether to dispense with Gao and company, but when. Why now? The quick answer is that August is the “silly season”. Fewer correspondents are at their desks. The Foreign Ministry is on summer hiatus from twice-weekly Q & A’s.

Longer term, the Communist Party’s equivalent of an “election year” is upon us. At the next plenum in Fall, top cadres will begin to hash out policy guidelines and Politburo line-ups for 2007-2012. They also have the 2008 Olympics to worry about. It makes sense for them to take care of troublemakers beforehand.

Gao clearly sensed authorities might be closing in on him, especially when on the road. During trips through several provinces he’d made a few weeks earlier, he alleged, police detained or harassed some 200 to 300 contacts of his. Back home in Sha’anxi, they urinated at the mouth of his family’s cave.

“The casualties of my war are many,” Gao acknowledged. But he maintained: “We must peacefully, rationally, and resolutely persist. And as long as our bodies are not destroyed, we will be victorious one day…”

“But not without madmen, not without people who are very firm and tenacious in spirit,” he added, and then returned to Gandhi. “In the end, the British colonial rulers had moral beliefs. Thus they could not continue unceasingly in an immoral plan. Gandhi was also different, in that he had Hindu religious beliefs and a Hindu god and his enemy was totally different from ours. But the Communist Party has no moral bottom line. It has no god. So it doesn’t pay heed to the retribution of heaven.“

Gao does.

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