Five human rights activists have disappeared of late. Together with Gao Zhisheng, they are fighting to "restore human rights in China". AsiaNews introduces the man who makes Communist government leaders tremble with his open letters, his criticism of political and religious repression and his legal work in defence of the persecuted. His group has launched a hunger strike which has drawn many participants and enjoys widespread media coverage.
Beijing (AsiaNews) Five human rights activists have disappeared recently. For days now, the telephones of Hu Jia, Qi Zhiyong, Ma Wendu, Ma Ouyang and Wen Haibo have been switched off and their homes are controlled by plain-clothes officers. Some sympathizers claim they have been arrested by police.
The five activists were taking part in a hunger strike launched by the lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, for "the restoration of human rights in China". Their arrest confirms how Gao and this group described by many as the "future class of China's democratic leadership" provoke fear among China's leaders.
Gao is famous for his legal battles and his dossiers denouncing persecution suffered by Christians in Xinjiang as well as the repression of thousands of people belonging to the Falun Gong movement. For years, he has fought against the violence of the Chinese Communist Party through legal means. In recent months, police persecution forced him to flee Beijing. The hunger strike he launched, which has attracted hundreds of participants from around the world, is Gao's "last attempt" to draw the government's attention to the injustices suffered by the population of China.
Despite Beijing's censorship and violence leveled against Gao and his group, their work is very well known in China and abroad.
Gao, future "president of a Communism-free China"
Gao Zhisheng, Christian, lawyer and human rights activist, became famous across China for his criticism of the Communist Party, the open letters in which he invites government leaders to change the way in which they rule and for his unyielding fight to defend persecuted Chinese, especially Falun Gong members and unofficial Christians.
On 18 October 2005, he sent an open letter to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, calling on them to "rebuild China on the foundation of democracy, law and respect for the constitution". Politicians, journalists and common people have started to describe him as "the first President of a China free from Communism".
His campaigns for human rights and freedom of worship have put Gao's own tranquility and career on the line. As recently as 2001, the Chinese Justice Ministry had named him as one of the "Ten outstanding lawyers in China". Today, Bejing's Bureau of Justice has shut down his office and threatens to deprive him of his professional qualification. However, his fame and legal ability make it difficult for the government to stop his activities, which are attracting ever more followers.
Defending Christians and the Falun Gong
Hailing from the highlands of northern Shaanxi province, Gao got a middle-school diploma and he later served in the military. To survive, he started to sell vegetables on the streets of the northern province of Xinjiang. One day, he noticed an advert in a newspaper: "Self-study course in law is your shortcut into the legal profession." He decided to try and after years of studying, he became a lawyer in 1995.
In the legal community, Gao is known for the free service he provides to defenceless people. "I was born poor and I know how poor people feel. So I know what I should do." In the first two years of his legal profession, which he practiced in Xinjiang, Gao compiled a lengthy dossier about the persecution of unofficial Christians: Protestants arrested and accused of terrorism, elderly believers tortured in prison, and so on. Moved by their testimonies, Gao embraced the Christian faith.
In 2001, he moved to Beijing and started to work on a series of prominent penal cases, including that of the lawyer Zhu Jiuhu, who is fighting the illegal expropriation of hundreds of private oil fields in Xinjiang. At the same time, he presses ahead in presenting petitions on behalf of those who are persecuted, and defends them in court. He often goes to Shandong, where he compiled a long dossier on persecution suffered by members of the Falun Gong, the religious movement subjected to a ruthless vilification campaign. Gao gathered testimonies of torture and killings of members of the Falun Gong, perpetrated during their detention or imprisonment. Among others, Gao cites the experience of a woman who was first tortured and then left to die before her relatives' eyes.
The Falun Gong dossier was the subject of the first open letter sent to Hu Jintao on 18 October 2005. But publicly denouncing the matter put Gao in a bad light with the authorities. On 26 October 2005, Tsai Lei, vice-director of the Department of Lawyers of Beijing's Judicial Bureau, called the lawyer for a meeting and told him: "In the first place, the open letter which exposes and denounces the persecution of the Falun Gong damages the image of all Chinese lawyers and in the second, it goes against professional morality and the nature of the lawyer. If you intend to cooperate with us, you must reconsider the open letter. If you do not do so, I will be forced to make other arrangements".
On the morning of 3 November, members of the Department of Lawyers went to Gao's office "for an inquiry" and during the "visit", they told Gao they were shutting down his office because "he failed to complete the appropriate procedures for a change of address after moving the law firm and he illegally offered legal papers to lawyers who do not form part of his office". The note about the closure of his office read: "If Gao does not correct these violations, his qualification to practice the legal profession will be cancelled".
Gao described the accusations as "simply a frame-up" because his employees had sought to notify the Judicial Bureau about the change of address several times, but the authorities would never accept the request which later became "proof of a crime".
On the afternoon of 18 January last, a car with a covered number plate, driven by a man wearing a balaclava, suddenly and swiftly rammed the pavement of a Beijing street where the lawyer was walking: Gao saw the car and escaped death by throwing himself into an alley.
After the attempt against his life, Gao launched "an international hunger strike for the restoration of human rights in China" and called on "all those who have democracy at heart" to participate. Participation is widespread and the hunger strike is still going strong: to stop it, police have no alternative but to spirit strikers away.