June 10, 2021
China’s flagrant disregard for human rights is exemplified by the story of Gao Zhisheng, a Christian lawyer who is recognized as one of the finest human rights defenders in the country.
Zhisheng, a coal miner-turned-lawyer, was known as one of the 10 best lawyers in China in a 2001 report by the Chinese Ministry of Justice. Though he had much to gain from aligning himself closely with the regime for his material and familial benefit, Zhisheng chose instead to support the downtrodden in society. After defending a Christian pastor who was arrested for possessing Bibles, Zhisheng read the Bible. Though uncertain at first, he became a Christian himself and leaned on the Bible for strength as the government began to punish him for his human rights work.
Zhisheng first faced persecution in the form of threatening phone calls from the Communist government in 2005, in part because of his work in litigating on behalf of members of oppressed Falun Gong practitioners. Falun Gong is spiritual discipline that is officially banned in China, and its adherents are severely repressed. The Chinese Embassy provides the spurious claim that the group was targeted in order “[t]o maintain social stability and protect people’s life and property.” The Embassy further adds that practitioners of Falun Gong would be subject to labor camps for “transformation,” on the charge of participating in illegal demonstrations by meditating in accordance with their faith.
To repress individual religious expression, China denounces groups whose teachings fail to align with state communism as “cults,” as they did with the Falun Gong. In the case of more mainstream faiths like Christianity, the heavy hand of the regime is used to monitor the community of believers and suppress elements of the faith that might weaken the position of the state. In extreme cases, believers are imprisoned or tortured if they hold underground services or refuse to bend their faith to suit the state’s purposes. Most disturbingly, there is strong evidence that China has committed crimes against humanity by forcibly harvesting the organs of Falun Gong adherents, as well Uyghurs and other religious minorities.
Oppression as a Dissenter
As a result of several statements that Zhisheng made against the Chinese regime’s treatment of the Falun Gong practitioners, and due to his work litigating on their behalf, he was kidnapped in 2006. While in custody, Zhisheng underwent torture, and was beaten in the face with an electric baton. He suffered through three years in solitary confinement, and shortly after his first release in 2009, he was promptly reimprisoned.
In 2014, after being imprisoned for the better part of a decade, Zhisheng was reported as being emaciated and having lost several teeth. He was released from prison, and placed under house arrest. After this period of house arrest, he was reported as having gone missing. There have been no updates concerning his whereabouts or even if he is alive since 2018.
A Family’s Struggles
Zhisheng’s family hopes that their husband and father is alive and well, but they know the reality of China’s silence on his wellbeing. They repeatedly petitioned the Chinese government for his whereabouts and protest outside the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, to no avail.
His wife, Geng He, and his daughter, Grace Gao (Geng), supported him in his mission, though they are gravely concerned about his treatment and his fate as a result of his faith and care for human rights. Geng He has stated that she intends to use the Chinese Consulate as her husband’s cenotaph, should the Chinese Government fail to prove he is alive or hand over his remains to the family.
What We Can Do
Fortunately, Zhisheng’s case is on the radar of many human rights organizations. The American Bar Association awarded him the Human Rights Lawyer Award in 2010 and co-published a memoir recounting the trauma he faced while incarcerated in 2017. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize on two separate occasions in 2008 and 2010. This kind of international attention is particularly helpful, as it reminds the public of his plight and pressures the Chinese government to release him or exercise transparency with regards to his present status.
As believers, we should fervently pray for Zhisheng’s health and safe release, and for his faith in Christ amidst intense trials. Those who care about human rights should educate themselves and others about the injustices that are perpetrated all around the globe against people of all faiths, including in China.