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Gao Zhisheng (born 20 April 1964) is a Chinese human rights attorney and dissident known for defending activists and religious minorities and documenting human rights abuses in China. Because of his work, Zhisheng has been disbarred and detained by the Chinese government several times, and severely tortured. He last disappeared in February 2009 and was unofficially detained until December 2011, when it was announced that he has now been imprisoned for three years. His commitment to defending his clients is influenced by his Christian beliefs and their tenets on morality and compassion.[1]

Gao Zhisheng
Born (1964-04-20) 20 April 1964 (age 55)
Known forHuman rights activism
Spouse(s)Geng He
ChildrenGrace Gao
Gao Zhisheng
Traditional Chinese高智晟
Gao Zhisheng's wife Geng He speaking publicly to help her husband in 2011

Gao's memoir, A China More Just (2007), documents his "fight as a rights lawyer in the world's largest communist state."[2] In subsequent writing, he accuses the ruling Communist Party of China of state-sponsored torture and reports having been tortured by the Chinese secret police. He disappeared in February 2009. At the beginning of 2012, Gao's brother said he had received a court document saying his brother was in Shayar jail in Xinjiang.[3] In 2014, it was reported that Zhisheng was released from jail and put under house arrest. He disappeared again in August 2017 in an apparent attempt to escape house arrest and was subsequently taken back into custody on his recapture in September.[4]



Gao was born and grew up in a house in Shaanxi Province with six siblings; his father died at the age of 40.[5][6] He briefly worked in a coal mine.

With his family not being able to afford elementary school, Gao said he sat listening outside the classroom window. Later, an uncle helped him attend secondary school, after which he qualified to join the People's Liberation Army.[5] His unit was stationed at a base in Kashgar, in Xinjiang region, and he became a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Later, he left the PLA and began working as a food vendor. In 1991, inspired by a newspaper article that mentioned a plan by Deng Xiaoping, then China's paramount leader, to train 150,000 new lawyers and develop the Chinese legal system, he took a course in law. Gao credited his excellent memory of titles and clauses for passing all his exams; he passed the bar in 1995.[5]

Early careerEdit

In 1989, the legislature passed the Administrative Procedure Law, which gave Chinese citizens the right to sue state agencies for the first time. In the 1990s, Gao represented the family of a Xinjiang boy who became comatose after a doctor erroneously gave him ethanol intravenously; Gao won $100,000 in damages for a boy who had lost his hearing in another malpractice case.[5] He acted on behalf of a private businessman who had taken control of and redressed a troubled state-owned company when the district government used force to reclaim it after it became profitable. The case went to the Supreme Court, with a verdict in favour of the businessman; however, according to Gao, he has been a victim of reprisals from Xinjiang leaders, who warned clients and court officials to shun him.[5]

Zhi Sheng Law FirmEdit

Gao was director, founder of the Beijing-based Zhi Sheng Law Firm, having moved to Beijing in 2000. In 2001, he was recognized by China’s Ministry of Justice as "one of the country’s 10 best lawyers" for his work in defending victims of medical malpractice and fighting for just compensation for dispossessed landowners.[7] Over the following years, he defended a wide range of clients who had been victims of injustice. Gao’s committed involvement with such cases, he says, is strongly bound with the emphasis of his Christian identity on morality and compassion.[1] One significant case he spearheaded was for fair compensation for a client whose home was expropriated for a building project connected with the 2008 Summer Olympics. However, Gao cites an internal document drafted by the central government he had read that instructed all district courts to reject cases involving such land disputes, which he said was "blatantly illegal", but which "every court in Beijing blindly obeyed."[5] Other cases include:

  • a land dispute case against Taishi village officials
  • a class-action lawsuit against local authorities over coercion in implementation of China’s family planning policies
  • winning a case for six factory workers from Guangdong province who had been detained for protesting exploitation by their employer.[8]
  • appealing the sentence of Zheng Yichun, a journalist and former professor who was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for his on-line writings
  • providing legal assistance to Falun Gong practitioners, including Huang Wei, who was illegally sentenced to three years of re-education through labor in Shijiazhuang.[6]
  • providing legal help for an unofficial Chinese house church pastor Cai Zhuohua, who was sentenced to three years in prison for printing and distributing copies of the Bible.[citation needed]

Following the Beijing land compensation case, he entered what was to become a protracted battle over several hundred acres of farmland that Guangdong Province had seized to construct a university. Although Gao met with many legal impediments, he took his campaign to the people. He publicly accused Guangdong officials of "brazen murderous schemes", which stoked public anger and helped his clients obtain more generous compensation.[5] In the summer of 2005, Gao defended fellow lawyer-activist Zhu Jiuhu, who was accused of "disturbing public order" while representing private investors in oil wells that were seized by the government in Shaanxi. He secured Zhu's release several months later through an intensive publicity campaign, although Zhu was barred from practicing law.[5] The Beijing Judicial Bureau has prohibited him from acting in certain cases and clients, including Falun Gong, the Shaanxi oil case and an incident of political unrest in Taishi village in Guangdong. He refused to drop any of them, arguing that the bureau had no legal authority to dictate what cases he accepts or rejects.[5]

In 2005, he resigned from the Communist Party.[9] Shortly after sending an open letter to the PRC leadership that accused the government of running extrajudicial "brainwashing base(s)" for dealing with Falun Gong practitioners, he received a visit from State Security agents. Gao's family was put under 24-hour police surveillance in the autumn of 2005. On 4 November, shortly after being warned to retract a second open letter he had written about his Falun Gong cases, Gao received a new summons from the judicial bureau accusing him of a "serious violation of the Law on Managing the Registration of Law Firms" for failing to promptly register a new business address following a move. He was ordered to suspend operations for a year.[5] On appeal in late November, the bureau demanded that Gao hand over his personal law license as well as his firm's operating permit by 14 December, threatening use of force if he failed to comply; at that time, Gao had eluded being tailed by Security, and went to north-east China to take statements from Falun Gong practitioners who alleged torture at the hands of security forces.[5]


Amnesty International alleged on 17 January 2006 that Gao narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, planned as a traffic accident ordered by Chinese secret police. On 4 February 2006, Gao, together with Hu Jia and other activists, launched a "Relay Hunger Strike for Human Rights," whereby different activists and citizens fasted for 24 hours in rotation. The hunger strike was joined by people in 29 provinces, as well as overseas, though several participants were arrested for joining.[10]

On 15 August 2006, after numerous death threats and continued harassment, Gao disappeared while visiting his sister's family. On 21 September 2006, he was officially arrested.[11] On 22 December 2006, Gao was convicted of "subversion", and was sentenced to three years in prison, suspended, and placed on probation for five years. The sentence also deprived him of his political rights – the freedom to publish or speak out against the government – for one year. He had publicly confessed to a number of errors. On his liberation, Gao recanted his confession and described torture he said he experienced[7][12] during his 54 days[13] in custody. He also said his captors threatened he would be killed if he spoke publicly about the matter.[7] In chapter 6 of his memoirs written in 2006, Gao criticised the CCP for employing "the most savage, most immoral, and most illegal means to torture our mothers, torture our wives, torture our children, and torture our brothers and sisters…". He formally renounced his membership of "this inhumane, unjust, and evil Party", declaring it "the proudest day of my life."[14]

The American Board of Trial Advocates selected Gao to receive the prestigious Courageous Advocacy Award; they had invited him to receive the award personally in Santa Barbara, California on 30 June 2007.[15]

In the fall of 2007, Gao’s memoir A China More Just was published in English in the United States.[16]

On 22 September 2007, after writing open letters to Vice-President of the European Parliament, Edward McMillan-Scott, and then to US Congress calling for a boycott of the Olympics,[17] Gao was once again taken away from his home, where he had been under house arrest, by Chinese secret police.[18] A letter from Gao claimed that he endured ten days of torture that involved appalling beatings, abuse with electric batons, and the insertion of toothpicks into his genitalia, followed by weeks of emotional torture. Gao wrote that his torturers said his case had become personal with 'uncles' in the state security apparatus after he had repeatedly publicised previous mistreatment.[19]

Conversion to ChristianityEdit

According to his own statements, Gao first read the Bible while handling the legal defense of Pastor Cai Zhuohua, who was charged with “illegal business practices” in 2004 for possessing Bibles. It made no great impression on him, but later, when persecuted by the authorities, he found help from God and "join[ed] the brotherhood of Christians". In 2006, he experienced the first vision from God.[20]


In February 2009, Gao was taken away for interrogation by Chinese security agents[5] and had not been seen until[13] he resurfaced in Shanxi in March 2010. One month prior to his disappearance, Gao's wife and two children escaped China with the help of underground religious adherents. They arrived in the United States and were granted right of asylum ten days later.[7][9] During his disappearance, in response to queries from his family about his whereabouts, police claimed he lost his way and went missing in September 2009.[21][22] For several months, Gao was not charged, and the Government never acknowledged his whereabouts, nor their involvement in his disappearance. His last contact with friends or family was one phone call placed to his brother in July 2009.[19]

In January 2010, Gao's brother, Gao Zhiyi, told an interviewer that the Beijing police told him that Gao "lost his way and went missing" on 25 September 2009,[23][24] igniting fears that Gao was no longer alive.[25][26] On 21 January 2010, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a cryptic statement that Gao was "where he should be,"[27][28] and said he did not know Gao's whereabouts at a later press conference.[7] During the visit to China by David Miliband in March, the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, said that Gao had been sentenced on subversion charges, but denied he had been tortured.

On 28 March 2010 Gao was found to be living near Wutai Mountain. Addressing a reporter by telephone, he said he was not in a position to be interviewed, but confirmed he had been sentenced and freed.[29] A few days later, he met the media, appearing thinner and more subdued than in the past and said that he had abandoned his criticism of the government in the hope of reuniting with his wife and two children. He announced that over the previous year he had again been tortured, in ways that were even worse than before.[30]

In April 2010, Gao's family reported they had not heard from him since he returned from a visit to Xinjiang 10 days previously.[31] Gao had left Beijing to visit his in-laws in Ürümqi, carrying just a backpack between 9 and 12 April. Gao's father-in-law said Gao arrived at his house in the company of four police officers, spent just one night there before once again being taken away by police. His father-in-law called a friend of his in Beijing on 21 April to say Gao was to board a plane at 4.30 p.m. He said Gao had promised to call after returning home, but there was no word.[32] Emily Lau and Albert Ho said Gao's disappearance "prov[ed] that justice and the rule of law is disappearing in communist China – if it ever existed at all".[33]

The report of Gao's 2010 disappearance and detention was considered by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention which, in March 2011, called for his release.[34] After months of speculation as to his status and whereabouts, Xinhua reported in December 2011 that Gao had been jailed for three years by No. 1 Beijing Intermediate People's Court because he "had seriously violated probation rules for a number of times, which led to the court decision to withdraw the probation."[35] According to his brother, Gao was being held in a jail in Xayar County, Xinjiang province.[36]

Gao was released from jail on 7 August 2014 and was subsequently kept under house arrest.[37] Having been fed with a slice of bread and a piece of cabbage daily, he was released in bad health, but medical access was denied.[38] Gao escaped from house arrest on 13 August 2017, spending around three weeks on the run before his recapture by the Chinese authorities the following month[4] and remaining incommunicado for at least a year thereafter.[39]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Finney, Richard and Ding Xiao (4 September 2007) "China's Urban Christians an Unknown Quantity For Beijing", Radio Free Asia. Retrieved 7 October 2007
  2. ^ "BOOK- "A China More Just: My Fight As a Rights Lawyer in the World's Largest Communist State"". 23 November 2017. Retrieved 23 November 2017.
  3. ^ Edward, Wong (1 January 2012). "Missing Chinese Lawyer Said to Be in Remote Prison". The New York Times.
  4. ^ a b "Human rights in China under Xi Jinping 'worst since Tiananmen crackdown': Amnesty". South China Morning Post. 17 November 2017. Retrieved 15 December 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Kahn, Joseph (13 December 2005). "Legal Gadfly Bites Hard, and Beijing Slaps Him". The New York Times.
  6. ^ a b Zhisheng, Gao (2007). A China More Just. Broad Press.
  7. ^ a b c d e Jacobs, Andrew (3 February 2010). "China's Defiance Stirs Fears for Missing Dissident". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 February 2010.
  8. ^ "The Stella Shoe Workers’ Protest" Archived 5 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine. China Labor Bulletin. Retrieved 8 October 2008
  9. ^ a b "Chinese rights leader's family 'defects to US'". AFP. 12 March 2009.
  10. ^ Amnesty International (21 February 2006). "China: Amnesty International fears for missing hunger strike activists". Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  11. ^ BBC News (13 October 2006). "China lawyer held for incitement". Retrieved 24 November 2010.
  12. ^ Torture Account by Missing Rights Defense Lawyer Gao Zhisheng Archived 23 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine, Human Rights in China, 8 February 2009
  13. ^ a b AFP (26 January 2010) China says unaware of rights lawyer's whereabouts, AsiaOne
  14. ^ "Memoir of Top Chinese Lawyer Published as His Whereabouts Unknown" Broad Press USA (25 October 2007) Retrieved on 8 October 2008.
  15. ^ American Board Of Trial Advocates Presents Courageous Advocacy Award To Chinese Human Rights Activist Gao Zhisheng, American Board Of Trial Advocates (30 June 2007)
  16. ^ Broad Press USA, A China More Just. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  17. ^ Gao Zhisheng, “Open Letter to the United States Congress,” Retrieved 8 October 2008
  18. ^ “Nobel Peace Prize May Go to Chinese Activist, Angering Beijing”. Bloomberg L.P. 6 October 2008. Retrieved 6 October 2008.
  19. ^ a b Garnaut, John (20 January 2010) Tip reveals detained lawyer alive but location remains a mystery
  20. ^ Gao Zhisheng: Struggle against the Gods
  21. ^ Fears grow over Chinese lawyer's disappearance, Toronto Star, 13 April 2009
  22. ^ "China stays silent on missing lawyer Gao Zhisheng". BBC News. 4 February 2010. Retrieved 6 February 2010. "Now I wait, helpless, certain that my husband is being tortured and wondering whether I should actually hope that he has already been killed" Gao Zhisheng's wife Geng He
  23. ^ 中国警察说高智晟"失踪" (in Chinese). BBC Chinese. 14 January 2010.
  24. ^ Jacobs, Andrew (15 January 2010). "Chinese Lawyer Declared 'Missing' After Arrest". The New York Times.
  25. ^ Associated Press (14 January 2010). "Brother: Police Say China Lawyer 'Went Missing'". The New York Times.
  26. ^ Coonan, Clifford (16 January 2010). "Did the Chinese security forces kill Gao Zhisheng?". The Independent. London.
  27. ^ "Gao Zhisheng: One year later, China still mum on missing lawyer /". The Christian Science Monitor. 24 January 2010. Retrieved 6 February 2010.
  28. ^ Bristow, Michael (29 January 2010). "Mystery of missing Chinese lawyer Gao Zhisheng". BBC News. Retrieved 6 February 2010. Even in the most politicized cases, the Chinese authorities generally claim to be complying with their own criminal procedure laws. Mr. Gao has vanished with no official accounting or legal explanation.
  29. ^ Jacobs, Andrew (28 March 2010). "Chinese Activist Surfaces After Year in Custody". The New York Times.
  30. ^ China rights lawyer quits activism, RTHK, 8 April 2010
  31. ^ "China dissident lawyer Gao Zhisheng 'missing again'", 30 April 2010 BBC News
  32. ^ Mooney, Paul (30 April 2010). "Human rights lawyer disappears, again," South China Morning Post
  33. ^ Lau, Emily and Ho, Albert (5 May 2010). "Vanishing justice", South China Morning Post
  34. ^ Wong, Edward (28 March 2011). "U.N. Rights Group Calls on China to Release Lawyer". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 March 2011.
  35. ^ "China Sends Long-Missing Lawyer Gao Back to Jail". Associated Press. Fox News. 16 December 2011. Archived from the original on 6 January 2012.
  36. ^ "China dissident lawyer Gao Zhisheng 'in Xinjiang jail'". BBC News. 2 January 2012.
  37. ^ World Watch Monitor. 15 August 2014 China’s Nobel nominee lawyer released after three years. Retrieved 9 October 2014.
  38. ^ The Wall Street Journal. 11 September 2014. Free Gao Zhisheng. Retrieved 9 October 2014.
  39. ^ Rogers, Benedict (13 August 2018). "A year on, lawyer's disappearance highlights China's escalating human rights disaster". Hong Kong Free Press. Retrieved 14 August 2018.

External linksEdit