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Gao Zhisheng and China's question

The disappearance of a Chinese lawyer after his arrest by China’s security agents amplifies the wider dilemma of the country’s political elite, says Kerry Brown.

I have never met the Chinese lawyer and writer Gao Zhisheng, though on the recommendation of a friend I read his autobiography A China More Just when it was published in Chinese in 2006. His tale of being harassed by security-officers and police while defending the rights of those who were being prosecuted for following the quasi-religious Falun Gong movement (outlawed in China in the late 1990s) gives a fine view of the darker side of life for many citizens of the modern People’s Republic (see Gao Zhisheng, A China More Just, Broad Press, 2007).

It was clearly Gao’s intention to raise the sights of his readers and enable them to connect his own story to that of the country as a whole. As he said on the publication of his book: “It is my hope that those who read my essays and those who know the hardship that surrounds my family and me will not view it as hardship that merely a few individuals are facing. It is actually a window through which one can see the lasting pain of a nation.”

The willingness of Gao (himself a Christian) to take on highly contentious legal cases was always a risk. In December 2006, he was given a three-year jail sentence for “inciting subversion”; this was suspended, though he remained under tight surveillance. In 2007, he wrote an eloquent denunciation of the official treatment of some of China’s “bad elements” for the United States congress. His reward was to be detained by security-personnel in September 2007 and placed for weeks in the same kind of hell as those he had been defending. He wrote a searing account of his experience; it describes how one thug urinated on him, another sticking toothpicks in his testicles, and a third telling him “this is personal, you bastard” - and that he won’t get out alive from the “treatment centre”.

Some of those who met Gao Zhisheng after his release say that he emerged from this experience half-dead, psychologically damaged, even a broken man. But his ordeal deepened: in February 2009 he was abducted in Shanxi province in central China, reportedly while seeking to leave China (he had already helped his wife and daughter to get to Thailand, whence they reached the United States in March 2009). After his disappearance, Gao became a non-person: no trial was held, no charges brought, no official statement was made, nothing more was heard of him. Gao Zhisheng vanished (see Andrew Jacobs, “China’s Defiance Stirs Fears for Missing Dissident”, New York Times, 2 February 2010).

In September 2009, Gao’s brother approached the public-security bureau and asked whether there was any news of his whereabouts. He received the baffling reply that Gao had “gone missing while in detention”; perhaps an indirect admission that in fact he was dead, or in such a poor physical state after yet more ill-treatment that it was no longer possible to show him to the world. In January 2010, a journalist’s inquiry for more information solicited another display of masterful ambiguity from a Chinese foreign-ministry spokesperson, who declared: “Gao is where he should be.”

It must be said that such blank refusal by the Chinese authorities to say anything at all about the fate of dissidents or other figures of concern is most unusual. Even the most hardline Chinese officials would see such stonewalling as counterproductive, and offer a statement (however terse) with at least some details about the individual’s whereabouts, sentence and/or health. The silence that surrounds Gao Zhisheng feels like a live burial (see Clifford Coonan, “Did the Chinese security forces kill Gao Zhisheng?”, Independent, 16 January 2010).

The behaviour of a Chinese government that allows its agents to seize its opponents on the streets in broad daylight, then silences and buries them, seems to confirm the claims of its fiercest critics: namely, that this government is little short of a mafia on a massive scale. Is this really the way that the China’s rulers want to be seen, by the world and their own people?

The treatment

Gao Zhisheng’s true fate remains to be established. But his principled stance and refusal to be crushed has at least shone some light into one of the darkest areas of the Chinese state’s operations: its system of “black jails” - semi-legal, underground detention-centres where vexatious petitioners who have travelled to Beijing from the provinces are incarcerated by contractors and “dealt with”. The roughness of the treatment meted out in these institutions is designed to intimidate citizens in search of voice and redress, and highlight the risks of such insolence to anyone (such as their neighbours at home) with similar ideas.

It is becoming harder for the state to protect this network of “black jails” from scrutiny. The rape of a female petitioner in one of these centres in 2009 caused outrage, with the guilty guard caught and prosecuted. A Human Rights Watch report – ‘An Alleyway in Hell’: China's Abusive ‘Black Jails’ (November 2009) - contains many case-studies and details of the system’s operation, and the fact that this report has been openly discussed in some parts of the mainland Chinese media reflects awareness in the country of problems in the conduct of the security service and police.

The question

There is a strong argument that the Chinese leadership’s rhetoric about a “harmonious society” is a masquerade which ill conceals the fact that this is a society in ferment: indeed that China is in the midst of an era of contention that began in the late 1990s. The central provinces illustrate this all too clearly: places like Henan and Hunan are vast battlegrounds between business elites and state officials, with civil-society groups and grassroots organisations also seeking to wield influence among the powerful (see “China’s shadow sector: power in pieces”, 17 September 2009). The courts are clogged up with various kinds of suits where group try to gain advantage over another. There are frequent social protests, with some areas in the countryside unable to hold village elections because they disintegrate into mass pitched battles between different factions, clans or families.

A Pew Research survey conducted in 2008 found that 86% of Chinese were satisfied with the way things are going in their country. More detailed questions based on ground-level sentiment tend to give different results. A survey of public trust by Xiaokang magazine in 2009 revealed that local-government officials were less trusted than prostitutes. True, central-government officials were rated slightly higher, but trust in them had declined in successive years (see Wu Zhong, “Sex and China's credibility gap”, Asia Times, 12 August 2009).

The handling of Gao Zhisheng (like that of Liu Xiaobo) is all the more remarkable in light of China’s emerging status in the world – something vividly on display at the World Economic Forum in Davos. China is now a global power, with an economy that is integral to the rest of the world’s; it is the world’s largest exporter, and holds $2.4 trillion of foreign-currency reserves; it has the world’s largest standing army, and wields diplomatic clout from Latin America to Africa, from the middle east to central Asia; and it has a big responsibility to help make a difference on key international issues.

Yet with all its might, China also sees individuals such as Gao Zhisheng as a threat (see “China and Liu Xiaobo: the weakness of strength”, 11 January 2010). The evidence suggests that the central government has given at least passive consent to a particularly zealous, brutal and “deniably” renegade arm of the security services to arrest Gao and do whatever they wish with him. The question that arises is: are politburo members - now used to massive security protection and a five-star welcome in almost every country in the world - happy to see Chinese citizens casually deprived of rights and even life; or are they unable to reign in their own security services and hold them to account? To find the correct answer is also to understand where China is going.

About the author

Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London, associate fellow at Chatham House, and lead member of the Europe China Research and Advice Network. He was formerly director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. His latest book is China's CEO: The Rise of Xi Jinping (IB Tauris, 2016).

His previous books include Carnival China: China in the Era of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping (Imperial College Press, 2014); (as editor) EU-China Relationship: European Perspectives (Imperial College Press / World Scientific, 2015); (as editor-in-chief) Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography (Berkshire, 2014-15); Contemporary China (Palgrave, 2nd edition, June 2015); Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (Anthem Press, 2009); Ballot Box China: Grassroots Democracy in the Final Major One-Party State (Zed Books, 2011); and Hu Jintao: China's Silent Ruler (World Scientific, 2012). Kerry Brown's website is here

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