This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Six years after prominent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng disappeared from his cave-dwelling home in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi, rights groups and his family are still calling for his release.
Gao’s wife Geng He said she has had no communication from him, nor any update about him from the authorities since he went missing, believed detained one year after he published a memoir about being tortured in prison.
“In the past six years that we have been looking for Gao Zhisheng, every day has truly felt like a year,” Geng, who escaped to the United States with her son and daughter in January 2009, told a rally for his release in San Francisco at the weekend.
“Every time I look at my phone, I am reminded that … when other people look at their phones, they can swipe through photos and videos of their loved ones,” she said. “But our family has none of that.”
“We don’t have any photos or video of him, nor his phone number,” Geng said on the Aug. 13 anniversary of her husband’s disappearance.
“We don’t know where he is, or if he’s still alive,” she said.
Fang Zheng, who heads the U.S.-based Chinese Democracy Education Foundation, told Radio Free Asia at the rally: “We’d like to shout out to Xi Jinping to free Gao Zhisheng.”
“We want to know where Gao Zhisheng is,” she said.
Jie Lijian, who heads the youth wing of the overseas-based China Democracy Party, said the government fears Gao and everything he stands for.
“They are utterly terrified of Gao Zhisheng,” Jie said. “They’re afraid that he will shine his light across the whole of China, and the Chinese Communist Party … fears that more than anything.”
Gao disappeared on Aug. 13, 2017, from a remote cave dwelling in Shaanxi where he was being held under house arrest following his release from prison in August 2014. Local police denied holding him when contacted by the family.
The Gao Zhisheng Lawyers’ Concern Group headed by rights activist Ai Ming said in December 2017 that it had tracked him down, publishing a brief audio clip of Gao saying he was being held “in darkness” in conditions far worse than prison.
“Things weren’t so bad in Shaya Prison,” Gao says in the undated audio sent to RFA by Ai. “During my time there, I got to leave the closed cell at times. I also got to leave the prison building twice during those three years.”
Gao said he was locked up in total darkness, in a room where the windows have been blacked out to prevent any natural light from coming in. He said it felt like being confined in an “infinite darkness.”
Officials told Radio Free Asia at that time that his case was being managed by the local “stability maintenance” team.
Defending the vulnerable
Once a prominent lawyer feted by the government, Gao began to be targeted by the authorities after he defended some of China’s most vulnerable people, including Christians, coal miners and followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
In a memoir published in 2016, Gao detailed the torture he later endured at the hands of the authorities during his time in prison, as well as three years of solitary confinement, during which he said he was sustained by his Christian faith and his hopes for China.
China’s six-year silence on his whereabouts highlights the use of “disappearances” to silence critics of the ruling Communist Party, rights groups said in a call for his release.
“We … call on the Chinese authorities to immediately and unconditionally release prominent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng,” an open letter signed by dozens of rights groups including Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Humanitarian China and Freedom House said.
“We also condemn the Chinese government’s use of enforced disappearances as a tactic to silence and control activists, religious practitioners, Uyghurs and Tibetans, and even high-profile celebrities, entrepreneurs, and government officials,” it said.
U.S.-based Shandong legal scholar Chen Guangcheng said the government has repeatedly refused to give any explanation for Gao’s disappearance.
“These responses from the Chinese Communist Party give the impression to the rest of the world that they are refusing to face the issue,” Chen wrote in a recent blog post for RFA Mandarin.
“Yet this isn’t the case – the Chinese Communist Party has never stopped its persecution and suppression of Gao Zhisheng.”
In 2020, the Chinese government responded to a letter from six UN Special Rapporteurs enquiring after news of Gao: “In August 2014 Mr. Gao was released, having served his sentence. Since his release, the public security authorities have not taken any coercive measures against him.”
Gao Zhisheng’s case falls under the humanitarian mandate of the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, while the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion in 2010 stating that Gao’s detention was arbitrary under international law.
The rights groups cited several other cases of rights lawyers and activists currently subjected to enforced disappearance in China, including rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and his wife Xu Yan, who were detained on their way to attend an event at the European Delegation in Beijing, “Bridge Man” banner protester Peng Lifa and Guangxi-based rights activist Jia Pin.
They said hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs remain in arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, while similar tactics have been deployed in Tibet against the Panchen Lam, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, and rights activists Anya Sengdra, Dorjee Daktal, Kelsang Choklang, Dhongye, Rinchen Namdol, Tsultrim Gonpo, Jangchup Ngodup, Sogru Abhu and Namesy.
They also cited the disappearance from public view of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, adding: “Even powerful and famous people in China are not immune to becoming victims of disappearances.”