I never met Gao Zhisheng, never spoke to him by phone, never communicated with him by e mail or letter. Yet I know from personal experience that he is a hero, the ideal of what a lawyer should be.
My personal experience with Gao Zhisheng is this. A non governmental organization, the Coalition to Investigate Persecution against the Falun Gong, in May 2006 asked David Kilgour and me, as independent experts, to investigate and write a report on the allegations into organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China. The allegations were that Falun Gong were killed for their organs and their bodies cremated, that their organs were used for transplants to customers from around the world paying huge sums. David Kilgour is a former member of the Canadian government, a former Minister for Asia and the Pacific.
Naturally, to do this investigation, we wanted to go to China. Because I am an immigration lawyer in Canada I know that an application for a visa is more likely to succeed when the application is accompanied by an invitation from someone in the country from which the visa is sought. We cast about in several directions for an invitation from China to do this work. The person who responded was Gao Zhisheng.
David Kilgour and I asked for a meeting with the Chinese embassy in Canada to discuss terms of entry. Our request for a meeting was accepted. But the person who met with David Kilgour was interested only in denying the allegations and not in arranging for our visit. So we never made a formal visa application and never submitted Gao's invitation to the Chinese embassy.
Shortly thereafter, on August 15, Gao was arrested, tortured, prosecuted for inciting subversion, convicted on December 12, and sentenced on December 22 to three years suspended for five years. Though the jail sentence was suspended, he went into house arrest where he remains to this day. David Kilgour and I could not but help but sit up and take notice. What in the world was going on?
Gao had become a successful private lawyer starting from the most disadvantageous beginning imaginable. He was born in a cave. His parents could not afford to send to him to school; so he listened outside classroom windows. Yet by 2001 China's Ministry of Justice had rated Gao as one of China's top ten lawyers. He had advocated on behalf of a long list of clients in difficult situations û for instance, coal miners suing their employers and a client demanding compensation for his home confiscated in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.
Three of his clients were Yang Maodong, Zheng Yichun and Pastor Cai Zhuohua. Yang was detained for providing legal advice to villagers in Taishi, Guandong province attempting to unseat a village leader for corruption. Zheng, a journalist and former professor, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for his online writings. Pastor Cai Zhuohua was imprisoned for three years for such practices as printing and selling copies of the Bible.
Gao was safe in taking on these sorts of cases as long as he stayed away from the Falun Gong. It was his protests against the victimization of the Falun Gong which finally got him into trouble.
This reality, though, raises a further question. Why did Gao run a so much greater risk by taking on the woes of the Falun Gong than he did by representing his other clients? Why, to the Government of China, is standing up for the Falun Gong worse than standing up for Christians?
I suspect many in this audience do not know what the Falun Gong is. But finding out what it is does not answer my question.
Falun Gong is a modern blend of three ancient Chinese traditions, qi gong, Taoism and Buddhism. Qi gong is a set of exercise practices. The most well known amongst them in the West is Tai Chi. The core teaching of Falun Gong is respect for the principles of truth, compassion and tolerance. Falun Gong has no political agenda or political platform. It preaches and practices non violence, even in self defence. Why in the world would the Government of China go after, more than any other target group, a bunch of innocents who do nothing more than exercise and meditate?
As with all victimization, the answer lies with the perpetrators, not the victims. To take an example, we learn nothing about antisemitism by looking at Jews; we can understand it only by looking at antisemites. To understand the victimization of the Falun Gong does not require knowledge about the Falun Gong; but it does require some appreciation of the Communist Party of China.
Falun Gong emerged in 1992 at the time of the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Its founder was Li Hongzhi. He wrote books and gave lectures which inspired the present Falun Gong movement. The Government of China estimated in 1999 that there were 70 million adherents. The Falun Gong, at that time had more practitioners than the Communist Chinese Party had members, an estimated 60 million.
It was impossible for any non Communist belief system to gain that many adherents in China without creating cross currents. Communist ideologues started picking away at the Falun Gong, first at the lowest levels of the Party. But this ideological backlash eventually reached the very top. The then President of China, Jiang Zemin, got alarmed by the growth of the Falun Gong. The ideological supremacy of the Communist Party was, in his view, in danger. He persuaded the Party in July 1999 to ban the movement.
At one level, the Chinese Communist repression of Falun Gong seems to be sheer totalitarian nuttiness, the manufacturing of an enemy out of thin air. The Communist Party needs enemies in order to justify their continuing hold on power and the Falun Gong had the bad luck to be around and available to fill the enemy slot.
For a communist regime, far worse than having bitter enemies is having no enemies at all. For, without anyone to demonize, communists are left speechless when justifying their hold on power.
At the level of totalitarian dynamics, this nuttiness is no doubt there. But, there is another level, the China specific level. The Falun Gong are an outgrowth from ancient Chinese traditions; they are its modern form. Put in Hegelian/Marxist terms, they are the present stage of the Chinese historical dialectic. They are the face of the real China, the grass roots China, the China of the people, in Marxist terms the China of the proletariat.
It is no coincidence that the Falun Gong emerged in 1992 at the time of the ending of any rational belief world wide in Communism. What was to fill the ideological gap left by the global collapse of Communism? For China, the answer was Falun Gong.
To the Chinese Communist Party, the Falun Gong were a regression, a huge leap backward, back to where China was before the Communist Party took over. For Falun Gong to prevail would mean a China that would continue as if the Chinese Communist Party never existed, aside from the scars the Party left behind.
The problem for the Communists was not just that Falun Gong is so authentically Chinese; it is also that Communism is so patently foreign. Communism is a Western ideological import into China. Communists saw a widespread, popular Chinese based ideology as cutting out from under them the very ground on which they stood.
Tolerating the Falun Gong would not have meant, at least in the short run, the collapse of the current regime. But it would have meant the disappearance of whatever ideological presence the Communist Party still had in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. Once there was no one left to believe in Communism, even within the Communist Party, the loosening of the grip of the Communist Party on power could not be far behind. And that, it seems, is what has led to the vicious Chinese Communist Party repression, a repression without bounds, a repression far worse than suffered by any other victim group.
One can see this ideological fear from the invective the Party uses against the Falun Gong. The full fury of the venom once directed against capitalists, the bourgeois, the exploiters, is now turned to the Falun Gong. The Falun Gong are called an evil cult brainwashed by founder Li Hongzhi to kill themselves and others.
As one would expect with a group subject to such extreme vilification, its victimization is horrendous, far and away greater than that of any other group. First comes the incitement to hatred. Then comes the depersonalization, marginalization and dehumanization. Finally, come the torture and killings.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture's report of March 2006 indicated that 66% of the victims of alleged torture and ill treatment in China were Falun Gong practitioners. Next were Uighurs at 11%. Everyone else was single digits. As of December 22, 2006, David Kilgour and I identified over 3,000 named Falun Gong practitioners who died as a result of persecution.
It was this maelstrom into which Gao threw himself. He wrote three open letters protesting the persecution of the Falun Gong. The letters were written in December 2004, October 2005, and December 2005.
Following the second letter, the Beijing Bureau of Municipal Justice suspended the operation of his office for one year. In December, his licence to practice was revoked.
The response of Gao to this behaviour was to resign publicly from the Communist Party and to write his third letter. Following the third letter, he received calls from the police. The police told him that he had crossed the line and put himself in a difficult position. The police said that he, his wife and children were all under investigation. Starting in December, he and his family were put under constant police surveillance.
The police arrested him in January 2006 for filming the police after he noticed them filming him. This time the police threatened to kill him. A few days later, also in January, a car with covered licence plates followed by a military vehicle also with covered licence plates attempted to run him over.
Gao responded by organizing a relay hunger strike. Lawyers and rights activists fasted in turn for one or two days to protest state persecution. In response the state arrested his office staff. Gao had kept his office open despite his disabarment; but from mid February he had to continue his work without staff.
After the first reports surfaced of organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in March 2006, the reports which precipitated our own investigation, the voice of Gao would not be stilled. He wrote about and condemned the practice. He expressed his willingness to join the Coalition to Investigate Persecution against the Falun Gong, the group that had mandated our work.
Gao then invited David Kilgour and me over to China to carry on our research. This, in itself, was an act of courage. But the manner of invitation was even more courageous.
I began my remarks by saying that I never communicated with Gao directly but that Gao invited us to come to China, two seemingly contradictory statements. But both are true.
In his invitation letter, he writes:
"As all my [land] telephones and networks have been cut off, I can only communicate [by cell phone] through reporters and the media."
And that is indeed how we got our invitation letter, through the media. Gao phoned in our invitation to a reporter. The reporter in turn phoned one of our interpreters to pass on the invitation. The reporter then filed the invitation with her newspaper, the Epoch Times, which printed it in their issue of June 11, 2006.
I must confess I felt uneasy about what Gao had done, that he was putting himself at risk by inviting us in this manner. He anticipated and answered this concern in his letter, writing:
"You may be worried that my support and invitation to you may endanger me. But the danger I am facing is not because of my support and invite to you, it is because we face an evil dictatorship system. Therefore, the danger already exists. The source of danger lies in this evil inhuman system, not what we choose to do."
Our report, released in its first form on July 6, 2006, came to the conclusion that the allegations were true, that there is wide scale organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners, killing them in the process. We did what little we could to protect Gao in the first version of our report by not mentioning him, his invitation nor his open letters against the persecution of the Falun Gong. Nonetheless we were deeply indebted to him not only for his example but also for his analysis and insights.
When Gao was almost immediately thereafter arrested tortured, convicted and sentence, we were appalled. But, given what we had learned about the Communist Party of China, we far from surprised.
What was stunning about Gao is not so much that he has stood up for justice and the rule of law, as admirable as that is, nor that he was persecuted for it, as deplorable as that is. It is rather that he stood his ground as the persecution accumulated, as it accelerated. He could not help but know that what he was doing was going to bring disaster on him; but he did it anyways.
It was at this point David Kilgour and I decided to nominate Gao for the Nobel Peace Prize. We went our nomination letter to the Norwegian Nobel Institute at the end of January this year.
I personally welcome this award given to Gao Zhisheng, in some ways an even greater honour than the Nobel Peace Prize. I am well aware that he is only the third recipient of this award in fifty years and the first sole recipient. Moreover, he fits the description of a courageous advocate to a "T".
We all hope never to be in the situation in which Gao Zhisheng has found himself. But we also have to hope that if we do, we would act as he has done. Gao Zhisheng, we salute you.
David Matas is a lawyer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.