BEIJING -- I first met the now-disappeared lawyer Gao Zhisheng four years ago. He was not one to mince his words: "The China you see and the China we feel are totally different. Maybe you see only the prosperity and development in China and also the many legal rights that the Chinese people should have on paper," he said. "Every day, I feel the truth of the development of the rule of law in China."
That is chillingly true now. Gao, 45, was taken away by police on Feb. 4, in what had all the markings of a black operation by China's shadowy security apparatus. Not a word from the government on his whereabouts. Not a word on his condition. Not even an assurance that he is alive. Once named one of the best lawyers in the country, Gao's crime was to advocate for those who have no rights, most notably the followers of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong. Today, he is the one without rights.
For his crime, the secret police abducted Gao and tortured him for days on end. A kangaroo court convicted and sentenced him for subverting state power. His wife and two children, relentlessly harassed by police, finally escaped while under surveillance in January, fleeing for exile in the U.S.
This is the other China Gao was talking about, "a state with the characteristics of the mafia," he said, where no laws can protect lawyers like him. This China is a Stalinist anachronism: brutal and merciless when it encounters the most stubborn dissidents; thuggish when it thinks a good beating or detention on trumped-up charges will teach the appropriate lesson; merely intimidating when it believes that making some bluntly worded threats and scaring off a lawyer's paying clients will produce the desired results.
And this China gets results. There is a limit to how much intimidation and brutality most Chinese rights defenders can endure before deciding, finally, that it might be best for them and their families if they work within carefully defined boundaries. They remain under constant pressure even while operating in the mainstream, working in the China that is part of our more acceptable, comfortable discourse, the one where many earnest efforts are being made to improve rule of law, human rights, working conditions and environmental protections.
I don't need to describe this China because it is the one that the rest of the world engages with every day, the one that international institutions and NGOs work with, the one that multinational corporations invest in, the one that appears daily in the foreign media (despite many fine individual efforts to peer into and describe Gao's China). The Western democracies long ago concluded that engagement with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is ultimately in the best interests of the Chinese people; Gao counters that engaging with the Chinese government is no different historically from "shaking hands with Stalin" at Yalta.
"I would like to remind those so-called 'good friends and partners' of the CCP around the world," he wrote in his first-person account of torture at the hands of the secret police, "that the increasing level of confidence of the CCP in treating the Chinese people with increasingly cold-blooded brutality and cruelty is the direct result of appeasement by both you and us [the Chinese people]."
Obviously, engagement at this point is not a choice. It is reality. Many Chinese rights defenders work diligently within that reality, and some believe unrestrained activism like Gao's undermines their cause, weakening reform-minded bureaucrats within the government, strengthening the hard-line security factions. What Gao calls appeasement, they would call realism, and vice versa. It is a debate with no clear winner, only differing shades of struggle.
Gao, nominated last year for the Nobel Peace Prize, calls for more help from the West in that struggle. He blasts France and Germany for caring more about securing big Chinese purchase orders than about human rights. He affords praise for American values, but says the U.S., too, has a "bottom line" in dealing with China, and it is not human rights.
Gao's wife, Geng He, has pleaded for Congress to help. American diplomats have pressed the Chinese government repeatedly about Gao's case, never hearing so much as an acknowledgment that there is a case to discuss.
Gao was, in his way, grimly realistic about such things. Speaking about another lawyer who was in jail at the time of our interview, he said, "The regime does not have the right to do this, but they have the power to do it, and now that they've done it, no one can do anything about it."