Embattled Chinese Lawyer Vows To Continue Rights Work


2005-11-16
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Beijing-based lawyer Gao Zhisheng. Photo courtesy of Gao Zhisheng

HONG KONG—A Beijing-based lawyer who has made a name for himself working to protect the rights of ordinary Chinese people has vowed to continue his work after the authorities closed down his business.

Gao Zhisheng, whose clients include residents of Guangdong’s Taishi village, farmers from the southern coastal city of Shanwei and a mining community in the northern province of Shaanxi, said he would continue to do “what has to be done.”

“I will continue to write articles on cases that go against the most fundamental principles of human rights. I will continue to work for the rights of ordinary citizens, as an ordinary person myself if they refuse to let me operate as a lawyer.”

Gao, with fellow rights lawyers Teng Biao and Xu Zhiyong, wrote an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao slamming widespread abuses of the rule of law in China, which the current leadership says it is trying to establish.

I will continue to write articles on cases that go against the most fundamental principles of human rights. I will continue to work for the rights of ordinary citizens, as an ordinary person myself if they refuse to let me operate as a lawyer.

‘Hero of 2005’

Dubbed “China’s hero of 2005” by former Tiananmen student activist Wang Dan, Gao first attracted official disapproval with his writings against official abuses of members of the banned spiritual Falungong movement, and his legal representation of rural communities in bitter land disputes with local officials.

Earlier this month, Beijing’s municipal judicial affairs bureau told him his law firm would have its license revoked for one year, ostensibly for procedural errors.

Gao said the real reason had been made amply clear to him during a phone call from the bureau on Oct. 26, however.

“The deputy chief of the judicial affairs bureau [told me] it was a mistake to write the open letter to Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao. Firstly, it had seriously affected the image of the government and of the country and damaged the overall image of the legal profession in China.”

“Secondly, my actions had seriously contravened the ethics and moral code of the legal profession in China, and, thirdly, I should unconditionally retract it,” Gao told RFA’s Mandarin service in an in-depth interview aired Tuesday.

“I said that even if I had the technical ability to recall it, I wouldn’t do it on principle anyway, and that as a government official he should at least have some sort of capacity for realism...And I hung up on him,” Gao said.

Warned off sensitive rights cases

He said the official had also told him not to carry on talking about his work on behalf of villagers in a Shaanxi oilfield land dispute, in the Taishi village recall campaign, or the Shanwei dispute, where 40,000 people lost their livelihoods to make way for a power station.

As lawyers, and as citizens of a great nation, we shall take responsibility and face these problems.

He said officials regarded him as having “crossed the line” in the open letter with his mention of official abuses of Falungong members. Gao recently led a legal team to the eastern province of Shandong to investigate the abuse allegations.

“That official also said to me: ‘Gao Zhisheng. What sort of issue is the Falungong issue? It’s an untouchable issue. But you have been touching it everywhere you go. And I will tell you frankly now that you have crossed that line twice now,’“ Gao told “Journey of the Soul” presenter Zhang Min.

“I said, actually it’s three times. I wrote an article in July about it, too.”

Gao said he and his wife were rushing to do as much for their most vulnerable clients as they could before the official documents formalizing the closure of his law firm arrived.

In a recent commentary on RFA’s Mandarin service, former Tiananmen activist and U.S.-based scholar Wang Dan said Gao’s experience showed the limits of China’s fledgling legal profession.

Letter vows to uphold rule of law

“Like his fellow lawyers Guo Guoting and Pu Zhiqiang, Gao is an outstanding lawyer. If they had a rapacious attitude which enabled them to overlook the realities of their work, then they would have already reaped a double harvest in terms of profit and reputation,” Wang said.

“Instead, they have thrown all of their abilities into helping those who have suffered abuse of their human rights. And yet they have not prevailed, because the law in China is just a decoration. You could even say it’s a joke.”

The open letter, sent to China’s leaders on Sept. 8, said China’s legal profession would continue to work to uphold the rule of law and human rights in the face of rampant official abuse of power and flagrant abuse of citizens’ rights across the country.

“As lawyers, and as citizens of a great nation, we shall take responsibility and face these problems. We cannot turn away from the cruel reality that so many injustices are happening everywhere and every day,” it said.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Zhang Min. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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