When hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners were systematically persecuted – put into labour camps, disappeared, tortured - in China, most people chose to be silent. But not lawyer Gao Zhisheng. He ventured all over China to interview practitioners and to defend their rights.
Starting in 2004, Guo wrote multiple open letters to Chinese leaders, challenging the crackdown on Falun Gong. He won widespread respect for his bravery and his compassion towards people. Besides numerous human rights accolades, he was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times. In August 2006, Gao Zhisheng was kidnapped for the first time:
I was walking down the street one day and when I turned a corner, about six or seven strangers started walking towards me. I suddenly felt a strong blow to the back of my neck and fell face down on the ground. Someone yanked my hair and a black hood was immediately pulled over my head.
Four men with electric shock prods began beating my head and all over my body. Nothing but the noise of the beating and my anxious breathing could be heard. I was writhing on the ground in pain, trying to crawl away. [One of them] then shocked me in my genitals. My begging them to stop only led to laughing and more unbelievable torture in return.
After that, he was disappeared and brutally, repeatedly tortured.
In the 13 years after that kidnapping, Gao has never experienced a day of freedom – he has been either missing, locked up or under house arrest. When Gao was finally seen in public again, he looked old and frail. Most of his teeth were missing. But he refused to surrender, continuing to believe in the power of human rights and justice. Gao Zhisheng is not simply one of the bravest lawyers in China, he is the bravest one.
In August 2017, Gao went missing again and has not been heard from since.
Enforced disappearances go unchecked in China. The Panchen Lama – who is the second highest spiritual leader for Tibetan Buddhists – was taken by Chinese authorities as a six-year-old child in 1995. To this day, he has not been seen again, likely the world’s youngest victim of enforced disappearance. After unrest in Xinjiang in July 2009, large numbers of Uyghurs simply evaporated into thin air.
The Chinese Communist Party has not hesitated to disappear people outside China’s borders, nor to target non-Chinese citizens. In 2015, authorities kidnapped author and publisher – and EU citizen – Gui Minhai from Thailand, as well as his business associate, British citizen Lee Bo. In 2017, billionaire businessman and Canadian passport holder Xiao Jianhua vanished from his hotel room in Hong Kong.
But the Chinese government does not limit the use of disappearance to marginalised groups or to political dissidents and critics. In July of last year, Fan Bingbing – a world-famous Chinese actress – suddenly went silent. For more than three months, she was missing from public view. Even the CCP’s own are not immune: the head of France-based Interpol, the international police organisation, and Vice Minister of Justice Meng Hongwei, who presumably should have been untouchable, last communicated with his wife in October 2018, before being taken into custody during a routine trip back to China.
There is the CCP Disciplinary Committee’s shuanggui and the National Supervisory Commission’s liuzhi. There are ‘black jails’ that house rural petitioners and the ‘legal education centres’ and ‘study classes’ set up to detain and brainwash Falun Gong practitioners. As reported increasingly in the last year, there are the ‘education and transformation centres’ that may hold more than a million Uyghur and other Muslim minorities. Although each goes by a different name, these practices constitute a coherent state system of enforced disappearance, in blatant violation of international human rights standards.
China has refused to ratify the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances, and has even gone so far as to legalise enforced disappearances in recent amendments of its Criminal Procedure Law. As the 2017 publication People’s Republic of the Disappeared showed, the use of ‘residential surveillance in a designated location’ – as allowed for in a provision of the law – has resulted in shocking abuse of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens. In the forward to the book, I call these ‘atrocities in the name of the law’.
I should know; I have experienced them myself. Three separate times - in 2008, 2011 and 2012- I was among the political dissidents and human rights lawyers who were the victims of disappearances. I was held in secret, put in a black hood that blocked out all light, with no way of knowing where I was, subject to physical and mental torment. My family and friends were also victims; in the blink of an eye, I had evaporated, they didn’t know if I was alive or dead. This caused them immense suffering.
For those who remain free, enforced disappearance still has its consequences. It creates a climate of terror. If you know that the state is not bound by any laws, and can disappear you anytime, anywhere, how likely are you to speak out against that same state?
The Chinese state, which like all authoritarian regimes is motivated by an extreme fear of its own people, has perfected this tactic as a means of staying in power. It is more efficient than detention, trial and imprisonment, because it relies on one simple truth: that no one, not lawyers, celebrities, people of faith, or even government officials, is safe.
And yet, there is another simple truth that I and others working for human rights believe: that when one of us is not free, none of us is free. People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.
The international community cannot stand idly by, nor believe that, in dealing with a high-tech totalitarian Chinese regime, they can assume it will be business as usual. They should not forget the lessons of appeasing the Third Reich in the twentieth century. In the face of so many disappearances in China, the spirit of defending freedom and the voice of resistance cannot also disappear.