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China: A Lawyer Tests The Limits

  • Patrick Moore

Gao Zhiseng (file photo) (RFE/RL) Chinese lawyer Gao Zhisheng has made a name for himself by testing the limits of the rule of law, which the country's leaders say they want to establish. The reality he has found is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and those who rule in its name do not look kindly on what they consider challenges to their monopoly on power.


Gao's efforts to protect the rights of ordinary Chinese have won him the title of "China's Hero of 2005" from Wang Dan, who was one of the leading activists in the 1989 pro-democracy protests on Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Gao's efforts have also prompted the authorities to warn him on several occasions to cease and desist, and, more recently, they have shut down his business altogether (link to my article "China's Own Goals"), according to a recent broadcast by Radio Free Asia's (RFA) Mandarin Service. (See "Beijing's Own Goals.")


Defending Ordinary Citizens


His wrongdoings in the eyes of the authorities have involved taking up causes that range from what the CCP considers irksome to what it regards as downright oppositionist. In the first category, Gao has defended the residents of Guangdong Province's Taishi village in their efforts to assert their rights within the limits of the CCP's fledgling rural democracy project and the safeguards supposedly built into it.


A central element of the Taishi case is the extent to which the party is willing to fight corruption within officialdom. If the CCP is not seen as doing something about corruption, the party risks further undermining its legitimacy, which is already under question in view of the growing inequality between rich and poor regions and within society as a whole. Party General-Secretary Hu Jintao has acknowledged the problem of regional and social inequality and vowed at a Central Committee plenum in October to pursue what he calls "the harmonious society."


Gao and his staff have defended clients in a variety of cases, including miners concerned about fatal accidents and abysmal safety conditions and farmers involved in land disputes. The authorities have warned Gao to stop talking about Taishi, the mines, and similar cases. But he has truly attracted the CCP's ire by taking on issues that the party regards as "crossing the line," as one official told him.


Falun Gong


One such matter involved his writings on behalf of the banned meditation movement Falun Gong, which the regime considers a threat in view of the tendency in Chinese history for some millenarian spiritual movements to become violent and revolutionary. Gao told RFA that one official recently told him: "Gao Zhisheng, what sort of issue is Falun Gong? It is 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." But Gao said he was not put off by the threat and even pointed out that the authorities had failed to notice that he wrote about Falun Gong not twice, but three times.


A second incident in which the authorities felt that Gao went too far took place on 8 September, when he sent an open letter to Hu and to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. In it, Gao stressed that the legal profession will continue to work to uphold the rule of law and human rights despite official abuse of power and violations of citizens' rights, RFA noted. "As lawyers and as citizens of a great nation, we shall take responsibility and face these problems," Gao wrote. "We cannot turn away from the cruel reality that so many injustices are happening everywhere and every day."


Unwelcome Phone Call


That letter led to a phone call to Gao from Beijing's municipal judicial affairs bureau on 26 October, which ultimately resulted in his business being shut down, ostensibly over a technicality. His caller told him that the open letter "seriously affected the image of the government and of the country, and damaged the overall image of the legal profession in China." The official added that Gao's "actions had seriously contravened the ethics and moral code of the legal profession in China," and demanded that he retract his letter. Gao hung up on the man.


The Orwellian language used by the Beijing official suggests that Wang Dan has a point when he says: "The law in China is just a decoration. You could even say that it's a joke." The caller's language also indicates that the CCP has a long way to go in establishing the rule of law, which would have obvious benefits for its economic-development program. Until it does, there will be validity to the old truism dating back to imperial times that rule of law in China means that what the rulers say or do is the law.

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See also:

China: Bullying The Bloggers

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