A China More Just, by Gao Zhisheng is a compelling chronicle of what one dedicated person can do to challenge the world's most repressive government. Gao's life story is both remarkable and compelling. Born into abject poverty in rural China, denied education and unable to afford a formal legal education, he studied law by listening to lectures from a vantage point outside the classroom. Remarkably, with little formal education and never having sat in a classroom in law school, he passed the bar examination on his first attempt.
The major challenge for attorney Gao is that he lives and practices law in the People's Republic of China, a totalitarian state where the Rule of Law is unlikely to be followed when the weak and underprivileged are pitted against the powerful government or business interests. Working in a corrupt system where favoritism is regularly bestowed on businesses and government bureaucrats to the exclusion of the common people, Gao's successes in legal cases are striking exceptions to what routinely occurs in the legal system in China.
A China More Just, 255 pages, Broad Press, $14.95, Purchase here
Once he became an attorney Gao chose to remember his roots. Instead of representing the elite and powerful interests in his country, he represents poor, underprivileged, downtrodden and disadvantaged people in claims against the state. Seeking justice for those who are most in need of it is the true calling of an advocate.
Gao has experienced success in representing clients in many areas of the law. One area in which he has achieved notoriety and personal satisfaction is in representing children who are the victims of serious injuries. Through his efforts, permanently maimed children received compensation for their misfortunes. Gao's dogged efforts enabled his young clients to obtain financial assistance for medical treatment and dealing with the consequences of their injuries and disabilities.
Gao's reputation for success in his cases over the years spread throughout China. Potential clients would travel across the vast country seeking him out to represent them. In many instances Gao represented suffering clients without payment of any fees. He feels he has no choice but to represent them regardless of whether he is paid for his services. When parents bring their children thousands of miles to see him and he learns of the pain they have suffered, "their tears become his tears so he is compelled to represent them".
In addition to assisting people with legal representation, Gao advocates for people's rights through publicizing their plights. He does this through writing essays and articles about human rights abuses and submitting them primarily to online publications. Abuse of power by the Chinese government, a decade after decade occurrence, is so prevalent that it is impossible to record all instances of abuse. Undaunted by the prevalence of human rights abuses, Gao continues to challenge the central authority abuse by abuse, often at great personal risk.
The government has responded to his efforts by detaining him and members of his family, threatening him with arrest at gunpoint and placing him under house arrest. Despite the government's resistance to his efforts, Gao soldiers on in his crusade to dispel the myth that what the central Chinese government approves or mandates is always legal and correct. The obstacles created by government authorities to his quests for justice do not deter his campaign to compel adherence to the constitution, law, and the principle of the rule of law.
In recent years, Gao has taken on the ultimate challenge as a lawyer; he has become involved in cases which defy the arbitrary mandates of the central government, the highest level of authority in China. His representation of members of a popular self-improvement group called Falun Gong has become his biggest personal and professional challenge. This group, reportedly numbers tens of millions members, was outlawed by the Chinese government in 1999.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Falun Gong has incurred the wrath of regime leaders in China. Its members are unmercifully persecuted throughout the country. Gao, in serving as legal counsel to various Falun Gong members is a target of persecution as well on account of defending the rights of his clients to practice their beliefs.
Merely because he discharges his professional responsibility in representing Falun Gong members, Gao has been prosecuted, found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. Undaunted by the prosecution, Gao continues to represent the group's members in civil rights cases. His reward for his courageous advocacy is more prosecution.
In addition to facing prosecution, Gao and one of his children were abducted by authorities and held against their will. Because he continues to defend human rights cases, and persists in offering counsel to beaten and physically injured victims, Gao has been forbidden to speak out, release articles or participate in any legal activity to defend human rights. His family is under siege as well. Incredibly, in addition to being muzzled regarding legal cases and communication about human rights violations, he is forbidden to speak or release written accounts of the intimidation, detention and threats made to him and his family.
Gao's achievements are heroic. Few people in history have successfully challenged the authority of a repressive and inhumane regime within the rule of law as he has done. Through the use of ideas, persuasion and working within the legal system instead of resorting to violence, Gao pursues justice for his clients. When one reflects on the accomplishments of this incredible person, one cannot help but compare him to great agents of change through out history. Sir Thomas More, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King are among those whose example Gao seems to emulate. Each one of them saw injustice and tackled it within the rule of law, peaceably and without resorting to violence. In doing so, they were subjected to ridicule, deprivation of freedom, vicious animosity instigated by the power structure and oftentimes exposed to great personal peril and killed for their efforts. Gao's achievements fit squarely within these examples of great figures in history. Hopefully, he will not suffer the fate of execution.
The saga of Gao Zhisheng is unfinished. His efforts continue. The day to day activities of this brave and courageous man dedicated to the rule of law and human rights must be told and retold. Every effort must be made to overcome the efforts to suppress the story of his Herculean crusade against corruption, oppression and abuse.
Mr. Gao, you are a courageous advocate. May your will to act in the face of injustice never be broken.
Edward Chapin is an attorney in private practice in San Diego, California.