In jail, beaten, forgotten, and cut off from work, fellowship, friends, and family.
For Gao Zhisheng’s family, visiting the imprisoned Christian at his remote exile in western China takes days.
Gao’s father-in-law and older brother made the trek in January: The pair rode a train nearly 2,000 miles from Shaanxi Province into the craggy mountains of the desert region of Xinjiang after obtaining clearance from prison officials to visit Gao. Then they took a public bus to its last stop, where they hired a motorcycle driver to travel the lone road to Shaya Prison, where the dissident has been jailed. When the father and son reached the first security checkpoint, a guard delivered cruel news: Despite official assurance to the family, no one could see Gao.
The dejected men tried the trek again in March. This time officials allowed a visit, but gave strict orders: Don’t talk about Gao’s case. Don’t mention his lawyers. Discuss only family and health. Finally, after the days-long trip, and the hour-long orientation, prison guards allowed the men to visit Gao for 30 minutes.
Nearly 6,000 miles away, Gao’s wife, Geng He, can recount that story openly near her home in northern California. Geng fled to the United States with her two children in 2009 after Chinese authorities harassed her family for years.
Here she’s free to bring attention to her husband’s plight, but she’s deeply lonely without him. And she struggles to explain the ordeal to their 8-year-old son: “It’s very hard for him to understand why daddy disappeared.”
Gao’s disappearance into the Chinese prison system is a mysterious saga. But at least one thing seems clear: Chinese officials remain determined to silence the Christian attorney who challenged an oppressive system.
Like other dissidents in Communist China, Gao, 48, has contended publicly for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and justice for the oppressed. And like others, he’s paid a steep price: prison sentences, abuse, and separation from family.
Millions more Chinese Christians aren’t activists, but some suffer for embracing a faith outside government control. During the past 18 months, harassment against Christians—including hundreds of arbitrary detentions—has risen sharply in some regions.
Though a growing number of Chinese have decried government abuses—including forced abortions and the country’s one-child policy—a November change in Communist Party leadership hasn’t held out substantial hope of fundamental reforms in the near future.
But despite a year of intensified crackdowns, increasing arrests, and a renewed government call to exert control over Christians, scores of believers have refused to retreat from the mouth of the lion’s den.
Speaking up wasn’t always Gao Zhisheng’s calling. Born into a poor family in a rural village in Shaanxi Province in 1964, he remembers his father lamenting: “When will we ever have enough to eat?”
His father died when Gao was 10, and the boy’s mother struggled to care for her seven children. In his memoir, A China More Just, Gao writes: “From then on, our family had nothing.”
Gao spent his childhood working in coal mines and begging for food, but he found a way out in 1985: Gao enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army. During his service, Gao discovered the outside world and a new future: He met his wife, Geng He.
During our interview in California, Geng’s furrowed brow softened when she remembered meeting Gao in the military. She was in a training program for new soldiers. Gao was the head cook for the base. Her supplies were limited, but Gao gave her apples, cookies, and sunflower seeds. “He was very kind,” she says. “Very thoughtful.”
The couple married in 1990, and Gao sold vegetables in a local stand. A year later, he read a small ad in a newspaper wrapped around his produce: China needed lawyers. Gao began taking classes, and by 1995 he passed the bar exam.
It was time for Gao to begin speaking up.
He initially handled medical malpractice suits and economic law. He was a Communist Party member, and the Chinese government lauded his work. But Gao’s interests soon broadened: The attorney began taking human-rights cases and defending property owners harassed by government officials.
A local pastor offered spiritual support to some of Gao’s oppressed clients. He offered the same gospel message to Gao, and eventually the young attorney embraced Christianity.
Gao began defending pastors against government harassment, including a minister sentenced to three years in prison for printing and distributing Bibles. He joined a legal defense team for a house-church network in Beijing, but he also advocated religious freedom for others, including the Falun Gong—an outlawed and heavily persecuted sect in China whose members have faced torture and imprisonment.
“As a Christian attorney he represented the weak,” his wife says. “He represented freedom.”
Gao also represented a threat to the Chinese government. Officials directed him to stop taking Falun Gong cases, and security agents began following him and his family. Instead of retreating, Gao wrote an open letter to China’s prime minister and called for greater religious freedom. Chinese officials suspended his law license in 2005.
Later that year, Gao formally broke from the Communist Party. In a letter dated Dec. 13, 2005, he said the Party tries to “torture people out of their conscience,” and he declared: “Today, I, Gao Zhisheng, a Party ‘member’… formally withdraw from this inhumane, unjust, and evil Party.” He concluded: “This is the proudest day of my life.”
Less than a year later, Gao would disappear.
But first he continued to offer legal advice in human-rights cases, and to publish a firsthand report on the persecution of Christians in Xianjiang province. He attempted to visit Chen Guangcheng, the blind human-rights activist who exposed forced abortions and endured brutal house arrest. Chen brought headline attention to those injustices when he escaped Chinese incarceration earlier this year and took refuge in the U.S. embassy. Chen and his family now reside in the United States.
Gao also wrote an open letter about the urgency to inform Christians around the world that “… our house church members are suffering persecution under the Chinese regime, and all on account of a willingness to love the Lord ‘with all our heart, mind, and strength’ instead of loving the Chinese Communist Party.”
Government surveillance of Gao grew as his campaigns became more public. Dozens of security agents trailed Gao, his wife, and his young daughter. His case drew so much international attention that members of Congress in 2006 passed a resolution calling on the Chinese government to cease harassing Gao and other activists.
Geng says her husband knew his work was dangerous: “He always said if you represent cases for human rights, you will become the next victim.”
Gao became the next victim on Aug. 15, 2006.
Authorities arrested the activist during a visit with his sister. Gao remained in custody four months. In December 2006, officials tried Gao and sentenced him to three years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”
Officials suspended Gao’s sentence and imposed five years probation (perhaps because of international attention to his case), but the harassment grew worse. In September 2007, Gao disappeared again.
When he emerged 50 days later, he wrote a harrowing account of interrogation and mental torture by secret police, and said agents severely beat his naked body with electrified batons.
By early 2009, Gao believed his family should flee. Sympathetic contacts helped the activist initiate an escape plan. His wife and two children fled China via train rides across the mountainous border.
When they crossed the border, Bob Fu—a former dissident himself, fellow Christian, and founder of the U.S.-based group ChinaAid—met Geng and her children. In a final cell phone conversation with Gao, Fu says he asked the activist if he was willing to flee too.
“I could sense that he was torn,” said Fu in a recent phone interview. “But he said no. He felt his calling was to stay in China and continue the fight. … It was so hard to hear. But it was his choice.”
Geng and her children arrived in the United States in January 2009. A month later, Gao disappeared. Over the next year, Amnesty International reported that Chinese officials denied knowledge of Gao’s detention. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reported that the Chinese government didn’t respond to petitions regarding Gao’s treatment.
Gao reappeared briefly in March 2010 and granted an interview to The Associated Press. The news agency reported he was “weary-looking” as he described ]14 months of mental and physical torture by Chinese authorities. Two weeks later, Gao disappeared again.
Nearly 20 months passed with no word on his status. In December 2011, Chinese authorities announced they were holding Gao in the remote Shaya Prison. They said the attorney violated his parole. He would have to serve three more years.
Back in California, Gao’s wife dabs tears with the short belt of her blue dress as she talks about the ordeal. Geng is grateful for her home in America, but she agonizes over the separation from her husband. She’s slowly learning English, but speaks through a translator. Friends and aid groups have helped with some expenses, but money is tight, and Geng works part-time as a helper to an elderly Taiwanese woman.
Her children have adjusted well: Her daughter enrolled in college, and her son is enjoying elementary school. But Geng struggles with loneliness. She rarely talks with her family in China, since authorities likely listen to their phone calls. And she worries about Gao. It’s impossible to know about his physical and spiritual well-being.
Most Christians in China don’t suffer like Gao. Indeed, experiences vary widely for the country’s Christian population.
Though estimates also vary, OMF International (formerly China Inland Mission) estimates the number of Protestant Christians at 70 million. That’s a small percentage in a country of 1.3 billion people, but Christianity has exploded over the last three decades. OMF reports Protestant Christians in China numbered around 1 million in 1949.
Most churches belong to a burgeoning house-church movement: Leaders reject government requirements to register their churches, since oversight can extend to control of church leadership, teaching, and finances. Other churches belong to the government-monitored Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
For both groups, freedoms vary depending on location. Some report few problems, but all must be careful: Chinese law prohibits most evangelism, and regulates Christian publishing. (Chinese law regulates religious practices of other groups as well, and persecution extends to other religious minorities.)
The Midland, Texas-based group ChinaAid reports Christian persecution in China worsened significantly over the last 18 months. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that Chinese attempts to suppress house-church growth are “systematic and intense.” Suppression includes church raids, arrests, and arbitrary detentions.
Members of Shouwang Church—the largest house church in Beijing—began meeting outdoors in April 2011, after authorities blocked access to their meeting space. Officials have detained and released scores of church members, and the pastor and elders remain under house arrest. Still, church members continue attempting to meet outside each Sunday.
House-church leaders report increasing pressure to register their congregations, as the Chinese government increases its attempts to shape church life and thought. The country’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) reports its aim is to “guide religions to fit into socialist society.”
According to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, SARA’s 2012 goals include plans to “guide the Christian community,” “deepen the construction of theological thought,” and “use theological thought propaganda teams.”
SARA director Wang Zuo’an wrote in a December 2011 People’s Daily article: “We cannot snuff out religious culture, but instead must guide it.” Another government official, Du Qinglin, wrote in April: “We must dig deeply into the essence of religious culture and remove the chaff.”
For Chinese officials, Liu Xianbin is part of the chaff.
The jailed Christian dissident began his political activism in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Liu’s participation in the democracy movement led to a two-year prison sentence in 1992.
By 1998, he had co-founded a local branch of the China Democracy Party, and established a branch of China Human Rights Watch. He advocated for greater liberties, including religious freedom. A year later, Chinese authorities convicted Liu of subversion of state power, and sentenced the activist to 13 years in prison.
Officials released Liu after nine years, and the activist immediately returned to his advocacy: Liu was one of the first signers of Charter 08, a document by Chinese activists calling for sweeping democratic reforms. The charter includes a call for freedom of religious practice, and abolishing laws that require churches to register with the government.
Liu continued to write articles for international media criticizing the Chinese government and human-rights abuses. In May 2010, he spoke with Radio Free Asia about a government raid on a house church in Sichuan province: Authorities had detained eight church members, including a 3-year-old child.
A month later, authorities detained Liu. By February 2011, Chinese officials convicted Liu of subverting state power, and they levied a crushing sentence: Another 10 years in prison.
Bridgette Chen remembers the day police took her father. The 15-year-old high-school student recounted Liu’s capture during an interview near San Francisco this summer.
Chen came to the United States in September 2011 after a local pastor and his family offered to provide a home and education. It was difficult to leave her mother, but Chen says her parents wanted her to escape the pressures and harassment her family had endured for most of her life.
The harassment culminated when Chen was 13 years old. Police summoned her from her school classroom and interrogated her about her father. What did he do in his free time? What did he write on the computer? What did they talk about?
After a bevy of questions, police fingerprinted the girl and sent her back to class. By the time she returned home, they had sent her father to prison. She hasn’t seen Liu, 44, since.
Chen is sorry for her father’s plight, but admits she doesn’t know him well: The pair spent 20 months together after his release from prison in 2008. But she fights tears when she speaks about her mother. “I realized they really loved each other. And now they have to wait another 10 years,” she says. “I feel really sorry for them … I want them to be together. Not just for me, but for them.”
For now, Chen is adjusting quickly to life in America. She speaks good English with a touch of American slang, and posts pictures on Facebook. She relishes school after overcoming a difficult first semester that included low grades as she learned English. “It took me two or three times as long to do my homework at first,” she says. “But this year, whoa, every subject was A’s or B’s.”
Zhang converted to Christianity 10 years after his harrowing experience at Tiananmen, and became a house-church pastor. After years of harassment by local authorities, he came to the United States to study theology. He tries to help dissidents and their families: “This is God’s calling for me. To bring a Chinese child—especially the second generation after Tiananmen Square—to America.” (Chen says she never knew the details about the Tiananmen massacre until she came to the United States.)
Nearly 400 miles south, Li Jing wonders about her future. The wife of imprisoned Christian dissident Guo Quan, 44, sits at the kitchen table in a friend’s house outside Los Angeles scrolling through pictures on a laptop of her husband in China.
Li arrived here in January with their 12-year-old son, five years after her husband began speaking out for greater freedoms in China.
Guo’s advocacy began in 2007 when he was a professor at Nanjing Normal University. He published an open letter to China’s president calling for multi-party elections. His letter to the Chinese premier defended the rights of 590,000 workers laid off by the China National Petroleum Corporation, and called for abolishing China’s re-education through labor system for political offenders.
Li says her husband also wrote articles about Christian thinking, and discussed Christian principles in class. Students began complaining about his lectures and outspoken advocacy. In December 2007, Communist officials fired Guo from his job at the university.
The activist continued his work, and published a “China New Democracy Party Charter” online. A year later, he had published hundreds of articles via the internet criticizing one-party dictatorship and corruption in government, and condemning human-rights abuses.
Li says the backlash was immediate: Authorities raided their home several times in the middle of the night. They smashed locks on the doors. They confiscated computers. They installed surveillance cameras at the apartment complex, and monitored the family’s phone, internet use, and mail.
Li says Guo’s Christian conscience compelled him to continue: “He’s a Christian and professor. He thinks he has some responsibility for the society, so he never stopped writing.”
On Nov. 13, 2008, authorities stopped Guo by arresting him for subversion of state power. Nine months later, Li was stunned when she learned her husband’s sentence: 10 years in prison.
As the surveillance and harassment peaked, Li made a difficult decision: She would try to flee to the United States. She believed moving to America would offer her only chance to publicize her husband’s case, and advocate for his cause.
But first, Li wanted her husband’s approval. Before she entered the prison’s visitation room, she wrote in tiny letters on her thumbprint: “I take our son and go to the U.S.” As they talked, Li pressed her hand to the glass separating the pair. When Guo saw her message, he slowly nodded. Li knew he approved.
The months ahead involved painstaking arrangements and a high-risk plan. Li obtained permission to visit a neighboring country with friends for a short vacation. (She even discussed the vacation on the phone so eavesdropping authorities would hear.)
When she arrived across the border, Li and her son defected from the group. U.S. contacts helped arrange her passage to Los Angeles, and representatives from ChinaAid met her at the airport.
A month after she arrived, Li appeared on Capitol Hill with Geng He. The pair testified about their husbands’ plights to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. They requested meetings with White House officials, but never received a reply. On the same day, President Barack Obama met Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office. A 300-man honor guard greeted the Chinese official with a 19-gun salute at the Pentagon.
Li remains determined to press her husband’s case. In the meantime, she’s polishing her quickly learned English, and helping her son adjust to life in the United States. And after years of constant harassment, she’s learning to relax: “For the first time in so many years.”
Li hopes conditions will change in China. Despite an increase in political arrests, more Chinese have conducted public protests and expressed anger at government abuses online. “The world is more open,” she says. “It cannot be stopped.”
Until then, she shares a letter her husband wrote to her son expressing his hopes for the boy who will be a man by the time his father’s prison sentence is complete: “Many people want their children to be rich, preeminent, powerful or great. … Only a righteous person could be preeminent. My son, please remember what God taught us: It is meaningless for me to be rich and powerful if I am not righteous.”