By Ed Flanagan, NBC Researcher
The sudden reappearance 2 weeks ago of long missing Chinese human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, near his hometown in Shaanxi province brought an end to the rampant speculation here over his well being and status in China. However, Gao's unwillingness or inability to provide independent media with details of his detention at the hands of Chinese state security raises continued questions over China's rights record and is yet another dark capstone in what has been so far, a very bad year for human rights in China.
It was just 14 months ago when Gao, a prominent human rights lawyer, was escorted out of his Beijing house by state security agents and completely off the grid by which outsiders can track political prisoners in China.
Gao, a longtime critic of the Chinese government and frequent champion of social issues deemed sensitive by the Chinese government such as Falun Gong, underground Christian churches and forced evictions of farmers, had been detained multiple times prior to last year and had in fact been given a 3 year jail sentence in December 2006 for subversion that was eventually suspended.
However, Gao's vocal criticisms of the government only earned him repeated brushes with China's Public Security Bureau (PSB). Increasingly, confrontations between Gao and the PSB became more violent as security agents resorted to brutal torture sessions and beatings which he wrote about in detail 2 years ago while in home detention under tight government surveillance.
In his writing, Gao described going in for a "re-education talk" only to find himself subjected to hours of torture that involved severe beatings, electric shocks to his genitals and cigarettes being put out on his face.
It was with this previous experience in mind that many feared the worst after his February 2009 disappearance. What made Gao's plight so irregular though was the government's unwillingness to provide even basic details about his location and status over such a prolonged period of time.
Asked in January this year about Gao's whereabouts, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, would only say that, "he is where he should be." Meanwhile, Chinese embassy staff in the United States insisted that Gao was alive and well in Xinjiang.
Gao's sudden reappearance late last month then begged the question: where had Gao been and why was he released? Answers to these critical questions are understandably not coming from the government, but surprisingly, have been equally unforthcoming from Gao himself.
In an interview earlier this week – likely to be his last, due to his sensitive status and conditions set out in his parole – Gao appeared "subdued" and unwilling to provide details of his 14 month ordeal. Though he reported his health was fine, he appeared thinner and concerned primarily with reuniting with his wife and daughter, who had fled China just prior to his disappearance and now live in asylum in the United States.
"I completely lost control of my emotions," said Gao tearfully, upon returning to his Beijing home and seeing his families shoes still lined up near the door, "because to me these are the three dearest people in the world and now, we're like a kite with a broken string."
"I don't have the capacity to persevere. On the one hand, it's my past experiences. It's also that these experiences greatly hurt my loved ones. This ultimate choice of mine, after a process of deep and careful thought, is to seek the goal of peace and calm."
A bad year for human rights
Gao's odyssey is merely an act in what has proven to be a hard year for political activists in China so far. The February upholding of a conviction and 11 year jail sentence for prominent human rights advocate, Liu Xiaobo, was another grim reminder of the effectiveness of China's "subversion laws" in batting down political and social dissent.
Liu, 54, is a Beijing academic who was deeply involved in the creation of "Charter 08," a political manifesto published online on December 10th, 2008 which outlined steps that its signees hoped would bring about reform and greater democratization of China's political and judicial systems.
Also in February, down in Sichuan's provincial capital of Chengdu, Tan Zuoren, 56, was convicted and given 5 years jail under the ubiquitous charge of "subversion of state power."
Officially, the charges stemmed from tracts written by Tan in 2007 which discussed the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and a blood drive he organized in 2008 to commemorate those demonstrations. However, human rights groups believe that the stiff sentence is rooted in Tan's investigation into the collapse of scores of schools in the region following the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 that buried and killed thousands of children.
"China has no dissidents"
While severe jail sentences and broad use of subversion laws is not new to China, what makes these cases standout is the way in which foreign intervention has appeared to fail. Dating back to when China's "most favored nation" trade status was tied to a yearly congressional review of China's human rights record, the United States and other countries were sometimes able to use their trading power to push for leniency or a quiet release of politically sensitive prisoners.
Even following China's 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization, there has long been a behind the scenes dialogue between China and the western world over human rights issues.
However, in recent months this relationship seems to have deteriorated. When a delegation of diplomatic officials representing 17 western countries attempted to enter the courtroom to witness Liu Xiaobo's petition ruling, they were turned away, leading to a curt, prepared statement from US Ambassador to China, John Huntsman Jr, being read outside Beijing Municipal Higher People's Court.
The China's response to the foreign delegation was equally terse. Speaking to reporters later that week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu declared, "China brooks no interference in its internal judicial affairs… China has no dissidents."
New light for old rules
With its international economic influence rapidly growing, China's government has grown increasingly bold not just in its methods, but also in the way it publically frames its national strategy for solidifying power at home.
Blistering op-ed pieces in the state newspaper chastising western media for being "employed as tools for national strategy," and an astounding interview by a remote county government official boasting he employed more than 12,000 spies to police a county of just 400,000 people. Both of these demonstrate how the paradigm has shifted and reflect a new political and social atmosphere here in China that the government is no longer hiding from international view.
Though the Obama administration has begun to talk tougher on China's human rights issues, it is clear that with America's current economic woes and its continued interdependence on China, traditional forms of engagement may no longer be sufficient for dealing with a country that no longer feels the need to always follow the proverbial economic carrot.