For the family of Gao Zhisheng, a maverick lawyer under house arrest for years after confronting the Communist Party head-on, security was so tight that police sometimes sat in the bedroom of their Beijing apartment, insisting the lights remain on all night so they could keep an eye on them.
In order to keep the family incommunicado, authorities forbade telephones or Internet access. When Gao’s 15-year-old daughter went to school, her classmates were not allowed to carry cellphones lest she borrow one to make a call.
After more than four years under surveillance, Gao’s wife managed to slip out of the apartment in mid-January with their daughter and 5-year-old son. They traveled nearly 2,000 miles by bus, train, motorcycle and on foot to reach Thailand, from where they were allowed to fly to the United States.
The 45-year-old Gao disappeared weeks later and is presumed to be in the custody of Chinese secret police.
“We know nothing. We don’t even know if he is alive or dead,” said his wife, Geng He, in a tearful telephone interview. In the last month, she has talked to members of Congress, the press and human rights groups about what happened to her family.
Her story speaks to the unbearable pressure Beijing continues to apply on its citizens, even savvy lawyers, who cross an unstated line by taking on taboo causes.
In the first four months of 2009, Amnesty International has documented at least four cases of lawyers who were threatened with violence by the authorities as they defended their clients, and many more in which they were stopped from meeting clients, detained or barred from practicing law.
Beijing authorities in March issued a six-month suspension of the Yitong law firm, one of the country’s most prominent human rights practices, saying one of its lawyers was improperly licensed.
“That was just an excuse to punish us for accepting sensitive cases,” said Li Jinsong, head of the firm.
Yuan Xianchen, a lawyer in northeastern China who represented miners and farmers against state-owned companies, was sentenced in March to four years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”
Lawyers have also been blocked from bringing lawsuits on behalf of parents whose babies were sickened by melamine-tainted milk.
“In terms of China’s overall legal development, nobody ever said the road forward would be straight, but I think we are going backwards at the moment,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch.
The crackdown has come in an era when Chinese lawyers have become bolder about pushing for the rights of the ordinary citizen in a culture where individual grievances have long been subordinated to the good of the collective.
China has a minuscule legal community -- just 143,000 lawyers, or about 1 for every 9,090 people. (The U.S. has about 1 for every 300.)
Traditionally, Chinese who believe themselves wronged write up their own complaints and travel to Beijing to seek justice -- a wildly inefficient system known as petitioning that dates back to Imperial times.
Among the new breed of lawyers, Gao wasn’t merely pushing the envelope -- he was an in-your-face advocate, a large man with a booming voice who took on China’s leadership.
The Chinese government says he and his family have been treated responsibly.
At a Foreign Ministry briefing in March, spokesman Qin Gang said: “There’s no political persecution or limits on the freedom of the family. . . . We’ve handled the case in strict accordance with the law.”
Gao, born in a cave in rural Shaanxi province and self-educated, was named one of the top 10 lawyers in China in 2001 by the Chinese Ministry of Justice’s Legal Daily. He represented clients in medical malpractice and land confiscation cases, which in China meant suing the government. Over time, he grew more daring, taking as clients underground churches and members of the Falun Gong, who alleged they had been tortured for their participation in the banned quasi-Buddhist sect.
The government closed Gao’s law practice in 2004, and he was convicted of subversion two years later and given a suspended sentence that kept him under house arrest for much of the time after. Unable to practice law, he started speaking out publicly, giving interviews to the foreign press and dashing off letters to the European Union and the U.S. Congress.
As he became more strident, the secret police became more frantic to quiet him. They would pick him up frequently for questioning; at other times they kept him under house arrest. They set up camp in the stairwell outside his second-floor flat. At one point, while Gao was in custody, his wife said, an officer stayed in the bedroom as she and the children slept.
Police also followed family members onto buses and stood outside phone booths as they made calls.
Despite the intense surveillance, Gao managed to send letters in 2007 to the European Union and U.S. Congress urging a boycott of the following year’s Olympics in Beijing over alleged human rights abuses.
Shortly afterward, Gao was picked up by men in plain clothes presumed to be secret police and a black hood was placed over his head. During 59 days in custody, he was beaten and sexually abused, prodded with electric probes, bamboo skewers and burning cigarettes, according to a letter wife Geng wrote April 23 to Congress.
Oddly enough, she now says, it wasn’t the torture as much as the confiscation of her daughter’s classmates’ cellphones that drove the family to the brink.
“Her teacher told everybody in the class that because of her father, they can’t take any cellphones to school. They couldn’t go to computer classes like other students,” Geng recalled. “Everybody at the school was angry with my daughter.”
It was then that the family began seriously planning their escape. On Jan. 9, Gao abruptly walked out of the Beijing apartment. When the police rushed after him, Geng and the two children left, wearing as much clothing as they could fit under their winter coats. They dared not carry bags.
After a journey of nine days that included traveling by night over smugglers’ routes through Southeast Asia, they reached Thailand, where a Christian group helped them get to the United States.
Gao was seized at his brother’s home in Shaanxi the morning of Feb. 4 and has not been heard from since, his family told human rights advocates.
It is common in China for family not to be notified for weeks or even months after an arrest, but Gao’s fate is of keen interest because of his high profile. He was a nominee last year for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2007, the American Board of Trial Advocates tried to present him with its Courageous Advocacy Award at a dinner in Santa Barbara.
He was not permitted to attend.