Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong once remarked that the most lethal weapon of the communist state is not an atomic bomb or torture, but the power to send its enemies into oblivion by erasing them from history. George Orwell expounded upon this same idea in 1984 with the concept of the “unperson” and the obliteration of the very memory of anyone who challenges the authority of the regime. As current Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to tighten his authoritarian grip over the country today, Orwell’s warning and Mao’s insight seem to have become a guidebook for him, as whistleblowers and dissidents face increasingly brutal treatment and are one by one disappearing from public view.
One such victim of Xi’s reign of terror is Gao Zhisheng, a one-time Chinese Communist Party member who eventually converted to Christianity and became of the most high-profile critics of the regime. After years of persecution and torture at the hands of the Chinese government, Gao suddenly disappeared more than five years ago, leaving his family completely in the dark about his condition or whereabouts.
For the Chinese Communist Party, Gao represents the most dangerous of enemies: one who understands first-hand the corruption at the heart of the regime.
Growing up in Shaanxi Province as one of seven children, Gao was unable to afford primary school. Instead, he sat outside a classroom window listening to instruction. With the help of an uncle, he was able to attend secondary school and qualify to join the People’s Liberation Army.
In the early 1990s, Gao became part of a program instituted by then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to train more than 100,000 new lawyers and develop China’s legal system. After passing the bar exam, Gao began practicing, and by 2001 was recognized as one of the 10 best lawyers in the country by China’s Ministry of Justice.
But it was also during this time, as he neared the upper echelons of power, that Gao discovered the rot at the heart of the Chinese regime. The hardships and injustice that the population suffered, Gao learned, were not the consequence of imperialist forces working to tear down China from the outside, but rather were the consequence of the exploitation of the majority of ordinary Chinese people by a privileged CCP elite.
Gao soon became one of the most outspoken voices against ongoing human rights violations inside China. In 2005 he resigned from the Chinese Communist Party in an open letter, specifically citing the CCP’s brutal treatment of practitioners of Falun Gong and Christian religious minorities. It was also around this time that Gao publicly converted to Christianity – another decision that put him at odds with the Chinese government.
Gao attracted a small group of dedicated individuals who, with painstaking effort, did their utmost to defend the rights of the persecuted and often already imprisoned enemies of the regime.
One such enemy of the state was a thirty-four-year-old father of two children whose body weight fell to less than 100 pounds and whose hair turned white due to the immense stress of his treatment at the hands of the secret police. The authorities robbed him of all his belongings, arrested him, imprisoned his children in an orphanage, and sent him twice to a labor camp for three years without a valid reason. In order to imprison the man, the court relied on a document with a signature and fingerprint forged by the secret police. No lawyer wanted to take his case, fearing the wrath of the regime, but Gao boldly stepped forward, only to have the case dismissed by a puppet court. Gao later described that incident in his letter to the Standing Committee announcing that he was leaving the CCP, stating that rule of law does not exist in China.
Gao also made a public appeal to the U.S. Congress to take a stand against oppression inside China by boycotting the 2008 Summer Olympics. He was the spearhead of a grassroots effort to raise awareness about China’s abuses throughout the West which has continued to influence government policy to this day.
However, as is the case with all communist regimes, such heroic acts do not go unpunished. Soon after leaving the communist party, Gao became a top target of the secret police, who followed him and his family everywhere. Several times he was abducted and detained by the secret police, beaten, strangled, and deprived of food, water, light, and sleep for days on end.
In January of 2006, Gao narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Then, in August of that year, he was arrested while visiting his sister. At the same time, the secret police also detained his wife and children, refusing to tell them why they were being held or where Gao was. Gao would eventually be sentenced to house arrest, where he and his family were watched 24/7 by the police.
Soon after pleading with the U.S. and other Western countries to boycott the 2008 Olympics, Gao was abducted again and subjected to more torture. Around this time, Gao’s wife and two young children, Grace and Peter, were faced with an impossible choice – stay and risk a similar fate, or flee and likely never see Gao again. They chose the latter and were eventually able to receive asylum in the United States in 2009.
Over the next few years, they remained in irregular contact with Gao, as he faced repeated tortures and imprisonments. During his time in prison, Gao was deprived of all rights, including reading books in his cell aside from thick volumes of heavy propaganda like A Compilation of the Theoretical Work of Jiang Zemin, which Gao called “humanity’s most egregious waste of paper.” He was also forced to write weekly reports on his thinking, confessions, breaking with the past, and determination to repent.
Five years ago, however, Gao’s family stopped receiving calls from him. One by one the months ticked by, with no word from their loved one. Gao’s wife, Geng He, has expressed fears that the Chinese government will simply say that Gao died of COVID-19, an increasingly common excuse from the CCP to justify the disappearance of high-profile dissidents as the virus continues to run rampant throughout the country. Though they had Gao under 24-hour surveillance, the CCP feigns that they have no knowledge of his whereabouts.
In his revealing memoir entitled Unwavering Convictions, Gao, whose torturous imprisonment occurred in part during the reign of Hu Jintao, whom the West perceived as “liberal,” emphasizes that the Chinese Communist Party mirrors their Soviet predecessors by being in state of decay. Akin to Moscow in the 1980s, at the height of their domestic oppression and complete crush of dissident movements, with many opposition leaders dying in labor camps, Beijing is presently engaged in persecutions to eradicate any dissent. These behaviors, Gao argues, are the actions of an insecure and weak regime, not a strong one.
Beijing has refused to disclose whether Gao is still alive. But one thing is for sure: despite their best efforts, the CCP did not succeed in obliterating Gao’s memory. While his name may be erased inside China, many throughout the West have continued to press for answers, including his family in the United States. In this way, Mao’s maxim may be turned on its head: the greatest threat to the Chinese Communist Party may not be nuclear weapons or physical violence, but the convictions of a morally righteous people determined to expose the corruption and depravity at the heart of all communist regimes.