Gao Zhisheng - Carrying the flag of justice for China's lawyers
Gao Zhisheng, a founder of the Shengzhi Law Offices in Beijing was born in Shanxi Province and grew up in an environment of deprivation and poverty. He went to work in his early teens to help support his family and later entered the army. When he returned home from his tour of duty, he studied on his own for a law degree. Gao passed his examinations and received a professional license which allowed him to open a law office. In the next seven years in his search for social justice, Gao bravely took up the task of assisting society's weakest groups in their fight for their rights. He has spent one-third of his time every year on human rights cases and some of those cases were done entirely free. In these cases, Gao acted as the agent of the victims of rights abuse cases. Using his substantial legal knowledge, eloquent speaking ability and fearless approach to those in authority, he has successfully acted on behalf of many who have had their civil rights threatened.
In recent years, Gao has bravely taken up many major cases. In April 2004, the workers in two Taiwan-invested shoe factories in Dongguan in Guangdong province staged a protest. Ten of those who had joined the protest were found guilty and sentenced. In the course of his defense of one of the workers, Chen Nanliu, who had been charged with deliberate destruction of property, Gao pointed out that the relationship between the worker and the investor in China was not an equal one; he showed that the communication channels needed to clarify contradictions and achieve decisions between the owners and workers were definitely not clear and open. The workers that had participated in the protest did so because of their fears of the bleak future that they faced. The investors' unrelenting pursuit of profits and the government's position of providing absolute protection for these investors, despite their infringement of the labour laws, was the main reason for the protest.
This civil rights lawyer has been active in the most fundamental labour rights work, assisting victims of workplace injury receive proper compensation. One well publicised case of work-related injury and illness handled by his law firm is that of Hong Kong-invested Lucky Gems and Jewellery Factory Ltd. (Liqi Baoshichang) in Huizhou City in Guangdong Province in 2003-2004. More than 40 rural migrant workers from China's poorest regions who were working in the processing units of this jewellery factory developed life threatening silicosis as a result of the damaging environment in which they worked. Most failed to get any reasonable compensation from the owner and failed to get the assistance that they were entitled to from the government. (For more details, see "Deadly Dust" at: http://iso.china-labour.org.hk/public/contents/article?revis...) Gao put himself forward and provided legal assistance to two silicosis sufferers, Li Weizhong and Yang Renping. In an letter sent to the chairman of Lucky Jewellery Company, Gao said the problem between Lucky Gems and the group of silicosis sufferers was no longer simply a case of a conflict between a labourer and his employer. In the special situation in China today, it has already evolved into an issue that civil society must energetically tackle.
Gao has repeatedly shown us that these men and women are human beings. They are no different than we are, but they are openly looked down upon. They are asking us for the minimum level of human consideration. This is a challenge that our civil society cannot ignore.
On November 28, 2004, a gas explosion occurred in the Chenjiashan coal mine in Shanxi province. In all, 166 miners lost their lives. Following this tragedy, the local government and the mining company both failed to provide the families of the victims with the proper compensation and settlement that was their due and used force to block the families of the victims from making inquiries or from using legal means to seek their rights. Gao again rose to the task. He traveled thousands of kilometers and through many police road blocks to meet with the families of the victims to get a better understanding of the situation and offer legal assistance.
In the past seven years, Gao has met with obstruction and interference from various government bodies and agencies in his attempts to protect the human rights of the weakest groups in society. He sent an open letter to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao over the Internet on October 18, 2005. In it he asked that the government stop persecuting those that believed in freedom and democracy. Within two days Gao himself and members of his family were put under surveillance by the Beijing City police. Then, on November 4, the Beijing Municipal Justice Department announced its decision and said that the Shengzhi Law Offices,which Gao heads, would not be allowed to operate for one year.
At around 10:20 pm on the evening of January 17, 2006, Gao reportedly had a car accident while driving home. At this time, Gao is still under police surveillance and his freedom of movement has been severely restricted. We believe that his life in fact is in great danger.
China Labour Bulletin greatly supports the just and upright work of lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and we strongly object to the illegal action taken by various government departments in China. China Labour Bulletin calls on governments around the world, and on labour groups, lawyers' groups and non-governmental organisations to express their concern for the plight of Gao Zhisheng.
13 April 2006