August 13, 2019
The first case was that of Cai Zhuohua, a pastor at a house church in Beijing who, together with members of his family, was arrested for operating an illegal business after printing multiple copies of the Bible. It was the first time I witnessed Gao’s grace and eloquence in court. The court disrespected the lawful right of Cai’s mother to observe the hearing, and Gao denounced the judge with fervent conviction. After that, Gao and I would often attend services at house churches in Beijing and he even got baptized later.
Another case we took on was the case of Shaanxi Oil. At the time, one of the lawyers on the case, Zhu Jiuhu, was arrested and imprisoned at the Shaanxi Yulin Detention Centre. We went to represent him and took pictures at the entrance before we left. Not long after, more than a dozen armed policemen rushed towards us and interrogated us for taking those pictures. They thought they could frighten us, but we were experienced in such interrogation and firmly rebutted them. After that, Gao lamented, “If this is how they treat lawyers in suits, can you imagine what they’d do to the people living around here?”
On the way back, we stopped by Gao’s home in Jiaxian and squatted in the courtyard eating noodles. I will never forget his cave home, his taciturn brother and the dry and barren land that surrounded us.
A coal miner turned lawyer
Gao Zhisheng came from humble beginnings. His father passed away when he was 11. At 16, he was admitted to a prestigious high school but had to drop out because he could not afford the tuition. Before he became a lawyer at 31, he worked a variety of jobs – he picked Chinese herbs in the mountains, worked as a coal miner, soldier and vegetable vendor, and labored in a cement factory. He experienced all kinds of hardships and had a deep understanding of inequality and injustices in China.
After becoming a lawyer, Gao set a few rules for himself. One was that a third of his cases had to be pro-bono lawsuits for low-income groups. He said: “I came from a poor family. I know how poor people feel so I know what I have to do … but helping others should not be an act of charity.”