Gao Zhisheng and the protection of labour rights and civil rights in China

In recent years, Gao Zhisheng, a prominent civil rights lawyer in Beijing, has increasingly turned his attention to cases involving the defence of rights of Chinese workers. For many years he has provided free legal assistance to workers, and also directly taken part in the movement for justice in the defence of workers' legal rights.

In the cases in which Gao Zhisheng has worked with China Labour Bulletin, both in and out of court he has demonstrated an admirable commitment to justice and perseverance.  Mr Gao said in an interview with an Italian radio station last year, "The root causes for the disastrous lack of humanity in labour relations are in the system; that labour rights do not enjoy the protection they should is inevitable under this type of system."

Law is of primary importance in the protection of labour rights, but as Gao Zhisheng points out, "The judiciary is not independent; the judiciary's inability to break away from the control of the powers that be is what makes it difficult to defend civil rights through the law".  In his court defence of workers detained after the April 2004 mass protests at the Xing Xiong, Xing Ang and other Stella International shoe factories in Dongguan City, Guangdong Province, Gao Zhisheng highlighted the problem that in many private-sector factories in China, official trade union branches either simply do not exist or exist in name only.  He pointed out that independent union organizations and genuine worker autonomy are the route towards developing freedom for Chinese workers, a point of view that coincides with that of the China Labour Bulletin.  (For further information on the Stella workers case, see:

Gao Zhisheng and the Chinese Civil Rights Movement

Recently government departments have been keeping a close eye on Mr Gao, his law firm has been barred from practicing by an absurd order of the Beijing Justice Bureau and his personal life is plagued by anonymous figures who follow him and keep him under observation. The Chinese government shows no sign of stopping this oppression and persecution.  China Labour Bulletin is full of admiration for Mr Gao - he has not succumbed under the pressure and threats of the authorities, but has met inhumanity with legality, confronted brutality with justice, and continues undaunted in his resolve to promote the contemporary Chinese civil rights movement.

Civil rights lawyers: actions speak louder than words

Mr Gao is one of many lawyers defending civil rights and human rights in China - others include Pu Zhiqiang, who specializes in defamation and freedom of speech cases, and who acted in the defense over the case of "A Survey of Chinese Peasants (Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha)" [Note 1], Qin Bing and Zheng Enchong, who took over real estate demolition and eviction cases, and the prominent lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who acted in the Sun Zhigang Case [Note 2] and the Nanfang Dushi Bao Case [Note 3]. Their actions, which put them on the front line in the defense of rights in China, are admirable.  Together with numerous activists, rights lawyers are central to the safeguarding of basic human rights such as democracy and freedom in contemporary China.  China's civil rights movement is gathering momentum, but the human rights - and even the personal safety - of rights lawyers themselves, are increasingly coming under fire from the authorities.  Using profit as incentive, those in power adopt the tactics of organized crime to oppress civil rights lawyers and in doing so delude themselves that they will stamp out the civil rights movement in its infancy.  Mr Gao's car crash incident, the beating up of lawyer Guo Feixiong and other similar occurrences, make it apparent that the difficulties faced by civil rights lawyers go beyond their already highly dangerous working environment.

One year ago, when discussing whether there were dangers in labour rights work, Gao Zhisheng said, "I have realized that the most dangerous thing is to be sent to prison".  Mr Gao, however, was referring to the "old traditions" whereby the machinery of dictatorship used the judiciary to perpetrate miscarriages of justice and oppress rights activists.  He did not anticipate the new phenomenon of an alliance of criminals and officials using violence to cause direct physical harm to activists.  One of the major significances of the protest activities of Mr Gao and others is that through their own acts, they raise public awareness of this most deplorable phenomenon in modern day China. 

Difficulties in defending rights: the government turns to organized crime

One of the strategies that CLB advocates is defending civil rights in accordance with due legal procedure.  But there are increasing indications of an intensifying of collaboration between the government and criminal forces within Chinese society.  This is significantly adding to the hardships encountered by citizens and their representatives in defending rights through the proper legal channels.

Recently many savage incidents have occurred in which rights activists have encountered organized crime.  Last year well-known rights lawyer Zhao Xin was beaten up by seven unidentified individuals in a restaurant when accompanying his parents on a sightseeing trip in Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan.  The lawyer Tang Jingling, who was active in the Taishi Village rights case, was also followed and beaten up by unidentified persons after visiting human rights activist Guo Feixiong.

The government and police usually turn a blind eye and do nothing, though activists and protesters are followed, abused and even suffer physical injury; local governments may give behind-the-scenes support for such activities or directly employ criminal forces to do their work for them.  CLB reported an example of the latter last year and described how the administrative law enforcement group of Wafangdian City, Liaoning Province, made use of members of criminal gangs to use violence to stop farmers going to Beijing to petition the authorities. 

The government's legalization of violence, i.e. the trend towards organized crime in government activities in China, is increasingly prevalent, particularly in local government.  Professor Xia Ming of the Department of Politics of New York University is researching the problem of organized criminal forces in Chinese society.  He notes that at present in China, it is mainly governments at the county (municipality) and village (township) levels that have connections with organized crime, and the major activities of activists happen to be occurring at just these levels.

Rampant organized crime is working against social progress; how to effectively deal with the illegal persecution of activists and civil rights activities by local powers and organized criminal forces is a question that must urgently be addressed.

The burgeoning Chinese civil rights movement

But this trend towards organized crime in government activities and the brutality of the totalitarian dictatorship will ultimately be no match for the growth of the forces of civilization.  In recent years, particularly from 2003 onwards, the explosion of successive incidents such as the Sun Zhigang Case, the Case of the Miscarriage of Justice Over She Xianglin's "Murder" of his Wife [Note 4], and the Xiong Deming Request for Wages Incident [Note 5] have pushed forward the flourishing development of the Chinese civil rights movement - a movement launched by members of the public.  Rights cases affect every level and element of Chinese society, whether farmers, workers, students, intellectuals, even those with property.  Some cases are concerned with freedom of speech, personal freedom or the right to life, others deal with migration rights, property rights or the right to education.  It is through the public expression of opinion (usually over the internet) and the issue of petitions, appeal letters, open letters and joint signature letters, that activists reveal the truth, make society aware of the issues, and require the government to act according to the law and to give justice to the victims.  These civil rights movements that appeal to law and advocate rationality, through varied levels of media support and the external impetus of groups of rights lawyers, establish a channel of communication whereby the public and officials, the disadvantaged and the advantaged, can advocate their interests in encounters with one another.  Thus the continuously developing civil rights movement must hasten the rule of law in China and the reform of the judicial system, and is the only way for China to become a civil society and implement the constitution.


1. "A Survey of Chinese Peasants (Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha)" was written by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, a couple from Anhui Province, who spent three years to write the research report. The report was published in the 6th issue of Dangdai (Modern Magazine). It is an exposé on inequality and injustice that Chinese farmers face.

2. Sun Zhigang was a young man from Wuhan, Hubei Province, who was looking for a job in Guangzhou. In March 2003, he was beaten to death by eight patients at a penitentiary hospital just hours after being arrested as a vagrant for not carrying an ID card.

3. Nanfang Dushi Bao Case: Cheng Yizhong, former editor-in-chief of Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily), Yu Huafeng, former deputy editor-in-chief and general manager of the newspaper, and Li Minying, former publisher, were charged with corruption in April 2004. Their arrests were believed to be related to the paper's coverage of the Sun Zhigang case, coverage on SARS.

4. Shi Xianglin served 11 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife in Jingshan County, Hubei Province, in 1994. He was released in April 2005 after She's wife, Zhang Zaiyu, reappeared in late March 2005. This case attracted a lot of attention both in China and overseas as it exposed the miscarriage of justice in China's legal system.

5. Xiong Deming was a woman from a poverty-stricken village in Yunyang County, Chongqing Municipality, in southwestern China. When Premier Wen Jiabao visited her village in October 2003, she elbowed into the crowd and told the premier that her husband had worked for a year on a road project launched by the local government but had been unable to get his total unpaid wages of 2,240 yuan. The premier intervened in the case and Xiong's family got back the money before midnight on that day. Five days later, the county government also paid the wages it had owed to all those who had worked on the road project. This case received wide media coverage across the country and prompted all local governments to begin pressing employers to pay wages in full and on time to rural migrant workers.

13 April 2006

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