Human Rights in China: Google and Gao Zhisheng

By Benedict Rogers 02-12-2010

100212-gao-zhishengGoogle's vow to pull out of China last month was partly based on the discovery that human rights activists' Gmail accounts had been hacked into, purportedly by Chinese intelligence. As a human rights advocate, this is worrying news for all who seek to fight for justice around the world.

One widely reported and serious hack involves Teng Biao, a law lecturer at the University of Politics and Law in Beijing who regularly writes about human rights issues in China. His account had been mysteriously set to autoforward incoming e-mails to an unknown address. Google is also unwilling to continue censoring search results on Search for ???? on results in pictures of cartoon characters. The same search on yields image upon image of blood-splattered tanks, bodies lying half-naked on the ground covered in blood, and countless unspeakable images from the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. Searches for politically sensitive keywords such as 'Tiananmen massacre' yield far fewer results on than they do outside China.

Google's announcement is significant. For the global internet search engine to turn its back on the Chinese market and potentially billions of dollars worth of profit represents huge support for free speech and a stand against censorship. Google doesn't like what the Chinese government is doing. They are reported to be in discussion with the Chinese government, but the feeling is that if they don't like what they hear, they can leave.

Chinese human rights activists who stand up for human rights and freedom of expression within China are in a much more fragile position. They speak out from the inside, without the protection of a foreign passport. A man who exemplifies the fight for human rights in China is missing lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has now been missing for over a year since he was taken away by government officials on Feb. 4, 2009. Gao was once named by China's Ministry of Justice as one of "China's Top Ten Lawyers." His reputation among officials soured when he began taking on sensitive cases -- Falun Gong practitioners, victims of land repossession, minority rights cases, and those of persecuted Christian leaders. Since 2005 Gao has been repeatedly arrested and tortured in prison. On one occasion he was severely tortured for a period of 50 days and it is highly likely that he is being tortured now. Repeated requests to the Chinese government for information about Gao's whereabouts and situation have been made by Gao's family and the international community. Radio silence was the response, until a foreign ministry spokeswoman said that Gao "is where he should be." The lack of information is worrying and has led many to suspect the worst. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Ivan Lewis issued a statement on the one-year anniversary of Gao's disappearance urging the Chinese Government to "provide accurate information on Gao's situation to ease the concerns of his family and friends and to provide reassurance about his condition."

What is clear is that the long road toward human rights in China is an issue for many -- not just for the brave individuals who risk their lives to stand up for justice, but also for global corporations, like Google, who feel compelled to hold fast to the protection of freedoms for all members of the global community. Human rights defenders in China exist to speak up for human rights and to fight for justice. We are gravely concerned for the status and well-being of missing human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng. Christian supporters of CSW are standing in solidarity with Gao and his family. Please join us in prayer for the rights of Chinese people.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specialising in East Asia. He works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

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