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Disappearance of Chinese activist Gao Zhisheng demands action

Tuesday, July 6, 2010; A12

A MAN DISAPPEARS. He is subjected to excruciating torture -- his body broken until he is scarcely recognizable -- and threatened with death unless he disavows his beliefs and embraces the Party. It sounds like something out of the writing of George Orwell. But this is the story of Gao Zhisheng, a prominent Chinese lawyer whose case has drawn international attention, and who has now vanished for a second time.

Mr. Gao's story is astonishing. With only a middle-school education, he taught himself law and went on to rank among China's top lawyers, becoming a dedicated advocate for justice and the rule of law. His writings earned international attention, from "A China More Just," a book detailing his struggles, to his impassioned open letters denouncing China's human rights failures. He took on sensitive cases most other lawyers avoided, even asserting the rights of detained Falun Gong members to judicial review. As a result of his activism, he has been kidnapped, tortured and disappeared. Last year, he vanished for more than a year, emerging this March under tight scrutiny from authorities, forced to abandon his human rights efforts and seeming broken. In April, he vanished again.

And he is one of the few "disappeared" Chinese known to the public. More than 400,000 prisoners are said to be languishing in the "black jails," labor camps and detention centers of China. In the year following Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's disastrous remarks that human rights must not "interfere" with U.S.-China relations, the Chinese government's crackdown on those who strive to build the rule of law has only broadened. Citizens blog, tweet and engage in discourse -- until their comments are censored, their opinions removed and they are arrested.

Increased international attention may bring back Mr. Gao. But this will not solve the problem.

President Obama has just invited Chinese President Hu Jintao for a state visit. He must allow human rights -- and Mr. Gao -- to interfere. For years, Chinese lawyers like Mr. Gao have struggled to build the rule of law, case by case. The United States must support democratic processes and the authority of the legal system. A China in which the law is respected, where citizens have a say in their government and can count upon it to protect their rights, rather than depending upon the whim of Communist Party leaders, would be a great leap forward for individuals and businesses alike.

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