“[Gao Zhisheng] served as a lawyer [for] people who couldn’t afford lawyers.”
First arrested in 2006, lawyer and human rights activist Gao Zhisheng was released in 2014 after withstanding severe mistreatment and torture in solitary confinement at an underground facility in China, while his wife, son and daughter escaped to California. But two years later, he disappeared, leaving his family and associates clueless as to his whereabouts. His son, MVHS junior Peter Gao, describes life while his father is a prisoner in China. His wife, Geng He, provides her experiences with her husband as well as her own vital contributions to Zhisheng’s movement.
As the decade neared an end, crowds of protesters and activists gathered in Hong Kong to express opposition to the extradition bill, which allows Hong Kong to transfer people in and out of its region, mainland China and Taiwan. Among the thousands of protestors was Geng He — now a woman who sought her independence and purpose. Her family shares their story of a missing father, husband and respected human rights lawyer who had often gone head to head with the Chinese government in his cases.
Throughout his lifetime, Junior Peter Gao has rarely seen his father due to his various imprisonments and disappearances; his job as a human rights activism and lawyer resulted in his having multiple conflicts with the Chinese government.
2004 - Peter Gao is born
Peter was born to Geng He and Gao Zhisheng in 2004. He spent the first few years of his life in China, growing up with his older sister, Grace Gao. Zhisheng, his father, didn’t spend much time with him, but still made an impression on Peter’s life in the few years they had together. Peter recalls that when he was very young, he often preferred to stay with his mother when asked whom he wanted to sleep with.
“During the nights when I couldn’t sleep, instead of telling me to go to sleep, he would get angry at me for wasting time not sleeping,” Peter said. “He was strict, but I understand he was trying to do what’s best for me… He did try to do whatever he could to raise me into a good person.”
Regardless of his relationship with his father, Peter is still extremely disheartened by his father’s disappearance, even though more than 10 years have passed. Peter has felt his father’s absence for the majority of his life, and most of his feelings towards his father are based on what he’s been told by his mother and sister, who did not want to overwhelm Peter, because Peter was only two years old at the time of his father’s arrest and was 13 when their father disappeared.
2006 - Zhisheng is arrested
Even though the Chinese government had been monitoring Peter’s family since 2000, they officially arrested his father in 2006. Zhisheng was accused of “subversion” — he was believed to be guilty of attempting to disrupt and overthrow the government and political party. The arrest came soon after he had resigned from the Chinese Communist Party.
Peter felt that his father did good work — as a human rights lawyer, Zhisheng often took up cases that represented people whose situations caused them to be cast aside by the law as well as cases that clashed with the government. Because of his father’s work for the people, Peter believes his father was well connected and liked by many.
“When my father was first named a prisoner in China, he was very well known by the people,” Peter said. “He served as a lawyer to people who couldn’t afford lawyers. And when he disappeared, a lot of people were suspicious. But of course, the Chinese government obviously denied that anything bad happened.”
Since Peter was very young at the time of Zhisheng’s arrest, he wishes he had more time with him. After not seeing him for 11 years, Peter doesn’t have many memories with his father. He believes his family’s situation would have been different if they had come to the U.S. earlier, and his father would have had more freedom to speak.
“My father, in about 2005, would spend most of his time praying or trying to make China better, trying to make it a democracy, and he would spend less time on us,” Peter said. “In my opinion, I think my father should have come to the U.S. because in China, he would be locked up in prison and not able to do anything about it. Whereas in the U.S., you [can] talk without being locked up in jail.”
2009 - The Gao family leaves China
While Peter’s father remained in jail, his family felt unsafe staying in China. His mother had to decide to either put up with the conditions they faced, or work towards a fresh start somewhere else.
“We had to [leave] because my sister, she wouldn’t be able to go to school [in China] without being in a police car because the police had to escort her to school,” Peter said. “Eventually, it got to the point where my sister couldn’t go to school at all. So my mom decided to come to another country so that we could get a better education and speak up about the crimes done by the Chinese government.”
In January 2009, when Peter was 5 years old, he fled China with his mother and sister and flew to Thailand. In March of the same year, they flew to Los Angeles to begin new lives away from the danger they faced back home. Soon after, they settled in the Bay Area, where Peter has lived ever since.
According to Peter, living in the U.S. has felt much more stable and safer than staying in China. His father’s experiences have caused him to have a very strong opinion against China.
“I like it here a lot better than China,” Peter said. “But that’s mostly because I know how terrible China is. If I was stuck in China, and I didn’t know about the freedom [here], I would probably think China is a fine place honestly, so I’m glad I got to experience what it’s truly like to be free.”
2014 - Zhisheng is released from prison
While Peter settled down in California, in sixth grade and adjusting to life in the U.S., his father was released from prison in August 2014. During his father’s time in prison, Peter remembers never knowing where his father was being kept or what he was going through because the Chinese government would never tell him and his family where Zhisheng was. He personally suspects that his father was kept in an underground facility in isolation.
According to Peter and his mother, as well as his father’s autobiography written in 2017, Zhisheng was mistreated in prison after being charged with multiple false accusations that Geng He stated were excuses for locking Gao in prison. But any attempts made by his family and friends to help him get the treatment he needed were denied. Even after his release from prison, Zhisheng was placed under house arrest and couldn’t maintain much contact with Peter and his family, as he couldn’t travel to the U.S. to meet them. It was only until months later that Peter heard from him again.
2015 - Minimal Contact
In the year after Zhisheng’s release, Peter and the rest of his family were able to communicate with him periodically.
“Since my dad was always being transferred to a prison or missing, there [were] only a few times that we actually contacted him by phone,” Peter said. “I wouldn’t be able to see him, but I was able to hear him.”
During the arrest of his father and moving across the world, Peter was not completely aware of the truth of what had happened to his family. He was only informed recently of his father’s imprisonment and torture, and the reasoning behind it.
“I was very disgusted at this, at the Chinese government,” Peter said. “I never liked China much anyways. And I was quite upset at other people because it seems like many people know how terrible of a country China is. They have concentration camps, and they’re always really disrespectful to other countries, but it seems like everyone is just turning a blind eye to it. They know what happens but they don’t care because China is such a great trading partner with [the] United States.”
Peter has formed negative opinions of China based on his interpretation of the government’s actions. This has cemented his belief that he is better off in the U.S., where he could fight for his dad more freely. And after being told about his father, Peter found his choices and goals changing.
“After [my mother] told me the story, I just hated China a lot more,” Peter said. “Now, I do try to do better in school or anything else I do, to try to make my father proud so I can take on the responsibility of [carrying] on my father’s legacy.”
Now aware of the reasons behind his father’s arrest and time in prison, Peter wants to make a difference but says he doesn’t know how. While he believes living here gives him much more freedom to talk about the issues his father faces, Peter struggles with finding exactly how to work towards helping Zhisheng.
“I really want to fight for my father and I really want to help them in any way I can, but I feel like right now my reach is still limited,” Peter said.
2016 - Zhisheng disappears
Peter’s feelings of helplessness intensified in 2016 when his father disappeared. Not only was he unable to contact Zhisheng, but the Chinese government denied any involvement.
The Chinese government hasn’t given Peter and his family any information, leaving them in the dark about his current whereabouts and situation. Peter remains unable to do anything and wishes he could call out the Chinese government for their actions.
“I feel really bad for [my father],” Peter said. “I feel like I can’t really do anything to help because I can’t just tell the Chinese government to stop — they’re just too big, too powerful for that. So I feel kind of helpless that my dad is constantly suffering and I can’t do anything about it.”
Grace has spoken about her father’s situation in European countries and through various interviews. His mother, too, has given speeches to raise awareness. However, his mother is hesitant about pushing Peter to speak out, in an effort to protect him.
“I actually don’t talk about it a lot because my mom doesn’t really want me to because she worries about my safety, and she want[ed] to keep me anonymous,” Peter said. “Of course, the Chinese government knows that we’re staying here. But she tries not to let me spread the word too much for my own safety.”
While staying safe, Peter has found a way to help his family spread awareness for his father, by translating for his mother.
“I’m translating right now to get the word out,” Peter said. “So that would be a service I’m doing: translating. And I do this a lot actually since my mom’s English is quite poor; I translate a lot so she can get her thoughts and words out. On her Twitter, she uses me to translate. And whenever she’s having trouble, I usually translate for her.”
In an attempt to locate his father, Peter and his mother reached out to President Trump in a letter. They explained their situation, as well as their belief that the Chinese government was behind Zhisheng’s disappearance, and received a response. While his mother became more hopeful as a result, Peter remained skeptical.
“My mom believes that Trump responded to us, but when I took a little closer look at the note, it just looks like a generic note that says ‘Thank you for contacting us. We are going to do everything that we can,’” Peter said. “But my mom still thinks it’s important that Trump is reaching out, at least responding.”
With the President’s letter that Peter does not fully believe and Peter’s family’s confusion on Zhisheng’s condition, he finds it difficult to stay hopeful. He believes the Chinese government has damaged his family by taking away his father, and isn’t sure how to solve the issue and get his father back. In fact, despite the best efforts of his family and many others, Peter isn’t confident that he will see his father again.
“I haven’t seen my father for 11 years,” Peter said. “There’s a lot of stuff I missed out on and my mom was really upset since the Chinese government keeps taking experiences away from us. Since in the U.S. it is very common to meet with your family members for parties, and we’ve never seen our family members ever, it’s just me, my mom [and] my sister. China’s brought a lot of suffering to us, even now. I do hope I can see my father again, but I think the chances are very low.”
Geng He reminisces about her missing husband, Gao Zhisheng as she starts to narrate the ways in which her life changed after meeting him. Initially someone who did not take interest in human rights and activism, she now embodies her husband’s values and beliefs and has gained the confidence to support and fight for him.
Before Zhisheng went missing, he lived with Geng He and her kids in China. According to Geng He, Zhisheng was a lawyer and human rights activist who was always very compassionate to everyone around him, especially to those who needed help. She remembers one night before Chinese New Year, while her family was sleeping, a thief was trying to steal some food kept outside of the window of their house. Immediately, Geng He and Zhisheng woke up, realizing what was occurring.
“My husband immediately got up, didn’t breathe and didn’t want to disturb the thief,” Geng He said. “He prayed, hoping that the food would be taken away by the thief. But the next day, he saw that they didn’t steal it because our neighborhood dog scared them away. He was very upset. He always thought, [The fact that they] risk[ed] their life in order to steal some food before New Years must be very pitiful. It doesn’t mean [the thief] is inherently bad. It’s because of our society’s inability to save these people in poverty.”
Due to his imprisonment, Zhisheng requested that Geng He and her kids leave the country to protect them from engaging in conflict with the Chinese government, which resulted in Geng He’s journey to the Bay Area.
Geng He rustled into her purse and pulled out her phone. As she scrolled through her Twitter account, she clicked on a photo that shows a before-and-after photo of her lost husband.
“The images you see of my husband right now are very different from what he [was],” Geng He said. “He was tortured. He [has] lost all his teeth. He has no hair and his skin is really monotone; it’s grayish. We’ve tried numerous attempts to try to give him medicine or to pay his hospital costs, but of course they’ve all been denied. [The facility] wouldn’t let him see sunlight for three years, so his health is really poor right now.”
When he was released from prison in 2014, Zhisheng wrote an autobiography that documented his experiences of oppression, which was later translated by the American Attorney Association. As Geng held a copy of the book in her hands, she reflected on her husband’s experiences through the text. In the autobiography, Zhisheng shares about his years in prison, as well as all accounts of what the Chinese government has done to him.
“Through showing his miserable experience[s] of persecution to the international community, he wanted to demonstrate China’s awful human rights abuses,” Geng He said. “My husband only relied on himself to pass the test to become a lawyer. He always thought, ‘Once I’m a lawyer and am capable of helping more people, I will be very happy.’ We did not expect that the time he went missing would surpass the time he spent being a lawyer. He was a lawyer for less than 10 years, but his persecution time will surpass 15-16 years.”
The last time that Geng He and her kids had talked to Zhisheng was in 2015, via a phone call.
“Zhisheng frequently says, ‘Each year, I spend 99 percent of my time praying, hoping that China will become better,’” Geng He said.
When Geng He and her kids left China in 2009 and fled to Thailand and eventually Los Angeles, California, where they received help from multiple human rights organizations along the way. Throughout these years in America, Geng He feels grateful for the support they have received from the American government and other independent organizations. Ever since, they have rarely contacted Zhisheng due to his frequent disappearances and imprisonments. Geng He suspects that Zhisheng’s disappearances are connected with the Chinese government.
Twitter account in order to spread the word to users who might scroll by her story.
With faith and high hope in the beginning of 2020, Geng He traveled to the Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco to film a video and put up posters as means to spread awareness about her missing husband. Additionally, she keeps a
“I came here for my kids. I came here because our daughter, in China, was not allowed to go to school,” Geng He said. “Initially, she had to go in a police car to arrive at school. Finally, they stopped allowing my daughter to go to school. So I brought my kids to America so my kids can go to school, [to find] my husband and [to let] the U.S. [intelligence] know, let America know, let the entire world know about China’s awful [treatment to citizens].”
Not long after, Geng He started actively supporting civil rights as she lived in America. This year, she traveled to Hong Kong in order to support the protests against the extradition bill placed on Hong Kong citizens.
“[I] felt like [I] was obligated to [participate in the Hong Kong protests] and Hong Kong always side[d with] my [husband] whenever my father was in trouble,” Geng He said. “So [I] felt [I] should participate in the riots as well. It was [my] way of thanking Hong Kong for their actions.”
After staying in America for all these years, Geng He believes she made the right decision to move to the Bay Area. Receiving so much support, she felt freer to express herself and speak out against injustices. With her newfound confidence, she reaches out to organizations to spread awareness about her missing husband. Additionally, her daughter, Grace Gao, and son, Peter Gao, have also spoken at conferences to help their mother find justice.
Looking back to her past, Geng He has always remembered one thing her husband told her back in China.
“In this society, it’s easy to give to the homeless or weak, but it’s hard to receive help from others,” Geng He said. “[This] phrase has always inspired me, especially when I came to America. I really feel it’s simple to give money to others, but when we [help others,] we are very satisfied. [Zhisheng] made me realize that I should give more to this society. Now, I finally understand why my husband said that to me 10 years ago.”
Most of Geng He’s quotes were directly translated by her son, Peter Gao, and some were manually translated.
One person, one vote. The story of democracy dates back to 500 B.C., Athens. Today, it has prompted the Hong Kong protesters’ victory during the elections held on Nov 24, 2019, rising in a stronger push for the pro-democracy movement. The results are the following: 17 out of the 18 district councils have voted for pro-democratic leaders. This event is marked as a turning point for Hong Kong’s future in government and politics since, in previous elections, the democratic party had little grounds. However, China still has ultimate political control over Hong Kong, so the region’s future is ambiguous.
According to senior Alex Zhang, the higher turnout of voters in Hong Kong connects to how politicized the region has become nationally, increasing voter participation.
“In the past, most young people would vote in the legislative council elections, which is very different from the local district council elections,” Zhang said. “But this time, the local district council elections became much more political. And so people who are very, very ardent about their political feelings participated in this election.”
Although the election results were celebrated among pro-democrats, Zhang believes that the victory is only short-term and that in the long run, it won’t be beneficial to Hong Kong.
“I have a really pessimistic view of Hong Kong,” Zhang said. “Although I love the city very much, the conflict between the people and the government cannot be solved very quickly.”
Financial specialist Calvin Wong agrees that the tension between the people of Hong Kong and its government may be a long-lasting issue. While he believes that hearing the voices of the people of Hong Kong rather than the government is important, he doesn’t see any progressive change occurring until both sides properly communicate.
“Until 2047 comes around and the 50-year agreement ends, I think every year they will have these kinds of confrontations, and it might get worse, it might get better,” Wong said. “But without a thoughtful dialogue between both sides, then people just seem to resort to doing things that are not very helpful and just cause more frustration than providing answers.”
With the way he sees things going in the city right now, between the police and protesters, Wong doesn’t favor one side over another. He hopes for peace in the city through compromise, something that he doesn’t believe will happen soon due to the behavior from both sides in the past few months.
“Overall, the respect for humanity has kind of gone out the door on both sides where it looks like the police are being very forceful, looks like protesters are being very stubborn and violent,” Wong said. “But I think both sides, they have to somehow find some calm and open up a positive dialogue instead of just pointing fingers.”
In countries like Chile or Lebanon, Zhang believes protests and elections will influence governmental reform. However, he doesn’t believe that Hong Kong fits into this category because, unlike them, Hong Kong is still a part of China. Thus, political control still belongs to China, making it hard for the elections to affect China’s policies and control over the region.
As the pro-democracy marches continue in the region, Zhang feels that Hong Kong’s situation was quite familiar, stating that it resembled the past of another region of China.
Zhang likes to say that Hong Kong will be “Taiwan-ized,” because he argues that identity conflicts in Taiwan are similar to those in Hong Kong, stating that a portion of the people in the region call themselves “Taiwanese,” while the other portion calls themselves “Chinese.” Zhang believes this confusion of nationality will polarize the people of Hong Kong, thus increasing conflict and making progress more difficult.
Additionally, Zhang doesn’t believe the elections are going to make any progress towards the indefinite independence Hong Kong protesters want, as the constitutional agreement, “one country, two system,” between the United Kingdom and China from 1977 settled that Hong Kong would be one of two regions to be economically and politically separate from China for only 50 years — until 2047.
“[Hong Kong] cannot overturn a system, and the pro-democracy protesters cannot overturn the system,” Zhang said. “And, they can only do so until 2047 if there’s no changes to the promise made by the Chinese government.”
Sophomore Sophia Wang agrees with Zhang, stating that China is too large for Hong Kong to overcome due to its large control over land and military.
“China is going to always have the upper hand,” Wang said. “They’ve made it very clear that they are willing to use force in that they have military force, and I honestly think that China might not respect the democratic election.”
Despite China’s potential future involvement in Hong Kong, Wong still sees progress. He believes that the city’s efforts in the elections and protests successfully achieved what they had set out to do: express the individual goals of the people without the government censoring or ignoring them.
“I think the elections for the district positions in Hong Kong really showed the will of the people that as much as the government is trying to paint a picture that the normal folk are frustrated by the protesting and whatnot, they are not,” Wong said.
While Zhang and Wang don’t believe Hong Kong will make a lot of progress, Zhang doesn’t find the current system working between the region and China as harmful.
“The politics in Hong Kong and in Taiwan are pretty much similar to those of the small European countries. And I think Taiwan’s politics is not very corrupt because its politics [are] already dominated by one single issue [of Chinese-Taiwan relations],” Zhang said. “So, people’s likelihood is not going to be improved if the politics continue to be so polarized and focus on one single issue. So I think Hong Kong has the tendency to continue on Taiwan’s path.”
**Updates since El Estoque’s interviews with Zhang, Wang and Wong:
April 18, 2020: Fifteen activists are arrested, including Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, in the Chinese government’s biggest anti-democracy step so far.
May 28, 2020: China approves plan to reign in Hong Kong, defying worldwide outcry.
May 28, 2020: President Trump decides to slowly remove “special privileges.”
May 27, 2020: The U.S. no longer sees Hong Kong as a region with an autonomous voice.