Cover Story
Geng He, wife of Gao Zhisheng; Bridgette Chen, daughter of Liu Xianbin; Li Jing, wife of Guo Quan (from left to right)
Craig Lee/Genesis (Geng He and Bridgette Chen); Andrew Silk/Genesis (Li Jing)
Geng He, wife of Gao Zhisheng; Bridgette Chen, daughter of Liu Xianbin; Li Jing, wife of Guo Quan (from left to right)

Remember those who are in prison

Daniel of the Year | It’s a new day for China’s Communist leadership, but not for the dissidents the government imprisons. They linger in remote jails, beaten, forgotten, and cut off from work, fellowship, friends, and family. WORLD’s 2012 Daniels of the Year are these outspoken Chinese Christians and their long-suffering loved ones

Issue: "2012 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 15, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO–For Gao Zhisheng’s family, visiting the imprisoned Christian at his remote exile in western China takes days.

Gao’s father-in-law and older brother made the trek in January: The pair rode a train nearly 2,000 miles from Shaanxi Province into the craggy mountains of the desert region of Xinjiang after obtaining clearance from prison officials to visit Gao. Then they took a public bus to its last stop, where they hired a motorcycle driver to travel the lone road to Shaya Prison, where the dissident has been jailed. When the father and son reached the first security checkpoint, a guard delivered cruel news: Despite official assurance to the family, no one could see Gao.

The dejected men tried the trek again in March. This time officials allowed a visit, but gave strict orders: Don’t talk about Gao’s case. Don’t mention his lawyers. Discuss only family and health. Finally, after the days-long trip, and the hour-long orientation, prison guards allowed the men to visit Gao for 30 minutes.

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Nearly 6,000 miles away, Gao’s wife, Geng He, can recount that story openly near her home in northern California. Geng fled to the United States with her two children in 2009 after Chinese authorities harassed her family for years.

Here she’s free to bring attention to her husband’s plight, but she’s deeply lonely without him. And she struggles to explain the ordeal to their 8-year-old son: “It’s very hard for him to understand why daddy disappeared.”

Gao’s disappearance into the Chinese prison system is a mysterious saga. But at least one thing seems clear: Chinese officials remain determined to silence the Christian attorney who challenged an oppressive system.

Like other dissidents in Communist China, Gao, 48, has contended publicly for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and justice for the oppressed. And like others, he’s paid a steep price: prison sentences, abuse, and separation from family.

Millions more Chinese Christians aren’t activists, but some suffer for embracing a faith outside government control. During the past 18 months, harassment against Christians—including hundreds of arbitrary detentions—has risen sharply in some regions. 

Though a growing number of Chinese have decried government abuses—including forced abortions and the country’s one-child policy—a November change in Communist Party leadership hasn’t held out substantial hope of fundamental reforms in the near future.

But despite a year of intensified crackdowns, increasing arrests, and a renewed government call to exert control over Christians, scores of believers have refused to retreat from the mouth of the lion’s den. 

Indeed, many remain firmly planted inside it.

Christians like Gao Zhisheng and others profiled here are examples of believers showing courage under painful oppression and life-threatening circumstances. For pressing on—and speaking up—while suffering abuse and escalating threats, WORLD honors China’s persecuted Christians as our 2012 Daniels of the Year.

Speaking up wasn’t always Gao Zhisheng’s calling. Born into a poor family in a rural village in Shaanxi Province in 1964, he remembers his father lamenting: “When will we ever have enough to eat?”

His father died when Gao was 10, and the boy’s mother struggled to care for her seven children. In his memoir, A China More Just, Gao writes: “From then on, our family had nothing.”

Gao spent his childhood working in coal mines and begging for food, but he found a way out in 1985: Gao enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army. During his service, Gao discovered the outside world and a new future: He met his wife, Geng He.

During our interview in California, Geng’s furrowed brow softened when she remembered meeting Gao in the military. She was in a training program for new soldiers. Gao was the head cook for the base. Her supplies were limited, but Gao gave her apples, cookies, and sunflower seeds. “He was very kind,” she says. “Very thoughtful.”

The couple married in 1990, and Gao sold vegetables in a local stand. A year later, he read a small ad in a newspaper wrapped around his produce: China needed lawyers. Gao began taking classes, and by 1995 he passed the bar exam. 

It was time for Gao to begin speaking up.

He initially handled medical malpractice suits and economic law. He was a Communist Party member, and the Chinese government lauded his work. But Gao’s interests soon broadened: The attorney began taking human-rights cases and defending property owners harassed by government officials. 

A local pastor offered spiritual support to some of Gao’s oppressed clients. He offered the same gospel message to Gao, and eventually the young attorney embraced Christianity. 

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