Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Because of my legal work on behalf of groups persecuted by the Chinese government, I have been tortured three times since September 21, 2007. I have been subject to long periods of secret detention or formal imprisonment. At present, I can move freely within the bounds of a village in northern China, but I’m still in prison—it’s just that my cell has become larger. In negotiating with the Communist party, I have always been willing to compromise on technicalities, but on principle I have been immovable. As long as my physical shell can support my spirit, I will stand against the forces of evil.

The torture I suffered gave me a wonderful gift: faith in God. I was not born a believer. While handling the legal defense of Pastor Cai Zhuohua, who was charged with “illegal business practices” in 2004 for possessing Bibles, I first read Scripture. At the time, it left me cold. My attitude changed when the Beijing authorities began to persecute me. In time, I came to know God and join the brotherhood of Christians. Since then, God has given me great strength through difficult times. He has also given me visions, the first coming after I was abducted in August 2006.

All day on April 28, 2009, my right eye kept twitching. I knew another round of torture would begin soon. I was propelled into a building and down a long staircase, then shoved onto the ground. I heard several people approach before someone said, “Pull the hood off!” A hand snatched the hood off my head, and I saw three pairs of feet in front of me. It was the same group that had tortured me before. The leader was holding an electric cattle prod about two feet long; his other hand lifted a cigarette to his lips. He stepped on my shoulder as his electric cattle prod emitted a buzzing sound. He stuck the prod under my chin. I shut my eyes tight and heard another strange sound, which undoubtedly came from me. That sound rang through the corridor along with the buzzing, but there was no way to control it. I felt my muscles separate from my bones.

“The Communist party isn’t like before,” one of my captors said during one of my countless interrogations.

We’re willing to give you conditions that even those who have rendered extraordinary service to the party wouldn’t dream of. It’s always a question of interests, and ultimately of money. Even in the global sphere, the Communist party doesn’t have anything it can’t handle. How about America? Haven’t we taken care of them, too? When Hillary came this time, what did she want? As soon as we meet they want human rights and discuss your problem, but they also want a billion. With a flick of the hand we give her $800 billion, and once that woman has the money in her hand, there’s no more mention of human rights or Gao Zhisheng!

At this point, my captor became so agitated that he slapped his thigh, leaped to his feet, and began pacing. “Give up, Gao—what good is that human rights bullshit? We know what the Americans want, and they know what we want, and you don’t even enter into it. Even if America really cared about China’s human rights, so what? If we stomp on you, what can they do about it?”

My torture displayed definite Chinese characteristics. Consciously or not, everybody was splashing around in a dark, bitter swamp from which no one could escape, not even the forces of evil themselves. One day, two of them came to see me, and without even sitting down, they began to ask me questions.

“Lao Gao, how are you?”

“You have all the answers,” I said, “so there’s no need to ask.”

“Why don’t you tell us your thoughts on the government?” they asked.

“I don’t feel there is a government,” I replied. “There are only the developers and managers of hell. Acknowledging and respecting laws and regulations are the most basic features of all governments. The law is the guarantee and foundation for a state to exercise control, and it’s the law that distinguishes a government from a gang.”

My first experience of going to the bathroom with my head covered, feet shackled, and hands cuffed occurred on December 16, 2011, during my transfer by rail from secret to official confinement. It was hopeless. Two guards crowded into the train bathroom to monitor me and direct my actions. After I was guided to the “right position,” one of my hands was uncuffed and the handcuff was immediately locked onto another man’s wrist. When I squatted down, each of my knees pushed against their legs. I could also sense that the bathroom’s door was open; there was probably a video camera outside as well as other policemen standing guard.

“Forward a bit . . . bit more . . . okay, okay, let ’er rip.”

I’m sure that no esteemed personage urinates with as much pomp and ceremony as I did. Apart from the final biological act, which remained mine, all other arrangements were handled by my guards in peaked caps.

One of the headings on the official list of breaches of prison discipline is “Illegal Religions.” In fact, prison is where it becomes obvious that the party does not oppose “illegal religions,” but all religion. Prohibited religious acts include “carrying out, or covertly carrying out, the namaz” (the namaz is an Islamic prayer), “inciting others to carry out the namaz,” “praying or covertly praying,” “inciting others to pray,” “washing in the Muslim fashion,” and “touching the face in the Muslim fashion before or after meals.” Each of these prohibitions is aimed not at “illegal religion,” but at religion itself.

I once asked several of the guards, one of whom was responsible for education on religious matters, what exactly an illegal religion was. None of them was able to answer. I asked what legal religious acts they sought to protect, and they said there were no legal religious acts in prison. “Then why ban ‘illegal religion’ and not all religion?” They couldn’t answer.

China has made little progress since the time of the palace eunuch Zhao Gao, who forced others to call a deer a horse. Zhao was contemplating treason and wanted to test his support among other officials, so he presented a deer to the emperor and called it a horse. The emperor, thinking this strange, asked those around him what the animal was. Some were silent, others said it was a deer, and others, apparently wanting to curry favor with Zhao, said it was a horse. Zhao later secretly arranged for those who said it was a deer to be executed. From then on, all the officials lived in fear of him.

Once a guard of mine described an experience he’d had as a new recruit. He went to an “inaugural meeting,” a ritual that was an old Communist Army practice. After roll call, the squad leader pointed to a soldier next to the classroom’s shiny white wall and asked, “What color is that wall?” When the soldier answered that it was white, he was thrashed. After five soldiers in a row were beaten for giving the same answer, the sixth one replied, “It’s whatever color the squad leader says it is.” The squad leader praised the soldier and once again asked the soldiers who had been beaten what color the wall was. They all replied, “It’s whatever color the squad leader says it is.”

Under the Prison Law, prisoners are entitled to read books. Chen, the deputy block chief, laughed as he handed me a heavy tome titled A Compilation of the Theoretical Work of Jiang Zemin (arguably humanity’s most egregious waste of paper). After bureau approval, the prison gave me a copy of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, which I read for the next five or six months. And even that came with conditions: The bureau wanted me to write weekly reports that expressed my remorse, my change in thinking, my willingness to break with the past, and my determination to make amends. These requirements were imposed on all political prisoners and “cultists.”

I did write the reports—a single sentence for each. In my report on my remorsefulness, I said that I regretted not doing a better job of exposing the dark forces at work in China. In the report on my thinking, I told them of how I spent every day planning an end to the party’s power. In my report on how I was to break with the past, I told them how determined I was to destroy the current system in China. I was not given any more books for some time.

I became so desperate to read again that I was willing to try anything. So I asked whether I could have something by Chairman Mao. Mao is a decent writer, and the first four volumes of his Selected Works are of historical value. The officials found this an appropriate choice and provided the first four volumes, but not the fifth, despite repeated requests. Perhaps they hadn’t liked my report. On completing the first four books, I wrote twenty-six pages on what I had learned. In certain narrow terms Mao was a success, but ultimately he will be reviled for the totalitarianism he brought to China, a cruel system that stands to this day. The authorities decided that I was using these reports as an opportunity to “continue my reactionary stance.” Once again, they stopped giving me books.

After I had spent several months insisting on my lawful right to reading material, they reluctantly presented me with a copy of Educational Readings on the Core Values of Socialism, which describes breakthroughs in political theory by five hundred of the party’s greatest thinkers. My views on this compendium of moral midgets once again enraged the prison authorities. What did these “breakthroughs” consist of? Let me make an analogy. There’s a sexually transmitted disease, genital warts, which at the point of outbreak resembles a peach blossom. Describing a horrible disease such as that in terms of a beautiful flower—that’s a “theoretical breakthrough.”

The prison authorities demanded to know whether I thought I knew better than those five hundred experts. It wasn’t, I told them, a matter of numbers; every summer the outdoor toilet of my childhood home would crawl with maggots, but I never saw the maggots come up with any breakthroughs. The head of the prison’s investigation department described this attitude as “brazen refusal to rehabilitate.” They then gave me Chicken Soup for the Soul and books on how to get rich.

Whenever a new soldier was sent to watch over me, he would eventually ask me about June 4, 1989. I would always ask why he was interested, and the responses had certain points in common. He had never heard of the “June 4th Incident” prior to his military training, and he couldn’t believe the government’s claim that protesting students had killed a large number of soldiers. The soldiers all mentioned a video they’d been shown during training, which featured tearful testimony from a “hero” who had been promoted to the position of commander of the Beijing corps after “suppressing the riots,” and who claimed that he’d personally witnessed students massacring soldiers. He even claimed that only eight hundred of the more than 10,000 soldiers that had been sent to Beijing had survived.

Most of the soldiers who discussed this topic with me said they didn’t believe the government’s version of events: “If we believed them, why would we ask you?” Some soldiers had found information on the Internet. I asked one soldier why he didn’t believe the stories about 1989 told on the training video. He explained that his grandfather had told him as a young boy, “Whatever the party tells you, know that the exact opposite is true.”

People get the government they deserve—this is the crux of China’s problems. Overthrowing the Communist dictatorship is only a technical issue. Though “ruling the country by law” has long been written into the Constitution, the government prevents citizens from enjoying their constitutional rights. Any mention of “constitutionalism” is criticized in party media as “anti-party” or “defaming China.”

Since Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign started, there has been no evidence of a genuine move toward rule of law. Raucous acclaim conceals the fact that corruption cases have been handled gangster-style. In fact, after three years of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, the following conclusions can be drawn: He has no desire to introduce due process of law; his main goal is to maintain the CCP’s dictatorial status and eliminate rivals; and a sincere anti-corruption campaign would subvert the regime. Xi must know that the most corrupt officials in China are members of the CCP Politburo and its Standing Committee. What family of past or current Politburo Standing Committee members is not as rich as a small nation? In the end, whether it’s Mao, Deng, or Xi, in terms of political logic, motives, and modus operandi, they are birds of a feather.

I have participated in the defense of some of those accused of corruption, and those cases let me perceive some common patterns. First, not a single corruption case has been uncovered as a result of the normal operation of anti-corruption procedures. Second, such cases have been exposed due to accidental factors or power struggles between groups of corrupt officials. When the power struggles remain in equilibrium, everyone remains a “leading comrade.” Once the equilibrium breaks, the losing party becomes the corrupt official and the winning one becomes the anti-corruption hero. In fact, these are cases of the heinously corrupt arresting the merely corrupt. If Xi really fought corruption through to the end, he and the rest of his regime would be thrown into prison.

China’s “mighty army” is powerless when it comes to confronting the supernatural. On the surface, the CCP denies the existence of gods or ghosts. Here, their ignorance spells their misfortune. Denial of the supernatural is a major reason why so many of my countrymen have become moral degenerates.

One building in which I was held had initially been erected to serve as an office building. Because it was situated on the site of a Ming Dynasty grave, it had to be abandoned because of incessant haunting by ghosts. Eventually, it was rented by the Beijing Public Security Bureau and used to hold major dissidents, not being suitable for anything else.

Encounters with the spirit world were by no means limited to that location. Soldiers and officers told many amusing stories about their “struggle” against gods and ghosts. According to the soldiers, “weird phenomena” began to occur after Jiang Zemin became General Secretary of the CCP. “Demonic sightings” were reported everywhere. From 1990 onwards, the People’s Armed Police units in all provinces were plagued by hauntings.

A soldier reported standing sentinel and suddenly finding himself in the basement, while the surveillance camera went completely blank. Another sentinel spent two hours walking down from the second floor without reaching the first floor. Female soldiers sleeping in upper bunks would leap out for no reason, sometimes injuring themselves in the process. Sergeant Zheng Jun spoke of many strange encounters, including once when he was standing sentinel and saw a woman emerge from the rice field carrying a young child.

Ghosts in the National Archives terrified soldiers with eerie weeping, laughter, and screaming. Once a surveillance camera captured a woman in white standing next to a sentinel. Duty officers who rushed to the scene found no woman physically present. The sentinel himself denied any awareness of a woman standing there, but he was given a demerit for “chatting with a strange woman while on duty.”

In the National Archives, the army responded by posting double sentries and scattering peach branches around. (They kept a stack of peach branches in my prison cell because soldiers often reported supernatural sounds or apparitions there, though I never noticed anything.) For a while, they hung a large plate with the national emblem above every regiment or squadron door, saying that the national emblem, a symbol of righteousness and colored a bloody red, must be able to banish evil. But the haunting only increased.

Some troops troubled by frequent haunting simply painted the entire barracks red. When this appeared effective, an order was telephoned to the entire army (nothing was put in writing) to paint all People’s Armed Police barracks red. But before long, the haunting resumed.

The eventual success came from an experiment by some female soldiers who tried their luck by placing a small stone lion on each side of their dormitory door. When the hauntings stopped, this method was promoted throughout the armed police forces (again by telephone, not in writing), and the haunting finally ended.

The successful banishing of ghosts so enthralled top leader Jiang Zemin that he kept bringing it up in conversation. Soon all national ministries, major banks, and enterprises and local governments at all levels were placing stone lion statues next to their doors. Stone lions became a boom industry. What led to comedy in this case has led to tragedy in countless others. There will be yet more absurdity and suffering until China ceases its struggle against the gods.

When this regime falls, there will be a squaring of accounts. Its many evils will be investigated and punished. Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Zhou Yongkang cannot be let off unless they’ve reformed. Party mouthpieces should be treated like Leni Riefenstahl and the other propagandists who extolled Nazism. But without forgiveness, there can be no hope for China’s future. The people of South Africa were able to implement social reconciliation, and the Chinese can as well.

Property must not be public; rights must not be private. This is hard-won knowledge, but our nation has not yet accepted it and continues to ignore common human experience. The paradise of power is the hell of rights. In today’s China, constitutional government, rule of law, freedom, religion, universal values, democratic elections, and judicial independence are labeled as erroneous ideological trends of the West. In fact, justice is justice, and doesn’t distinguish between East and West.

It’s been half a year now since I returned to my home village to live with my family, where I was permitted to come under unofficial house arrest after my release from prison. I’ve kept to myself because the authorities repeatedly told my family, “If Gao Zhisheng contacts the outside world, we’ll adopt the same resolute measures as in the past.” I owe them some peace in their lives. Because it’s been six years since I’ve been able to read anything worthwhile, I’ve buried myself in books. And I’ve used this time to write as well. I’ve been so absorbed in my writing that I run when I go to the bathroom.

I have worked behind closed doors for fear that my writing will cause my brother and other family members to worry about new conflict with the authorities. Whenever someone opens the door, I hide my pen and notebook and pick up a book to read. Often my eldest brother asks me at dinner, “You haven’t been writing, have you?” I’m not sure when I’ll tell him that I lied to him.

As is my habit wherever I am, I’ve quickly established a pattern. Every day I rise at five o’clock and read for an hour. At six o’clock I spend an hour exercising in the courtyard in that unique atmosphere that my so-called “bodyguards”—in fact, my jailers—provide. At seven, I spend half an hour washing my face and tidying up my room, then I devote half an hour to reading the Bible at seven-thirty. From eight o’clock onward I spend most of my time writing until around six-thirty in the evening. I read while I eat at seven o’clock, exercise for about an hour and then read a little more before going to bed, usually falling into a deep sleep as soon as I hit the pillow.

During my spare time on Sunday, I go hiking in the hills behind the village. On these walks I have started to discover the beauty of my native place, which I had never noticed in decades past. Especially in autumn at break of day, looking out onto the hills and rivers under the red sun, I feel heaven, earth, and man come together in a contrast that cannot be conveyed in words. Then at sunset I experience the land’s immovable majesty, and my thoughts soar with the feeling that I’m the only man left on this planet, and that my heartbeat is the only sound beneath heaven and earth, until the fluttering of a bird arouses me from my daze before the world is lost to me forever.

Today when I went out to exercise at noon, the earth was weighed down by snow and blown raw by the wind, but plants pushed out new green shoots, indifferent to the remnants of winter. My heart was stirred by this small miracle, which seems beneath notice but is as inspiring as the greatest philosophy. Harshness and desolation are not death, but the harbingers of life to come.

Written from December 27, 2014, to March 18, 2015, in the cave dwelling where my mother once lived.

Gao Zhisheng is a Chinese human rights lawyer and dissident. This essay is adapted from his memoir Unwavering Convictions: Gao Zhisheng’s Ten-Year Torture and Faith in China’s Future by permission of the American Bar Association. It was translated from the Chinese by Stacy Mosher.