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World Politics

As West woos China, no word about missing rights activist

When the Chancellor, George Osborne, and Michael Bear, the Lord Mayor of the City of London, co-hosted visiting Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang at a cosy dinner at Mansion House on Monday, it is a fair bet that the extra-judicial torture of the man formerly on China's official list of its 10 best lawyers was not among the topics discussed.

The details of what the Chinese police did to Gao Zhisheng during his mysterious 10-month disappearance would have ruined anyone's appetite.

The brilliant human rights lawyer, who had risen from an orphaned childhood in a cave dwelling to a starring role in Beijing's courts, defending citizens against land theft, censorship and religious intolerance, was beaten day and night, temporarily blinded and threatened with death.

His head was bound in a wet towel until he felt he was suffocating. He was told his children had suffered nervous breakdowns. During one week of abuse he was handcuffed, his mouth and eyes bound with tape and he was pistol-whipped for hours on end. Other things done to him were so grotesque he refused to divulge them.

These details were revealed in an interview with Gao Zhisheng conducted by Associated Press when he reappeared last April. He asked for the interview to be withheld unless he vanished again, but shortly afterwards he was seized once more. As this disappearance has now stretched to more than eight months, AP yesterday decided to release it.

But Mr Li, whose UK visit concluded in Scotland yesterday, did not come to Britain to hear our views about such matters. The rising star of the Communist Party, expected to become prime minister in 2013, has the reputation of being a liberal. But as China's attitude to dissident lawyers and human rights activists grows steadily more ruthless, it is less and less tolerant of criticism from outside. December's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, when Chinese pressure resulted in 16 out of 64 diplomatic no-shows for the awarding of the prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo (himself absent because he was in jail), was due warning.

The Coalition's leaders accept all this without a murmur because we are competing frantically for China's favours. The only talk out of Whitehall since Monday has been of signatures on new deals – a lowly £2.6bn compared with the $11.3bn (£7.3bn) signed in Germany – and "face time" with Mr Li (where we have supposedly outshone the Continent).

Next week Hu Jintao, China's supreme leader, goes to Washington, and despite China's flat refusal to take more than token measures to revalue the renminbi, its crucial role in continuing to invest in the US is likely to keep all political lips tightly zipped. It was a strangely muted President Obama who toured China in November 2009, a shadow of his usual eloquent self, and Mr Hu is likely to bring that infectious air of Confucian calm along with him.

China's ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, put it in folksy terms. If "it is up to each one to clear the snow on his doorstep", he said, China was willing to lend a hand with the shovel, becoming "a true friend and partner when Europe is in need". "Cold Europe is feeling the warmth of the Chinese breezes," he went on, a little cloyingly. "China is doing what the Chinese proverb says about 'sending charcoal in snowy weather.'"

Of course, there is nothing disinterested about it. If the Portuguese or the Spanish can persuade the Chinese to buy their eurobonds, it may stave off the spectre of bankruptcy and bailout. But China gains, too, because a rising euro means Chinese exports remain cheap or get even cheaper.

And while we Europeans politely bite our tongues over the outrageous fate of Liu Xiaobo and Gao Zhisheng, China has no inhibitions about extracting political benefits from its willingness to invest in Europe. As a WikiLeaks cable revealed, after China agreed to buy Spanish bonds, Spain secretly lobbied its EU partners to lift the moratorium on arms sales to China that has been in place since Tiananmen Square.

Liu Xiaobo, whose 11-year sentence was a grim new watershed in China's intolerance of dissent, came of age politically during the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989. Twenty-one years on, and despite many gains for individual freedom and justice in China, no attempt has been made by the state to assess that protest and its bloody conclusion. Recently William Hague said the lifting of the arms embargo was not on the agenda – but EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton is on record as saying it is something to be considered.

And while the Chinese are courted, flattered and indulged, what of Gao Zhisheng? On 21 April last year, two weeks after reappearing after 12 months out of sight, he disappeared again. His family has been granted asylum in the United States, but of the man himself there is no word at all. More than eight months after he went missing, China has not deigned to reveal anything about his fate. Nobody knows if he is alive or dead; or if they know, they aren't telling.

'That degree of cruelty, there's no way to recount it...'

Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who has defended many enemies of the Chinese state including members of the Falun Gong sect, was first jailed for "subversion" in 2006. Then his sentence was suspended. According to his interview with Associated Press last April (which he asked AP not to publish unless he vanished) he was told: "You going to prison, that's a dream. You're not good enough for that. Whenever we want you to disappear, you will disappear." In February 2009, he did – for 14 months. Seized in Beijing, shortly after his family had fled China, he was driven around the country, then locked up in a room with boarded-up windows where the light was kept on day and night and fed rotten cabbage. In April, his torture began. Six police officers tied him with belts and wrapped wet towels around his head, which gave him the sensation of suffocating.

He was held incommunicado throughout the summer. In September, in the city of Urumxi, a group of Uighurs (a largely Muslim minority group) siezed him and took him to an upstairs room for a week of abuse in which he was stripped bare and beaten for two days with pistols in holsters. "That degree of cruelty, there's no way to recount it," he told Associated Press. "For 48 hours my life hung by a thread." Some of the things done to him he refused to talk about. It was the lowest point of his 14-month imprisonment, he said, and worse than the torture he suffered during a previous disappearance in 2007, when security forces gave electric shocks to his genitals and held burning cigarettes close to his eyes to cause temporary blindness.

He was released in March 2010 but disappeared again on 21 April. He has not been seen since. The Chinese authorities claim to have no knowledge of his whereabouts.

China's other dissenters

Liu Xiaobo

Serving 11 years for "subverting state power". Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, but Chinese authorities prevented him from collecting the award.

Hu Jia

Sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for inciting subversion in 2008. Said to suffer from a liver condition which could be cancer, but his wife's pleas for medical parole have been unsuccessful.

Chen Guangcheng

Defended women's rights against China's staunch enforcement of its one-child policy. Believed to remain under house arrest after four years in prison.

Ding Zilin

After her son was shot dead during the Tiananmen Square protests,Ding Zilin formed a group which demands a full account of the fateful protest. Thought to be under house arrest.

Enjoli Liston