"You know that past life of mine was abnormal, and I need to give up that former life. I hope I can become part of the peaceful life of the big family," Mr. Gao Zhisheng said.
A Chinese rights lawyer whose disappearance more than a year ago caused an international outcry said on Wednesday that he is abandoning his once prominent role as a government critic in hopes he will be allowed to reunite with his family.
In an exclusive interview, his first since he resurfaced two weeks ago, Mr. Gao Zhisheng said he did not wish to discuss his disappearance. He appeared thinner and more subdued than the stocky, pugnacious civil rights defender of the past, though he said his health was fine.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gao said the ordeal had taken a toll on him and his wife and two children, who are believed to have left the country early last year.
“I don’t have the capacity to persevere. On the one hand, it’s my past experiences. It’s also that these experiences greatly hurt my loved ones. This ultimate choice of mine, after a process of deep and careful thought, is to seek the goal of peace and calm,” Mr. Gao, sitting straight-backed, told The Associated Press at a tea house near his apartment in northern Beijing.
His eyes brimmed with tears several times when he discussed his family, especially when he described seeing their shoes when he returned home for the first time on Tuesday. “I completely lost control of my emotions, because to me these are the three dearest people in the world and now, we’re like a kite with a broken string,” he said.
Part of a group of human rights lawyers, Mr. Gao advocated constitutional reform and took on sensitive cases involving evangelical Christians and members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group. He was jailed once and has been under police surveillance until he went missing 14 months ago. Ambiguity over his whereabouts drew protests by international human rights groups, the U.S. and British governments.
The more than hour-long meeting seemed partly intended to dispel concerns over the 44-year-old Gao’s health and state of mind since he disappeared in February 2009. He showed flashes of his previously defiant self, mixing praise for the government’s building of the economy while calling for democracy.
Mr. Gao said his meeting with the AP was “a chat,” not an interview - which is forbidden under terms of a 2006 parole for a subversion conviction. He hinted at a relinquishing of his past activism. “You know that past life of mine was abnormal, and I need to give up that former life. I hope I can become part of the peaceful life of the big family,” Mr. Gao said.
He later added: “You know the main basis for choosing to give up is for the sake of family feelings,” he said. “I hope I can reunite with them. My children need me by their side growing up.”
Mr. Gao’s sudden resurfacing on March 18 added to the confusion about him. For a few days, he spoke with friends, family and the media by mobile phone, saying he was at Mount Wutai, a well-known Buddhist retreat, and wanted to be left alone. That explanation brought speculation from friends and supporters that he was being pressured by the authorities. Mr. Gao acknowledged that his seeming turnabout is sure to dishearten his backers and asked for their understanding.
“Everybody will be disappointed. Some people were really involved, concerned, supportive, making appeals. So when they read my words they will definitely feel disappointed. To them, I apologize. I’m extremely sorry,” he said.
“I have a special characteristic and that’s no matter the circumstances I can control my feelings or my emotions,” said Mr. Gao. “It’s like a mechanical function, and I don’t allow it to move and turn. I just exist as a material thing.”
Despite his retreat from the front lines, Mr. Gao said he was inspired by the Myanmar democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, though in her years in jail and under house arrest her family knew where she was, unlike him. Even without his presence, he expected a new crop of rights lawyers to push ahead promoting legal rights and democracy, undeterred by his troubles.
“Don’t think that other people won’t do what I did. That’s not human nature,” Mr. Gao said. “If there’s one more of me or one less of me in the field, it doesn’t matter. These years we’ve heard that a lot of others are eager to try. I still want to talk with them and hope they can learn a lesson from me.”