BEIJING — A crusading Chinese rights lawyer whose disappearance more than a year ago caused an international outcry said Wednesday that he is abandoning his once prominent role as a government critic in hopes he'll be allowed to reunite with his family.
In an exclusive interview, his first since he resurfaced two weeks ago, Gao Zhisheng said he did not wish to discuss his disappearance and whether he had been held and mistreated by the authorities. He appeared thinner and more subdued than the stocky, pugnacious civil rights defender of the past, though he said his health was fine.
Nevertheless, Gao said, the ordeal had taken a toll on him and his wife and two children, who secretly fled China early last year to escape relentless harassment by police.
"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," 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 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.
Among the most dauntless of a group of human rights lawyers, Gao was a thorn in the authoritarian government's side for much of the past decade. He advocated constitutional reform and took on sensitive cases involving evangelical Christians and members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group. He was jailed, tortured and watched by police until he went missing 14 months ago. Vague statements from the government as to his whereabouts drew protests by international human rights groups, the U.S. and British governments and the U.N.'s torture investigator.
The more than hourlong 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.
But his desire not to talk about the past and his often roundabout answers raised questions about the current conditions of his freedom and whether he is still under police surveillance.
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 compromise with authorities, a relinquishing of his past activism in exchange for contact with his family and perhaps one day a reunion.
"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," 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."
Gao's sudden resurfacing 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 was so out of character for the normally garrulous Gao that it brought speculation from friends and supporters that he was being pressured by the authorities.
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.
His previous imprisonment and run-ins with police — including a time in 2007 when security forces gave him electric shocks to his genitals and placed cigarettes in his eyes — helped him survive the last 14 months.
"I have a special characteristic and that's no matter the circumstances I can control my feelings or my emotions," said 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, 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 forceful presence, he expected a new crop of rights lawyers to push ahead promoting legal rights and democracy, undeterred by his troubles.
"Just because of the repression I experienced, don't think that other people won't do what I did. That's not human nature," 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."