Gao Zhisheng was born in a hillside cave in Yulin, northern China, according to a brief biography written by David Kilgour of Media With Conscience (MWC). Since his parents were too poor to send him to school, he gained a basic education by listening outside the windows of the village classroom.
He then worked briefly as a coal miner before joining the People's Liberation Army, where he met his future wife, Geng He, obtained a secondary education and became a member of the Communist Party.
Following his discharge from the army, Gao became a street vendor and self-studied to become a lawyer, passing the bar exam in 1994. China's Ministry of Justice in 2001 named him one of the country's 10 most remarkable lawyers, according to the MWC biography.
But as Gao began to represent farmers in land compensation cases, practitioners of the banned Falun Gong group and house church members, he quickly lost favor with authorities.
In 2005, after Gao wrote open letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao calling for an end to the torture and execution of Falun Gong members, authorities closed down Gao's law firm, revoked his license to practice law, and placed Gao, his wife and two children under 24-hour police surveillance, according to reports by the China Aid Association (CAA). Police even beat his then 13-year-old daughter, according to the CAA.
In response, Gao in December 2005 publicly resigned from the Communist Party and later declared that he was a Christian.
Weeks later, on Feb. 4, 2006, Gao and several other high profile Chinese activists launched a "Relay Hunger Strike for Human Rights," in which ordinary Chinese citizens fasted for 24 hours in rotation across 29 provinces in China. The hunger strikes led to a wave of arrests.
Authorities then seized Gao on Aug. 15, 2006, and on Dec. 22, 2006 they gave him a three-year suspended sentence for subversion. Officials then placed Gao on probation for five years and allowed him to remain at home under strict surveillance.
Authorities again seized Gao in September 2007 after he wrote to the U.S. Congress expressing concern about human rights violations prior to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. On his release in November 2007 Gao issued a statement via the CAA claiming that his captors had tortured him by applying electric shocks to his genitals and holding burning cigarettes close to his eyes. He added that he'd been threatened with death if he spoke about the torture.
Gao was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, 2008 and 2010 in recognition of his ongoing commitment to the advance of human rights in China, according to Kilgour's report.
State agents abducted Gao on Feb. 4, 2009, shortly after his wife and children fled China to obtain asylum in the United States, and they held him virtually incommunicado for over a year.
Perhaps as a response to international pressure, police staged a brief reappearance for Gao on April 6, 2010, CAA reported. But on April 20, during a closely-supervised visit to his in-laws in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, Gao again vanished and has not been seen or heard from since.
Chinese officials at every level have consistently denied knowledge of his current location.