It was an unusual RSVP.
Lawyer Gao Zhisheng phoned to say he'd like to attend my holiday party, but do I mind that he’s being followed? Several police cars?
Lawyer Gao is a champion for the abused and downtrodden in China. He fights for peasants who lose their land to unscrupulous local developers. He writes open letters to Chinese President Hu Jintao protesting torture and detention of followers of the Falun Gong spiritual group.
Since I last interviewed him in the spring, the Beijing government has forced Gao to shut down his lawyers office, and stripped him of his lawyer's license.
He promised the police would not follow trample into my house and devour all my homemade cookies and mulled wine. They will stay in their vehicles, he said.
My first reaction was a defiant "no problem."
Oftentimes, people like Lawyer Gao who come under surveillance lose their friends and social life. Their contacts don't want to end up on a black list.
I certainly do not want to be part of the invisible isolation barrier.
But it's easy for me to say this man also deserves to share the holiday spirit. What about my other guests? They don't enjoy the same protection I feel as a foreigner.
Sure, authorities might check out who I am. Probably the worst case would be a period of intensified scrutiny of Marketplace.
There were a few other rights activists among the dozens of invitees. What about the AIDS worker? He has had previous confrontations with the police. He is familiar with the drill and I thought probably wouldn't feel threatened. (In fact, he escorted Lawyer Gao out so he could personally witness the motorcade!)
What about the guest who's shared the dark side of law and order in China with foreign journalists? Torture, public executions, the like? Such sources have been known to get locked up for revealing state secrets.
Or the underground dissident who poses as a businessman?
I asked advice from an ex-policeman. He is experienced in tailing suspects. He once investigated an alleged spy. He brushed off my concerns. The carloads of police are only required to keep a log of where the lawyer goes, he said. They are using this non-evasive method to intimidate.
As Gao left my apartment to rejoin his unwanted entourage, he looked more relaxed. He thanked me for the smiles and cheer, a welcome respite, he said, from the pressures of life on the Communist Party's blacklist.