Gao, an investigative reporter for China’s state news agency, Xinhua, was jailed for reporting on a corrupt irrigation scheme in drought-plagued Yuncheng, Shanxi province. Xinhua never carried Gao’s article, which was finally published on May 27, 1998, in an internal reference edition of the official People’s Daily that is distributed only among a select group of party leaders. But by fall 1998, the irrigation scandal had become national news, with reports appearing in the Guangzhou-based Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend) and on China Central Television. Gao’s wife, Duan Maoying, said that local officials blamed Gao for the flurry of media interest and arranged for his prosecution on false charges.
Gao was arrested on December 4, 1998, and eventually charged with crimes including bribery, embezzlement, and pimping, according to Duan. On April 28, 1999, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison after a closed one-day trial.
In September 2001, Gao wrote to Mary Robinson, then the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, and asked her to intercede with the Chinese government on his behalf. Gao has received support from several members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of the National People’s Congress, who issued a motion at its annual parliamentary meeting in March 2001 urging the Central Discipline Committee and Supreme People’s Court to reopen his case.
In 2002, Gao received a sentence reduction of 21 months, and in 2004 received a further reduction of two years, San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation reported. Though Gao’s imprisonment was frequently listed as a case of concern by foreign governments in dialogue with China, the reductions were not publicly disclosed until 2006. Based on the government’s sentence reductions, Gao would be released in March 2007.