For Chinese activists, stakes are raised ahead of the Olympics |
Geoffrey A. Fowler
Wall Street Journal | 03.14.2008
Teng Biao, a 34-year-old professor of Chinese law in Beijing, has a wife, a 2-year-old daughter, a nice apartment and a car -- the makings of a very good life in today's China. Last week, he got a taste of a different life that could await him if he doesn't play his cards right.
Last week, Mr. Teng said, four plainclothes police officers seized him outside of his apartment, put a sack over his head and after driving him for about 40 minutes, dropped him off in a room with two tables and several chairs, lit by a light bulb. After two days of questioning, they delivered him back home with a stern warning: stop writing articles critical of China's human-rights record, particularly with regard to the Olympic Games in Beijing this August. If he continues, they said, he would lose his position at the China University of Political Science and face jail.
Mr. Teng says he intends to be "careful." But he adds: "If I have to be in prison for several years, then I am not afraid."
Threats by China's government against political dissidents and activists aren't new. But for both sides in this confrontation, the Beijing Olympics is significantly raising the stakes.
"Many of the rights activists see the period between now and August as the time when their claims against the system can be heard more clearly than any time before or after," said Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University and an expert in Chinese law.
On Aug. 13, land-rights activist Yang Chunlin was arrested and later tried for organizing a petition titled "We want human rights, not the Olympics," signed by thousands of farmers whose land was taken for development projects. He awaits a court verdict, while his co-organizers have been assigned to "re-education through labor" camps, according to his lawyer, Li Fangping.
Sometimes, getting arrested becomes part of the message. In late December, police jailed blogger and AIDS activist Hu Jia, who had testified via the Internet to the European Parliament last March about China's human-rights record before the Games. The imprisoned Mr. Hu has become an Olympic hero to many other activists inside and outside of China, as his wife and 4-month-old baby remain confined to their Beijing apartment by police.
For China, pre-Olympic dissent presents a Catch-22. China seeks to use the Beijing Games to broadcast a positive message to the world about the country's social and economic progress. Each new arrest silences a potential critic who threatens to hijack that message, and sends a warning to other people who might be contemplating a similar move.
But each arrest risks drawing unwanted publicity. "With fewer than six months to go before the Olympics, the Chinese government has everything to gain and nothing to lose by releasing [Hu]," Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
China's Olympic message is already taking a hit. On Tuesday, the U.S. government called China "an authoritarian state" that had tightened controls over speech and religious freedoms, in an annual global human-rights report that offered accounts of torture and forced evictions. Last month, Steven Spielberg withdrew as an artistic adviser for the opening and closing ceremonies of Beijing Olympics, citing Beijing's ties to the Sudanese government and concerns about the humanitarian tragedy in Darfur.
The Chinese government has said that the U.S. government should focus on human-rights problems in America and said it is unfair to link Darfur to the Games.
Chinese activists, especially rights lawyers such as Mr. Teng, have long been divided over strategies for creating political change in China. Some of them argue they must demand immediate democratic political reform, even if doing so invites government reprimand.
For years, Mr. Teng has been associated with a community of practical-minded lawyers who think that the country's nascent legal system itself offers sufficient space to push for change. But as the Olympics have approached, their potential as a platform has changed his thinking.
"I gradually realized that the Olympic Games should play an important role to improve human rights," he said. Mr. Teng insists neither he nor his friend Mr. Hu are "against" the Beijing Olympics.
China's government has spoken out against those who it says are trying to inject politics into the Games. "Not to politicize the Olympic Games is required by the Olympic charter," China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, said Wednesday.
Beijing itself has attached broader significance to the Games. In the city's 2001 pitch, Liu Jingmin, then deputy mayor, said "by applying for the Olympics, we want to promote not just the city's development, but the development of society, including democracy and human rights."
Chinese officials say Olympic dissent is explicitly allowed. Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Tuesday that the government will treat citizens "lawfully" during and after the Olympics. The Beijing police haven't answered questions about Mr. Teng's detention.
The International Olympic Committee is under pressure from both sides. Spokeswoman Giselle Davies said the committee is gathering information on reported cases of human-rights violations and will raise any it might find are related to the Games with the Beijing Games organizing committee.
"That is part of the Olympic Games' ability to shine a light on wider social issues," she said.
Mr. Teng is known among colleagues in the U.S. and China as a modest academic who has quietly pushed for reform.
In 2003, Mr. Teng became a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, teaching and writing about legal theory and society. In private practice, he took on a few high-profile cases involving the death penalty and property rights.
Last year, Mr. Teng took up residence at Yale University. Jeffrey Prescott, the deputy director of Yale's China Law Center, describes Mr. Teng as a "serious scholar" who spent his time at the university studying American criminal procedure for ideas that he could bring back to China.
But in September, Mr. Teng and Mr. Hu, the AIDS activist, crossed a line: They co-wrote a letter asking the international community to question whether Beijing had fulfilled the human-rights promises it made to the International Olympic Committee. Four months after their letter was published, Mr. Hu was arrested and charged with attempting to subvert state power.
During Mr. Teng's detention, he said, police officers who refused to identify themselves reviewed his recent essays with him and tried to change his mind on issues.
He says the police told him not to write articles on the Olympics or Mr. Hu, and to be "very, very" careful when interviewed by foreign press.
"I don't want to go to jail," Mr. Teng said. But after his recent detention, "I am ready for any result," he says. "I will not refuse to be a martyr."