BEIJING — The American Bar Association has rejected a potentially incendiary book that is being written by the Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao, but others are exploring the possibility of publishing it.
“Now, some publishers in the United States are contacting me and saying they are interested in publishing my book,” Mr. Teng said in a telephone interview. “I have not signed a deal yet.”
With the working title “Darkness Before Dawn,” the book is at the center of a public brawl between Mr. Teng and the American Bar Association, which is primarily a professional organization for lawyers in the United States but also has an office in Beijing that aims to help build up the legal system in China.
The dispute has raised questions as to whether foreign nongovernmental organizations working in China engage in self-censorship. That is an issue that will become more acute if China passes a proposed law putting more than 7,000 such foreign groups under police oversight. The law could be passed this week.
Like some other human rights lawyers in China, Mr. Teng has been jailed and beaten in recent years, and in 2014 he fled to the United States. He lives in New Jersey and has been a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School and New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.
His dispute with the bar association became public this month when Foreign Policy magazine reported that last year the bar association had rescinded an offer to publish Mr. Teng’s book, which would be an account of his struggles in human rights law and an analysis of the political and legal situation in China.
The notice came in the form of an email sent by a bar association employee to Mr. Teng in January 2015, one month after that same employee, representing the publisher, had sent Mr. Teng an email with a formal offer to publish the book.
In the January email, which Mr. Teng gave to Foreign Policy and later to The New York Times, the employee said the bar association had reversed its decision after the publisher had received “some concerns from other staff members here.”
“Apparently, there is concern that we run the risk of upsetting the Chinese government by publishing your book, and because we have A.B.A. commissions working in China, there is fear that we would put them and their work at risk,” the employee wrote. “It pains me greatly to have to tell you this, but I can only do what my publisher tells me to do.”
“I think this has the potential to be an amazing book, and I wish you all the best in placing it with another publisher,” the employee added.
(Mr. Teng allowed The Times to read the email exchanges on the condition that the employee’s name not be printed.)
The employee gave no details in the email as to who had expressed fears over the “commissions” working in China and what exactly those “commissions” were.
Robert T. Rupp, associate executive director of the bar association’s business unit, which oversees publishing, gave a statement to Foreign Policy that said the decision not to publish Mr. Teng’s book was made for “economic reasons, based on market research and sales forecasting.”
Mr. Teng said he did not believe that. What the bar association had done, he said, was emblematic of a larger problem in China. “Many NGOs self-censor in order not to make the Chinese government angry, so they can continue their work in China,” he said.
The bar association came under criticism last year by some China experts and legal scholars for not taking a stronger stand against a harsh crackdown by the Chinese authorities on hundreds of human rights lawyers and their associates.
The accusations by Mr. Teng have inspired an even greater outcry. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial with the headline “American Self-Censorship Association.” The co-chairmen of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Representative Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, wrote a letter to the bar association demanding that it tell them whether it had rescinded the book offer because of perceived or real threats to its China programs.
On Monday, the bar association’s two top officers sent a letter in response, reiterating that the final decision on Mr. Teng’s book was unrelated to any bar association programs in China and that the employees of the group’s Rule of Law Initiative in China did not weigh in on any decision.
The letter, posted online, also said the employee’s emails about the offer to publish Mr. Teng’s book and about the reversal were “misguided as well as erroneous.”
Mr. Teng said he was now exploring options with publishers that have contacted him since the dispute became public.
He said international groups need to “think bigger” when it comes to China, though the proposed law to control foreign nongovernmental organizations, if passed, may discourage that. “Foreign NGOs will be more conservative,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s correct to be more conservative.”
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