A feud between a Chinese human rights lawyer and the American Bar Association over a proposed book has gone from bad to worse.
Teng Biao, a prominent Chinese lawyer and rights activist who now lives in the U.S., on Thursday accused the ABA of lying about its handling of the book proposal the organization made to him in 2014.
In a message to an email group dedicated to Chinese legal issues, Mr. Teng wrote that a letter to U.S. lawmakers by ABA leaders this week reminded him of a saying: “To hide a lie, a thousand lies are needed.”
He added that “self censorship is almost everywhere, and some can be justified. But ABA’s can not.”
The ABA’s Chicago headquarters didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the letter to lawmakers dated Monday, ABA President Paulette Brown and executive director Jack L. Rives said that the group rescinded its book offer to Mr. Teng for economic reasons, not to avoid offending the Chinese government and potentially jeopardizing its operations in China.
News of the cancelled book deal was first reported by Foreign Policy, which cited emails Mr. Teng had exchanged with the lawyers’ organization.
The rare public battle has thrust out into the open the question of how governments, companies, nonprofit organizations and others make decisions in light of the threat – real or perceived – of retaliation by Beijing.
It also comes as the ABA is coming under increasing fire from critics who argue the group is too reticent when it comes to speaking out against rights abuses and a clampdown on civil society under Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In his email, Mr. Teng accused the ABA of attempting to distort the facts of its book offer. The organization’s executive director of publishing, he said, first contacted him in October 2014 about the possibility of writing a book on human rights in China. That was followed by a formal offer in December 2014, Mr. Teng said.
“So I can definitely say ABA is lying here,” Mr. Teng wrote, citing the group’s statement that it its retail distribution partner had advised it in November 2014 against publishing due to its projection that the book would not sell well.
Mr. Teng said that when the ABA revoked its offer in January, “not a single word on market reason was given to me.”
The episode underscores the difficult decision facing the ABA between continuing to work to advance the rule of law in China and criticizing the repression of civil rights under Mr. Xi, said Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia director for Amnesty International.
“For a long time, ABA could argue that their presence in China was worth the cost of muting their criticism of issues in China’s legal system,” Mr. Bequelin said. “I wonder, and I think many legal analysts wonder, whether that point has passed.”
The chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which had written to the ABA seeking details on why it cancelled its book offer to Mr. Teng, said in a statement Friday that they “remain concerned about the accusations of self-censorship and its implications.”
The commission, headed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), plans to invite Mr. Teng and the ABA to discuss the issue at a hearing next month, a spokesman for the panel said.
This week, several cases have highlighted that the Chinese government’s temper looms large on the global stage.
The Danish toy company Lego A/S said it had made a “mistake” earlier this year by refusing to grant an order of blocks to Ai Weiwei, a Chinese dissident artist who is often a thorn in the government’s side.
In an interview, a screenwriter on Marvel Studios’ “Doctor Strange” said the studio changed the ethnicity of one of the story’s characters from Tibetan to Celtic.
These and other cases illustrate that “seemingly more and more actors are playing the censorship game to ingratiate themselves with the government,” Amnesty’s Mr. Bequelin said.