Dissonance Strikes A Chord
By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, August 9, 2008; E01
Speech is the most incendiary topic at these Olympics, in all its forms: a contraband Tibetan banner, face masks, the mutual verbal rebukes of President Bush and the Chinese government, the eloquent choice of Sudanese "Lost Boy" Lopez Lomong as the U.S. flag-bearer, and the drumming and blazes of the Opening Ceremonies. It's a topic on which it's easy to be uncertain -- how not to insult the host? What is the proper form of expression for an athlete? But to Chinese human rights activist Teng Biao, there is no confusion. Over the telephone, he agrees to meet for a talk, despite the fact that the conversation could land him in an interrogation room, or worse.
Relieved to be out of earshot of Olympic platitudes, you set off across the capital to meet him. Along the way you pass glimpses of old imperial glories, the broken-tiled roofs of alley hutong residences, temples and parks that lie cached between colossal towers, and other monuments of a mighty, great-hearted country held hostage by dictators. At a subway stop, you shake hands with Teng, a 35-year-old disbarred lawyer and lecturer at China University of Political Science and Law. He hardly looks like a "a dissident," but rather a young scholar in rimless glasses, and as far as Teng is concerned he isn't one; rather, he is an "independent intellectual." His main offense is that he doesn't think the state should break its own laws -- imagine that -- and that it should keep its promise to use the Olympics to improve its human rights policies.
"The Olympic Games were never nonpolitical in China," he says. "Many people thought the Olympic Games should be a good opportunity for the rule of law and political system, but the government just want to use Olympics Games as a chance to show how powerful they are."
Together, you wind through mazelike streets, past tea shops, dodging wagons of watermelons and sidewalk games of the Chinese version of chess called xiangqi until you arrive at a double wooden door marked by a red lantern. It's a bar called Bed, one of the hotter meeting places for internationals, a fusion tapas joint built around an old Chinese residential courtyard called a siheyuan and furnished by industrial light fixtures and kangs (platform beds with large cushions). Teng heard about it from an American professor, who is hosting a small party in the back room. Known for its conversational ambiance, it has the virtue of being all but un-findable unless you know it's there. Not that Teng has given anyone the slip. During the next 45 minutes, the secret police will call his phone twice.
Teng has been warned not to talk to foreign reporters, an order he has defied because he wishes you to know that appearances aren't everything at these Games, that the stunning orchestration of the Opening Ceremonies and the immaculate facade of Beijing are a mask for brutal repression. "It's more risky to speak during Olympic Games," he says, "but I think if more and more people know the truth about China, that would be helpful. If you go to Beijing you can see beautiful buildings and flowers and smiling faces but that's not the real China. Maybe only one part."
Teng, who graduated in 2002 with a PhD from prestigious Peking University, has ruined his career and risked prison for legally defending the disenfranchised, including church pastors, government petitioners and Tibetans. In September 2007, he co-wrote an open letter with his fellow activist Hu Jia, in which they detailed the Chinese government's cleansings and crackdowns: street vendors beaten to death, 1.25 million people forced to move for Olympic construction, 35 journalists and 51 writers imprisoned, and prison torture including burning, clubbing, electric shock, sleep deprivation and chemical injections.
"When you come to the Olympic Games in Beijing . . . you may not know that the flowers, smiles, harmony and prosperity are built on a base of grievances, tears, imprisonment, torture and blood," they wrote. They advised visitors to be aware that the Games would be held in a country with no elections, no freedom of religion and no independent judiciary.
The state responded by arresting Hu and sentencing him to 3 1/2 years in prison. Teng was temporarily spared, probably because influential international advocates spoke on his behalf.
In April, Teng offered legal aid to Tibetans arrested in the riots in Lhasa, signing an open letter with 17 other Chinese human rights lawyers. This time, the state responded by disbarring him and threatened to fire him from his university position. One night, state security agents seized him in the parking lot of his home. They threw a bag over his head, wrestled him into a car and drove him to an unknown location, where they interrogated him for 41 hours. They threatened to jail him for a decade if he continued to write and speak in criticism of the government, especially on the subject of the Games.
What will be the repercussion of his decision to speak to foreign reporters during the Games? It's hard to say. In 2006, a man named Fu Xiancai was beaten until he was paralyzed after he was interviewed by German reporters.
"The secret police they are collecting evidence every day," Teng says. "I'm not afraid. What I'm doing, what I have done, is right according to the law. And if they put me into prison, I just accept it. I'm prepared. When I choose to do human rights work, I'm prepared."
He is open-faced and collegiate in a button-down shirt and mild-voiced with excellent English, punctuating his sentences with frequent "ums." He usually wears a T-shirt with the picture of a jailed blind legal activist named Chen Guangcheng, but the police have ordered him to keep it in a drawer. His aren't the manners of a rabble-rouser, but rather a mild academic and a concerned father -- he and his wife, Wang Ling, are the parents of a 2-year-old daughter. It's the only thing that gives him pause.
"I have to balance the cost and the benefit," he says. "The main puzzle to me is the responsibility of intellectual, and the responsibility of a family member."
Not everyone will agree with Teng's decision to talk. To some he may seem reckless, or mistaken, or disruptive of the "sport" of the Olympics.
But silence during the Beijing Games wasn't an option in his view. Silence might have been an option if the IOC and its sponsors had objected to the crackdowns on Chinese dissidents over the last seven years. Instead, IOC President Jacques Rogge was virtually inaudible, earning Teng's disappointment and even contempt.
"They're like a servant, a slave of Chinese government," he said.
Truthful speech, according to Teng, will be the ultimate ruin of totalitarianism.
"This regime is based on lies," Teng says. "There are so many lies in textbooks, so many lies in propaganda. So if we have the freedom to express, then Chinese people will realize they have to change the political system. The Communist Party cannot keep their power if they let Chinese people speak freely."
Teng borrows this notion from his favorite thinker Vaclav Havel in his essay, "The Power of Powerlessness."
"He said we should listen to our hearts and conscience and we can practice freedom and democracy in our daily life," Teng says.
Whether you agree with him or not, Teng's statements are a marked contrast to the polite, stifled words of American athletes here. NBA players Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have diplomatically backed off their promise to discuss the plight of Darfur. Most U.S. competitors were evasive or gave answers of the "I'm here to swim" variety when asked about Chinese state's decision to revoke the visa of speedskating gold medalist and humanitarian Joey Cheek. Gymnast Justin Spring's blank response -- "Oh, that's the question they warned us about" -- still is cringe-provoking two days later.
Obviously, Americans are struggling to find the most suitable ways of expressing themselves here. The basic right of speech also includes the option of silence -- no one should begrudge athletes who have worked four years for wanting their Olympic moment to be without controversy. And there are all kinds of effective ways of making a statement -- the Americans' election of Lomong, for instance, resounded like moral thunder. You just hope our athletic champions of democracy understand that the ability to choose their expressions is the ultimate luxury. As for Teng, he has been warned about questions, too. "If they ask, I answer," he says