Teng Biao is a prominent Chinese lawyer who has been detained and tortured for his Work. he told Wire about his decade-long fight for human rights and why international pressure for progress in China matters.
"Beaten to death. This young man leaves his home one day and the police detain him for not carrying his ID card. He’s then beaten to death in the detention centre.”
Teng Biao, a prominent Chinese lawyer, recalls the incident in March 2003 that spurred him to campaign for human rights.
Sun Zhigang, a 27 year-old fashion designer, had moved to Guangzhou city in southern China for work. Police stopped and detained him under China’s custody and repatriation system, a form of arbitrary detention which led to millions of migrant workers being abused.
His subsequent brutal murder in custody provoked public outrage.
'RISKY AND DANGEROUS'
At the time Teng Biao had just completed his law doctorate and was teaching at the China University for Political Science and Law in Beijing.
He and his former classmates decided to write an open letter to the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, calling for the abolition of the custody and repatriation system.
Such a challenge was, as Teng Biao says, “risky and dangerous”. He didn’t know what would happen to him or the others involved.
The public outcry led to the custody and repatriation system being abolished within months. Teng Biao became well known within China. Many people started to write to him asking for help.
He and fellow academics and lawyers then set up a group – the Open Constitution Initiative or “Gongmeng” – to campaign for freedom of expression, religious freedom and against forced abortions.
GREAT PERSONAL COST
But this marked him as a troublemaker. A decade later, Teng Biao’s dedication to human rights has come at great personal cost.
Now aged 39 and married with two young children, he has been detained and tortured, stripped of his licence to practise law and prevented from teaching during some periods. But he remains determined to carry on.
“I cannot give up. I have a responsibility. What I am doing is right. I can contribute to better politics and a better China.”
Softly spoken, clear in his arguments and conviction, he is a visiting scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“It is very hard to balance my responsibility to society and to my family. I really don’t want to hurt my family. I try my best not to. I don’t want to be put in prison, but I don’t fear prison.”
When the Chinese government cracked down on activists during the 2011 ‘jasmine revolution’, Teng Biao was kidnapped by police and held for 70 days.
“I was forced into a car near my home. They used my scarf to cover my eyes and my shirt to cover my head. On the first day I was beaten by three policemen. For 20 days I was shackled, 24 hours a day, in a hotel room.
“I was monitored by at least two policemen every second. The curtain never opened and the lights were never turned off. I was forced to sit facing the wall from early morning to evening.
“They printed all my articles and interviews and said I could face charges for ‘inciting subversion of state power’. They never gave me a written document as to why I was detained or when I would be released.”
Teng Biao had no contact with the outside world from 19 February, when he was taken by police, until two days before his release on 13 April.
“I couldn’t get any information out. I was scared and fearful. I didn’t know what would happen. In the ordinary process I can meet my lawyer, my family can visit. With illegal detention there is none of that.
“Only two days before I was released I was granted a quick phone call with my wife. Even then I didn’t know how long I would be detained for.
“I was forced to write a promise that I would not tell anyone what happened, and that I would not write any sensitive articles or take on any more sensitive cases.”
SUPPORTING LIU XIAOBO
Teng Biao has been involved in several significant human rights moments in China over the past decade. He was one of the founding signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto published in December 2008 calling for political and legal reforms.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo is currently serving an 11 year prison sentence for his role in co-authoring Charter 08.
“Liu Xiaobo played an important role in Charter 08. One day he showed me a draft and I told him of course I will sign up.
“We needed to let the top leaders know that reform is a common ideal for Chinese people. It was not only influential scholars that signed up but farmers, workers and activists representing many different walks of life.”
Earlier this year 450,000 people joined Desmond Tutu and other Nobel laureates in calling for Liu Xiaobo’s release. Teng Biao feels it will ultimately make a difference.
“When Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize it was a big thing for China, not only for ordinary people but for the government.
“The central government must feel ashamed. They are very angry at the Nobel Peace Committee, so they may not release Liu Xiaobo soon. But if there is enough international and domestic pressure the government will do something.
So many people are supporting him and are encouraged by his action and his spirit.”
FIGHTING AGAINST THE DEATH PENALTY
Today, Teng Biao dedicates much of his time towards campaigning to end the death penalty. A significant undertaking in a country that executed more people than the rest of the world put together in 2012.
A few years ago he co-founded China Against the Death Penalty, a network of lawyers working on death penalty cases, particularly those involving torture, mental illness or wrongful convictions, and campaigning for abolition.
“The most urgent matter is to reduce the number of miscarriages of justice. We don’t have judicial independence. Judges are influenced or even controlled by the local police or the Communist Party. Courts are told to make the decision in important cases, including the death penalty.”
The network recently urged the Chinese authorities not to execute Li Yan, a woman sentenced to death for killing her husband despite evidence that she had suffered sustained domestic violence.
Tens of thousands of people worldwide also called for Li Yan not to be executed. Teng Biao is clear that those outside China can play a part to progress human rights.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
“International attention plays an important role in China’s political transition. Without international pressure it will become more dangerous for human rights activists within China.
“It is vital that people outside China who want to see progress continue to tell their governments not to keep silent on the Chinese government’s violations. Sometimes human rights are the elephant in the room. Governments should not place business above human rights.”
With China having just completed its once-in-a- decade leadership change, Teng Biao is optimistic about human rights progress in the years ahead.
“There has been progress over the past decade. The government is reluctant to give it to us. But we can see more and more activists rising up. We have to build a new system based on the rule of law and human dignity. More and more Chinese people are standing up for their own rights and their own freedom.”