“I realised that I had been cheated by the Chinese government,” legal scholar Teng Biao said describing his drive to pursue a career in human rights law.
Teng said that he was motivated by the Tiananmen Square movement, the student-led protests that bloomed after the death of pro-reform communist leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989. An officially-sanctioned mourning period provided an opening for Chinese to express their anxieties about the direction of the country. Officials reacted with a mixture of conciliatory and hardline tactics that revealed a split with the communist party leadership. Ultimately, the hardliners won out, with the country’s paramount leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, and his allies resolving to use force to suppress the movement. Up to 300,000 troops mobilised under a martial law order implemented on 20 May. On 4 June 1989, the troops were ordered into central Beijing, killing both demonstrators and bystanders in the process. Estimates of the death toll vary from several hundred to thousands.
“So many people have sacrificed their lives to fight for democracy and freedom, so I cannot be silent, and I cannot give up,” Teng said.
For his efforts to defend human rights in China by taking on politically sensitive cases, Teng, who has been abducted three times, moved to the USA in 2014. He continues to pursue human rights law and activism as a visiting scholar at Princeton, Harvard, and New York University.
As the Chinese regime continues its crackdown on scholars, intellectuals, journalists and human rights lawyers, Teng analyzes the way in which the Chinese regime under Xi Jinping has used high-technology totalitarianism to successfully target and suppress dissidents.
Although Teng now lives in the United States, he still feels the weight of censorship and pressure from the Chinese regime. In 2016, the American Bar Association abruptly cancelled the publication of his book, “Darkness Before Dawn”, which details his 11-year career as a rights defender in China.
Despite his setbacks, Teng has co-founded Beijing’s China Against the Death Penalty, and the Open Constitution Initiative, an organisation of lawyers and academics that advocates for the rule of law in China. He also co-founded the China Human Rights Accountability Center from the United States.
Summer Dosch interviewed Teng for Index on Censorship.
Index: What motivated you to specialise in human rights law?
Teng Biao: Before I went to the university, I was a brainwashed high school student, and I didn’t know the meaning of law, human rights, or politics. After a few years of studying in law school at Peking University, I realised that I had been cheated by the Chinese government. I gradually had to develop independent thinking. Once I knew more about the human rights situation in China, I decided to become a scholar. Before I got my PhD, my idea was to focus on academic and intellectual work so that I could use it to promote human rights law in China. Soon after I began to teach at a university in Beijing, I participated in a very influential case, and then I founded a human rights entity. After that, I became a human rights lawyer and dedicated my work to the human rights cause in China.
Index: When did you start receiving threats from the Chinese regime for your work?
Teng: When I started my human rights work, my first case was quite influential, so I was prepared to receive harassment from the government; however I didn’t. Shortly after continuing my human rights work, I received harassment and warnings from the university and the government.
Index: What motivated you to keep teaching, and pursuing human rights law despite the limitations you faced and the threats you received from the Chinese regime?
Teng: I feel as though I have a special responsibility to promote human rights in China as a lawyer and an intellectual. In the early 2000’s, I felt that China was in the process of democratisation, and that there was still so much human rights work to do. It is dangerous, but I thought that I needed to take more risks as an intellectual. Two years after the Tiananmen massacre, I went to the university and I started learning the truth behind it, and I saw myself as survivor of the massacre. So many people have sacrificed their lives to fight for democracy and freedom, so I cannot be silent, and I cannot give up. The feeling of being a survivor of the Tiananmen massacre motivated me to keep going.
Index: What do you think of the current situation in China today?
Teng: After the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, the Chinese Communist Party instituted some economic reforms. In terms of the political system, the reform never happened; therefore it remains a one party system. The fundamental freedoms and human rights of the Chinese people remain very limited. In terms of human rights and press freedom, China has always been one of the worst countries in the world. Before Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, the crackdown on Chinese society was severe. Although censorship and persecution were there, they were not like what Jinping has been doing for the past six years. After 2013, the human rights situation deteriorated even more. Jinping has turned China’s collective dictatorship into a personal dictatorship.
The Communist party is also establishing what I call high-technology totalitarianism. This kind of high-tech totalitarianism has never happened in human history. It includes DNA collection, facial recognition, artificial intelligence, big data, and a sociocratic system, which have all been used by the Chinese government to strengthen its control over society. Jinping and the Chinese government started a comprehensive crackdown that targeted all the forces that had been fighting for freedom and human rights law, including human rights lawyers, bloggers, scholars, underground churches, and the internet. This crackdown is getting worse, and will continue to get worse in the years to come.
Index: What do you think of Chinese-American relations today? How do they continue to threaten international freedom and intellectual freedom?
Teng: I am quite critical of the American policy towards China. American and other western democracies have adopted an engagement policy. They think that if they permit China to be a part of WTO and international human rights treaties, China will start to move towards democracy, and promote more of an open society; however this has not happened. Human rights activists and dissidents have always called for policy change, and for a link between human rights and business; however the United States has not listened until just recently. Within the last two to three years, I sense that the United States is thinking about a policy change. They have seen more and more evidence that China has become a threat to international free order. Then we also see the trade war between the United States and China, which indicates that there will be more tension between the two countries. The Chinese government has violated human rights and freedom in China, and in doing so has become a threat to global human rights and freedom. So I believe that the threat is from the Chinese government, not from China-United States relations.
Index: How do current Chinese-American relations affect your work as a human rights lawyer today?
Teng: Before 2014, I was in Taicheng publishing my articles and books, and I was also traveling internationally. Because of my human rights activities, I was put under house arrest, kidnapped by the secret police, and tortured. During this time, I wasn’t able to continue my human rights work. Even in the United States, I still feel pressure and interference from the Chinese government. A publishing unit refused to publish my book after I had signed the agreement because they were afraid of the Chinese government. They told me that my book would endanger their programs in China. My graduate talk was also canceled by an ivy league university in the United States.