Chinese human rights lawyer stresses the duty to resist

“When injustice becomes law,” says Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer from China, “resistance becomes a duty.”

China’s Communist government has set itself above the law, and it routinely violates the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Chinese citizens, Teng told an audience of Lehigh students and faculty on Thursday (March 23).

But a growing human-rights movement, aided by online media and inspired by leaders who risk arrest and imprisonment, represents the real future of the country, he said.

Teng himself has been arrested and imprisoned twice in the past decade. He has defended some of China’s most prominent human-rights activists, is co-founder of the Open Constitution Initiative, the New Citizens Movement and China Against the Death Penalty, and is one of the original signers of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for an independent legal system and an end to one-party rule by the Communist Party.

For the past two years, Teng has lived in the United States and served as a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute and School of Social Science, and the Institute for Advanced University. His visit to Lehigh was organized by the department of international relations and co-sponsored by the Visiting Lecturers Committee.

In his Lehigh presentation, which was titled “Rule of Law in China and the Future of Sino-American Relations,” Teng documented the Communist government’s violations of human rights. He said the United States and other Western nations base their approach to these violations on several false assumptions:

•    That economic growth and globalization will lead to a more democratic and open Chinese society by creating a strong middle class that will change China’s “political ecosystem”
•    That the Chinese government represents the Chinese people, is legitimate and accountable, and will institute reforms if given “time and good will”
•    That the government is allowing outside NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to work independently with Chinese activists “to expand the space of Chinese civil society”

“Western countries are afraid of criticizing the Chinese government,” said Teng, “because they rely on China to help with many international issues, such as North Korea, Iran, the war on terrorism and climate change. In the best-case scenario, Western countries hope the Communist Party will release a few of the country’s political prisoners.

“But on a fundamental level, this approach does not work. The Chinese government uses every imprisoned dissident as leverage. If they release a few, they arrest a few more.

“I suggest a different approach. If you want to change China’s human-rights policy, link human rights with trade and other important issues. Use the Global Magnitsky Act [enacted by Congress in December 2016] to ban global human-rights violators from entering the U.S. and to freeze their assets in the U.S.

“Maybe I’m too idealistic. But the Communist Party will not last forever. And the people who are in prison now represent the future of China.”

The Sun Zhigang Case

Teng, who was born in 1974, said he was “brainwashed” by the early education he received in China.

“I had no access to essential information,” he said. “I believed everything that the teachers and textbooks taught me.

“When I got to the university, however, I met open-minded professors who introduced me to liberal textbooks.”

Teng earned a Ph.D. in law from Peking University and was appointed a lecturer at the China University for Policy and Law. He made his entry into human-rights activism in 2003 following the death of a young migrant worker named Sun Zhigang in the southern city of Guangzhou.

Sun had been arrested and detained under China’s custody and repatriation laws after he failed to show police his temporary living permit and identity card. His death in a prison clinic sparked a media controversy and wave of protests that resulted in the abolition of the custody and repatriation system.

“After the Sun Zhigang Case, I felt a strong impulse, a sense of duty to speak,” said Teng. “I knew the case was a miscarriage of justice, and I felt a moral obligation to do something.”

Teng joined other notable Chinese human rights activists in demanding that China’s ruling Communist Party uphold the country’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press, religion, association and speech, as well as voting rights.

“In China,” he said, “we don’t have the rule of law like the United States does. Instead, we have rule by law. Every branch of government is controlled by the Communist Party, and the Party places itself higher than the legal system.”

Teng and his colleagues have become known as the Weiquan (“rights defense”) Movement. They have criticized the government for arresting and imprisoning human rights lawyers, ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs, and members of religious groups such as the Falun Gong and the Christian house church movement. They have advocated on behalf of prisoners, AIDS patients and victims of China’s one-child policy, have taken aim at environmental abuses, and have called for property rights, greater freedom of expression and judicial independence.

The government’s harassment of human rights advocates, said Teng, has intensified under current Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Members of the Weiquan Movement include Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize but remains in prison in China, and Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer whom Teng defended. Chen spent four years in jail, escaped later from house arrest and was eventually allowed to travel with his family to the United States.

Because of close surveillance by the Communist Party and the ongoing threat of arrest, said Teng, the Weiquan Movement is organized informally and depends heavily on social media and the Internet. Members of the movement engage in protests and street theater and support non-Communists running for local political offices.

“Social media and the internet make it possible for us to organize without being an organization,” Teng said. “We have no leaders, no members and no office, but we have developed a movement.

“The internet has caused a rise in civil consciousness. You can learn and read banned books on the internet,” he said.

The Chinese government, Teng noted, has erected a “great firewall” to control the information that comes into China through the internet.

“But we have software to get around those internet restrictions—for a short time.”

An inappropriate attribution

About 75 students and a handful of faculty members attended Teng’s talk. One person asked Teng if the dramatic growth in China’s economy had resulted in a similar expansion of the rights enjoyed by citizens.

Teng responded that the country’s economic growth was beginning to slow and cautioned that the term middle class was a “misleading concept” in China.

“The rich in China are rich because of their ties with the Party, not because they are smart,” he said. “The middle class does not support our human rights movement. They benefit from the status quo.”

Teng was also asked if his comments about China’s government might cause Chinese students at Lehigh to worry that their American classmates would conclude that China was a “terrible country.”

He answered with a story. “When I was teaching in Beijing, a student challenged me and said, ‘You are not patriotic. You don’t love your country; you’re a traitor.’ I told the student that to criticize the government is the best way to show my love for China. That’s why I risked my profession and freedom to be a human rights lawyer.”

A student who said he was from China posed this question: “In 1949, China was a Third World nation totally devastated by many years of war. Today, in 2017, it’s the second most powerful country in the world. Isn’t this an example of good governance?”

Teng replied, “You are attributing China’s economic growth to the Communist Party. If China were democratic and [the government allowed] freedom, do you think economic growth would not have been achieved?”

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

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