Sally Jenkins is a Sports columnist for The Post.

Almost four years ago I sat in a back-alley bar with an activist lawyer named Teng Biao discussing the pitiless abuses the Chinese government committed against its people in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Teng had been warned not to talk to foreign reporters, and twice over a 45-minute conversation the secret police called his phone. They wanted to know where he was and, more important, what he was wearing. Teng habitually wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the likeness of his jailed friend and client Chen Guangcheng. They wanted to make sure Chen stayed shut in a drawer.

The face of Chen, with his elfin points of hair and aviator shades, is known around the world since his escape from confinement and six-day sojourn in the U.S. Embassy. His siege — it is unclear whether the Chinese government will honor a deal to allow Chen to study in the United States — is only partly about a diplomatic standoff between the United States and China over human rights. Just as Teng described it four years ago, it’s really an internal contest between China’s lawyers and its secret police for the soul of the country. Will a great-hearted nation continue to be held hostage by security thugs who break laws over the heads of fellow citizens in the name of enforcing order and protecting bureaucratic plunderers? Or can China’s lawyers persuade the ruling class to observe the rule of its own law?

In our country, lawyers have a bad name. If you want to regain respect for them, go to China. Notice how many activists are lawyers, and how often they are beaten bloody and disappear. In China, it’s an impossibly gallant and brave profession. Chen was jailed because he advocated against local officials enforcing China’s one-child policy with sterilization and infanticide. Teng has defended priests and Tibetans, and worked with his friend Hu Jia to broadcast human rights abuses including cleansings; forced relocations; street vendors beaten to death; and writers imprisoned, burned, shocked.

As we sat in that courtyard bar in Beijing, Teng described his own experiences with detention. One night in 2007 state security agents threw a bag over his head and interrogated him for 41 hours. They threatened to jail him for 10 years if he continued to criticize the Beijing Olympic effort. I asked if he feared reprisals for talking.

“I am not afraid,” he said. “What I am 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.”

Teng preferred not to be called a “dissident” because it hints of rebellion. He viewed himself as “an independent intellectual” who was well within his rights of citizenship. The only thing that gave him pause about his activities was his family. Like Chen, he has a wife and small child. “I have to balance the cost and benefit,” he said. “The main puzzle to me is the responsibility of [the] intellectual, and the responsibility of a family member.”

In 2010 Teng was seized again when he tried to visit the mother of a colleague under house arrest. State security beat through a door to reach him, broke his glasses, stomped on his hand, and choked and kicked him. A supervisor threatened to have him beaten to death and dumped in a hole. And Teng has been treated with comparative restraint because he’s a prominent figure in international circles.

After listening to Teng, the idea that some clever diplomacy can win a more generous response from Chinese hard-liners seems wishful thinking. The patterns in this crisis are the same ones we saw when outside governments tried to hold China to its promises on human rights during the Olympics: mixed messages, reneging on supposed understandings and an emphasis on projecting power at any cost.

Australian journalist Geremie Barmé has written: “To be a friend of China, the foreigner is often expected to stomach unpalatable situations, and keep silent in the face of egregious behavior. A friend of China might enjoy the privilege of offering the occasional word of caution in private; in the public arena he or she is expected to have the good sense and courtesy to be ‘objective.’ That is to toe the line, whatever that happens to be. The concept of ‘friendship’ thus degenerates into little more than an effective tool for emotional blackmail and enforced complicity.”

China’s lawyers face a different kind of blackmail: the threat of having a wife or mother tied to a chair and beaten. Yet somehow they manage to do what no diplomat has: insistently challenge the state to stop breaking its own laws. “This regime is built on lies,” Teng said. I asked what sustains him in the face of mercilessness and deceit. He replied by quoting Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of Powerlessness.” Teng, Chen and their colleagues revere the example of Havel, the prisoner who became president of Czechoslovakia, and study his writings. Such as, “Those that say individuals are not capable of changing anything are only looking for excuses.” Or this from “Disturbing the Peace,” which seems a fitting description of the recent efforts of Chen and his friends:

“When a person tries to act in accordance with his conscience, when he tries to speak the truth, when he tries to behave like a citizen, even in conditions where citizenship is degraded, it won’t necessarily lead anywhere, but it might,” Havel wrote. “There’s one thing, however that will never lead anywhere, and that is speculating that such behavior will lead somewhere.”

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.