The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A courageous Chinese lawyer urges his country to follow its own laws

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HONG KONG — This week, while most China watchers focus on leaders gathering for a closed-door meeting to set economic policy, Teng Biao says he won’t be paying much attention.

“We human rights lawyers are more focused on civil society,” Teng told me during a conversation here this week. “If it is pressured, the Communist Party will have to make changes. If not, it will never give up any power.”

The phrase “human rights lawyer” may seem incongruous in China. But Teng is one of a new generation of activists — he is 40 — who are pressing China to honor its own constitution, which grants rights that its rulers have never honored.

That they are calling for leaders simply to follow their own laws has not endeared them to President Xi Jinping and his Politburo comrades. In the year since Xi took office, Teng tells me, some 200 human rights activists have been arrested or detained, “maybe five or ten times as many as last year.”

Teng himself has been detained several times, most recently this summer and once, in 2010, he listened as police threatened to “beat him to death and dig a hole to bury him.” In 2011 he was held in solitary confinement for 70 days.

“During the 70 days in detention, I wore handcuffs 24 hours for 36 days, I was forced to stay in one position, facing a wall, for 18 hours for 57 days,” he wrote recently. “Physically and mentally tortured, I began to write statements of repentance and statements of guarantee. I had to rewrite them over and over to improve my sincerity. Never so profoundly did I experience the super power of ‘the people’s democratic dictatorship.’”

He has a guest position at a law school in Hong Kong, which is part of China but with a freer political system, but says he intends to return to Beijing in due course.

Why take such chances? Teng says a top-down, authoritarian system can’t solve the complex problems China faces now that it has reached “middle-income” status. And he warns that people outside China ought to be paying attention. “If China becomes the strongest economically and militarily but without human rights or political freedom, it must be a threat to the whole world, like Nazi Germany,” he said.

I said that Chinese officials often say that activists like Teng have little support among the people, who (officials say) value stability above all.

“Activists are very few, because it is very risky,” he replied. Most people are indifferent to politics. But, he said, people’s attitudes change when their own rights are violated — “forced evictions, forced abortions, a relative is detained.”

Teng said the Internet is opening new possibilities for civil action — for organizations that are barely organized, with no fixed address or defined leaders, like the New Citizens’ Movement he has helped promote. In a country with endemic corruption, the movement demands that officials disclose their assets. With millions of internal migrants not allowed to register in their new locations and so excluded from many services, it demands equal education for all children. These are issues that can resonate with ordinary Chinese.

On the last Saturday of every month, Teng told me, in as many as 30 cities, sympathizers meet at a restaurant and discuss these issues, following Robert’s Rules of Order to help promote democratic ways of thinking and interacting.

Teng was a typically apolitical Chinese until he went to law school, he said. “After entering university, I gradually began to think independently,” he said. “Some professors, and some books, influenced me, and especially the social reality — seeing so many violations of human rights every day.”

Even so, he was able to work within the system for many years. He is on the faculty of a Beijing law school; his calls for constitutional reform were initially welcomed. That he is now viewed as dangerous reflects how far Party leaders have regressed.

It pains Teng to see so many of his countrymen risking arrest, imprisonment and torture with so little international support, he told me.

“The U.S. and other countries seem to have a policy to avoid making the Chinese government angry,” he said. “The U.S. needs China, but China needs the U.S. too. And freedom is something non-negotiable.”