Teng Biao is a human rights lawyer and a visiting fellow at New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.
Two years ago, I was invited by the American Bar Association to prepare a manuscript for a book to be titled “Darkness Before Dawn.” This book was to describe the decade I spent engaged in human rights work in China and what those experiences tell us about the country’s politics, society and future. But the ABA soon rescinded the offer. The reason I was given? The group did not want to anger the Chinese government.
I don’t write this to pick on the ABA. There was nothing uncommon about this episode, but the details are useful in illustrating the corrosive influence of the Chinese Communist Party on the West. Far too many Western organizations and scholars working in China practice self-censorship — and for perfectly understandable reasons. If their conclusions on a sensitive political topic anger the regime, they won’t get a visa, and their work and funding will be jeopardized.
Whenever Chinese politics is mentioned, most think of the factional struggles among Communist Party leaders. But this is only part of the picture. The stories I’ve long sought to tell are otherwise: About activists given heavy prison sentences for forming opposition political parties. About human rights lawyers representing persecuted Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans and Uighurs. About rights defenders whose activism helped end the labor camp system, the one-child policy and forced demolitions.
I am intimately familiar with this work, because I am one of their number. For my activism I’ve been banned from teaching, forced out of a job, disbarred from practicing law, jailed and tortured. All of us who engage in this work pay an enormous price. But we’ve also made progress. And no understanding of contemporary China can be complete without a thorough grasp of this suppressed community. China’s activists and dissidents are the country’s hope for the future.
These were the ideas animating my manuscript proposal, which was at first enthusiastically received by the ABA. The group said it promised to be “an important and groundbreaking book.” But unfortunately the project was quickly canceled, with this explanation: “There is concern that we run the risk of upsetting the Chinese government by publishing your book, and because we have ABA commissions working in China there is fear that we would put them and their work at risk.”
Later, the ABA released an official statement disavowing this explanation, asserting that the cancellation was “made for purely economic reasons.” This was based on a market viability study actually performed the month before I received the formal acceptance, but aside from the peculiar timing, I have to ask: Should “purely economic reasons” be the driving logic of an association of lawyers?
Clearly, there is a deeper, more troubling logic at work here. Like every Western institution operating in China, the ABA wants its programs to be effective, so such organizations avoid a great many issues that might endanger their success. This list of issues is long: the persecution of Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Communist Party’s policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, and the treatment of human rights lawyers, dissidents and street activists. These groups constantly play a guessing game about which way the political winds are blowing. Self-censorship becomes instinctive and characterizes the very basis of their interactions with the regime. Those who need help the most — who deserve it the most and who have taken the greatest risks for China’s future — get excluded before a conversation even begins.
There is likewise a self-fulfilling economic rationale to the self-censorship. By avoiding the most sensitive or difficult areas, visible achievements — training programs, workshops, policy tinkering — can be noted in annual reports to justify continued funding. There is a tempting comfort in the idea that in the end we’re still creating more space for the rule of law and human rights. But this, too, has a bitterly ironic consequence. Nearly all the major funding for such programs ends up in the pockets of government departments, government-organized nongovernmental organizations (known as GONGOs) and pro-government scholars. In this way, resources meant to support the rule of law and human rights make their way into the hands of those whose job it is to trample upon human rights — the official bar associations, courts, prosecutors and police.
Americans are often guilty of the classic error of mirror-imaging: projecting onto China what is familiar to them. The ABA might imagine, for instance, that the All China Lawyers Association (ACLA) is its professional counterpart, but this would be a deep misunderstanding. My book, which I still hope to publish, discusses the extensive efforts by rights defense lawyers in Beijing to lobby for free elections for key positions in the ACLA and how the attempts were shut down and those engaged in them punished. The ACLA is part of the government’s apparatus of control. Helping such GONGOs is worse than doing nothing.
The same can be said for training programs directed at police, judges and prosecutors. Western organizations are inclined to think that miscarriages of justice must be due to insufficient professional training. Wrong again. The primary reason for abuses of justice in China is that the judicial system is an instrument of party control, where political cadres directly and arbitrarily interfere in legal cases.
If refusing to publish my book was the price to be paid for genuinely effective work by the ABA to promote the rule of law in China, I would have happily torn up the contract myself. But the opposite is true.
The permissive attitude and mild stances on China taken by international NGOs are of a piece with the West’s general appeasement of China’s dictatorship. It’s an approach based on shortsighted interests, and it undermines the sanctity of universal values. Not only do these policies fail to promote human rights and the rule of law in China, but also the relentless self-censorship they engender has eroded the moral prestige and values that are the foundation of free societies. It’s time for a new approach.