— An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, part 2 of 2
Published: April 13, 2014
Continued from Part One:
YC: I remember at the beginning of your essay The Confessions of a Reactionary, you mentioned that the three PhDs were given an award on CCTV. In other words, you were recognized as young and excellent members of society. When did you and Xu Zhiyong become troublemakers in the eyes of the government?
TB: There wasn’t a clear-cut moment or event, but rather, a buildup of a series of events. For example, the government was very displeased with our protest against the shutdown of the Yi-ta-hu-tu BBS. This was 2004. Between 2005-2006, as I told you earlier, we were involved in a long series of cases pitting ourselves against the authorities of one level after another across China. I myself provided defenses in several Falungong persecution cases; I was among the first of a group of people to sign Charter 08; I attended the seminar marking the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. No doubt the government became more and more exasperated.
YC：How did the government express its displeasure?
TB: First the university administration talked to us, respectively, at the government’s behest. The talks were serviceably polite at first. Then, they warned us. After that, the political police, known as the security police, came. The warnings were ineffective so things escalated: I was suspended from teaching, denied promotion, put under house arrest, prevented from leaving the country….then kidnapping and imprisonment.
YC: You said that Xu Zhiyong desired to be a mediator between the government and the people. How did he react after being repressed?
TB: He is a steadfast person. No matter how he was repressed, he still persevered and carried on. After 2009, the Post and Telecommunications University where he was employed suspended him from teaching. He was not allowed to leave the country and was also denied promotion. They assigned him to work in the library of the School of Liberal Arts and Law, and required him to work in the office every day. But all of his energy was invested in Gongmeng. He would go to the library once or twice each week. Then in 2012, the university gave him an ultimatum: You will be expelled if you don’t come to work. Xu Zhiyong in turn gave the university an ultimatum too: I will quit if you don’t allow me to continue teaching.”
YC: The authorities strangled the teaching careers of you and Xu Zhiyong. You both paid the price of your career development. Your friend Yu Jiang, I looked up by the way, is the Dean of the Law School at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
TB: Yes. It was a huge blow to me when I was suspended from teaching in 2009 for the first time. I tried many different ways to get reinstated, including writing to the university president. For me, to lose the podium was an enormous loss. For Xu Zhiyong though, Gongmeng was everything he cared about.
YC：Someone pointed out to me the fact that Xu Zhiyong didn’t sign Charter 08, implying that his political opposition is not thorough. Are there any special reasons why he didn’t sign Charter 08? Not that I think signing Charter 08 is a test for one’s political position.
TB: This I know very well. He completely agrees with the Charter. He once told me that he hesitated and almost signed. But he stopped short of signing it because he wanted to protect Gongmeng. If he signed it, he would quickly become “sensitized.” For the sake of protecting Gongmeng, he has rarely accepted interviews by the foreign media. Prior to 2009, he had not accepted any foreign money except for once from Yale Law School. Since 2009 he has accepted not a dime from overseas. All of these precautions were to protect Gongmeng. In any case, I agree with you, not signing Charter 08 does not necessarily mean his “political opposition is not thorough.”
YC：What led to Xu Zhiyong’s arrest in 2009? Of course, I know it was ostensibly “tax evasion” charges. But in reality, was it just the last straw?
TB: It was essentially. But people had different speculations about the direct fuse of it in that situation. Some said it was Gongmeng’s investigation of the March 14 (2008) unrest in Lhasa, Tibet. Others believed it was touched off by our involvement in the Jade Lake wetlands case (翠湖湿地案). It was a case about land rights and had to do with some high ranking Beijing municipal officials.
YC: Could you please briefly explain the tax evasion charges?
TB: The detailed defense statement is online. A company as small as Gongmeng usually farms out accounting work to an outside accounting firm. Neither Xu Zhiyong nor I knew much about accounting. There might be some minor irregularities in terms of accounting management, but they definitely did not constitute tax evasion, which the government charged Gongmeng with.
YC: In 2009 as Xu Zhiyong was detained and released a month later, the government also shut down Gongmeng. So there was no more Gongmeng six years into its existence.How have Xu Zhiyong’s ideas and activities changed since 2009? I remember you said somewhere that his expressions have become clearer since then.
TB: Part of it is my analysis and part of is what he told me. From his public activities and expressions, it was a turning point. Gongmeng had been constantly harassed. Every time we rented a new office, the government would pressure the landlord to force us out. The routine work was affected until its final shutdown. So we began to do more advocacy work, for example, “Citizens’ Pledge.” Wang Gongquan was the most avid promoter of it.
YC：This is in 2010. When did Wang Gongquan start to get involved in the activities of Gongmeng?
TB: He had been supporting Gongmeng long ago. Laterhe joined our board, attending our weekly meetings and helping in decision making. He is a gentle-mannered and humble person with insightful views and efficient management skills. He began to publicly support us. Wang Gongquan was pivotal in getting Xu Zhiyong out of jail in 2009. Gongmeng was fined 1.42 million RMB. Gongmeng received a lot of donations from the public, but more than half of it came from Wang Gongquan.
During the so-called Jasmine Revolution in 2011, I and many others were arrested, but Xu wasn’t. People like me, Tang Jitian, Tang Jingling and Liu Shihui who got arrested had had a lot of street actions and were participants and organizers of many protestsand “on-site watch and protest” (围观), such as showing up outside black jails, during the “three netizens” trial in Fujian, the protest against a garbage incinerator in Panyu, Guangdong, the Ni Yulan trial, and the Chen Guangcheng trial, etc.
YC: Xu Zhiyong wasn’t so much a street activist. Is that also because he wanted to protect Gongmeng?
TB: He was the most important organizer in rescuing petitioners from black jails. But before 2011, he rarely went to the street, mainly because he felt he needed to protect Gongmeng. After 2011, however, you could see he changed, for example, things like writing an open letter to Xi Jinping. He would never have done that sort of thing before. He didn’t want himself to become sensitized, otherwise it would destroy Gongmeng.
That Gongmeng couldn’t carry out its routine work accounted of course for this shift of his. Buta more important cause was the rise of the overall level of social movements in China. The New Citizens Movement was born out of this background. Xu Zhiyong was actively involved in the free Chen Guangcheng movement, the Anni incident in Hefei, and the campaign for asset disclosure by officials.
YC：Xu Zhiyong published The New Citizens Movement in late May, 2012. Looking back, that’s the manifesto, if you will, that he issued and that marked a new chapter of Gongmeng’s endeavor, even though Gongmeng as an organization ceased to exist. But Xu Zhiyong, you and others had been promoting the concept of “citizen” before 2012. You yourself had written articles about it, including Citizens’ Virtues and Citizens’ Responsibilities in the Post-totalitarian Era (in Chinese) which you wrote in as early as 2008. So when did you guys first start to promote the social movement from the angle of citizens’ responsibilities and citizens’ rights?
TB: Since we first got involved in public affairs a decade ago, civil rights have always been the angle from which we look at things and take action. When more people get involved, it becomes a rights movement, a social movement. In 2004, we renamed Sunshine Constitutionalism to Gongmeng (because we were no longer allowed to register the organization with the civil affairs bureau, we had to change the name and register it with the industry and commerce bureau), and Gongmeng means “Citizens’ League.” In 2009, after Gongmeng was outlawed, we changed the name to “Citizens (Gongmeng).” Later, we simply called it “citizens.”
YC: But people still call it Gongmeng anyway.
TB: I know. “Citizens” doesn’t sound like a name for an organization, so people still kept their habit of calling it Gongmeng. But by calling it “Citizens,” our idea is that it is not really an NGO anymore. Instead, whoever agrees with the idea of citizenship and is willing to bear the responsibilities of being a citizen is a member of “Citizens.”
YC: Between May 2012 and the spring and summer of 2013 when the government arrested scores of participants, the New Citizens Movement had not had the time to do more activities. In relation to the charges against them, people have been talking a lot about the assets disclosure campaign and the equal access to education campaign. Unfurling banners on the street to demand that officials disclose their assets is more straightforward. I would like you to talk a little bit about the campaign for equal access to education.
TB: Xu Zhiyong and Gongmeng had long ago started to take up the issue of equal access to education. First, we focused on schools for migrant workers’ children, then on the study of residence permits. Later we advocated for the abolishment of the policy that bars migrant workers’ children from taking the college entrance exam at locations other than where their household registration is held.The “equal access to education” campaign aimed at minimizing the inequality between urban and rural areas in terms of education resources distribution. The “equal access to education” campaign includes the following activities: ensuring the normal operation of schools for migrant workers’ children in the cities; abolishing the household registration requirement so that these children can take high school and college entrance exams where they are living now.
Initially, only four parent volunteers signed up to participate in the campaign to abolish the household registration requirement for exams, but two years later, over 100,000 signatures were collected. The Department of Education was pressured to promulgate a new policy in August, 2012, that allowed migrant workers’ children to take the college exam at the location where they live. Since then, the policy has been implemented in all provinces except for Beijing and Shanghai. After Dr. Xu was arrested, Beijing and Shanghai also issued new policies to make good on the issue.
YC: So the campaign benefited millions and millions of Chinese families and children by pressuring the Chinese government to modify its inhumane, unequal and unreasonable policies. Think about it, it’s extraordinary and a model for a social movement in China. Recently I heard from an activist who worked on the campaign with Dr. Xu thatXu zhiyong had a complete proposal with regard to public school resource distribution and the freedom to choose private schools.
Now, when the New Citizens Movement began, you were already living in Shenzhen. How did you two communicate and coordinate your activities?
TB: Yes. We often communicated online. Later I was allowed to resumeteaching, so I had to go to Beijing every month. We had plenty of opportunities to meet, and I participated in most of the important events.
YC: Let’s now talk about the Qian Yunhui incident in 2010-2011. The citizen investigation team led by Xu Zhiyong concluded that it was a regular traffic accident in the midst of the public’s outcry that believed Qian Yunhui, the village head of Yueqing (乐清), was murdered by the colluding developer and the government. Xu Zhiyong was widely criticized, and one of his most vocal critics was none other than Ai Weiwei. Tell us more about it.
TB: I was in Beijing at the time. Xiaoshu (笑蜀), Yu Jianrong (于建嵘) and others also went to Yueqing. Gongmeng’s board discussed the matter and decided to conduct a citizen investigation. So they went. There was a lot of information online, and public opinion was tense and raw. Then one day when some of us were dining together, we saw that Xu Zhiyong published his findings on Twitter. We were all shocked because he did not discuss them with us at all. The findings were immediately and overwhelmingly criticized. When he came back to Beijing, he explained to us. He firmly believed that his conclusion was right, though he acknowledged some minor shortfalls. I rejected his findings completely. Later when he planned to publish a second edition of his report, I told him it depended on how it was written. Xu Zhiyong, Yujian and I, as well as the board,we discussed it for many rounds.
YC: So, Yu Jiang was still on the board?
TB: Yes, he still was then. The conclusion didn’t change in the second edition. And I firmly objected to it. However, Xu Zhiyong did a lot of persuasion, and convinced the majority of the board, so the second edition was published. At the time I said this incident would hurt the standing of Gongmeng and Xu Zhiyong himself, and it would take a lot of hard work and a long time to regain it.
YC: Does he still believe his conclusion was right?
TB: He doesn’t think his conclusion had any problems. He said, this was indeed a traffic accident; you cannotdeny the facts just because you oppose the government, something like that.Later I wrote an article titled The Schizophrenic Truth (in Chinese). My view was that, as an ordinary individual living in China, you have no power to access the body, the forensic reports and the witnesses, etc. When you have no authority to access anything, you don’t have the power to approach the truth. I am not saying your conclusion is wrong; I am saying that you don’t have the “authority” to find the truth. Therefore, you can’t reach a conclusion. The only thing you can do is to observe and question the procedure of the government’s handling of the case.
YC: He has to have some bases. What are they?
TB: The report has it and is available online. I believe he had acquired some information that he thought was very convincing. But I think the way he thought about this incident was problematic. I mentioned earlier about him being a mediator between the government and the people in a clash of the two sides. He hoped to be inthat middle role. Namely, he does not automatically side with the people for the sake of political correctness. If the government is right, we should give it credit. But of course, this government has perpetrated so much evil that almost everything Xu Zhiyong has done has been struggling against rights violations and fighting for civil liberties.
But on the Qian Yunhui matter, this is what he genuinely thinks: None of you people has gone to Yueqing. You decided it must be a murder because of your pre-established stance. First, you could have wronged the government; and more importantly, you could have wronged an innocent person. On the latter point though, we probably should accord Xu Zhiyong some sympathetic understanding.
YC: After Xu’s trial in January, his wife wrote an open letter to him in which she said, “I don’t blame you at all for today’s result and I accept it calmly. But it is not because what you persist in doing is noble to me. It’s because fate has pushed you the point where you must chose to persist and give up on everything else.” What are your thoughts on this?
TB: Several things are at play here: the push of events, people’s expectations, and the larger political landscape in China. But above all, it is his own commitment. He has always assumed a very important role in the rights defense movement. In 2005 when Asia Weekly(《亚洲周刊》) selected 14 rights defense lawyers as the “People of the Year in Asia,” Xu Zhiyong was featured first and given the longest introduction. Furthermore, he has always been very clear about his role. He has clear political aspirations and a rare willingness to make sacrifices. He is driven by an unusual sense of calling.
YC: When I first got involved in activism and was still finding my way, someone told me, in clearly a pejorative sense, that Xu Zhiyong harbored political ambitions. My reaction then was that having political ambitions isn’t necessary a bad thing. China needs people with political ambitions. Having known Xu Zhiyong better now, I think it would be great if China has three hundred Xu Zhiyongs who are ambitious, visionary, committed and, on a daily basis, willing to roll up their sleeves to do things.
TB: I totally agree with you. First of all, having political ambitions and aspirations is a citizen’s right. There is nothing wrong about that. Secondly, many people think politics is dirty, corrupt and cunning, and therefore involvement in politics makes you dishonest. This is not so. The political reality in China isn’t pretty, but politics itself should be beautiful. I think Xu’s political ideals have a lot of influence from Havel. Xu Zhiyong wrote an essay titled Beautiful Politics. He believes that the reason we want to get into politics is because we want to transform dirty politics into good politics, tyrannical politics into free and open politics.
YC: Xu Zhiyong has always been very positive and high-minded in his expressions. A lot of people dismiss that and make fun of it, sometimes malignantly. Indeed we live in a time of cynicism, and Xu Zhiyong’s heroism seems out of place. Today he is in jail, and as I get to know him better, I do think he is a hero.
TB: He is. His passion and perseverance in promoting democracy and rule of law in China are rarely seen. China has plenty of idealists, myself included, but his purity and idealism are rare. Courage, restraint, self-sacrifice, enduring passion – he has these qualities. Then of course he also has some other qualities. For example, he has a doctorate in law, he is a university instructor, a former people’s congress representative, and a renowned public intellectual, not to mention all the lives he has touched, directly or indirectly, through the work of Gongmeng.
YC: The New Citizens Movement has taken such a hard hit. Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in jail, and Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Zhao Changqing (赵常青) and the rest are awaiting trial [they have since been tried, and are now awaiting a verdict]. Going forward, what can we expect?
TB: In 2003 when we three PhDs wrote an open letter to the National People’s Congress, it was published in the state-owned mainstream media, but in 2014, this has become unthinkable. Many key activists are in prison, and sweeping restrictions have been placed on civil society, ethnic minorities, the internet, education, religion, and ideology. The Party beast has once again raised its terrible head. But over these ten years, society has undergone great changes, and the resistance by human rights lawyers, rights activists, citizen reporters, public intellectuals, NGOs, and new media has never ceased. The people have never stopped putting on a fight, the space for such a struggle has grown despite continuous suppression, and social movements are beginning to take on scale and mature. The call for human rights and freedom among the Chinese people cannot be eliminated. We should be grateful for those pioneers who smash open the iron gate with their flesh, and their sacrifices and suffering are priceless. We must follow the path they have blazed for us.
YC: Dr. Teng Biao, thank you so very much. I benefited a lot from today’s conversation, and so will our readers, I think. So let me thank you on their behalf as well. Finally, off the top of your head, can you tell an anecdote of Xu Zhiyong?
TB: Let me think. During the “2003 Ten People of the Year in Rule of Law,” the TV station came and shot short videos of us in advance. In the Xu Zhiyong video – I hope you can still find it somewhere — there is one scene where Xu Zhiyong and petitioners were chatting. One petitioner gave him an apple and he took it, wiped the apple on his pants and then ate it. This is something I could not do. I would have most definitely washed the apple clean first before eating it. But knowing Xu Zhiyong, this is very natural of him, not a “performance” and it shows his character. In his interactions with petitioners, he has never been an outside observer, nor condescending. He is connected to those at the bottom of society and their plight.