By Teng Biao, published: May 7, 2014
“By the time the free world becomes aware of the need to protect freedom, I fear it may well be too late.”
I am a human rights lawyer from China. My name is Teng Biao.
In March, just before First Lady Michelle Obama gave a talk at the prestigious Peking University during her visit to China, I tweeted to draw her attention to the plight of two remarkable Peking University alumni: Cao Shunli and Xu Zhiyong.
On March 14, human rights activist Cao Shunli died in detention after being tortured and then denied medical treatment. The last time I saw Ms Cao was in Hong Kong at an international human rights workshop in early 2013. She had been released for the second time from detention in a laojiaosuo, a Re-education Through Labor camp, and had immediately jumped back into the fray of defending human rights. In September last year the authorities at the Beijing International Airport, where she was en route to Geneva to participate in the UN Human Rights Universal Periodic Review, prevented her from leaving China. She was then abducted and detained for the third time. This time she did not come out alive.
For the past ten years, Dr. Xu Zhiyong has been one of the most prominent figures in the Chinese civil rights movement. The last time I was in contact with him was a few days before he was formally arrested. He sent me a record of his conversations with the secret police. The government gave him several opportunities to compromise: if he agreed to abandon the New Citizens Movement he would be spared of incarceration. Dr. Xu refused it outright.
He said, if fighting for citizen’s rights and freedom is a crime, then he was willing to pay the price. He prayed to God with these words: “I love mankind, and for this love I am willing to face death.”
Dr. Xu was sentenced to four years in jail in January. He was charged with “disturbing public order” while publicly campaigning for equal access to education for children of migrant workers in cities, and demanding officials disclose assets in order to combat corruption. Several dozen supporters of Xu Zhiyong and the New Citizens Movement have been arrested and will soon be put on trial.
Incomplete statistics reveal that since March 31 last year, at least 200 rights advocates have been arrested, including human rights activists like Guo Feixiong, Zhang Lin, and Zhao Changqing who have been imprisoned numerous times for political reasons since 1989; right lawyer Ding Jiaxi; Zhang Shaojie, a pastor at a Christian Church in Henan province, and Ilham Tohti, a Uighur scholar who has been a long-time advocate of peaceful dialogue between Uighurs and Han Chinese.
It is confirmed thatmany human rights activists have been subjected to torture during incarceration, and they include people who have been released (Ding Hongfen, Shen Jun, Song Ze) and people who are still in jail (Li Biyun, Huang Wenxun, Yuan Fengchu, Yuan Xiaohua, Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, and Li Sihua). All of them were incarcerated for participating in peaceful and lawful human rights activities. Five days after Cao Xunli died, the 43-year-old Tibetan political prisoner Goshul Lobsang died in Kanlho as a result of torture in prison.
Instilling fear, the authorities are targeting the family and friends of rights defenders. Liu Xia, the wife of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo has been under house arrest for many years. Families of many Tibetan self-immolators have been imprisoned, for example, after 31 year-old Kunchok Wangmo, of Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan, self-immolated, her husband was framed for a crime and sentenced to death.
Many prisoners of conscience are connected to the New Citizens Movement. The earlier incarnation of the New Citizens Movement was a group called Gongmeng, or Open Constitution Initiative,founded by Xu Zhiyong and myself in 2003. Gongmeng focussed on issues of freedom of speech, freedom of belief, opposition to torture, and opposition to the unfair household registration system. It has played active roles in a large number of human rights cases such as those involving Gao Zhisheng and Chen Guangcheng, as well as producing investigative reports such as one on the March 14, 2008, unrest in Tibet.
The New Citizens Movement advocates “Freedom, Justice and Love” to encourage ordinary people to fight for citizens rights and unite human rights advocates around the country. Its activities include: promoting educational equality, pressing officials to disclose their assets, and arranging “same-city dinner gatherings.” Through online mobilization, open letter writing campaigns, signature campaigns, leaflet distribution, pro bono litigation, street speeches, and peaceful protests, the New Citizens Movement has brought the rights defense movement to a new level.
Why is the Chinese government savagely suppressing the rights defense movement and individual rights activists?
It has to do with the changing trends over the last ten years. Since its inception in 2003, the rights defence movement has made great progress. The earlier ground work and the sacrifices made by activists on the one hand and the intensification of social conflicts on the other reveal that:
- rights activists are coming out from cyberspace activism into real-world activism;
- activists are moving from legal appeals towards political ones;
- activists are gradually joining together creating a semblance of organisation. The Charter 08 signatories, the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group, and the New Citizens Movement are some of the examples.
The authorities sense an obvious threat as the rights movement has progressed towards the New Citizens Movement, but they are unwilling to engage in dialogue, and they absolutely refuse to relinquish their totalitarian grip on power. Under the guise of maintaining stability at all cost, the authorities brutally punish anyone who in their mind dares to challenge their legitimacy to rule China.
The government’s heavy-handed crackdown will of course scare off some people, but cannot resolve social problems in Chinese society. On the contrary, suppression will only intensify conflicts and problems. Many rules and regulations in China directly violate people’s dignity and freedom. The fissures in our society will become wider and calls for rights and democracy will become more intense if we do not make substantial adjustments to the country’s legal and political systems. More and more people are standing up to demand rights and democracy.
For example, a few days ago, thousands of residents in Maoming, Guangdong Province in southern China, risked their lives to take to the streets to protest plans for a paraxylene (PX) project which they believe will bring serious pollution to the city.
Also recently, in Jiansanjiang, Heilongjiang Province in northern China, a number of lawyers were detained by local police for investigating a “Legal Education Center,” euphemism for black jail used to imprison innocent citizens without any legal procedure. Three of these lawyers were roped and hung up while police punched and beat them with batons. Scores of activists thronged to Jiansanjiang to support the detained lawyers.
Why did lawyers and citizens stand up and take on these black jails? Because they are modern-day concentration camps. Countless Falungong practitioners have been sent by the authorities to “brainwashing classes” or re-education through labor camps. At least 3,000 people have been tortured to death in such places since 1999.
As a result of fighting for freedom, many human rights activists lose their own freedom. I recall the time in 2011 when the secret police in Beijing kidnapped me and held me in a secret location for 70 days, during which time I was subject to tortures including sleep deprivation, physical abuses and solitary confinement. As the secret police used violence against me, they frankly declared, “Don’t talk to us about the law; no one can help you now.”
But I never for a moment gave up hope. My longing for justice and freedom gave me strength. Another source of strength was my firm belief that my friends in jail and in the outside would continue to fight, because we share the same dream for freedom. I firmly believe that our numbers will grow and that our demand for freedom will ultimately uproot the dictatorship.
I also firmly believe that, outside China, in the USA, in Europe and in every corner of the world where the light of freedom shines, people will not forget the struggle for human dignity in China.
I greatly admire the members of the Congress and the American government for your efforts in advocating freedom and human rights. However, the international pressure on violators of human rights around the world is far from adequate. The Chinese government not only manipulates the international human rights system, it also makes use of its economic, military and political influence to blackmail great democratic nations. It threatens not to purchase Boeing jets if America criticizes the Chinese human rights situation. It threatens not to purchase Airbuses if European leaders meet with the Dalai Lama. At many international conferences Chinese human rights has become “the elephant in the room.”
How much economic benefit can we sacrifice for the freedom of humanity? When people make this calculation, they are already on the wrong track. Oppressors of freedom will not desist, they will not respect national boundaries, they will not abide by international principals they have promised to follow.
The oppressors of freedom are becoming more powerful by taking advantage of the internet and economic globalization, by taking advantage of flawed international institutions (for example, the most egregious violators of human rights have colluded to infiltrate the UN Human Rights Commission, and non-democratic regimes in the UN are betraying the interests of their own peoples as well as universal values),by taking advantage of the head-in-the-sand policies of democratic countries and “the silence of the good.” By the time the free world becomes aware of the need to protect freedom, I fear it may well be too late.
China’s growing human rights movement can claim many accomplishments, (originally titled “From Gongmeng to the New Citizens Movement) by Teng Biao, Washington Post, April 18, 2014.
(The testimony was delivered in English.)