He’s shorter and more youthful than I imagined, wearing exercise clothes instead of a lawyer’s suit. When I spot him outside the Hong Kong subway station where we agreed to meet, Teng Biao looks uncomfortable, a stranger in a strange land.
A human rights lawyer from Beijing, Teng is part of a new generation of pro-democracy activists trying to relight the flame snuffed out at Tiananmen Square 25 years ago today. For the last several weeks, it has been unsafe for him to be on the Chinese mainland, and even in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, he must watch his back. So we adjourn to a back booth at a nondescript cafe, the Sweetheart Garden.
“It is much worse for human rights defenders in China now,” says Teng, fidgeting with his cellphone. Before, when activists crossed a “red line” laid down by China’s ruling Communist Party, the police would arrest or detain them based on the perceived violation.
Now, says Teng, “the government looks for the right time and excuse to arrest and detain people.” Chinese President Xi Jinping, he says, “has changed the model of how the government deals with human rights defenders.”
Teng has watched as Xi has launched an unprecedented roundup of activists in the run-up to the Tiananmen anniversary.
According to Amnesty International, the government has detained or arrested more than 20 critics since April, including prominent figures such as legal scholar Pu Zhiqiang and journalist Gao Yu. More than two dozen others have been placed under house arrest, been interrogated by police or gone missing and thought to be detained.
China’s leaders clearly hope to purge any remaining public memory of June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army killed hundreds – possibly thousands – of protesters in and around Tiananmen Square. Countless more became political exiles in Hong Kong and beyond.
Teng, however, says the recent crackdown isn’t just about controlling memories. It’s part of a broader repression that has steadily intensified over the last decade.
Just 11 years ago, for instance, Ten and a fellow lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, were embraced by the government for their campaign to end China’s 1982 “custody and repatriation” policy. That policy, ended in 2003, allowed urban police to deport destitute rural migrants who did not have hukou – an all-valuable residence permit needed for work in China. Because of their efforts to close down hundreds of migrant detention camps, state-run CCTV honored Teng and Xu with its “Ten People in Rule of Law” award in 2003.
A decade later, Xi and his predecessors have all but snuffed out the rights movements that Teng and Xu helped lead. Teng – who provided legal aid to ethnic minorities, underground Christian churches and families suffering from tainted milk formula – has been detained twice in the last six years, the second time in 2011.
As he wrote in a 2013 essay, “Again, in a black night, with a black hood, handcuffed, in a black car, thugs kidnapped me and threw me in a black jail, this time adding fists and face slapping.”
Teng says he spent 70 days in detention, handcuffed day and night for 36 days, “physically and mentally tortured.”
Authorities were even tougher with Xu, who founded the Open Constitution Initiative with Teng and others. Authorities detained Xu last year and tried and convicted him in January for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order.” Following what his supporters say was a show trial, Xu – who is 41 with a wife and newborn child – will spend the next four years in prison.
Teng, born the same year at Xu, says he grew up believing in China’s leaders in his hometown in northeastern Jilin province. In school, he was told nothing about the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, much less what happened 25 years ago today.
“I was brainwashed,” he says. “I was taught that the Communist Party was correct all of the time, and I believed it.”
William Nee, an Amnesty International researcher in Hong Kong, says China’s crackdown on human rights lawyers works against its long-term interests.
“It’s counterproductive,” said Nee. “What human rights lawyers are trying to do is resolve many of the problems in China that cause social instability. The government should see them as allies instead of enemies.”
In Teng’s case, he is unsure if and when he can safely return home to Beijing. For now, he has a gig as a visiting law scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In October, he moves to take a similar position at Harvard University.
“I want to go back to China after Harvard, but I am not sure…” he says, his voice trailing off.
He knows, more than many in China, that advocating for a more open society will come at cost to his freedom.
Stuart Leavenworth, formerly The Sacramento Bee’s editorial page editor, is Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. He’s scheduled to be on Capital Public Radio’s “Insight” show, talking about the Tiananmen anniversary, at 9 a.m. today. Follow his coverage at www.mcclatchydc.com/asia. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.