Biao Teng on China Human Rights Movements

Biao Teng is an academic lawyer, currently Grove Human Rights Scholar at Hunter College, and Pozen Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago. He had been a lecturer at the China University of Politic and Law (Beijing), a visiting scholar at Yale, Harvard, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, New York University, and the Institute for Advanced Study. Teng’s research focuses on criminal justice, human rights, social movements, and political transition in China. Teng defended cases involving freedom of expression, religious freedom, the death penalty, Tibetans and Uyghurs. He co-founded two human rights NGOs in Beijing – the Open Constitution Initiative, and China Against the Death Penalty, in 2003 and 2010, respectively. He is one of the earliest promoters of the Rights Defense Movement in China and the manifesto Charter 08, for which Dr. Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Teng has received various international human rights awards including the Human Rights Prize of the French Republic (2007)
Lintong Lyu CMC '22 interviewed Biao Teng on March 4, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Teng on behalf of University of Chicago.

Can you briefly describe your personal experience of fighting for democracy both in China and abroad? What keeps you fighting for justice despite the enormous dangers posed to you and your family?

After I got my Ph.D. in 2002, I became a lecturer and human rights lawyer, dealing with many politically sensitive cases in Beijing. I saw it as my duty to fight for justice and human rights. I then founded two NGOs, China Against the Death Penalty and Open Constitution Initiative. In 2014, many of my colleagues were arrested during the New Citizen Movement. At that time, I was a visiting scholar in Hong Kong. It was clear that if I returned to Mainland China, I would be arrested and sentenced. Later, I was invited by Harvard Law School to be a visiting fellow. After I came to the U.S., I continued my human rights work. I kept regular contact with human rights lawyers and NGOs in China during this time. Because of my human rights work, I was banned from teaching and fired by the Chinese University of Political Science and Law where I was teaching. My passport was confiscated. I was also put under house arrest from time to time, and was even kidnapped and tortured by the Chinese secret police. However, I believe what I have been doing is absolutely right, and I will never give up. 

Many human rights defenders in China sacrificed their careers and freedom to push for the rule of law and democracy in China. They are forced to balance their family members’ safety and their own calling as rights activists. It’s a big challenge for the activists when their families are targeted by the government, which made divorce or separation in Chinese activists’ families pretty common. The government often used collective punishments to silence activists. For me, when I came to the U.S in exile, my wife and one of my children were prevented from leaving China, and they had to smuggle out of China after a long separation. And my wife was fire by the company she worked for 17 years because of the pressure from Chinese authorities. But my family has been supportive even though the Chinese government frequently harassed me.  

What is the Weiquan movement (维权) in China? How does it contribute to democratic progress in Chinese society?  

We initiated the Weiquan movement in 2003 after the Sun Zhigang case. The social-political background of the Weiquan movement includes, the recovery of legal professions and the new ideology of the rule of law and human rights, the bigger space created by the media, especially the internet and social media, together with the market economy creating more opportunities for civil society to thrive. Human rights lawyers and activists used law and the constitution to defend people’s rights and freedom, which is the idea of the Weiquan movement, also known as the “rights defensive movement.” 

The movement developed quite rapidly during the Hu Jintao era. However, after Xi Jinping came to power, he started a comprehensive crackdown of the Weiquan movement. The CCP saw the movement as an urgent threat to the political system.

The Chinese Xin Fang (信访) system, or the “petition system,” was a failure. It was not designed to solve problems or to promote the rule of law. Indeed, very few people received satisfactory results through the petition system and many petitioners were put in prison. It was a tool by the CCP to reproduce its legitimacy, and stability maintenance was the priority of the CCP. Many people who suffered from the illegal treatment by the local government had to rely on this system, however, because this was the only way they could defend their rights. The petition system is like a black hole. Once you entered this system, you suffered more and you had more reason to continue the petition. 

You mentioned in one of your articles, “The Direction of the Chinese Weiquan Movement” (中国维权运动往何处去), in 2006 that the Weiquan movement had more space and you were optimistic about China’s democratic progress. Are you still optimistic today? What is the status of the Weiquan movement in China today?

I wrote a longer article last year to review the history of Chinese Weiquan movement(Rights Defense Movement in China, in Handbook on Human Rights in China, Edward Edgar publishing, 2019). Today we have fewer reasons to remain optimistic; although in the long run, I believe the Chinese people will enjoy the rule of law and human rights. The Chinese government is currently using technology to tighten its control over society. If this trend continues, it will be very difficult for people to organize their resistance. 

The Chinese government is working hard to establish an effective surveillance state that can monitor the activities of the Chinese people closely. Which aspects of this system should concern us greatly?  What is the likelihood that the Chinese government will actually succeed in building and operating such a system?

I call it a high-tech totalitarian system. This situation is really unprecedented. This is not what could be found either in North Korea or the Soviet Union. This high-tech totalitarianism is very effective – every citizen and every piece of information is being monitored. The capacity of human rights activists would be eliminated under such a system. If the high-tech surveillance is tightened, it would be a disaster for human rights movements, and it may last very long as the West continues to be silent with its so-called “engagement policy.” The international community should help the Chinese people. Unfortunately, almost all countries are reluctant to talk about democratizing China because their priority is making money from the huge Chinese market. 

During the coronavirus crisis, we have seen a brief revival of civic activism and online criticism of the Chinese government.  Although the Chinese government has re-imposed tight control, what do you think the medium to long-term political impact this crisis will have on China?

The way the Chinese government dealt with the coronavirus, such as the coverup at the initial stage, the quarantine of millions of Chinese people, and the missteps afterwards, has agitated the public. In terms of public discontent, this is the most significant issue for the CCP since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. However, the Chinese government controlled the media and manipulated the narrative effectively, transforming negative sentiments. More importantly, the government took advantage of the coronavirus crisis to strengthen its surveillance state, and we have seen many Mao-style social controls. For example, people wearing “red armbands” arbitrarily arrested and publicly humiliated citizens not wearing masks. This is a scene similar to the Cultural Revolution period. I am afraid that high-tech totalitarianism might be strengthened after the coronavirus crisis. 

As the founder of China Against the Death Penalty and Open Constitution Initiative, what do you hope to accomplish? 

We have dealt with lots of human rights cases and provided legal assistant to many vulnerable people. We did have some successful cases, but it’s difficult to have influence on the political system because the CCP is not willing to listen to civil society actors or to give up its monopoly of power. So there is still a long way to go for the civil society and human rights activists to achieve meaningful change.

There are many obstacles for NGOs to operate in China. Almost no organization could be registered as an NGO, so many of them are registered as commercial companies. This brought other legal troubles, such as tax obligations and fundraising problems. NGO workers were harassed frequently. Many were sentenced by the Chinese government, and the organizations were forced to shut down. In the recent years, some new regulations, such as the Charity Law and the Foreign NGO Management Law, put more limits on NGOs.

What’s your advice for Chinese students who want to support Chinese human rights movement?

It would be great if Chinese students, either in China or overseas, can pay attention to Chinese human rights issues.  For students in China, it would be more risky, but there are still things that they can do, such as making posts on social media. Sometimes it’s risky but other times it’s okay to post criticisms. For the overseas Chinese people, more is possible. Without the Great Fire Wall, we can tell human rights stories to people who are interested in Chinese human rights issues and write to American political institutions to call for scrutiny and greater attention. Lastly, donating five dollars to NGOs that provide humanitarian assistance or advocate human rights to China is also a way of helping. These actions seem to be tiny, but the power of the internet can help to accumulate all of these little efforts to make a big difference. 

Lintong Lyu CMC '22Student Journalist

tea rose / CC BY-SA (

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