HONG KONG — For the last decade, Teng Biao has been one of China’s leading voices calling for constitutionalism and the rule of law. A legal scholar and lawyer, in 2003, he founded the Open Constitution Initiative; in 2006, he helped the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng defend himself in court; in 2011, he was snatched by police and detained for more than two months without charges.
Now, eight months into Xi Jinping’s first year in power, Teng believes that far from pursuing a path toward liberalism and reform, “the government is trying to stop the organizing of civil society.”
“They have arrested more than 100 human rights lawyers and activists, so obviously it’s a warning to the civil society,” he said. “The government is saying, we will put stability first, and we will not tolerate any challenge, any protest from civil society.”
In an exclusive interview with GlobalPost, Teng reflected on the government’s mounting crackdown on activists like himself, and on the prospects for reform in Xi Jinping’s China. (The interview has been condensed and edited by GlobalPost.)
In the last several months, your friend and fellow activist Xu Zhiyong was arrested, along with several other prominent proponents of reform. Why is this happening?
Dr. Xu and other human rights activists tried to defend our own constitutional rights, and they called for officials to publicize [i.e. publicly disclose] their assets.
Human rights activists in China tend to organize and protest in the streets. But that’s intolerable to the government, so after Xi Jinping took office, they began to crack down.
Why is the government targeting relatively moderate activists like Xu? Isn’t his goal of rooting out official corruption the same as Xi Jinping’s?
Every top official has talked about anti-corruption, and in practice, they have arrested some corrupt officials, and even executed them. But because of this kind of political system, there’s no judicial independence, no checks and balances, and no free press, so there’s no way to solve the problem of corruption.
In my opinion, Xi Jinping and other top officials are not sincere about anti-corruption slogans. If the civil society tries to ask for publication of official assets, they will crack down.
Officials have also been arresting those involved in the year-old New Citizens’ movement. How did this emerge, and what makes it different from prior movements in China?
The [New Citizens’] movement is different because up until 1989, there was a democracy movement, but only very few people — so-called political dissidents — wrote articles and published letters to fight for freedom of expression and freedom of association. They were put into prison for many, many years.
Then in 2003, we initiated the [Open Constitution Movement], so that more and more human-rights lawyers and other human rights activists could defend their fundamental rights and freedoms, especially in the courts, in the trial process.
In 2011, especially in 2012, Xu wrote a series of articles to promote the New Citizen movement. He tried to organize people all over China, especially the public intellectuals, and human rights defenders in big cities. They encourage people to go to the streets to protest and ask for human rights.
That’s two differences: one is organizing, the other is protesting. These are the real reasons the government cracked down on the New Citizens movement so severely.
How is the movement responding?
The New Citizens’ movement is organized in around 30 cities, and we have several thousand citizens to participate in other activities as volunteers. Because more and more Chinese people are fighting violations of their own rights — forced eviction, forced abortion, miscarriage of justice — we believe that there will be more and more Chinese people joining us.
Do you expect that you may be arrested, too?
Yes. I have been warned many times. The police told me if I don’t give up my activities, I can be prevented from going abroad, or I could be arrested.
Especially after Dr. Xu was arrested, Beijing secret police and Shenzhen secret police warned me several times. And since Dr. Xu was detained many other activists have been arrested, like Li Huaping, and more than 10 human rights defenders.
Do you think the arrest of Xu Zhiyong is a warning? What does it say about the possibility of political reform?
The government is trying to stop the organizing of civil society. They have arrested more than 100 human rights lawyers and activists, so obviously it’s a warning to the civil society. The government is saying, we will put stability first, we will not tolerate any challenge, any protest from civil society.
Do you see any positive recent developments with regard to human rights in China?
There have been very few improvements for human rights groups. In 2003, the government abolished the system of custody and repatriation. And in 2007 the Supreme People’s Court took back the power to review all death penalty cases. But this was not a movement toward judicial independence, because the system is completely under the control of the government and communist party.
We have seen several bits of progress in the last decade. But in human rights law, the progress is very, very limited. In the beginning of this year, many lawyers and scholars put in a request that the re-education through labor system can be ended. If it can be ended, that could considered as progress
If we see the numbers of arrested dissidents and political activists increasing, maybe every week, then it’s a really hard time for society.
Are you optimistic about the future?
For activists and intellectuals, we don’t hope the top leaders in the government can initiate political reform. But we are still optimists because the hope is in civil society, in ordinary people. We have seen so many political prisoners being detained. But we have also seen more and more people standing up to fight for freedom and for democracy.
It’s very, very difficult for the government to crack down on all internet activities — impossible to stop the information among human rights activists. So I am very optimistic in civil society, but not in the top officials.