Teng Biao: “There will always be some brave activists who refuse to keep quiet”

2 May 2016

“The situation is very worrying”. These were the words used by the Chinese lawyer Teng Biao to open his speech in our offices and to paint a grim picture of the state of human rights in his country: arbitrary arrests, executions of innocent citizens shrouded in secrecy, harassment of human rights activists… Teng Biao is well aware of such abuse. Maybe even too aware. Arrested on numerous occasions, harassed by the authorities to the point where he had to shut down his China Against the Death Penalty NGO, forced to leave his homeland, the bare-footed lawyer spent a long time on the front line in the fight for human rights in China. Today, he speaks out for his fellow lawyers who stayed behind.

Can you tell us more about the government’s crackdown on Chinese NGOs?

Since Xi Jinping came to power towards the end of 2012, the Communist Party has carried out an unprecedented crackdown on human rights lawyers and civil society as a whole. At least 317 lawyers have been targeted. 27 of them have been detained and many of them are facing severe charges such as incitement of state subversion. The whereabouts of two of them are still unknown. The crackdown also targeted NGOs, churches, religious groups, the internet, social media… The human rights situation in China is deteriorating rapidly and this kind of persecution is still continuing. This is what I went through with my NGO, China Against the Death Penalty. My organisation could not resist the pressure and some of our lawyers were detained and intimidated. These are extremely tough times for human rights in China.

How do the people who stay in China manage to work?

They are still working in China, especially as many lawyers have been banned from leaving the country. Even though many lawyers are in detention, there are some new lawyers coming through to take on the mantle. The Government wants to destroy the whole human rights movement but, in reality, there will always be some brave activists who refuse to keep quiet. But we do need international attention and support.

You mentioned earlier some cases of innocent people sentenced to death…

There is no judicial independence in China and the public security bureau, the police bureau, always has more power than the courts and the judges. The Communist Party can control and influence the judges in criminal cases and in influential cases. So, there are lots of cases where innocent people have been sentenced to death. We try to represent them. Sometimes these people have been very severely tortured and forced to give a confession. Sometimes the defendants were accused of murder but the truth is they just acted in self-defence. According to Chinese criminal law, you should not be found guilty if you acted in self-defence. Many innocent citizens are detained and imprisoned for many years. We have issued a number of petitions and we have very powerful evidence showing that these people are innocent. But it is difficult for us to crack these cases. Some people were released thanks to Amnesty International and other international human rights organisations which put pressure on the Chinese authorities. But for the majority of those cases we still have a lot of work to do.

So, our job from overseas is to keep putting pressure on the Chinese Government?

Generally speaking, it is helpful to publicise information to apply public pressure to the Chinese authorities because without this kind of public campaign the perpetrators’ decisions will not carry any political weight. Even though it’s more difficult than ever, we have to continue our work on public campaigns. We need to put pressure on judges, policemen, the perpetrators… they should be held accountable for the detention of innocent people.

Earlier today, you emphasised a message of hope in spite of the current situation…

The Chinese Communist Party will not give up its monopoly on power voluntarily. Only if there is enough pressure from civil society will it be possible to ensure a compromise from the Chinese Communist Party. What they have been doing is violating human rights and the law in general. So, we should strengthen the power of civil society. We should work together on an international movement. We should work alongside democratic governments to push forward democratic transition. There is no hope that the Communist Party might lead political reform towards an open society. But there is hope from the Chinese people and civil society because Chinese human rights activists will not stop fighting for freedom and human rights. The Weiquan movement is a good example: the Government is really nervous about it. So they try their best to destroy it and stop the movement. But the movement will not stop, even though it is experiencing its hardest time since 2003. Actually, the worst crackdown since 1989. The movement will not stop. The struggle for freedom and democracy will continue and will prevail.