Human rights lawyer and activist Teng Biao, living in the U.S. since 2014 as the situation for rights lawyers back in China has become increasingly bleak, has been working on the book “Darkness Before Dawn,” a reflection on his 11 years of fighting for human rights in China. The American Bar Association (ABA), which had commissioned the book in late 2014, last year wrote Teng with bad news: they would not be able to publish the book due to “concern that we run the risk of upsetting the Chinese government.” Teng has now leaked the email to Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish, who reports on ABA’s subsequent denial of that being the reason for the book’s cancellation:
“I was pretty shocked when I got that email. The ABA in the United States is a very influential organization,” Teng said in an April 13 interview. “Surprisingly, an organization this formidable still fears Chinese pressure.”
Although it did not question the authenticity of the email, the ABA insists that it should not be taken at face value. In a statement, Robert T. Rupp, Associate Executive Director for the Business Services Group of the ABA, which oversees the ABA publishing, claimed that “the decision not to proceed with publication of the book Darkness Before Dawn was made for purely economic reasons, based on market research and sales forecasting conducted by the association’s publishing group.” Rupp, via an ABA spokesperson, declined to share any of the research or forecasting, stating that it was proprietary information. “Unfortunately, the reasons resulting in the decision were miscommunicated to Mr. Teng,” the statement continued. […]
When presented with the ABA employee’s comments and the ABA statement issued in response, some China experts reacted with cynicism. “Rupp’s words seemed to me ‘weasel words,’ as my Dad used to call them,” said Perry Link, a professor emeritus at Princeton, who writes frequently on issues of Chinese censorship. “That their economic assessment of the market potential of the book did a 180-degree turn in a month or two is a highly implausible and patently ridiculous explanation,” Sharon Hom, the Executive Director of the NGO Human Rights in China, told me. “Who did they think would believe this?” [Source]
Last August, in the wake of the “Black Friday” crackdown on rights lawyers that represented a new phase in the Xi administration’s campaign against civil society and legal advocacy, the ABA attracted criticism for issuing a mild statement on the situation in China. NYU legal scholar Jerome Cohen described the statement as “adequate,” but short of his “standard for what would be appropriate.” On his personal blog, Jerome Cohen protests ABA’s handling of this situation—both its reversal of Teng Biao’s book deal, and its denial of the initial reason for doing so—and recalls last year’s controversy as a telling factor:
Did the ABA tell the truth in seeking to explain its reversal of the original decision to publish? The fable from the ABA reminds me of the stories the PRC has recently put out to try to explain China’s kidnappings of certain Hong Kong publishers. Reasonable people could argue about the ABA’s discouragingly timid statement last August about the oppression of China’s human rights lawyers, which I wrote about here, but what can one say about the Teng Biao incident other than that it is a pathetic chapter in the history of the world’s leading bar association?
Commissioning a book by ex-professor and lawyer Teng – a genuine hero of the legal profession now unable to return to China, accepting his outline for the book’s publication and then changing its mind out of fear of offending Beijing was surely bad enough. But then to belatedly seek to retract an apparently truthful explanation of its bad judgment by spinning a yarn that is an insult to our intelligence is contrary to the ethics and integrity for which the ABA purports to stand. Heads should roll over this incident, but not the head of the whistle-blower!
As to the real reason – fear that China might terminate the ABA’s valuable law reform work in Beijing, we heard it given last August in defense of the initial insistence of ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) that there be no protest whatever and, under fire, that any protest be a timid one. This was months after the reversal over Teng’s book. I don’t think any of us who opposed ROLI’s view last August knew about the book reversal and the ABA did not disclose it. If it had done so, this would have added significant fuel to the fire against its position. […] [Source]
Cohen recently wrote on the potential for strong protest from foreign legal professionals to curb Xi’s crackdown on legal advocacy, arguing that “powerful opposition both within and outside China offers the only hope of improving a dire situation.” He also discussed suggestions for the ABA’s China office to be pre-emptively closed so it will not be “a hostage that impedes an appropriate response to repression.”
Self-censorship in an effort to protect interests in China has also raised controversy in other realms. A PEN American Center pledge to address censorship in Chinese translations of foreign works last year was signed by 12 American publishing companies. (For more on the opportunity costs of allowing work to be censored for Chinese publication, see a discussion between former New Yorker China correspondents Peter Hessler and Evan Osnos, via CDT.) Hollywood film studios’ willingness to cater to Chinese censors or feature extraneous cultural references relevant to potential Chinese ticket buyers have also been noted.
Meanwhile, prominent Chinese rights lawyer and Teng’s former colleague Pu Zhiqiang was last week officially disbarred. Pu was given a suspended sentence after spending 19 months in prison pending his trial; commentators noted that the sentencing would end his career as a lawyer, and hence should not be seen as “lenient.” Reuters’ Ben Blanchard reports:
Activists have said the three-year suspended sentence for Pu Zhiqiang would serve as a strong reminder to other rights lawyers that the Communist Party, currently engaged in a severe clampdown on dissent, would brook no challenge to its rule.
[…] Pu told Reuters he had received the formal notification from the Beijing City Judicial Bureau that his lawyer’s license had been revoked. He declined further comment, saying he was not supposed to accept interviews.
[…] Fellow rights lawyer and friend Shang Baojun told Reuters the disbarment had been expected since Pu’s conviction in December, because a person found guilty of a criminal offense is not allowed to practice law.
“Unless one day his conviction is overturned, then he’ll never be allowed to practice law again. It’s really the end of his career,” Shang said. [Source]
The U.S. State Department last week released its annual country reports on human rights. This year’s report criticized Beijing’s crackdown on Chinese rights lawyers. From Reuters’ Lesley Wroughton:
“The crackdown on the legal community was particularly severe, as individual lawyers and law firms that handled cases the government deemed ‘sensitive’ were targeted for harassment and detention,” the report said.
Hundreds of lawyers and law associates were interrogated, investigated, and in many cases detained in secret locations for months without charges or access to attorneys or family members, the report added.
It said the authorities had resorted to “extralegal measures” such as enforced disappearances and strict house arrests to prevent criticism of the government. [Source]
Keeping with established tradition in U.S.-China rights diplomacy, China’s State Council Information Office replied by releasing the report “Human Rights Record of the United States in 2015.” The report, prefaced with the sentence “since the U.S. government refuses to hold up a mirror to look at itself, it has to be done with other people’s help,” details gun violence, police brutality, inequality, racial conflict, political corruption, and other trends in the U.S., based largely on American media coverage. The AP reports:
The report issued by the Cabinet’s State Council Information Office also cited gun crime and excessive use of force by police, and touched on other topics including corruption in the prison system, homelessness, racial conflict and gender pay disparity.
[…] The U.S. is also guilty of rights violations outside its borders, the report said, citing estimates of civilian deaths in Iraqi and Syrian airstrikes, drone attacks and the monitoring of foreign citizens’ communications.
“America is still committing gross violations of other countries’ human rights, viewing lives in other countries as worthless,” it said.
China publishes such reports each year in response to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on China’s human rights situation issued on Wednesday as part of a larger review of the human rights practices around the world. [Source]