This week, while most China-watchers are focused on leaders gathering for a closed-door meeting to set economic policy, Teng Biao won't be paying much attention. "We human rights lawyers are more focused on civil society," Teng told me during a conversation here. "If it is pressured, the Communist Party will have to make changes. If not, it will never give up any power."
The phrase "human rights lawyer" may seem incongruous in China. But 40-year-old Teng is one of a new generation of activists pressing China to uphold its constitution, which grants rights its rulers have never honored.
That they are calling for leaders simply to follow their own laws has not endeared them to President Xi Jinping and his Politburo comrades. In the year since Xi took office, Teng told me, some 200 human rights activists have been arrested or detained, "maybe five or 10 times as many as last year."
Teng has been detained several times, most recently this summer. In 2010, he listened as police threatened to "beat him to death and dig a hole to bury him." In 2011 he was held in solitary confinement for 70 days.
"During the 70 days in detention, I wore handcuffs 24 hours for 36 days, I was forced to stay in one position, facing a wall, for 18 hours for 57 days," he wrote recently. "Physically and mentally tortured, I began to write statements of repentance and statements of guarantee. I had to rewrite them over and over to improve my sincerity. Never so profoundly did I experience the super power of 'the people's democratic dictatorship.' "
He has a guest position at a law school in Hong Kong - which is part of China but with a freer political system - but says he intends to return to Beijing in due course.
Why take such chances? Teng says that a top-down, authoritarian system can't solve the complex problems China faces now that it has reached "middle-income" status and that people outside China ought to pay attention. "If China becomes the strongest economically and militarily but without human rights or political freedom, it must be a threat to the whole world, like Nazi Germany," he said.
I said that Chinese officials often say that activists have little support among the people, who (they say) value stability above all. "Activists are very few, because it is very risky," Teng replied. Most people are indifferent to politics. But, he said, people's attitudes change when their rights are violated - "forced evictions, forced abortions, a relative is detained."
The Internet is opening new possibilities for civil action, Teng said, for organizations that are barely organized, with no fixed address or defined leaders, such as the New Citizens' Movement he has helped promote. In a country with endemic corruption, the movement demands that officials disclose their assets. With millions of internal migrants not allowed to register in their new locations and so excluded from many services, it demands equal education for all children. These are issues that can resonate with ordinary Chinese.
On the last Saturday of every month, Teng told me, in as many as 30 cities, sympathizers meet to discuss these issues, following Robert's Rules of Order to help promote democratic ways of thinking and interacting.
It pains Teng to see so many of his countrymen risking arrest, imprisonment and torture with so little international support. "The U.S. and other countries seem to have a policy to avoid making the Chinese government angry," he said. "The U.S. needs China, but China needs the U.S. too. And freedom is something nonnegotiable."
Hiatt is The Washington Post's editorial page editor.
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