The scholar, who has been living in exile from China since 2011, talks about the CCP's 'performance legitimacy'; why the billionaire exile Guo Wengui turned on him; and why resistance in China these days is increasingly impossible.
By Scott Savitt
November 13, 2022
Illustration by Kate Copeland
Teng Biao is the Hauser Human Rights Scholar at Hunter College [City University of New York], and the Pozen Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on China’s criminal justice, human rights, social movements and political transition. Teng was one of the earliest promoters of the Rights Defense Movement and the New Citizens Movement in China. As a lecturer at the China University of Politics and Law in Beijing, he co-founded two human rights NGOs – the Open Constitution Initiative in 2003 and China Against the Death Penalty in 2010 – before being imprisoned for his activism in 2011 and expelled from China. He received the Human Rights Prize of the French Republic in 2007, and the National Endowment of Democracy’s “Democracy Award” in 2008. He is now working on a book about China’s threat to global freedom and democracy.
Q: Please tell us about your background.
A: I was born in 1973 into an extremely poor family in a remote village named “xiaochengzi” — “tiny town” — at the foot of a forested hill in Jilin Province, northeast China. My childhood was one of relentless poverty. My extended family invested all their hopes in me. I performed well on exams, and was accepted into Beida [Peking University], the top university in China.
When I entered Beida in 1991 — so soon after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and military massacre that all incoming students were required to complete a summer of military training — I was brainwashed. I had never read a book or had a teacher critical of the Chinese government. In Beijing I read secretly printed books sold on the black market and met professors who encouraged me to think critically and independently. My eyes were opened to widespread human rights abuses and injustice in my country. I gradually came to realize that I had been deceived by my teachers, textbooks and government’s propaganda. I was ashamed that China was still a single-party dictatorship that opposes all humane values. Over time, I accepted the principles of human rights and liberal democracy and decided to fight for freedom in China.
What happened after graduation?
After receiving my PhD in law from Beida in 2003, I took a tenure-track teaching position at the China University of Politics and Law in Beijing.
A tragic incident occurred right after I graduated. Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old graphic designer, was detained and tortured to death in a custody and repatriation center in Guangzhou, one of the many extrajudicial detention cases in China. Two legal scholars — a classmate and a professor — and I wrote an open letter challenging this unconstitutional detention and published it in China Youth Daily, the Communist Youth League newspaper. The letter sparked the 維權運動[Rights Defense Movement]. This movement represented a new chapter in China’s struggle for democracy. The Rights Defense Movement modeled itself on the Xidan Democracy Wall movement in 1978-1979 and the Tiananmen protests of 1989.
I also co-founded two human rights organizations in Beijing: The Open Constitution Initiative (公盟) and China Against the Death Penalty. I helped Dr. Liu Xiaobo with Charter ’08, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Injustice was and is pervasive in China. The Rights Defense Movement defended the freedom and civil rights of political dissidents, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, and victims of torture, forced abortion, forced eviction and wrongful convictions. I organized and participated in many protests and “citizen gatherings.” I challenged a variety of forms of “extra-legal detentions” (also known as “black jails”), the discriminatory hukou residential system, and a series of unconstitutional laws. Lawyers, civil rights defenders, citizen journalists and average workers all joined the movement.
Why did the Communist Party allow this movement to start?
When the Communist Party faced a series of political, economic, and social crises in the 1980s, it adopted a makeshift market economy — “Market-Leninism” we call it — requiring a minimum level of rule of law. Ironically, the Tiananmen massacre wiped out challenges from civil society, so the Communist Party controlled reforms. The introduction of the Internet in the 1990s, China’s entry into the World Trade Organization [WTO] in 2001, and the development of legal professions created space for activists aiming to defend human rights and promote rule of law in China. But the Party constantly monitored and harassed the social movement. Restrictions and prosecutions never ceased.
Is it dangerous to be a human rights activist in China?
It was dangerous then and even more so today. The Chinese government has no tolerance for troublemakers. My passport was confiscated. My legal license was revoked. I was banned from teaching and eventually fired by Peking University. I was frequently put under house arrest. I was kidnapped and detained three times by the secret police. I was physically and mentally tortured. My family members were targeted. My wife and daughters were banned from leaving China after I arrived in the United States in 2014. They were used by the Chinese government as hostages to punish and silence me.
How has Xi Jinping changed China’s political and social landscape?
Since Xi Jinping came to power, the crackdown on human rights activists has intensified. Tens of thousands of lawyers, journalists, dissidents and citizen bloggers have been jailed. Many of my friends are still in prison. More than a million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities have been detained in concentration camps, which constitutes a genocide. Xi has turned China’s system from a collective dictatorship to a personal dictatorship.
Qin Zhihui on trial at the Chaoyang District People’s Court in Beijing, April 11, 2014. Qin Zhihui, known as “Qin Huohuo” in cyberspace, was accused of rumor-mongering via Sina Weibo. He was sentenced to three years in prison.1 Credit: Gong Lei/Xinhua via Alamy
However, Xi Jinping is not the only culprit. Changing the social and political landscape of China was a collective choice of the Communist Party. The Party faced, on the one hand, new social energies after 1989 — in the form of the Internet, the market economy, the spread of liberal ideas, the movement to defend civil rights — and on the other hand official corruption, increasing inequality, environmental degradation, ideological crisis, and, most importantly, economic slowdown. China’s economic advantages in the four decades since the start of reform, from favorable demographics and cheap labor to globalization, have been all but exhausted. The Communist Party never considered democratization, so all that was left was strengthening central power and more repression. The Communist Party is an autocratic regime, and it considers personal dictatorship the most effective means to deal with crises.
Are the Chinese people still prepared to accept Communist Party rule if it guarantees stability and economic growth?
The Chinese people do not have freedom to speak or think critically about the Communist Party. The government isn’t chosen by the people, doesn’t answer to public opinion, and criticism is met with violence. The people can’t choose a different system. It’s wrong to assume the Communist Party rules with the consent of the governed.
"Resistance is increasingly futile, and the Communist Party stirs up extreme nationalism to turn attention away from its shortcomings and focus dissatisfaction at foreigners."
China has a different society and culture. Surveys show that Chinese people have traditional attitudes toward authority and private rights. But that does not mean Chinese people accept a system that deprives them of their freedom and dignity. The pursuit of freedom and democracy is universal and part of human nature.
Since the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, the Communist Party has depended on economic performance to boost its legitimacy. Since free and fair elections do not exist, the Communist Party always faces a legitimacy crisis. However, rapid economic growth provided the ruling party with “performance legitimacy.” Most people are better off or hope to improve their living standard. But this source of legitimacy is threatened.
First, the performance itself. The ‘China Miracle’ that Beijing authorities trumpet has a dark side. Just a few of its problems are the extremely high Gini-coefficient reflecting increased income inequality, weak labor rights, environmental pollution, rampant injustice and official corruption.
Second, when China’s economic growth slows down, political and social crises will follow. Dissatisfaction will increase. The Communist Party will intensify its crackdown on activists and rights petitioners, strengthen its censorship, propaganda, and surveillance, and incite more anti-Western nationalism.
Are you still hopeful for a free China?
Yes and no. I believe the Chinese people will eventually enjoy a liberal democracy, because that is the only stable, sustainable political system. Autocracy resists the tide of history and cannot last forever.
It is hard to be optimistic about China’s transition in the foreseeable future when you consider the major elements that affect potential political change: economy, ideology, identity, resistance, factional struggle and international geopolitics.
What’s happening in China right now is terrifying. The Communist Party uses big data, facial recognition, voiceprint identification, surveillance cameras, the Great Firewall, DNA collection, and health codes to establish a high-tech totalitarianism beyond George Orwell’s imagination. Resistance is increasingly futile, and the Communist Party stirs up extreme nationalism to turn attention away from its shortcomings and focus dissatisfaction at foreigners. “The worst autocracy,” I once wrote, “is not the one that suppresses resistance, but the one that makes you feel that it is unnecessary to resist, or even makes you defend the regime.”
Tens of thousands of activists have been jailed. Many of my friends are still in prison. More than a million Central Asian minorities have been detained in concentration camps. It is hard to be optimistic about China in the foreseeable future.
Is there an underground opposition to the Communist Party in China?
Xi Jinping’s crackdown has crushed the human rights movement, the New Citizen Movement, and the Charter 08 movement. The space for civil society has contracted dramatically. Very few civil rights defenders and NGOs continue their activism. There are a small number of underground churches, civil rights petitioners, citizen journalists, and street protests, but most actions can be crushed immediately and sometimes preemptively.
“Where there is oppression, there is resistance,” social theory says. But when oppression becomes extreme and overwhelmingly effective, resistance becomes impossible. High-tech totalitarianism is achieving an unprecedented level of social control in China. It is impermeable, ceaseless and overwhelming. As information control tightens, brainwashing and propaganda become more effective.
When domestic dissidents and even Communist Party reformers cannot make any difference, support from the outside world is urgently needed.
"…I refuse to be a nationalist or reflexive patriot. I embrace cosmopolitanism and humanism. I am a world citizen. I fight for the freedom and dignity of all human beings."
Living in exile is profoundly painful. We political refugees are cut off from our homeland, our native language, our social networks and even our sense of history. But being in exile has also provided me with the opportunity to reflect on my identity. I was born in China and love China. I live in the United States and love America. I am grateful to this country for providing me the freedom and safety that China denied me.
But American constitutional democracy is flawed in several respects. Constitutional patriotism requires loyalty to a country based on a political system that guarantees human rights and freedom. Many Chinese intellectuals see the United States as a beacon of democracy and liberty. They overlook America’s systemic racism and institutional injustice. I used to have similar opinions. I focused exclusively on China, and never thought there would be a need to fight for freedom and justice in America. Now I see it as my duty to fight for a better system for this country I live in, just as I have sacrificed to promote democracy in China. But I refuse to be a nationalist or reflexive patriot. I embrace cosmopolitanism and humanism. I am a world citizen. I fight for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.
Tell us about your conflict with the exiled Chinese billionaire businessman Guo Wengui?
Guo Wengui started as a spy working for China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). He played an active role in fabricating and spreading far-right disinformation and conspiracies about COVID, vaccinations, and the 2020 United States presidential election. He is a fanatical follower of and fundraiser for Donald Trump and the MAGA movement.
Many will be surprised to learn that the majority of Chinese pro-democracy intellectuals and activists support Guo and Trump. Many of my Chinese friends regard “anti-communism” as the only goal. Therefore, they see a world of black-and-white. Pro-Trump and pro-Guo equals anti-communism, and anti-Trump and anti-Guo means pro-communism.
Too many Chinese dissidents who cannot find a way to achieve democracy in China have put their hopes in Guo, and then in Trump. There is a Chinese proverb that describes this: 飲鴆止渴 [“Drink poison to quench thirst.”] My enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend. Many of my fellow exiles misunderstand liberalism and progressivism, as well as the nature of the Communist Party’s state capitalism masquerading as socialism.
In the fall of 2020, some of Guo’s followers began to question his loyalties. Guo responded by denouncing many of the most prominent Chinese dissidents in America as “fake pro-democracy activists” and said that they “should be beaten up as soon as we see them.” He called on his followers to join his “Operation Elimination of Fake Activists” to harass or assault his critics in the United States, Canada, and other countries, including me and my family.
I began seeing comments online from people seeking my home address. One wrote: “I wanna send him a bullet directly into his head!” One day in winter 2020, I was at home teaching a class on Zoom. My wife came into my office, and she was upset. Dozens of people were standing in front of our house on a quiet lane near Princeton, New Jersey. They had signs and bullhorns and were chanting “Teng is a Chinese Communist Party spy!”
They returned every day after that in a convoy of vehicles. They chanted, cursed, and shouted so loudly that my children could hear them from inside the house. They were live-streaming the scene on Guo’s GTV and YouTube channels. They harassed neighbors who came out to defend me. For nearly two months, the protesters showed up at my house every day, as if punching a clock. They shouted from 10 in the morning to 5 at night, with only a break for lunch. Similar protests appeared outside more than a dozen dissidents’ homes in Texas, Virginia, California and across the nation. In Vancouver and Los Angeles, the crowd harangued their targets until they came outside and then beat and kicked them.
Guo has kept a lower profile in 2022, and recently filed for bankruptcy protection. But if Trump announces he is running for president again, I expect Guo Wengui to be back making mischief.
How would you compare the political system of China and the United States?
China combines the worst aspects of socialism and capitalism. It is worse than kleptocracy. With the Uyghur genocide, persecution in Tibet and Southern Mongolia, extreme nationalist propaganda, the threatened invasion of Taiwan, and international aggressiveness, China is heading toward fascism with Communist Party characteristics. It is the most urgent and substantial threat to freedom and democracy in the world.
When the Chinese government is condemned for its human rights abuses, it immediately responds with: “What about America’s slavery, segregation and genocide of Indians?” These over-simplified comparisons — “whataboutism” — are designed to silence criticism.
"Human rights should not be decoupled from trade, or from other pressing issues like climate change, counter-terrorism or nuclear proliferation. The Chinese government has manipulated these issues and blackmailed the world for too long."
I do not hesitate to criticize problems in the United States, such as systemic racism and a gun fetish. The American government has the power to allocate trillions of dollars, enact laws, declare wars and push the nuclear button. But sometimes people in power prioritize personal benefit over principled public interest. For example, they prioritize gun lobby money over citizens’ lives and public safety, or they support Trump’s efforts to overthrow democracy. The fight for human rights and freedom will be long and hard for both China and the United States. As Aldous Huxley put it: “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”
What should the world learn from the rise of dictatorial China?
Only 17 days after the Tiananmen Massacre, President George H.W. Bush sent a secret good-will letter to Deng Xiaoping, “The Butcher of Beijing” who ordered the mass killing. Bush then dispatched his National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft on a secret mission to meet with Deng.
By 1991, the West had eased or eliminated many of the Tiananmen-related sanctions placed on China. Human rights were decoupled from trade. In the ensuing decades of increased foreign engagement and investment, China became the world’s second largest economy. But its human rights situation did not improve, it deteriorated. To think that economic liberalization would bring liberal democracy to China was delusional. Both the naïveté and greed of the free world made the situation worse. The Communist Chinese regime is now the most serious global threat to freedom.
For Western countries, what is the alternative to engaging with China? Can the West craft a strategy toward China that makes progress on values like human rights while protecting economic interests, or is that impossible?
Unprincipled engagement with an autocratic regime is appeasement. It has contributed to China’s techno totalitarianism and international aggressiveness. Western leaders fear criticizing Beijing for its human rights abuses. Western technology corporations help facilitate China’s censorship and surveillance systems. The Chinese government increasingly uses economic coercion, and it repeatedly works. By allowing Beijing to host the Olympic Games, not once but twice, the world gave the Communist Party what it desires more than anything: an endorsement of its legitimacy.
Human rights should not be decoupled from trade, or from other pressing issues like climate change, counter-terrorism or nuclear proliferation. The Chinese government has manipulated these issues and blackmailed the world for too long. This can no longer be tolerated. The free world continues to squander the political, economic, and technical leverage it holds over China.
Many people have lost the political imagination to envision a free China. But the Communist Party cannot rule China forever. It matters a lot whether our China policy includes a vision of promoting democratization. “The world cannot be safe until China changes,” President Nixon said. China has changed, but for the worse. Helping the Chinese people achieve constitutional democracy is not only politically desirable, but also in the economic interest of the rest of the world. To be more confrontational with the Communist Party, and more unyielding on human rights, might result in short-term pain on the economic and diplomatic fronts, but it is our moral obligation, and it is in our long-term interest, too.