For Chinese dissidents, trouble often starts with an invitation to “tea,” a euphemism the police use to deliver a warning or worse. Since late February, when Internet postings urged Chinese to protest in a “Jasmine Revolution” modeled after the revolutions shaking the Greater Middle East, dozens of pro-democracy activists, lawyers, and bloggers have received such invitations to tea—only to be arrested in the most intense police round-up since the late 1990s.
After the fall of Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the ruling Chinese Communist party is taking no chances. In recent months the Politburo has met in secret to agree on new propaganda guidelines and Internet controls. In public, General Secretary Hu Jintao—nicknamed “Mu Jintao” by Chinese Internet users to evade censors and allude to Mubarak—rallied the cadres in a speech at the Central Party School in Beijing.
Last week, blogger Ran Yunfei was the first to be arrested formally for subversion. The authorities also brought charges against dissidents Chen Wei and Ding Mao. Dozens of other pro-democracy activists are missing after being taken away by police, and hundreds more are under “soft detention” at home, according to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The risk that the disappeared will be tortured to force confessions of nonexistent crimes increases the longer they are held in captivity.
Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer, is one of the disappeared. This is not the first time Teng has been missing at the hands of police. But it is by far the longest. “Let’s beat him to death and dig a hole to bury him in,” one policeman said during a night of abuse and interrogation after plainclothes officers seized Teng and a colleague from a private apartment last year. Teng later wrote in the Wall Street Journal that only his status as a lawyer and former visiting fellow at Yale led him to be released. So far the Yale connection hasn’t helped this time. But perhaps Yale is working behind the scenes?
The New York City Bar Association has written a letter to the Chinese minister of justice seeking the release of lawyers arrested in the recent sweep. It’s a good start. Here’s what else American lawyers practicing in Beijing might do: Attempt to observe trials. Swear off dealings with any part of the Chinese government or businesses involved in state repression and Internet control. (The objection will surely be raised that it is impossible to know who and what companies are involved—but this would make a great research assignment for summer associates.) The American Bar Association could even pass a resolution against providing legal advice for such deals.
When democratic reform has not been in the cards, a longstanding American priority has been supporting the development of the rule of law. In China, however, the Communist party is supreme. The law serves its interests. The party’s intolerance for anything that challenges its control has never been in doubt.
America’s “engagement” policy makes a virtue of ignoring China’s most egregious behavior. There have been no consequences for Beijing in the aftermath of this latest spike in repression. To the contrary: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was in China last week complaining about the value of the yuan. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell expressed concern about government abuses, while announcing that, in May, Washington will host the next session of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue—a massive conclave at which democracy and human rights concerns will not figure. Chen Bingde, chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, will also visit Washington in May. It will be shameful if business continues as usual while so many lawyers, activists, and intellectuals remain missing or behind bars.
Teng Biao’s business card displays the motto “living in truth.” The phrase comes from former Czech dissident and president Vaclav Havel, who used it to describe resistance to totalitarianism. In his famous essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel wrote that “living in truth” depends “not on soldiers of its own, but on the soldiers of the enemy as it were—that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth.” That is the potential of Teng Biao, wherever he is, and of his fellow dissidents.