Before the close of the Beijing Winter Olympics, I wanted to talk with Teng Biao — and I did, on Friday. For our Q&A podcast, go here. Teng Biao is a distinguished legal scholar and human-rights activist from China. Back home, he was detained three times, and tortured. He came to America in 2014. He has taught and worked at several of our top universities: including Harvard, Yale, and Chicago.
He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He comes from a poor village in northeast China. An exceptionally bright kid, obviously, he reached the heights: Peking University. There, he earned a Ph.D. in legal philosophy. He went on to teach at another prestigious institution in Beijing: the China University of Political Science and Law.
He threw it all away, however. What I mean is, he sacrificed his career in order to stand up for human rights. (Andrei Sakharov, one of the most honored scientists in the Soviet Union, did that most dramatically.)
Growing up, Teng Biao was brainwashed, he says. He was indoctrinated with Communism, the official ideology. When he became a university student, he got a hold of some underground books, and he met some independent-minded professors. Eventually, he says, “I gave up Communism and accepted liberal democracy.”
He has been an ardent liberal democrat his whole adult life.
In our Q&A, I bring up many issues with Teng Biao. One of them is this: According to some Chinese people — even in the West — a distinction between a government and a people is a Western notion. In China, the government and the people are one. You criticize the government, you criticize China.
I’m reminded of a lackey of Putin’s in the Duma — who said, infamously, “There is no Russia without Putin.”
Anyway, what does Teng Biao think of all this?
Like his fellow Chinese at large, he was indoctrinated with the belief that there was no distinction between the Communist Party and the nation — between the government, or dictatorship, and China itself. But then he read and traveled, which led him to realize: This is nonsense. Teng Biao loves his country and his countrymen. He loves his fellow Chinese enough to risk his neck in order to defend their rights. At the same time, of course, he is an implacable foe of the dictatorship.
A question, for all of us: Can you love a people — or people, as individuals — and also love a totalitarian gang that rules them?
Teng Biao could have enjoyed a fine career as an academic. With privileges that relatively few in China have. Why did he throw it away (my formulation, not his)?
“I feel it is my moral duty to speak up for the voiceless, for the powerless, and I believe in freedom and human dignity, and as a lawyer in China, I have seen so many people suffering from the dictatorial regime, so I cannot just keep silent. If I don’t fight for human rights, when I have the capacity, when I have the resources and the skills to do that, I won’t live in peace, I won’t enjoy happiness.”
That’s it. You will want to get to know Teng Biao. Again, for our Q&A, go here.