China and the American Bar Association – Another Sad Story

By Jerome A, Cohen

Human Rights lawyer Teng Biao, Photo credit: May Tse/South China Morning Post

Human Rights lawyer Teng Biao, Photo credit: May Tse/South China Morning Post

The report by Isaac Stone Fish in Foreign Policy, “Leaked Email: ABA Cancels Book for Fear of ‘Upsetting the Chinese Government’,” stirred up a lot of discussion over the weekend. The American Bar Association’s 2015 reversal of its initial decision to publish a book by the famous Chinese rights scholar/activist Teng Biao was allegedly market-driven, the ABA belatedly claimed, and not based on fear of China as originally explained by the ABA employee in charge of book negotiations.

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.

Within the ABA, ROLI impressed me as a tough, no-holds-barred bureaucratic infighter against other ABA units that challenged its view, such as the Human Rights committee. For example, I was told that, when, as the internal debate within ABA over whether to make a statement raged, ROLI scheduled a meeting with the State Department on behalf of the ABA, it did not notify the ABA human rights people, thereby precluding them from being included in the ABA delegation to the meeting.

The ABA is a huge, unwieldy organization that desperately needs – at a minimum – better coordination regarding China so that its various entities know what each other is up to and can develop a coherent, respected policy toward a major country that will continue to present many challenges. We have not heard the last of this story and perhaps the ABA head office will issue a clarification in the next few days. Surely the incoming president should give this matter a high priority.

Since we have been discussing disclosure, I should mention what many know – that Teng, since last summer, is no longer at Harvard but has been a Visiting Scholar at our NYU US-Asia Law Institute.  I suppose I should also disclose that in 1966, I think it was, I published a letter in the NY Times, taking the ABA House of Delegates to task for uncritically endorsing American military actions in Vietnam as consistent with international law.