“The Bravest Lawyer in China” – Gao Zhisheng

By Jerome A. Cohen

Here is reference to a moving and informative tribute to the great but now almost forgotten human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, by Professor/lawyer TENG Biao, himself a great human rights activist now living and working for the cause in exile in the U.S. Teng confirms that there has been no news of Gao for two years. Gao has been subjected to unspeakable tortures since first detained in 2006 and, when last heard from, had been transformed from one of China’s leading business lawyers into a pathetic human vegetable.

Gao Zhisheng (source:    RFA   )

Gao Zhisheng (source: RFA)

As I have written here before, in March 2005, in a Beijing discussion with about a dozen human rights lawyers who were debating how to respond to attempts to restrict their defense efforts in court, Gao boldly favored open opposition to Party violations of the PRC’s Constitution and criminal procedure legislation. He argued forcefully that true law reform would never be effective in China so long as the Party monopolized power. I said that I agreed with him but that, if he continued to voice those views in public, he would soon lose his freedom and be of no use to anyone.

Sadly, we were both right. We should be grateful to Professor Teng for recalling the sacrifice of this great person.

A noteworthy new book: “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared”

The New York Times Sunday Review has an important article--In China, the Brutality of ‘House Arrest’--by Steven Lee Myers featuring excerpts from three of the twelve essays in the new book “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared” organized and edited by Michael Caster. They all are about personal experiences in the torture chamber parading under the bland title “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place” (see below for an explanation of the RSDP in relation to the world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei’s 2011 detention*).

Ex-law professor/lawyer Teng Biao, himself one of the victims of these official kidnappings, contributed the Foreword to the book. One of the most chilling of many quotable statements comes from human rights activist Tang Zhishun:

“At times the guards warned me that my wife and child, despite being in the United States, were not as safe as I might think they were. Chinese agents could still kill them. They said the same thing about my mother.”

I used to regard such often irresistible warnings as mere interrogators’ threats, but no longer, and they are reminiscent of the words and deeds of the KMT as recently as the late 1970s!

I hope this NYT Review, even though buried in the Sunday paper on Thanksgiving weekend, will enhance interest in a deserving book that is likely to be ignored by the media without this kind of help. 

* Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place (RSDP) and Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, who suffered RSDP in the spring of 2011 before it was even formally authorized for people who maintain residence in the jurisdiction, has done a lot through imaginative art and theater to publicize RSDP’s true nature. The publicity efforts of some of us about his case and the massive foreign petition from the foreign art community that the publicity inspired provided some of the pressure (there was also domestic pressure) that caused Party legislators to deal with RSDP in the 2012 new criminal procedure code.

Since Ai was supposedly investigated and detained for alleged tax violations, he could not be legally detained via RSDP on similar charges even today since that charge does not fall within the three circumstances ( i.e., cases involving national security, terrorism or serious bribery) that have authorized RSDP since the 2012 new criminal procedure code (Art. 73) was enacted. Of course, all the police need for “justification” is a suspicion that his conduct might be against “national security”, a suspicion the reasonableness of which cannot be effectively challenged in the PRC today.

Support silent supporters of the rule of law in China

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

Here is a stimulating op-ed by Chinese law scholar and activist Teng Biao. I hope US funders, public and private, will take it into account. I believe, after giving due regard to Teng Biao’s admonition against funding the oppressors, funders should continue to support those non-Chinese institutions that do not pull their punches in studying and reporting on legal developments in China while also continuing to conduct legal and human rights education of not only Chinese lawyers but also Chinese judges, prosecutors, justice officials and even police.

The point that needs greater recognition here is that hundreds of thousands of legal specialists in China are extremely unhappy with Xi Jinping’s oppressive policies, policies that they feel forced to live with and practice while awaiting a less repressive regime and the renewal of true legal reforms. At a time when they are being ordered to reject universal human rights values, we should not abandon these silent supporters of the rule of law, but should keep up contacts and professional nourishment that will sustain them until a better day dawns.

Years ago, the late Senator Arlen Specter asked me to emphasize this point in a letter to then House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, recalling the importance of foreign funded legal education and training given to officials of the Chiang Kaishek dictatorship in Taiwan and the Park Choon-Hee dictatorship in South Korea. Those efforts paid rich dividends when political circumstances permitted legal liberalization. Indeed, they helped fuel legal officials’ opposition to dictatorship, as occurred when Taiwan prosecutors and judges rebelled against their masters and successfully established their independence of political interference.

The U.S. Congress, other countries and private foundations should also fund basic research on the many complex aspects of the evolving Chinese legal system, not only education and training in China but also efforts to enhance foreign understanding of both contemporary events and the country’s political-legal culture.

In addition, there is a great need to fund the support and activities of the increasing number of Chinese refugee lawyers, law professors and human rights activists who, like Professor Teng, are turning up outside China as a result of the terrible situation they confront in China.

Finally, in fairness to the America Bar Association, we should note that, after long internal debate spawned by external criticisms, it has decided to establish an international human rights award and next week at its annual meeting in San Francisco this new award will be bestowed, in absentia, on another of China’s courageous human rights lawyers, Ms. WANG Yu, who, sadly, is jailed in China and awaiting criminal conviction and a long prison sentence. 

More Questions on the American Bar Association Story: Who in Washington Ordered the ABA’s Book Publishing Unit to Rescind the Offer to Teng Biao?

By Jerome A. Cohen

The report by Isaac Stone Fish in Foreign Policy, “Leaked Email: ABA Cancels Book for Fear of ‘Upsetting the Chinese Government’,” which I wrote about earlier this week here, has finally stimulated the beginnings of an ABA response.

An email from Jen Leung, the Country Director of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative China Program, on the China Law Listserv makes it clear that the Beijing office of the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) had no knowledge that some people in Washington headquarters, where ROLI’s central office is located, reportedly influenced the ABA’s book arm to rescind its offer to Teng Biao. The email implies that ROLI’s central office in Washington, which directs its Beijing office and has fought vigorously and successfully to maintain the valuable work its Beijing staff is doing, also was unaware of the ABA’s book offer to Teng.

Presumably this will be confirmed by either the ABA’s internal investigation or further journalistic efforts. Whatever the outcome of that specific inquiry, however, it is clear that, despite the ABA’s belated and pathetic attempt to deny the reason its employee originally gave for its embarrassing change of mind, there is nothing fictional about the Foreign Policy story. What we don’t yet know is who in Washington ordered the book publishing unit to rescind the offer.

To its credit, another wing of the ABA, the ABA Journal, has published three articles reporting on the Chinese Government’s current repression of lawyers, and, under the leadership of the highly respected sociologist of law Terry Halliday, the American Bar Foundation has done important research on the plight of those Chinese lawyers courageous enough to try to defend human rights. So perhaps there are advantages as well as disadvantages to the ABA’s lack of efficiency regarding its China policy!

It will be interesting to see whether this important fuss leads to a debate during the annual meeting of the ABA House of Delegates this summer. Surely some outstanding ABA members would like to take part.

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.