An interview with China’s foremost rights lawyer Dr Teng Biao

By Choenyi Woser and Tenzin Gaphel | May 12, 2016

At a recent conference held at Dharamsala, over 60 foreign delegates – all representing groups that had been at the receiving end of China’s communist regime for far too long – participated in an effort to push for democracy in China.

Although the Indian government rejected visa requests of several participants, including Germany-based Uighur leader, Dolkun Isa, it allowed the ‘controversial’ conference to be held at the north Indian hill town where the Tibetan spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama resides and the Tibetan government-in-exile (officially known as the Central Tibetan Administration) is headquartered.

Dr Teng Biao, one of China’s most prominent civil rights lawyer and human rights activist was among several Chinese dissidents who participated in the conference. He co-founded Gongmeng or the ‘Open Constitution Initiative’ that argues for implementation of rule of law and constitutional protections. He was a former lecturer in the China University of Political Science and Law, a visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, and the Chinese University of Hongkong.

Dr Teng Biao is also a great supporter of the Tibetan cause and the self determination of the Tibetan people. At a discussion held in the afternoon of May 5, 2016 on the topic ‘China’s Democratization and The Future of Tibet’, Dr Teng Biao said Beijing is not serious about solving the Tibetan issue. “They never keep their promises. Moreover, they use this dialogue to justify their suppression and to show the world they are working towards a solution,” the soft-spoken, bespectacled Chinese dissident said. He also told the Tibetans that the Middle Way Approach of seeking high degree of autonomy, though a great idea, should not be the only voice of the Tibetan people. He further said that China’s communist regime is run by a bunch of ‘hooligans’.

Following the discussion, Choenyi Woser and Tenzin Gaphel from Tibet Express met with Dr Teng Biao for an interview over dinner. (Acronyms TE and Dr TB will be used in the following interview to address Tibet Express and Dr Teng Biao respectively)

Dr Teng Biao

Dr Teng Biao speaking at ‘China’s Democratization and The Future of Tibet’ discussion on May 5, 2016 at Norbu House, Mcleod Ganj, Dharamsala.

TE – How did you first get involved in the Tibetan movement?

Dr TB – I started my human rights work in 2003. And I remember, in 2004, Wang Liqioung talked with me about the case of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. I didn’t contribute too much about this case because there were some other lawyers. That was my first experience of knowing Tibetan cases and in that year I felt that the situation in Tibet is much worse than the other areas.

TE – Many Chinese democracy activists, who support the Tibetan cause, seem to agree with the Chinese government’s claim that historically Tibet was a part of China. What’s your opinion on that?

Dr TB – There are different situations. Some democracy activists or human rights defenders realize that freedom, human rights and democracy are important and they work for it. But because of the brain- washing education and propaganda, they still remain brain-washed regarding the Tibet issue, Taiwan issue and east Turkistan issue. They still believe in the so-called national unity and the theory that Tibet, Taiwan and East Turkistan are part of China. So, they are half-conscious regarding the general human rights and democracy issue but are brain-washed regarding the feeling of nationalism. As far as the scholars are concerned, they are some scholars in favour of democracy but when researching or writing on Tibet, their opinion is also influenced by the communist party’s education and it also harms their academic work a lot. So I think there is much work to do.

TE – What kind of work can be done between Tibetans and Chinese activists calling for democracy and human rights?

Dr TB – There are many things that we can do together. We can promote mutual understanding between the two peoples. Dialogue and communication between the Tibetan people and the Chinese people has been going on for some years and the mutual trust will gradually develop further. All kinds of communication and connection are necessary, be it on culture, religion, language or on the academic front, so that all these issues can be discussed and the interaction between the civil societies should be continued.

Regarding the human rights or political activities, there are still many concrete areas where we can work hard. For example, when Chinese leaders visit foreign countries we can organize protests together and while participating in international human rights mechanisms such as the United Nations Human Rights Council’s UPR (Universal Periodic Review), if we coordinate, share information and experience, the advocacy will be more effective. As I just told some of my Tibetan friends, we can also organize screening of documentary films or photo-exhibitions in the US, European countries and also in Asian countries. Through the documentaries, photo exhibitions and participating in talks and seminars, we can raise the Tibet issue. So, if we have a channel or platform or network to work together we can explore all kinds of possibilities.

TE – Do you mean it will be more effective if the two parties join forces rather than do it separately?

Dr TB – Sometimes it can be done separately but for many issues, we can work together. We can join your demonstrations and assembly and you can join ours. For example, when you campaign to for the release of some political prisoners such as the disappeared Panchen Lama or other political prisoners, we can do it together on twitter, facebook or on the streets. And when we campaign for Liu Xiaobo and others, you can support us. It is not only about working together but also about establishing mutual trust and mutual understanding and to better the relation between the Tibetan and the Chinese people.

TE – Do you think the Tibetan call for independence helps the Chinese democracy movement?

DR TB – Firstly, there is freedom of expression in the Tibetan exile community; everyone has the freedom to express their opinion. And the Tibetan people have the right to call for independence. Secondly, in my opinion the most important thing is to make a political change in China, the one party rule in China. The Tibetan cause and the democracy movement of the Chinese dissidents/activists can be set apart later. If you support Tibetan independence, you must have your reasons and one of the most important reasons, as I understand, is the human rights situation in Tibet is deteriorating and the Tibetan people’s religious freedom, the culture and tradition is not respected and even destroyed by under communist party rule. Similarly, the Chinese activists oppose human rights violation in China and call for international attention and support on human rights.

TE – But do you think the Tibetan call for independence helps in any way to promote Chinese democracy movement or amplify the call for democracy in China?

Dr TB – What I mean is that the common enemy is the Communist Party and not the Chinese people. Before China becomes democracy, the call for Tibetan independence and Chinese democracy movement are compatible; so it will help not harm the democracy movement. After China becomes a democratic country, there will be some tension. As I have mentioned earlier at the discussion this afternoon, when the democracy is newly established and not stable, Tibetan voice for independence will make things complicated. That’s the reason why some scholars and activists raised the idea of freezing the right to self determination for some years.

TE – How do you think the Chinese government will react if a mass protest similar to the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 or even bigger happens in China? Do you think the Chinese leaders will resort to violence and suppress the protest with force like before or will they react differently?

DR TB – I am not sure. But of course, there are two opinions or predictions. One is that the Chinese Communist Party will use the same way, machine guns and tanks to crush the protest. Another opinion is that they will not use violence because there may be some conflict or different opinions within the Communist Party; some support violence while some may not. I think the possibility to react in the same way as they did 27 years ago is less because in 1989, Deng Xiao Peng was a very strong, powerful and a brutal dictator and it was very hard to challenge his personal power. The people’s consciousness and people’s opinion towards the Communist Party has changed over the years and has become different now.

Another element is the change in the governments across the world. In 1989 when the Tiananmen massacre happened, the communism camp was still there. Now, many countries have been democratized and that kind of massacre will face more pressure than in 1989. So, in my opinion the communist party may think about all these things.

Additionally, even if they use tanks and machine guns they will not be able to hold on to power as they did in 1989. If they massacre peaceful protesters like they did in 1989, it is highly possible that the Communist Party will lose its power due to the uprising, international pressure and conflict within the party.

So I’m not sure but there is hope. There is still a possibility that the communist party will react in the most brutal way to the protests. So, what we can do is work hard and push forward the peaceful human rights movement. If more and more people realize the importance of non-violence, human rights and freedom, then the soldiers and the military leaders may be influenced to a certain extent.

TE – Do you think it would be better if a person from the ‘minority’ groups write the new constitution if China becomes a democracy so that their rights could be guaranteed, provided that Tibetans and the other minority groups decide to stay under the Chinese flag?

Dr TB – I think it’s a good idea. I would really appreciate if a respectful person from a minority group writes the new constitution. That’s a good idea. But in my opinion, when writing a new constitution it doesn’t matter who writes it or a person belonging to which community writes the constitution. The text of the constitution is not an issue of legislative technique. In a modern constitution, there must be a lot of compromise, a lot of balance from different interested groups. Sometimes a person from the majority group does not necessarily support in favour of the majority group. When the black people initiated the civil rights movement, some white people participated in the rallies and supported the equal rights of the black people. Dr Xu Zhiyong and I have the Beijing Hukou and under the Chinese hukou system, we have more privilege than those who do not have hukou but we did a lot to promote the abolition of hukou system. Although we personally do not benefit from this reform but we did it because it is justice.

Suppose, if I am in the draft committee of the new constitution, I’ll definitely insist on the Tibetan people’s fundamental rights. I will not agree if others try to deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental rights. I always support the right to self determination of the Tibetan people and other unprivileged groups.

And furthermore, the term minority and majority are not just defined by ethnicity. If Tibetan area is guaranteed a high level autonomy, the Han Chinese and other groups such as Hui Chinese people living in Tibetan areas become minority. If you are Han Chinese you belong to the majority but if you are a Muslim, disabled or if you are a gay or lesbian, you are still a minority. So the spirit of the modern constitution must guarantee the fundamental freedoms and human rights so that all kinds of minorities are protected.

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