Teng Biao speaks at a hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China entitled "Urging China's President Xi to Stop State-Sponsored Human Rights Abuses" in Washington, DC, on September 18, 2015. | NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Teng Biao speaks at a hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China entitled "Urging China's President Xi to Stop State-Sponsored Human Rights Abuses" in Washington, DC, on September 18, 2015. | NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Is the ABA Afraid of the Chinese Government?

The American Bar Association retracted an offer to publish the book of a well-known Chinese human rights lawyer last year, Foreign Policy reported on Friday.

In a January 2015 email to human rights lawyer and author Teng Biao, one ABA employee said the book was being killed because of the “risk of upsetting the Chinese government,” according to the article in Foreign Policy. A reporter for the magazine said Teng only forwarded the ABA’s email to his publication last week. 

The ABA has since said that wasn’t the real reason for spiking the book’s publication. Teng, now a visiting scholar at New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The book, which remains unpublished, is tentatively titled “Darkness Before the Dawn.” Reportedly, it draws upon Teng’s experience working as a human rights advocate in China for 11 years and also looks at the human rights legal community in China, which has long been at odds with the ruling Communist party. Since last summer, there have been numerous reports that Chinese authorities arrested and detained dozens of prominent human rights lawyers as part of a crackdown.

According to the Foreign Policy report, the ABA’s publishing arm offered to publish his book in late 2014, but Teng said he received an email from an ABA employee in January 2015 saying the offer had been rescinded.

The email cited political reasons for not publishing the book: “Apparently, there is concern that we run the risk of upsetting the Chinese government by publishing your book, and because we have ABA commissions working in China there is fear that we would put them and their work at risk,” the employee, whom Teng chose to keep anonymous, wrote.

The ABA affirmed the authenticity of the email, but said the employee who wrote it was mistaken. In a statement, Robert Rupp, who heads the ABA’s publishing wing, said:

The 2014 decision not to proceed with publication of the book Darkness Before Dawn was made for purely economic reasons, based on market research and sales forecasting conducted by the association’s publishing group. Unfortunately, the reasons resulting in the decision were miscommunicated to Mr. Teng. We regret that Mr. Teng received erroneous information that did not reflect the views of the association or the process followed in evaluating his proposal. We sincerely apologize to Mr. Teng for this situation and are taking steps to ensure that it cannot occur again.

This isn’t the first time the ABA has been in the news for its stance on the Chinese legal community. Last summer, after China arrested a number of human rights lawyers, the ABA issued a statement encouraging the Chinese government to “permit lawyers to discharge their professional duty.”

Jerome Cohen, a professor at NYU Law School who has represented Chinese activists, including Chen Guangcheng, wrote on his blog that the ABA letter was “timid,” and didn’t go far enough. Others called for the ABA to withdraw the statement and issue a stronger one.

Several experts we spoke to praised a letter issued by the New York City Bar Association, which was longer, and more gravely worded, than the ABA’s.

On Monday, Cohen posted another entry on his blog, citing the Foreign Policy story and criticizing the ABA’s belated explanation.

“Reasonable people could argue about the ABA’s discouragingly timid statement last August about the oppression of China’s human rights lawyers,” Cohen wrote, “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?”

An ABA spokesman declined to comment in response to Cohen’s remarks.

In February, Terence Halliday, a research professor with the American Bar Foundation, said the actions of bar associations and law firms do have an effect on Chinese government policy. Halliday was a co-author of a January letter published in the Guardian newspaper condemning China’s treatment of lawyers.

“The government is very sensitive to even a small number of people, like these human rights lawyers who signed the letter, and the effect they can have on domestic and international public opinion,” he said. “They need all the good will from international business they can get.”

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