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Leaked Email: ABA Cancels Book for Fear of ‘Upsetting the Chinese Government’

The American Bar Association insists the move was market-driven, but an employee email says otherwise.


In December 2014, the publishing arm of the American Bar Association (ABA), the preeminent professional organization for U.S. lawyers, commissioned a book by Chinese rights activist Teng Biao. Provisionally entitled Darkness Before Dawn, the book was to paint a picture of China’s politics and society through “the shocking stories” of Chinese human rights lawyers, as well as through personal narrative, according to Teng’s book proposal, which he sent to Foreign Policy. Teng, pictured above, had moved to the United States in September 2014, as the situation for Chinese human rights lawyers was growing steadily worse. He took up a visiting fellowship at Harvard Law School, and began to reflect on his 11 years of experience as a Chinese human rights advocate. The book he planned to write would also have included his experience defending persecuted Chinese minorities; as the lawyer for Chen Guangcheng, the blind advocate who became famous after taking shelter in the U.S. embassy in Beijing in April 2012; and the “kidnaps [sic] and torture” Teng experienced.

But on January 28, 2015, Teng received an email from an employee of the ABA, a professional organization with nearly 400,000 members, one avowedly committed to “serving the legal profession,” according to its website. “I have some bad news,” wrote the ABA employee, whom Teng wished FP keep anonymous. “My publisher, after receiving some concerns from other staff members here about your proposed book, has asked me to rescind the offer that I had made for DARKNESS BEFORE DAWN on December 9th.” (Emphasis in original.) “Apparently, there is concern that we run the risk of upsetting the Chinese government by publishing your book,” the employee wrote, “and because we have ABA commissions working in China there is fear that we would put them and their work at risk.” In the email, which Teng forwarded to FP, the employee wrote that “this has the potential to be an amazing book,” and offered to help Teng find another publishing house.

“I was pretty shocked when I got that email. The ABA in the United States is a very influential organization,” Teng said in an April 13 interview. “Surprisingly, an organization this formidable still fears Chinese pressure.”

Although it did not question the authenticity of the email, the ABA insists that it should not be taken at face value. In a statement, Robert T. Rupp, Associate Executive Director for the Business Services Group of the ABA, which oversees the ABA publishing, claimed that “the 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.” Rupp, via an ABA spokesperson, declined to share any of the research or forecasting, stating that it was proprietary information. “Unfortunately, the reasons resulting in the decision were miscommunicated to Mr. Teng,” the statement continued. “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.”

When presented with the ABA employee’s comments and the ABA statement issued in response, some China experts reacted with cynicism. “Rupp’s words seemed to me ‘weasel words,’ as my Dad used to call them,” said Perry Link, a professor emeritus at Princeton, who writes frequently on issues of Chinese censorship. “That their economic assessment of the market potential of the book did a 180-degree turn in a month or two is a highly implausible and patently ridiculous explanation,” Sharon Hom, the Executive Director of the NGO Human Rights in China, told me. “Who did they think would believe this?”

Examples of self-censorship performed to avoid offending the ruling Chinese Communist Party are fairly common. But chatter about those incidents mostly fizzles out before they become public. “For every one case like this, there are hundreds where the issue doesn’t even come up, because the speaker is not invited, the book is not signed up, the program is not launched, the grant is not made, the visa is not given, you name it,” said Orville Schell, a longtime China journalist and now the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. And seldom is there a paper trail. “It’s rare so far as I know for an institution to acknowledge that it is censoring itself out of fear of offending the Chinese authorities,” said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University.

The ABA employee’s email to Teng did not specify what “commissions working in China” might have been imperiled by publishing Teng’s book. But they may have included programs in the organization’s Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI), its international development arm, which has an office in Beijing. Since 2004, according to the ABA’s website, ROLI “has supported programs to increase Chinese capacity to advocate for citizens’ rights,” and runs well-respected programs inside China.

This isn’t the first time that the ABA has encountered controversy in connection with its China programs. In summer 2015, after hundreds of lawyers and activists were detained across China, the ABA issued a statement on the crackdown that emphasized areas of cooperation between the ABA and its “Chinese partners.” In late 2015, Jerome Cohen, a prominent scholar on China’s legal system, wrote that the statement was “timid” and did not meet his standard “for what would have been appropriate.” And in a fall 2015 interview, Elisabeth Wickeri, an expert on Chinese human rights law at Fordham Law School in New York, told FP that she was “extremely disappointed” by the ABA statement on the crackdown in China.

It’s unlikely that Teng’s book would have had a materially deleterious effect on ABA’s programs in China, according to the experts interviewed for this story. “I doubt the government would overreact to its publication to the extent of canceling ABA activities in China, which presumably are allowed to exist because the government sees some benefit in them,” said Nathan.

Teng agreed. “China’s government knows that there is a free press in the United States,” he said. Then again, it’s impossible to predict how Beijing will react, which is one of the reasons self-censorship is so pernicious. “Even if there is a little bit of influence on [the ABA’s] programs in China,” Teng said, “sacrificing press freedom for this kind of self-censorship isn’t worth it.”

Image Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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