Zachary Shevin explores the ripple effects of repression, and how backlash from one Chinese dissident’s human rights work has impacted his family.
China is a dangerous place to be an activist. Human rights defenders are often harassed, intimidated, or arbitrarily detained for their work. For Teng Biao, those risks were always worth it, but it wasn’t something his family ever really signed up for. His wife Lynn Wang saw her life in China upended, and even in the U.S., she’s still felt the ripple effects of repression. This is her story.
Credits/ Show Notes:
Protest sounds via Teng Biao (Twitter and YouTube), Planet Princeton (YouTube), and GTV. Other sound effects via SoundJay.com (YouTube). Meta Labratory (YouTube), and SFX Cloud / YouTube. Photo courtesy of Lynn Wang.
Host: China is a dangerous place to be an activist. Human rights defenders are often harassed, intimidated, or arbitrarily detained for their work. For Teng Biao those risks were always worth it, but it wasn’t something his family ever really signed up for. His wife Lynn Wang saw her life in China upended, and even in the U.S., she’s still felt the ripple effects of repression. Zachary Shevin tells us more.
On an average morning in West Windsor, New Jersey, you may hear some joggers strolling around or cars pulling in and out of driveways, but not much else. So, when Lynn Wang noticed a crowd of 16 standing outside of her home last December, her immediate reaction was excitement.
Lynn: We’ve lived here for already five years. We’ve never have, I mean, so many people show up in front of our house. It’s, it’s really, you know, different.
But that excitement quickly turned to anger.
Protest audio: The virus is a biological weapon, made by the Chinese Communist Party.
Carrying signs brandished with conspiracy theories, a group of protestors was there to falsely accuse Lynn’s husband, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist, of being a spy for the Chinese government. Harassment was nothing new for the family. But for the first time in years, it was reaching their front porch.
Protest audio: They are the spy; they are the agent. They are the CCP agent.
Lynn and Teng Biao’s path toward that moment began about three decades earlier. The couple met in high school, before Biao was an activist. But it was when Biao went off to college that he began discussing contentious political issues and reading banned books about human rights and liberal democracy.
Biao: I was gradually awakened
After graduation, he was a lawyer, scholar, and NGO leader all at once. And soon enough, government authorities were showing up outside the family’s Beijing apartment: Warning Biao to stop and telling Lynn and her parents to talk him out of his activism.
Lynn: They told me, you know, he was a teacher in such good university, he has such good family. It’s unnecessary for him to touch so many sensitive cases.
As Biao continued his work, the retribution he faced gradually escalated: Warnings turned to threats; harassment turned to physical violence.
Biao: I was even kidnapped by Chinese secret police and detained and tortured.
Lynn was never an activist in the typical sense. She worked for a large electronics manufacturer, managing the company’s international operations. But when Biao disappeared, she would become active in her own way, lobbying local authorities and using the media to draw attention to her husband’s case.
Lynn: I feel I was part of the story, part of the fight. If you’re part of it, you’ll be very brave you know. At that moment, I’m activist: to talk, and to act, and to communicate, and to look for all the possible solutions.
But while Lynn spoke out, she intentionally kept her young daughters in the dark — telling them their dad was traveling, or busy with meetings. She admired her husband’s work, and she didn’t want her kids to believe their father was doing something wrong.
Lynn: What he was doing cannot bring such consequence. It’s not related. It’s ridiculous… I don’t want to plant something like this in their minds, to influence.
Her oldest daughter Grace doesn’t remember much about that time, just that her dad’s work was somewhat of a touchy subject. When it came up at big family gatherings, something was always a bit off.
Grace: Maybe they like they tried to show like some like sympathy towards him, but also, they didn’t want to get themselves inside of the mess… I just know that like in general, there was something weird about my family.
The more involved Biao became in his work, the less he wanted to leave. But eventually, staying in China became impossible. In 2013, the CCP cracked down on the New Citizen’s movement, a group Biao helped initiate. Working in Hong Kong at the time, he watched from afar as colleagues were arrested.
Biao: So, it was quite clear. If I went back to China, I would defiantly be arrested and given a long imprisonment.
So, Biao accepted a job offer to work at Harvard and the family booked their flights to Boston. But shortly before they were set to leave, Lynn was stopped at the border on her commute home from the mainland.
Lynn: I ask why I cannot go through the gate, and they took me to office, and they — after a while — told me I cannot leave … Because I need stay here for coordination of some investigation.
It was immediately clear that the investigation had to do with her husband’s work. What Lynn didn’t realize was that her daughters were in the same situation. Grace was stopped soon after.
Grace: I just remember like something wrong was happening.
Lynn tried everything she could — talking to government officials, booking flights out of multiple airports, but she had no luck. For eight months, the family was split in half.
Lynn: At that moment, my husband and I we talked about it and we decided anyway: I need leave. I need leave. So, they let us go, or we go like in secret way.
Lynn arranged her work so things could run without her, so she would be able to leave at a moment’s notice.
Lynn: That’s a place I work for 17 years. I build the team from zero. It’s not easy to leave them right, but I have to because the family is really important to me, especially my daughter. She was only six years old. She was so small, so young. She needed me, and our family needed to be together.
But reuniting the family also meant leaving behind parents, siblings, and other relatives. The timing made that especially difficult. The opportunity to be smuggled out of the country came just before Chinese New Year, an important time for the family to be together.
To keep her mom from worrying, Lynn made up an elaborate excuse for why she couldn’t celebrate that year — saying she earned a big end-of-year bonus at work, and the company was willing pay for her and Grace to go on vacation. She told her daughter the same lie and took her to meet a group of strangers near the border between China and Myanmar.
Lynn didn’t document the journey, but she can remember some of the sounds.
The first step was a motorcycle ride. For Grace, it was just another vacation activity.
Lynn: She was outgoing, she was active, and she was so excited to sit on motorcycle and like boom, boom, boom. It’s not like sitting in the car. It’s a lot of bumping, right? She was like in the adventure park; she was so excited. I pretend to be excited.
From there, their guide took them over a river into Thailand on a makeshift raft.
Grace: We got to like this big thing and we sat in it, and they like used their hands to pass the river. And I guess that was just another activity, fun activity.
Even 7,000 miles away from China, the family hasn’t entirely escaped the backlash from Biao’s work. Lynn initially continued working at her previous employer’s American subsidiary, but after a year, she says her boss became worried that her marriage could cause problems for some of the company’s government-affiliated projects.
Lynn: I did nothing, you know? I’m just the wife of Teng Biao. It’s unrelated to me, you know. I cannot accept those excuses, those reasons, to let me go
Especially after losing her job, finding community in New Jersey has been difficult. In adapting to a quieter life, she’s been learning to take more time for herself — walking around, riding her bike, doing some freelance consulting work, and taking online courses about self-growth.
Lynn: Since I cannot go back to China, I just forgot about that part. I just focus on my life here. I have my routine. It’s different, but it’s good.
But that routine was interrupted again last December.
Supporters of Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese billionaire who Biao has publicly criticized, stood outside the house nearly every day that month, shouting obscenities at the family.
Biao: I knew these people already harassed other critics of Guo Wengui, and event physically attacked and injured a person in Vancouver, Canada.
Lynn: I really felt very bad at that moment. Because what they are doing is really disturbing of the peace and silence of our neighborhood.
Grace, the first one in the family to notice the crowd, was worried that the neighborhood might believe the conspiracy theories the protestors were spouting.
Grace: I was scared the neighborhood would turn on us.
That’s the opposite of what happened. While the harassment itself was no surprise, the community response was.
Biao: I didn’t know there were so many people who are keen to support me
After a local paper reported on the incident, concerned residents were connecting over social media and organizing counterprotests.
Lauren: I saw these photos and this video of people protesting … you know, I just couldn’t imagine how threatening that would feel if you were the people in that house.
That’s Lauren Davis, a writer who lives in Princeton.
Lauren: So, I found a couple of friends … and said ‘You know, I think I’m gonna head down there’
The protesting and counterprotesting dragged on for weeks. The protestors showed up like clockwork nearly every morning and streamed the events to GTV, a controversial media platform formed by Guo and right-wing political operative Steve Bannon. Many of the counter-protesters, including Lisa Garwood from South Brunswick, initially tried to reason with the protestors.
Protest audio: “Hello livestream”
Lisa: It was interesting and frustrating because the more I tried to speak with them to get some solid factual information, the more they spoke in circles.
Lauren: You know, to be waiving these signs saying he brought the coronavirus to the States, it just seemed insane… It’s part of the QAnon global conspiracy stuff.
After several days of tense exchanges, the family felt it would be best simply to ignore the harassment. So, from then on, the group of supporters would organize shifts to just sit on the front lawn and be a buffer between the harassers and the home.
Lisa: Lynn would set up tables every day. She would bring us snacks as if — it was ridiculous — she didn’t owe us anything, like we were happy to be there and do it.
Lynn: Yeah, I think it’s good to know some new friends.
Lisa: And I had a lawn chair there, and she would put out all these chairs, and we would sit and talk.
The regular harassment stopped in early January, but that group of supporters still stays in touch. They have an occasionally active group chat — with Biao and Lynn, Lauren and Lisa, and nine other consistent counter-protesters.
Lisa: Yeah, every now and then somebody pops on and we all get on. Every now and then someone butt dials us, and we all get on.
Lynn: We are thinking when the times is good, and the weather is good, then we want to invite all of them to come to our back yard for a party.
If the protestors wanted the family to feel ostracized by their neighborhood, that plan backfired dramatically. In the end, the experience brought the family closer to a network of people willing to support them and wove the Tengs further into the fabric of their new community.
And with the summer nearing, and COVID vaccination efforts ramping up, that reunion Lynn mentioned may be able to happen pretty soon.