Kian Tajbakhsh about Refugeedom and Identity
In an interview with the We Refugees Archive team, Iranian Political Exilee and Coordinator of the Committee on Forced Migration at Columbia University Kian…
First, I would like you to introduce yourself. Why did you decide to leave your home country? Do you remember the moment when you decided to flee? Was there such a trigger moment that you can recall?
My name is Teng Biao. I was a professor and human rights lawyer in China between 2003 and 2014. I taught law at the University in Beijing and practiced as a human rights lawyer. I co-founded a couple of human rights organizations in Beijing, and I took many human rights cases related to torture, the death penalty, forced abortion, freedom of expression and religious freedom. And because of my human rights work, I was banned from teaching and eventually fired by the university. I was disbarred and put house arrest from time to time and I was even kidnapped by the Chinese secret police and detained and tortured. In 2013, when many of my colleagues, human rights activists were arrested I was a visiting scholar in Hong Kong.
So, it was quite clear that if I went back from Hong Kong to Mainland China, I would be definitely arrested and given a long sentence. And then I got an invitation from Harvard Law School. So, I left Hong Kong and came to the United States as an exilee. I have not been able to go back to China since then.
What is your current status in in the United States and what were the bureaucratic channels that you had to go through to get to America?
I visited a few universities like Harvard, NYU, Institute for Advanced Study to continue my research and now I’m teaching at Hunter College and also at the University of Chicago. I’m working on my books. I already got my Green Card so I can continue my research and also my human rights activism in the United States.
Did you have kind of a support network already in the States before you arrived, or did you build this when you first arrived? The invitation from Harvard, for instance, how did this come about?
Yeah, I got a lot of support like financial support and other support from universities and human rights organizations and other institutions. I really appreciate all this support, like human rights awards and open society foundation and the universities. When I came to the United States I was supported by Scholar at Risk and a Scholar Rescue Fund. They provided a fellowship and then I could continue my research. And then I became a member of University in Exile founded by Professor Arien Mack. We are a group, growing one. We are building our community, scholars from Turkey, Iraq and Ukraine and many other countries. We can share our experience and our thoughts, so it’s a really important and helpful group and network.
Where did you first live? What did you think of New York? Is New York a city of refugees? Do you feel like you have to integrate into American culture, or do you think you can have your own identity beyond that culture?
New York City is the most diverse and most international city. I have not lived in New York City, but I go to New York at least once a week. It’s very attractive. I like New York, the museums, the concerts, the people, libraries, universities, and restaurants and I enjoy the diversified culture of New York. I don’t have a culture shock because before I came to the United States, I was already familiar with American culture, society, and politics. But living here gave me some opportunities to deepen my understanding of American culture and American politics. Especially the issues of racial justice, gender, and migrants. Many Chinese intellectuals have an oversimplified image of the United States, and even Pro-Democracy Chinese intellectuals have little knowledge about the reality of the racial justice here. I think I have integrated to the United States. I follow what is happening. I read the newspapers and listen to the radios and what’s related to my research. I really update my information and my knowledge about this country and so the longer I live here, the more I know. That imposes both the positive and the negative aspects of the United States and I think it also changes my work. Because when I came to the United States, I focused on human rights in China. The only dream of my life is to fight for democracy and human rights in China. I want to change the political system and I think that’s the most important task. That is very important because China is the biggest autocracy in the world. But I gradually realized I still have the moral and political duty, to defend freedom and democracy in the United States. America needs a stable democracy. It is seen as a beacon by many people in China and the world. But it has a lot of flaws. Even like last January, the United States has experienced a constitutional crisis, and the freedom and democracy, the constitutional democracy was in danger. I really think people living in here, whether or not you are an American citizen, whether you are refugee, no matter which country you are from, you live here, you should have a responsibility to defend the democracy of this country.
Were you welcomed openly in the United States and specifically in New York City or were there instances of discrimination or exclusion as a person that is a refugee, as a person with Asian background, especially also in the context of the pandemic?
I was welcomed and I have not experienced severe discrimination or hate crimes. But in the United States, not New York, I had a few anecdotal experiences that I was discriminated like the interpersonal, that slight nuanced discrimination, not very severe, but I can feel that discrimination. And there have been serious crimes targeting Asian people. Some Asian people were murdered because of their race, so that’s a big problem, the systemic discrimination and also social and cultural discrimination against colored people.
Would you say New York City is your home right now? How’s your feeling towards that city and do you want to stay there?
I live in New Jersey, which is a neighbor of New York. I love New York. I work in New York and many of my friends are based in New York. So, I see New York as my neighbor, good neighbor, and I will be American citizen in one year.
The United States is my country, and I will take my citizen responsibility as in China, when I was a Chinese citizen. I sacrificed my freedom and other benefit to promote human rights and democracy in China. And as a world citizen, I do have other responsibilities. I am concerned about the situation in African countries, the invasion of Ukraine and the human rights violations in Myanmar and North Korea. I have my expertise, but I do care about the freedom and dignity of human beings.
What made you move to New Jersey rather than to New York?
One year after I moved to the United States, I was a visiting scholar at NYU and I planned to buy a house close to New York. A friend of mine is located in in Princeton, so I liked the environments here, the school system, everything here is wonderful. It takes me one hour by train to go to New York. New York is the biggest metropolis, it’s great, but I also enjoy a small town like Princeton, both are great.
Teng Biao (Chinese: 滕彪) is a Chinese human rights activist and lawyer in China from 2003 to 2014 and now lives, works and teaches in American exile. Teng was a lecturer at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing and has been a vocal supporter of human rights activists such as Chen Guangcheng and Hu Jia. He has been arrested several times. He was a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School from (2015-16) and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and now teaches at Hunter College and also at the University of Chicago. He co-founded two human rights NGOs—the Open Constitution Initiative, and China Against the Death Penalty.
Interview conducted by the We Refugees Archive team with Teng Biao in the spring of 2022. The interview was edited for length and clarity.