From his suburban home in New Jersey, Teng Biao has watched in frustration as what he sees as the apologies to China from Western companies have come fast and furious this year.
First, there was the hotel chain Marriott International, which apologized to the Chinese government in January for having sent out a customer survey listing Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau and the self-governing island of Taiwan as separate territories, a violation of the Communist Party canon and raising the ire of some Chinese citizens.
Then there was Gap Inc., which posted a message to the Chinese apologizing for a T-shirt with a map of China that ignited similar criticism. And in May, Air Canada on its website began listing Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, as a part of Communist-ruled China, which the Taiwanese reject.
For Mr. Teng, one of China’s pre-eminent civil rights lawyers, it all amounted to craven behavior from Western companies trying to stay in the good graces of Chinese officials and citizens to maintain access to the enormous consumer market in China.
“For the past two or three years, I’ve been paying attention to self-censorship by Western scholars, institutions and companies,” Mr. Teng, 44, said one recent afternoon in a cafe in midtown Manhattan. “It’s urgent. China’s rising threat to international freedom and democracy has become a hot topic.”
Officials and political analysts in Western nations have indeed spoken up in the past year about what they call China’s “influence operations” or “sharp power,” how it coerces foreigners to bend to its point of view, or to self-censor in return for favors or access to the Chinese market.
Since 2013, Mr. Teng has spoken out about these concerns four times to groups in the United States Congress and he has given lectures on university campuses on the same topic. He said he plans to write a book on it.
“I felt it’s high time to change the West’s policy toward China,” he said.
Mr. Teng has embraced this new role partly out of necessity. Under increasing harassment by the Chinese authorities, he left China in 2012 to spend time in Hong Kong and the United States. He does not dare return because of an official crackdown in recent years on rights lawyers that has landed many of his friends in prison. He now lives with his wife, Lynn Wang, and two daughters, ages 10 and 12, in West Windsor, N.J.
Mr. Teng’s interest in putting the spotlight on what he calls “China’s long arm” comes from personal experience. In 2016, he clashed publicly with the American Bar Association over its decision to rescind an offer to publish a book by Mr. Teng on the history of the lawyer-led rights movement in China. Mr. Teng said the group did this because it did not want to jeopardize its operations in Beijing. The Bar Association denied his accusation, saying the offer was withdrawn for economic reasons.
“The cross-border repression of which Teng Biao himself has become a victim has become this whole new complex set of issues,” said Eva Pils, a scholar at King’s College London, who once directed a center at the Chinese University of Hong Kong that hosted Mr. Teng. “I’m wary of how repression crosses borders, and I’m wary of how China is changing norms.”
Mr. Teng and his family also ran into financial difficulties in the United States after his wife was dismissed from her job as an international representative for a Chinese technology parts company — a move that he said had been forced by Chinese officials. His wife had worked for the company for 17 years.
“The Chinese government put pressure on that company,” Mr. Teng said. “The company said that because of me, they couldn’t sell their products to Chinese agencies and the military.”
Mr. Teng grew up in a village in the northeastern province of Jilin. His father was a painter and held a low-level official post related to education and culture, while his mother worked as a farmer. He got a slot at prestigious Peking University and decided to study law, eventually earning a doctorate in law in 2002.
While teaching at the China University of Political Science and Law, he became involved in the case of Sun Zhigang, a migrant worker killed by the police while in detention in the south. This started Mr. Teng and other lawyers on the road to activism, leading to their harassment by officials.
Mr. Teng and his wife watched with growing anxiety as President Xi Jinping tightened control over civil society after taking power in 2012. Mr. Teng already had been detained repeatedly and beaten by police officers, with his family illegally kept in the dark as to his whereabouts for weeks at a stretch.
He went to the Chinese University of Hong Kong as a visiting scholar in 2012, then flew to the United States with his younger daughter two years later after getting an invitation from Harvard. By then, his wife and elder daughter had been barred from leaving the mainland, but they fled through Southeast Asia in 2015 with the help of smugglers, at one point riding on the backs of motorbikes through the hills of Thailand.
After Harvard, Mr. Teng was able to establish affiliations with New York University and Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study.
At Princeton in 2017, he collaborated with two other liberal Chinese to found a nonprofit group that aims to promote democracy in China by holding local gatherings, publishing books in Chinese and running online courses. Mr. Teng said the site for those courses is largely blocked in China.
Mr. Teng helped organize a march in Washington last July to call attention to China’s crackdown on rights lawyers, which officials began in earnest on July 9, 2015. About 50 people took part in the march, and Mr. Teng plans to hold another one next month.
This April, Mr. Teng wrote an essay for ChinaFile, a website run by the Asia Society in New York, arguing that “Xi Jinping’s new totalitarianism and Mao’s old style of totalitarianism don’t differ by all that much.”
“I think there must be some leaders, even top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, who have ideas of liberal democracy,” he said in the interview. “But they don’t promote democracy. The first thing is they’re too scared. The second thing is they don’t want to lose the benefits they get from the system.”
One afternoon in March 2017, at a student-organized gathering at Princeton, Mr. Teng debated China’s future with Sida Liu, a professor from the University of Toronto who was also a visiting scholar at Princeton that academic year. Mr. Teng took a harsh view of the party, saying it would never change, while Mr. Liu was more circumspect.
In an interview this week, Mr. Liu said exiles like Mr. Teng have had to take a new approach to activism because of the crackdowns under Mr. Xi and the constant detentions.
“When I was in Princeton, Teng Biao was busy helping victims and families of the crackdown get out of China — to flee rather than to put in resources into China or support the next waves of activists,” Mr. Liu said.
Mr. Teng has warned that some Chinese nationals in the United States try to monitor the dissenters in exile and report back to Chinese officials. He pointed to the 150 or so campus chapters of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, where some members maintain contact with Chinese diplomats and try to quash talks at universities that clash with the official Chinese view.
Ms. Pils said while it was important to look at these influence operations, Westerners need to be careful about assumptions they make about Chinese living abroad.
“I think it is absolutely undeniable there is a problem, and we must study it,” she said. “But there’s a risk of returning to Cold War ideas. It’s important to be clear about the dangers of that. One risk obviously is that we end up replicating what the Chinese government says about people from the West — that they’re subversive and that they’re here to undermine the system.”
Nina Sheridan contributed reporting.