STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have the story of a family that fled from China to the United States. They are among the people we're meeting with a foot in each country who help us feel what it means as the U.S. and China pull apart. Today it's a human rights lawyer and his family. He says his work forced him to move beyond China's borders though not entirely beyond China's reach.
Princeton is to the northeast, and we're going east.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're going northeast right now.
We found them in a suburban neighborhood in New Jersey.
Lovely house - landscaped, rocks in the yard.
There's a basketball goal in the driveway.
And the door's open for us. Let's ring the bell anyway.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL RINGING)
INSKEEP: The residents ushered us into the dining room table.
TENG BIAO: My name is Teng Biao. I'm a human rights lawyer and scholar.
LYNN WANG: My name is Lynn Wang. And I'm Dr. Teng Biao's wife, so we know each other since 30 years ago.
TENG: We fell in love before we graduated from the high school.
INSKEEP: They married in 1999. And not long after, their lives began to change.
LYNN: He was starting in the Peking University for Ph.D. And he has really two good life friends and also classmates.
INSKEEP: The friends talked about Chinese law and took an interest when they learned of a man who died in police custody. They said he had been detained under a regulation that was unconstitutional.
TENG: We had a plan to push forward the constitutional review system in China.
INSKEEP: The scholars publicly pressed for China to test its own laws against the constitution, which includes clauses for freedom and human rights. They were advocating the rule of law and courting trouble.
TENG: The government - the Communist Party is above the law.
INSKEEP: China's government has rarely been restrained even by its own rules. And its trading partners, including the U.S., have rarely gotten far in advocating universal values.
At what point did it begin to seem the authorities were not too happy with what you were doing?
TENG: So in the beginning, the trouble was slight. I was warned by the university leaders, and I was invited to tea by the local police.
INSKEEP: Invited to tea by officials who also warned his wife.
LYNN: So they tried to come to our family, talk to me and my parents and, like, asked to, you know, stop him.
INSKEEP: Did you stop him?
LYNN: I never did that because I think what he was doing really is very important and valuable. It's right.
INSKEEP: Teng was stopped from teaching or practicing law. And then, he says, he was repeatedly abducted.
TENG: I was put under extreme form of solitary confinement. I was physically tortured. They slapped me on my face for 50, 60 times, and I was not allowed to read, to write, to make phone calls - you know, no human information at all.
INSKEEP: It's not possible to verify the details of Teng's story, but Lynn Wang affirms he went missing for up to 70 days at a time. Even when released, he was still trapped because the government seized his passport.
TENG: I was not able to travel internationally for five years.
INSKEEP: Five years.
INSKEEP: How did you change that after five years?
TENG: I suddenly had an idea. I went to the local police bureau. I told them I lost my passport, and they gave me a new one. Yeah, so I don't know why (laughter).
INSKEEP: Most likely, he says, his five-year travel ban had simply expired. He soon moved to Hong Kong, which is more open though still within China. But when Lynn Wang tried to join him, agents at the Hong Kong border stopped her. The couple was separated, each with one of their daughters on opposite sides of the line.
LYNN: We never think about how bad of the system will damage to our family, even they did the same to the children.
INSKEEP: If you need a moment, it's OK. I'm sorry to bring up upsetting things.
LYNN: I'm sorry.
INSKEEP: Lynn Wang describes looking across the water at Hong Kong skyscrapers, knowing her husband and 6-year-old were out of reach. Teng Biao accepted a position at Harvard and moved there with one daughter. Not until eight months later did Lynn Wang and the other daughter slip across China's border, riding on the back of a motorcycle on dirt roads into Myanmar. She told her 8-year-old it was vacation.
LYNN: I also, again, make a story, very beautiful story. I told my older daughter so I took you for vacation. It's kind of an adventure vacation.
INSKEEP: You were just waving your arms. The motorbike is bouncing up and down.
LYNN: Yeah, bouncing up and down.
INSKEEP: Today the family is together in Princeton, though their story was not quite finished.
TENG: I can't stay out of the influence of the Chinese Communist Party.
INSKEEP: Teng Biao says he agreed to write a book on his experience to be published by the American Bar Association.
TENG: But after I signed the agreement, they told me they can't publish my book because to publish my book will anger Chinese government, so they dare not to publish my book.
INSKEEP: His editor published an essay, accusing the ABA of dropping the book in part to avoid disrupting an ABA program within China. The Bar Association insists it just didn't think the book would sell. Teng's wife, Lynn Wang, says she was punished, fired from her job at a Chinese-owned company in the U.S. She now works for another company, and the family plans to remain in the United States.
What is your immigration status?
LYNN: We just received a green card in March.
LYNN: Yeah. Thank you.
TENG: Thank you.
LYNN: But for me, we live here, right? So we won't be bothered anymore, and we enjoyed everything here. I like people here. But still, the missing part is family. I have my family. He has his family. Like, big family - parents, right? - sisters, brothers and relatives are in China.
INSKEEP: It took the family years of extraordinary effort to make it out of China to the United States. Now they face the opposite problem. They can't go back.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHANGHAI RESTORATION PROJECT'S "LAST NIGHT OF THE DYNASTY (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.