The prominent Chinese human rights defender, Teng Biao, recently took to Twitter on September 7 to relay a message he delivered at a conference where he appealed for people to “speak out” on the “125 Tibetans [who] have set fire to themselves, an enormous event in the history of mankind.”

At a conference yesterday, I said, in the past few years, 125 Tibetans have self-immolated, an enormous event in the history of mankind. If those of us who live in this same era remain silent, history will remember our silence; but if we speak out, history will also remember our words. (Translation by ICT)

Teng Biao’s message was widely shared by Chinese on Twitter, including famed artist, Ai Weiwei. Teng Biao’s statement is noteworthy not only for its content, but given the well-documented pattern of retribution human rights defenders continue to face from Party authorities, it represents an unwillingness to be intimidated to speak out on “sensitive” topics like Tibet. Teng Biao has been detained by Chinese authorities on several occasions, most recently in July 2013.

Teng Biao has long been one of the leading Chinese intellectuals and writers to demonstrate great courage in speaking out in support of Tibetans, especially in the wake of the wide-scale Tibetan protests that took place in 2008. When the government’s violent response to the protests became apparent, Teng Biao joined 28 other signatories in issuing an open petition entitled, ‘Twelve Suggestions for Dealing with the Tibetan Situation.’ The petition strongly urged the Chinese authorities to “stop the violent suppression” in Tibet, and appealed to the Tibetan people likewise not to engage in violent activities. Teng Biao’s further efforts to help organize legal assistance for Tibetans contributed to authorities refusing renewal of his law license. Teng Biao is also a founding member of Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative), a Beijing-based lawyer’s organization and think tank, which in 2009 released a bold report that challenged the official position that the Dalai Lama “incited the protests, and outlines key failings in the Party’s policies on Tibet.

Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Teng Biao joined the now jailed activist Hu Jia, who was under house arrest at the time, in penning an open letter calling on members of the international community to hold China to uphold the promises it had made regarding the improvement of human rights in the run-up to the 2008 games. In their letter, the two referenced Tibet, noting the shooting of 17-year old Tibetan nun Kelsang Namtso on the Nangpa Pass by Chinese border guards in 2006, and the tightening of control over Tibetan Buddhism. “One year later, China tightened its control over the Tibetan Buddhism. A September 1, 2007 regulation requires all reincarnated lamas to be approved by Chinese authorities, a requirement that flagrantly interferes with the tradition of reincarnation of living Buddhas as practiced in Tibet for thousands of years. In addition, Chinese authorities still ban the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet and a world-renowned pacifist, from returning to Tibet.”

In a 2007 interview with German newspaper TAZ, Teng Biao spoke out in support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, telling the paper that “meeting with him is not only good for the Tibetans, but also for the Chinese.” He added, “A meeting with the Dalai Lama is a message to the Chinese government that the world is concerned about human rights in Tibet. The Dalai Lama works peacefully for the Tibetans and their autonomy. He is not struggling with violence and not for independence from China. Therefore, a meeting with him is not only good for the Tibetans, but also for the Chinese.”