Category: Guest Blogger

Glenn Tiffert On China’s Recent Jurisdictional Issues

By , September 9, 2012

Jurisdiction is central in any legal system; it is jurisdiction that gives a court its power to administer justice.  Without proper jurisdiction, a court’s opinion is defective.  Thus, given its importance, all legal systems design specific rules governing when a court has jurisdiction over a case.

But recently in China, how courts have gained jurisdiction in criminal trials has been called into question.  The trial of Gu Kailai, for a murder that took place in Chongqing, was heard in Hefei.  Wang Lijun was police chief of Chongqing, but his crimes are being heard in a Chengdu court.  Has the Chinese legal system ignored all rules concerning what gives a court jurisdiction?  Or are there other rules that apply?

Glenn D. Tiffert, a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of California, Berkeley with a focus on the legal history of the PRC, explains below that what might look like a random selection of courts actually has a basis in law.  Tiffert also reminds us that there is more than just the Criminal Procedure Law to look at in understanding the Chinese criminal legal system. 

Mixed-Up Confusion?  The Different Ways Chinese Courts Obtain Jurisdiction

By Glenn D. Tiffert

Part 1 of a two part series exploring the jurisdictional issues in recent criminal cases

As the Chinese legal system works its way through the various cases connected to the “Bo Xilai Affair,” it is a good time to review the usually unglamorous procedural rules governing jurisdiction.  The Bo Xilai Affair has brought these jurisdictional rules to the forefront and is generating more than the usual amount of interest among China watchers; even those focused on Chinese law are finding twists worth exploring.

To keep things simple, I will explore jurisdictional issues in the Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun cases alone, although my points could apply more generally to the other defendants connected to Gu, namely her accomplice Zhang Xiaojun, and the four police officers charged with covering up her crime.  This post will look at territorial jurisdiction, in other words, where the trials were held.  A later post will examine why both cases were assigned to intermediate level People’s Courts.

Gu Kailai being led into Hefei Intermediate People's Court

To recap: Gu Kailai was convicted of the intentional homicide of Neil Heywood, a British citizen resident in China, and the crime was alleged to have taken place in Chongqing, Sichuan province, the city her powerful husband, Bo Xilai, presided over as Party Secretary.  However, Gu’s trial took place 800 miles away from the city of Chongqing, in the city of Hefei, Anhui province, a place that had no known connection to the homicide, or to the alleged crimes of the other defendants associated with her.  Observers have suggested various practical or political reasons for why the trial was not held in Chongqing, and why it may have been assigned to Hefei, but those need not concern us here.  We are interested in discovering the legal authority for the assignment of the case to Hefei.

Article 24 of the Criminal Procedure Law of the PRC establishes the general rule that: “A criminal case shall be under the jurisdiction of the People’s Court in the place where the crime was committed.  If it is more appropriate for the case to be tried by the People’s Court in the place where the defendant resides, then that court may have jurisdiction over the case.”   Additionally, the Criminal Procedure Law provides rules for cases in which more than one court could claim jurisdiction, or in which jurisdiction is unclear.  For example, Article 25 states: “When several People’s Courts at the same level have jurisdiction over a case, it shall be tried by the People’s Court that first accepted it. When necessary the case may be transferred for trial to the People’s Court in the principal place where the crime was committed.”  However, in the case of Gu Kailai, none of these basic rules provide a basis for trying her in Hefei.  As a result, we must look elsewhere.

The Chinese legal system provides several routes for transferring jurisdiction over a case from one court to another.  For example, pursuant to the Criminal Procedure Law and the Law on the Organization of the People’s Courts, a lower level court with jurisdiction over a major or complex case can request a higher level court to take over the case.  But because Gu Kailai was charged with a capital crime, we can rule this path out.  Article 20 of the Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that intermediate level courts have jurisdiction of first instance over crimes punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty and, because this case was actually tried by an intermediate level court, a lower court could not have had jurisdiction over it first.

One jurisdictional route rises above the rest.  Article 26 of the Criminal Procedure Law provides that: “A People’s Court at a higher level may assign a People’s Court at a lower level to try a case over which jurisdiction is unclear and may also instruct a People’s Court at a lower level to transfer the case to another People’s Court for trial.”

Article 26 can be parsed in different ways, with different results attaching.  To resolve the ambiguity, we must do what we do in any legal system, move beyond the four corners of the statute to consult supporting texts and practice, both of which indicate that the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) essentially regards Article 26 as comprising two independent clauses, the second of which matters here.  Hence we get: “A People’s Court at a higher level may… instruct a People’s Court at a lower level to transfer the case to another People’s Court for trial.”

The authoritative SPC Interpretation on Certain Questions Pertaining to the Implementation of the Criminal Procedure Law of the PRC (“the SPC Interpretation”) stipulates two ways that can happen.  First, under Article 18 of the SPC Interpretation, when the President of a lower level court must recuse himself[1] and it would be “unsuitable” for that court to assert its jurisdiction over a case, that court may ask a higher level court to take over jurisdiction.  The higher level court may take jurisdiction or assign it to another court at the same (lower) level as the first court.  Article 19 of the SPC Interpretation requires the higher court to send its decision on jurisdiction – 管辖决定书 (guanxia juedingshu) – to the lower court newly awarded jurisdiction and to other relevant courts.  Second, Article 22 of the SPC Interpretation allows a higher level court on its own initiative to assign jurisdiction over a case from one lower level court to another lower level court “when necessary,” without first requiring a request from below or that the second court be of the same level as the first.

Admittedly, we know few hard facts about the procedural history of the Gu Kailai case, but one nugget stands out.  The Xinhua reporting on the trial indicates that the SPC issued a decision on jurisdiction to the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court, and the Hefei court accepted the case for trial on that basis.  We do not know precisely whether this decision was based on Article 18 or 22 of the SPC Interpretation, as either might reasonably have applied, but the SPC evidently used its inherent power under Article 26 of the Criminal Procedure Law, as expounded in the SPC Interpretation, to transfer Gu’s case to Hefei.  One may furthermore assume that the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued complementary instructions so that procurators would actually argue the case there, too.

The Supreme People's Court

Assuming that the SPC complied with its own Interpretation of the Criminal Procedure Law, we may infer from its decision on jurisdiction that another court originally accepted the case.  We do not know which court that may have been, but an obvious candidate would have been the Chongqing Intermediate People’s Court.  Under this scenario, three possibilities present: first, the unnamed court claimed jurisdiction over the case without the approval of senior Party and judicial authorities in Beijing, which seems implausible; second, Beijing granted its approval and then changed its mind; and third, acceptance by the unnamed court served, in the interests of formal compliance with procedural requirements, purely as a trigger for transfer to Hefei.  Regardless, as the highest court in the land, once the SPC transferred jurisdiction, the decision was effectively immune from challenge or appeal.

In comparison, the Wang Lijun case is more straightforward.  At least one of Wang’s alleged crimes took place in Chengdu: his purported “defection” in the United States consulate.  Notwithstanding substantive problems matching the facts as we know them to the elements of this crime, Chengdu judicial authorities may properly claim jurisdiction over the case under Article 25 of the Criminal Procedure Law (discussed above), and barring an unlikely protest from their counterparts in Chongqing or any other locale in which Wang is alleged to have committed crimes, the trial will take place in the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court.  Indeed, given the stakes in trying Wang, one may assume that the SPC, and the political leadership behind it, assents to Chengdu jurisdiction, either tacitly or by assignment.  When the verdict is announced, we may know which.

Historically, reassignments of lower court jurisdiction by higher level courts are not uncommon in the Chinese judicial system, where concerns about local protectionism, judicial independence and varying levels of judicial competence adversely affecting trial outcomes run high.  The 2008 criminal trial of former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in Tianjin is another prominent, recent example.  Cases like those of Chen Liangyu and Gu Kailai shine a spotlight on one of the Chinese judicial system’s underappreciated features.


[1] Article 28 of the Criminal Procedure Law defines the grounds for recusal, including “relations with a party to the case that could affect the impartial handling of the case.”

Steven Hill on a New Beijing Consensus in UN Peace Operations

By , September 27, 2011

Last week, Seton Hall University School of Law featured an interesting and timely panel discussion on the role of China in UN peace operations.  As China rises, what role does it envision in such operations?  With its new global capacity has China moved away from a policy of non-intervention?  China’s reaction to the humanitarian intervention in Libya is indeed instructive.  Below, Zachary Kelman and Desiree Sedehi, two third-year law students at Seton Hall, report on last week’s fascinating discussion.

Steven Hill on a New Beijing Consensus in UN Peace Operations

By Zachary Kelman and Desiree Sedehi*

Steven Hill on China's role in UN peace operations

Steven Hill, Visiting Professor from 2010-2011 at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in Nanjing, China, visited Seton Hall Law School on September 22, 2011, and spoke in a personal capacity about the research he conducted there on the subject of Chinese participation in UN peace operations. At an event hosted by Professor Margaret K. Lewis, a Public Intellectuals Program Fellow with the National Committee on US-China Relations, and Professor Kristen E. Boon, Director of Seton Hall Law’s International Programs, he posed the following questions: How has China’s approach to international relations changed since assuming its role on the UN Security Council in the 1970s? And is China’s approach to the humanitarian intervention in Libya the harbinger of a new “Beijing Consensus”?

In his presentation, Mr. Hill discussed the evolution of China’s approach to foreign relations, from the “Molotov cocktail-throwing revolutionaries” of the early 70s to the top contributor to peacekeeping missions among the five permanent members of the Security Council. According to Mr. Hill, this movement signals a shift from “non-intervention” to “tolerance, maybe even some enthusiasm and engagement.”

Mr. Hill recounted for his audience how, from when the People’s Republic of China regained China’s seat in the UN in 1971 until the 1990s, China had been largely detached from UN peacemaking activities.

Mr. Hill noted that China’s “traditional approach” to UN peacekeeping privileges stressed the importance of non-intervention. While China’s position has evolved considerably as it applies to UN peace operations, shades of it can be seen, for example, in Ambassador Li Baodong’s 2011 statement that the international community should “respect the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity” of Libya.

Hill further noted, importantly, that in spite of this rhetorical deference to sovereignty, China abstained from voting on UNSCR 1973—an abstention which was instrumental in authorizing the largely European-led intervention in Libya. China’s rhetoric led many commentators to believe that it would vote against the resolution. However, China’s ultimate abstention has been seen by many to symbolize its larger shift from a non-aligned power to a global power that has a substantial stake in the international community.

According to Mr. Hill, that China felt it necessary to evacuate 36,000 workers from Libya due to this humanitarian crisis featured prominently in its decision on how to vote on the Libya resolutions. Moreover, China’s growing stake in the international community means increased interest in avoiding catastrophic scenarios, and hence likely a more active China on the global scene.

That being said, Mr. Hill cautioned against unbridled optimism with respect to China’s “new role.”  He noted that China made every effort to defer to traditional notions of national—and then regional—self-determination. This position was evidenced by China’s acknowledgment of Arab League and African Union positions.  In addition, China reserved abstention as a “special circumstance” and was careful not to set precedent. This cautiousness, said Mr. Hill, exemplifies China’s broader attitude toward UN peacekeeping—the possible emerging “Beijing Consensus”—to promote a limited “blue helmet” approach within the general understanding of military procedure, but to avoid “nation building” and other more interventionist forms of intervention. Whether this approach will change to a more progressive humanitarian attitude, as held by some of China’s Western counterparts on the Security Council, remains to be seen.

After Mr. Hill’s presentation, both Professors Lewis and Boon offered commentary to the audience. Professor Lewis,

Steven Hill & Margaret Lewis discuss the Beijing Consensus at Seton Hall Law School

who recently appeared before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in a roundtable discussion on the “Current Conditions for Human Rights Defenders and Lawyers in China, and Implications for U.S. Policy,” raised China’s need for global stability for the safety of its investments as an impetus for its increased role in UN peace operations. Professor Lewis further emphasized that China’s increased participation in UN peacekeeping efforts may be improving its reputation in the eyes of the international community. Such positive reputational benefits could encourage China’s future involvement.

Professor Boon, who has written extensively on the UN and the Security Council, suggested it might be wise for the US to rethink its skepticism towards international institutions, given the growing influence of China.  The United Kingdom took the approach in the 20th century of placing greater emphasis on international institutions. As its national power waned relative to the rising US, it has maintained a far more powerful seat in global affairs than it would have if it had not actively engaged in international institutions. The US has an opportunity to solidify its interests in the current international legal and political order, which could serve it well in the future. Professor Boon also highlighted the importance of the new Draft Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations, and suggested that these could affect the willingness of permanent Security Council members to engage in new endeavors as much as a new “Beijing Consensus.”

Following their commentary, both Professors Lewis and Boon invited the audience to ask questions and provide comments. Professor Michael Ambrosio of Seton Hall Law School asked Mr. Hill to comment on the success and efficiency of China’s participation in UN peacekeeping, and to rate China’s involvement. Mr. Hill responded that he would rate China’s increased participation quite high, and noted that China has provided crucial assistance in terms of medical and engineering troops, police units, and military observers to UN missions around the world. Mr. Hill emphasized the dire need for police units and explained that China’s assistance in this capacity was especially successful because it was so necessary.

* The authors are both third-year Juris Doctor students at Seton Hall University School of Law. Mr. Kelman is also a Deborah T. Poritz Fellow and Ms. Sedehi is the former president of Seton Hall’s International Law Society.

What’s the Big Deal About a Pile of Rocks? The Diaoyu Island Incident

By , October 7, 2010

This past September, the world watched as the centuries-old feud between China and Japan reached epic proportions over a little-known chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.  Known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, the Senkaku Islands in Japanese, both China and Japan claim them as their own and each seeks control of the oil-rich seabed that potentially lies beneath. 

 As Marcy Nicks Moody writes in Foreign Policy Digest (reprinted below), at stake with these islands is more than just a pile of rocks. 

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Wallet: China Flexes Economic Muscle in Regional Disputes
By Marcy Nicks Moody
Originally Printed in Foreign Policy Digest

DEVELOPMENTS
Last month, a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese coastguard patrol ships off the coast of a small chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.  Japanese authorities took the boat’s crew into custody, and prosecutors debated whether to press charges against the boat’s captain for obstruction of justice.  Demanding the captain’s release, Beijing made strenuous arguments invoking Chinese sovereignty and human rights.  Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refused to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan during a recent United Nations Summit meeting in New York and insisted that the conflict be resolved through diplomatic channels, while simultaneously suspending all mid- and high-level political contact between the two countries.  When the fishing boat captain was released, Beijing responded by insisting that Japan issue a formal apology and provide financial compensation.   Japan, in turn, argued that China should compensate Japan for the damage done to its naval ships.  Whether the collision was intentional is unclear, and it is unlikely that further light will be shed on the subject.

BACKGROUND

If the scale and particularly bitter nature of the diplomatic denouement following this small maritime accident strikes readers as odd, it should.   These events put into sharp relief the changing security landscape that both Asia and the United States face today in the Asian maritime.  They may also provide some insight into how China intends to conduct its increasingly forward facing maritime and energy security policy.

The islands near which the collision occurred are a matter of ongoing dispute between China and Japan that dates back for at least 40 years. Although the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands, in Chinese) are effectively a pile of uninhabitable rocks, it became known in the 1970s as an area potentially rich in oil and gas deposits in the surrounding waters, control of which could improve either country’s energy security dramatically. At present, the islands are controlled by Japan, but claimed by China. Although both have legitimate grounds for their claims, there is no foreseeable end to the dispute in sight. As Japanese authorities held the Chinese fishing boat captain on the basis that they might charge him with a violation of Japanese law, they were implying that these waters are, indeed, Japanese. For this reason, it is not entirely surprising that China would respond with such vociferous complaints as it did. What was surprising were the unannounced measures that China also took.

In addition to arresting four Japanese citizens in China for spying, which may have been coincidental, China appears to have suspended the export of rare earth minerals to Japan. Rare earths are elements in the Earth’s crust. Although they exist in miniscule concentrations, they are crucial to a range of modern technologies, including car batteries, wind turbines, and many other electronics. China mines approximately 97 percent of the world’s rare earths and, given the relative importance of electronics manufacturing to the Japanese economy, this move has the potential to be extremely damaging to Japan. No one from the Chinese government announced the suspension, and officials from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) have denied any sort of embargo. Chinese officials have, however, made public that they are contemplating fining Toyota Motor Company’s Chinese operations for various violations, including illegal rebates to Chinese car dealerships. While it is possible that the dispute with the trawler captain, the suspension of rare earths exports, the arrests, and the Toyota fines are all coincidental, it seems more likely that China is manipulating its economic and commercial relationship to gain leverage in its dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

China has similar ongoing disputes over other chains of islands in the South China Sea with its Southeast Asian neighbors—in particular, Vietnam. Like the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the waters surrounding the Spratly and Paracel Islands are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas, in addition to their valuable proximity to busy shipping lanes. The U.S. government inserted itself into the dispute in July, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would be willing to facilitate multilateral talks on the issue. She insisted upon U.S. neutrality, but argued that the United States has a strong interest in preserving free shipping in the region. Not surprisingly, a number of Southeast Asian countries welcomed the announcement, while China, caught off-guard by the announcement, maintained that the talks should be undertaken in a bilateral format.

ANALYSIS

China has not been the positive, productive, and cooperative international partner that the Obama administration seems to have been expecting two years ago. On the security side, cooperation on the North Korean question has disintegrated; Beijing has refused to move forward on sanctions against Iran; and U.S.-China military-to-military relations are increasingly strained. On the economic side, meanwhile, China has not allowed its currency to appreciate materially; it has recently placed steep tariffs on some U.S. exports, and the business environment is widely acknowledged to have become increasingly hostile to non-Chinese enterprises. If nothing else, Secretary Clinton’s July announcement is a mechanism for registering U.S. frustration with the current trajectory. Like China, Washington is also willing to play the zero-sum game.

The disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu, Spratly, and Paracel Islands are all based, at least in part, in China’s quest for greater energy security. At the same time, Beijing has taken an increasingly aggressive stance in a range of its foreign policy dealings, both with the United States and with its Asian partners. Given the trend of global economic interdependence that relies more and more heavily on China’s mammoth economy, Beijing’s recent behavior could forecast some serious struggles in the future, as China manipulates its growing commercial influence to leverage its position in the Asian security landscape.

Marcy Nicks Moody writes about China. In 2007-08, she was a Fulbright Scholar in China, where she was also a Research Fellow with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. She received an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and graduated from Brown University.

Recent Violence in China – A Reflection of Income Inequalities

childrenRegular China Law & Policy blogger, Marcy Nicks Moody, just posted an interesting piece over at Foreign Policy Digest.  In the past three months, China has seen a spate of killings of children, mostly kindergarteners while attending school.  Why this sudden rise in gruesome murders in a society that places so much emphasis on “social stability” and seeks to establish a “harmonious society”?  In ‘Some Got Rich First–and Richer Later: The Uneven Nature of China’s Economic Development,’ Marcy looks at these horrific incidents, contemplates possible causes and finds the growing income inequality in China as a possible reason.

Some Got Rich First—and Richer Later: The Uneven Nature of China’s Economic Development

By Marcy Nicks Moody

Over the last two months, a spate of violent attacks against schoolchildren in China’s eastern provinces have heightened authorities’ concerns about the instability of China’s poor and mentally ill, many of whom feel left behind as the rest of China gets wealthier.   On March 23, a retired doctor, reportedly driven by a desire to take revenge on the rich, stormed a local elementary school in the southeastern province of Fujian and stabbed eight children to death, injuring five others.  The shocking incident inspired four copycat killing sprees by unemployed or under-employed adult males, most of whom reportedly suffered from mental illness.  The killings highlight the need for a better social safety net and social welfare services for the mentally ill, and put into sharp focus the uneven nature of China’s economic development and its concomitant social pressures.  Soaring income inequality, widespread perceptions of helplessness and the corrupt, self-seeking behavior of some Chinese government officials have become part of the public debate as the world seeks to understand these tragedies and China seeks to prevent future ones.

….CLICK HERE TO READ MORE….

Happy 40th? – Congress Says Bye, Bye Climate Change Legislation

By , April 27, 2010

HappyEarthDayWith the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day this past April, Americans celebrated with vigor and advocated saving the planet.  Well, most Americans did.  As China-observer Marcy Nicks Moody notes, recent breakdown between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate could forestall any hope of the U.S. moving forward on climate change legislation.  And could allow China to remain ahead of the green technology game for a long time.

Happy 40th? – Congress Says Bye, Bye Climate Change Legislation

By Marcy Nicks Moody

Last Thursday, Americans celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day, established by U.S. Senator Gaylord

Earth Day Founder, Sen. Gaylord Nelson

Earth Day Founder, Sen. Gaylord Nelson

Nelson in 1970 to raise awareness of environment-related issues. Last Sunday, thousands gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC to participate in the Earth Day Climate Rally with the alleged goals to “stop protecting polluters,” “enact comprehensive climate legislation,” and “demand accountability from Washington.” There were exhortations to grow kitchen gardens along with clamorous chanting of the word ‘green.’ The weather was glorious, and spirits did not seem dampened by the blow dealt to climate legislation by the U.S. Senate just the day before.

Sandwiched between Earth Day and the Earth Day Climate Rally was the day on which another U.S. Senator, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, announced that he would no longer participate in negotiations on a Senate version of proposed climate legislation. In a letter to colleagues Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT), Senator Graham cited his disappointment over reports that the Democratic leadership of the Senate was planning to take up discussions of immigration before addressing climate change as a reason for his changed stance.

Senators Graham, Kerry, and Lieberman were the primary architects of this bill-to-be and had been planning to formally announce the bill with the White House last Monday. But any debate on immigration would make it impossible to deal with national energy and climate change policy, the South Carolina Senator said. So he won’t support the draft climate change bill, in spite of the fact that he helped create it. Senator Graham won’t support some legislation because talking about something else would just be too painful or distracting? This seems a bit irrational.

In Happier Times - Senators Graham, Kerry & Lieberman

In Happier Times - Senators Graham, Kerry & Lieberman

Setting aside speculation over why Senator Graham radically and suddenly changed positions, the simple fact that he did it is disappointing. To be sure, the Senator is not the only culpable party in this turn of events. He is likely under enormous pressure from fellow Republicans to stop negotiating with Democrats. And if reports are true that both the White House and the Democratic Senate leadership had been planning to take up immigration first not because it could pass (the House has not yet discussed the matter) or because it is more urgent (climate change is equally as urgent: the longer we wait to address climate change, the more expensive it will be), but because it could present a useful wedge issue for the Democrats in the coming election cycle, then Senator Graham has every right to be peeved.

But unless Graham’s strategy has the result of getting climate change legislation considered in this session of Congress, it is bad for Americans. The science demonstrating the negative and possibly catastrophic consequences of anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming. That emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) must decrease is flagrantly obvious. And that the United States, which prides itself on its innovative strength, global leadership, and remains the largest economy in the world, has still not acted on this evidence is disgraceful.

It is also bad for business. The clean technology market is big and growing, but without the passage of climate change legislation, signals to U.S. businesses as to the future prices of clean versus pollution-intensive energy remain unclear. A recent Pew report on clean energy in the G-20 economies notes that appropriate domestic policies—such as those aimed at reducing GHG emissions or incentivizing the use of renewable energy—have tended to positively affect a country’s competitive position in the clean-tech market. The winners in this race include Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and—who else?—China. The United States does not make the shortlist of enlightened energy and environment policymakers of the rich world.

Lights out for the U.S. in the race for green tech?

Lights out for the U.S. in the race for green tech?

In fact, the Pew report finds that China has already overtaken the United States on several important measures (including, of course, its dubious distinction of being the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses for the past several years). In 2009, for instance, China overtook the United States for highest financing of and investment in clean energy. And it is likely to overtake the United States in installed renewable energy capacity soon. Though targets are not always met, Beijing has set ambitious targets for wind, biomass, and solar energy usage, and these targets do not exist solely not to be met. They may currently be aspirations, but that’s more than the United States currently has to go on.

Mitigating climate change and making U.S. clean-tech business better is accomplished by limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The best way to limit GHG emissions is to put a price on them. Indeed, the fact markets have not already done so has been described by climate expert Nicholas Stern as “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.” The climate legislation which has been stalled and stalled and stalled again in the U.S. Senate is generally envisaged as a cap and trade system that would cap GHG emissions at a certain level, create a scheme in which licenses to emit GHGs could be traded, and eventually shrink gross amount of permissible emissions. This amounts to an indirect tax on GHG emissions, and though it is far from ideal, it would create a price for emissions at the margin and therefore makes strides in the right direction.

As the Senate continues to dawdle, the Earth Day Climate Change rally on the National Mall was far from unimportant. Especially in a democracy like the United States, it is important that citizens buy into ‘going green.’ It is important, frankly, that green be cool. But though considerations of how to green one’s lifestyle are admirable, they are not game changers. Coal is still cheap; Whole Foods is expensive, and “going green” remains largely the privilege of the wealthy in society.  Unless we change our laws.  The Senate should get to work. The alternative is to accept an outcome in which a hundred U.S. kitchen gardens bloom while a hundred Chinese companies compete for the top spots in clean-tech. In addition to, well, catastrophic climate change.

Marcy writes about China. In 2007-08, she was a Fulbright Scholar in China, where she was also a Research Fellow with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. She received an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and graduated from Brown University.

In the Aftermath of Haiti’s Earthquake: Where is China?

By , March 31, 2010

haiti_flagAlmost three months ago, the world witnessed an agonizing tragedy in Haiti: an earthquake killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions in one of the world’s poorest countries.  Other countries were quick to respond, offering aid and assistance.  But how did the world’s emerging superpower respond?  In this informative essay, Marcy Nicks Moody examines China’s response to the Haiti earthquake, arguably China’s first chance to show the world that it is a responsible global leader.

In the Aftermath of Haiti’s Earthquake: Where is China?

By Marcy Nicks Moody

Though Haiti’s plight no longer appears above the fold of our daily newspapers, it remains one of the world’s most dire. At least 230,000 lives were lost in the earthquake of January 12. More than 300,000 people were injured, and at least 1.3 million were left homeless. This would be a catastrophe anywhere, but for a country of some 10 million, the proportion is gargantuan. More than two months following the magnitude 7.0 quake, shelter, security, and sanitation remain inadequate, and people live in camps of tents and tarpaulins, unlikely to move to more permanent dwellings any time soon.

The international community has responded to the tragedy in Haiti with laudable humanitarian assistance as well as more extended commitments to help “build [Haiti] back better,” and just today, the United Nations and United States co-hosted an International Donors Conference to mobilize support as Haiti lays the foundation for its long-term reconstruction and development. The financial resources necessary for this undertaking are huge: $11.5 billion now, $34.4 billion over the next decade, or five years to Haiti’s current GDP.

Chinese Aid Workers in Haiti

Chinese Aid Workers in Haiti

For China watchers, this conference—and, more importantly, the commitments made at it—may provide further insight into the status of China’s global influence. There has been much ado about China’s arrival on the world stage since its apparent and early exit from the nadir of the economic crisis. And over the last several months, Beijing has increasingly comported itself in such a way as to suggest that it believes in the veracity and longevity of this arrival. Largely, this has taken the form of vitriolic verbiage on issues ranging from Copenhagen to Tibet to its exchange rate. But there are better metrics for global influence than causticity. One of these is a country’s response to other countries in times of need.

Haiti is a particularly interesting case in that it is one of fewer than twenty-five countries left in the world that maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan in lieu of the People’s Republic. Beijing’s traditional response to such countries—often poor ones in Africa and the Caribbean—has generally been a deep-pocketed charm offensive, with preferential loans and big investments. Cynical though it may sound, Haiti’s crisis could be seen as China’s opportunity to curry favor with—or extract a quid pro quo from—a country with which it would like to have diplomatic relations.

Indeed, China has already taken a number of steps to wean countries in the Caribbean and Latin America from Taiwan.

Sichuan Earthquake

Sichuan Earthquake

China is a non-borrowing member of both the Caribbean Development Bank as well as the much larger Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), meaning it provides capital but takes no money in return. Though in the latter case, IADB procurement contracts for Chinese firms was also an important motivation for joining, it was not the only one. Moreover, Chinese—in Beijing and elsewhere—understand the tragedy an earthquake can wreak better than many, or perhaps most. On May 12, 2008, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck Sichuan Province, killing almost 90,000, injuring 360,000, and leaving 5 million homeless. Like Haiti, poor building construction contributed to the scale of human loss. The outpouring of emotion and assistance was immense. With such a horrible tragedy in China’s recent past, one might think that China might sympathize with Haiti’s plight.

But China’s response to the Haitian earthquake has not been as generous as either of these arguments would suggest. Beijing has donated $1 million to the emergency aid efforts, and does not yet appear to have made longer term commitments. It is not among the ranks of the largest donors, which include the United States, Brazil, Canada, and the European Union. The United States, for example, immediately pledged $100 million for the relief effort, and Congress is considering an additional aid package of $2.8 billion. That said, a 125 member search-and-rescue team, medics, and aid supplies coming from China were the first to reach Haiti. The tragedy has not gone unnoticed in China.

So why has China done so little? To be sure, Beijing does not tend to view its assistance activities as ‘foreign aid,’ but rather frames them as offering help to brother or sister countries in times of need. With a quasi-colonial history of its own, China tends to avoid activities that may smack of imperialism or appear to encroach upon a country’s sovereignty. This may be why China avoids national-level coordination efforts and refrains from coordinating donor activities. However, avoiding international coordination now, which may be part of China’s reasons for remaining relatively inactive, will do Haiti no good.

Moreover, Haiti’s relatively small size and vast humanitarian tragedy, coupled with China’s phenomenal ability to execute construction and public works projects in minimal time, present an extraordinary opportunity to showcase China’s arrival and its ‘harmonious’ foreign policy, not just in Haiti or Latin America, but to the world. As Beijing continues to be roiled by the public relations disaster that is its dispute with Google, Haiti is a place in which China could do well. It might actually do some good, too.

Marcy writes about China. In 2007-08, she was a Fulbright Scholar in China, where she was also a Research Fellow with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. She received an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and graduated from Brown University.

A Dusty Springfield Approach to the Chinese Exchange Rate?

By , March 21, 2010

Not a day goes by without mention of China and its currency: “China’s manipulating its currency, injuring the U.S.” “No it’s not, and if it were, it only hurts the Chinese people.”  Guest blogger Marcy Nicks Moody tries to make sense of it all and examines the mechanics underlying the Treasury Department’s pending decision to either designate China a currency manipulator or not.

A Dusty Springfield Approach to the Chinese Exchange Rate?

Will China allow its currency to float?

Will China allow its currency to float?

By Marcy Nicks Moody

Last week, in a discussion about the administration’s approach to China’s exchange rate policy, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs remarked that President Obama “mentioned just a few days ago that he wished and hoped that China approached their currency using a more market-based interpretation.”

If only wishing and hoping were the ne plus ultra of sound policy-making. Unfortunately, they’re not. And Mr. Gibbs’ comment was more revealing of his administration’s approach to the Chinese exchange rate than he may have hoped. Or wished.

On a more or less biannual basis, chatter over China’s undervalued currency increases, coinciding with a report that the Treasury Department must submit to Congress on international economic and exchange rate policies. This is the document in which a country is formally designated a currency manipulator or, in the case of China or any other country since 1994, is not.

Does China manipulate its currency? Yes. This fact is well-known and rarely questioned. The gargantuan scale of its global trade and current account surpluses and rate at which China is intervening and accumulating foreign exchange reserves to keep the renminbi (“RMB”) from appreciating make it all but impossible to argue otherwise.

But does China intend to manipulate its currency in order to gain an unfair trade advantage? Well yes, but this is part of the legal metric by which China must be judged in the foreign exchange report, and it remains the technical basis on which the Treasury sidesteps formally designating China a manipulator of its currency. The arguments for so doing do not include any serious contention that China does not intend to manipulate its currency, but rather that engagement works better than saber-rattling.

That is one possibility. Another is that there is no saber. What if China were designated a currency manipulator in a Treasury report to Congress? Would the administration huff and puff and hold its breath until all of Washington turned blue? That might be the best option, for nothing necessarily follows from the findings in these reports, other than expedited negotiations, which are fancy words with few teeth. And demonstration of ineffectiveness on an important issue is something the Treasury might understandably like to avoid. Naming China a currency manipulator would strain relations further but in itself provide no foreseeable gain. And besides, the whole world knows it anyway – it’s not like the report would be telling us anything we didn’t already know.

The U.S. Treasury - preparing its April 15 report

The U.S. Treasury - preparing its April 15 report

Though the Treasury Department’s stance is far from principled, it does have some weight. But the exceptionalist tone of this stance—which suggests that China is exempt from Treasury censure because of some special status it holds—may well damage U.S.-China relations in the longer term. For years, the United States has encouraged China to act as a responsible stakeholder in the global economic and financial system, playing by the rules China increasingly helps to write. Allowing China to escape criticism for undervaluing its currency simply because ‘it is China’ runs counter to the notion of that stakeholder. Given the belligerent tone Beijing has recently taken on a range of foreign policy issues from Copenhagen to the Dalai Lama’s recent U.S. visit to exchange rate policy itself, the United States would do well to move away from this more recent G2-style exceptionalism and towards responsible stakeholdership in its rhetoric and substantive discussions with China.

Moreover, American concern about undervaluation of the RMB dates to at least 2003. Modest appreciation notwithstanding, engaging and talking softly behind closed doors have not worked. That Chinese surpluses cost Americans jobs should be an abomination to Washington, especially now, as unemployment remains unacceptably high. China is unlikely to move on its exchange rate unless it perceives that doing so would be in its own interest, and for better or for worse, it is up to Washington to create that incentive.

Might a Treasury report designating China a currency manipulator encourage China to move on its exchange rate? Let’s be clear: This is only a document submitted by one branch of the federal government to another, and by itself, the report does little. But might a Treasury report designating China a currency manipulator trigger other events that could encourage China to move on its exchange rate? Congress may be emboldened to pass legislation mandating countervailing duties on goods from countries with misaligned currencies. Indeed, even without the Treasury’s report, which isn’t due until April 15, Congress has already started to move forward on the issue. There is currently a bill with unusual bipartisan support in the Senate that would give Treasury less flexibility in determining whether a country manipulates its currency. Further, the Chinese exchange rate is not solely a U.S. problem. If Washington did, for example, undertake trade sanctions, the frustrated international community would likely follow suit. And this would create a strong incentive for China to allow the RMB to appreciate.

A Treasury report designating China a currency manipulator is unlikely, by itself, to produce any results vis-à-vis the RMB. And it might not even trigger events that would compel China to allow the RMB to appreciate. But it might. The current state of affairs is unacceptable, and as even Dusty Springfield knows, wishin’ and hopin’ and dreamin’ and prayin’ are not enough.

Marcy writes about China. In 2007-08, she was a Fulbright Scholar in China, where she was also a Research Fellow with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. She received an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and graduated from Brown University.

Academic Misconduct in China – “What’s Law Got to do, Got to do with it?”

By , March 4, 2010

cheatingLies, cheats and suicides.  It sounds like the plot of a daytime soap opera.  But unfortunately, it is the reality that is academia in China.  Chinese lawyer CAO Xinglong discusses the underbelly of faculty promotion in China and the abdication of the courts in enforcing the law in this area.  Without some sort of legal recourse, it is not just individual professors that are being hurt; as Mr. Cao argues, it is the integrity, reliability and prestige of the Chinese university system that will ultimately suffer the most.

Because of the sensitivity of the issues, names of universities and professors have been removed from this article.  However, China Law & Policy has confirmed the factual details of these incidents.  If you would like more information about the cases mentioned in the article below, please email Mr. Cao directly: xinglongcao@yahoo.com

China’s Lax Law Harbors Academic Misconduct

by Mr. CAO Xinglong

At the end of 2008 and during the first half of 2009, allegations of scientific misconduct by a research group at a Fraud-squad-who-cooked-the-books-296.297university in southern China and led by an “academician” of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, triggered broad discussion in China, a discussion that can still be traced on the Internet today, over a year later.  The University condemned one member of the research group, a male associate professor, accusing him of fabricating experimental data and forging the co-authors’ signatures.  A University official maintained that the associate professor’s actions should not be attributed to the University since the transgression was done while the man was postdoctoral researcher, before he was on the staff of the University as an associate professor.  Contrary to the University’s interpretation, public opinion maintained that the University was using this unlucky man as its scapegoat in order to conceal the pervasive academic misbehavior on its campus; the public seemed to think that the associate professor was compelled to produce enough Science Citation Index and Engineering Index articles (“SCI/EI articles”) to beat out other article-forging rivals for a faculty position and an academic title.

Then, in the second half of 2009, another academic event stirred up even more turbulence among the public.  A Ph.D. graduate from a renowned U.S. university joined the faculty of a Chinese university in June 2009 as a lecturer; on September 17, 2009 he committed suicide.  In his suicide note, he regretted his decision to join the University, viewing the decision as imprudent and overly-optimistic.  The man also criticized China’s academia as cruel, ruthless and cheating.  The University negated the charge that it had lured him to its campus by offering the academic title of associate professor and then broke their promise.  However, many of the man’s friends said that he told them he chose the job offer from the present university over a more prestigious one because the University promised to make him an associate professor; the other only promised an assistant professorship.  The University argued that no written evidence was offered to determine if this promise existed.  Instead the University stated that the man’s academic title was to be determined by the upcoming 2009 Academic Title Competition Procedure (held from September through December).  Instead of giving any credence to his criticism, the University claimed that the suicide had nothing to do with the academic setting and instead should be ascribed to something else.  However, public opinion was again against the University; numerous netizens regarded the suicide as evidence that there was an oral offer of an associate professor title and, given the time frame of the suicide, speculated that the man was probably told at the beginning of the competition (September) that he would not obtain the title of associate professor.  According to the netizens, it was his broken academic dream that led to his suicide.

Although disputes between scholars and their institutions are common in China, it is rare that that these disputes are handled by the legal system.  And when they are, the scholar usually receives no relief.  At an unnamed university in China, an assistant professor applied for an associate professor position through the University’s 2008 Academic Title Competition Procedure.[i] Through a series of letters, the assistant professor modestly advised the University that a certain statute allowed his overseas Ph.D. experiences to be substituted for other qualifications.  After he received no response to his letters and failed to be promoted to associate professor, he telephoned University administrators.  He was told that such complaints could not be considered.

plagicartoonIn 2009, he tried again, but again the University’s Academic Title Competition Procedures appeared to be hostile to his efforts.  He failed to be promoted a second time.  However, this time he decided to contest the procedural defects and filed an appeal with one of China’s administrative governmental departments (the “ Department”) in accordance with the Teachers Law of China.  In the appeal, he alleged the following six procedural defects: (1) not weighing his overseas study achievements; (2) all of the referees were academic bureaucrats outside of his research topic; (3) some of the referees’ had close personal relationships with some of the other candidates and had animosity toward other candidates; (4) fabrication of some of the competition files; (5) twisting competition rules to favor or disfavor certain candidates; and (6) a lack of transparency due to closed-door and back-door hearings.  Under the Teachers Law, faculty at a State-affiliated, public university, such as the University in this situation, is permitted to appeal a decision to a government Department.  The Department is required to issue a ruling within 30 days (see Teachers Law, Art. 39).

The assistant professor made his appeal in December 2009.  Now, three months later and way past the 30-day time frame, neither the government Department nor the University has issued an official response; unofficially though, the Department and the University have pressured the professor to drop it.  As a result, he abandoned his appeal and the opportunity to bring the case into court.

But even if he did bring his case to court, prior precedent shows that he would have failed there as well.  In 2003, two professors at a different university in southern China, another State-affiliated university, sued the Department for its refusal to arbitrate their complaints of unfair treatment in their University’s Academic Title Competition.  The Court dismissed their action on the grounds that the Department should not interfere in a university’s internal affairs and tamper with its academic autonomy.  In other cases that question university promotion procedures, courts continuously refuse to extend jurisdiction for similar reasons. The courts’ reasoning of “internal affairs” and “academic autonomy,” undermines the purpose of the Teachers’ Law and leaves aggrieved faculty members with nowhere to go.

Although academic institutions might seem self-governed and that power dynamics among the academic elite remains an internal affair, the government does have authority to rein in these institutions.  For example, on October 29, 2009, one of the State’s administrative departments announced that it had established a special panel to punish its affiliate universities’ academic misconduct.  Soon after unfortunately, the department decided that it was not in fact obliged to take such action.

As a result, China has established a system by which academia largely polices itself, and the law plays little to no role.  And often an academic’s personal benefit dwarfs that which is right and honest. New Threads (http://www.xys.org/), a pivotal website exposing academic misconduct in China, amasses a great number of postings charging the misuse of academic power; power used for illegitimate benefit, such as money, honor, or even sex.

empty_classroomIn my view, the perception of academic autonomy and freedom has been disproportionately distorted and unduly expanded in these situations. Academia should be under some rules, even if it impacts its autonomy.  The process and procedure of academic activities, including faculty promotion, should be governed by law, a law that requires honesty and fairness. Without some legal oversight, academics can easily “cook procedures” and produce whatever experimental results they want.  In addition, today, China’s quantity of SCI/EI articles is disproportionately large, causing many to raise a skeptical eyebrow and elicit the critique that China’s research is perhaps transitioning from quality to simple quantity.  For better quality in research and more reliable results, the priority for academia should be a rule of law.


[i] The facts of this case have never been published. Anyone who has questions my contact the author directly at: xinglongcao@yahoo.com
The author owes his gratitude to Attorney Elizabeth M. Lynch for her comprehensive and wonderful editing of the article.

The Lancet just recently published an article about academic fraud in China and the need to take action. You can link to the article here (free login required).

Also, for those who read Chinese, “Academic Criticism” contains many examples of academic misconduct.  Please click here to get to the site.

Thank you David Cowhig for bringing these links to our attention.

Something Rotten in Denmark: What the U.S. & China Need to Do to Make the Most of Copenhagen

By , November 25, 2009
The Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change is set to start in less than two weeks.  Guest blogger Marcy Nicks Moody offers her assessment of what’s left of the road to Copenhagen and the necessary role the U.S. and China must play to move discussions forward.

Something Rotten in Denmark: What the United States & China Need to Do to Make the Most of Copenhagen

By Marcy Nicks Moody

Earlier this month, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen flew to Singapore to meet with President Obama and

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, trying to save the Copenhagen Conference

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, trying to save the Copenhagen Conference

other leaders on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Summit. With less than one month until the United Nations Climate Change Conference opens in Copenhagen on December 7 and little in the way progress on the negotiations, the APEC leaders and Danish Prime Minister discussed metrics for the success of the talks. APEC, an organization widely known for accomplishing little, served as an all too fitting forum for an announcement that a legally binding agreement is not going to emerge from the Copenhagen conference.

Though the announcement simply confirmed the writing already on the wall for those familiar with the negotiations, it was nonetheless disappointing. The terms of the Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012, and a ‘Copenhagen Protocol’ to replace Kyoto has been a key goal for some time.

Indeed, the history leading up to Copenhagen is far from short. The aforementioned Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding protocol to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). And the UNFCCC, in turn, is a non-binding treaty aimed at stabilizing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere in order to prevent severe changes in the world’s climate. It is, so to speak, the fountainhead of global climate change negotiations.

Moreover, though 182 countries (with the notable exception of the United States) are signatories to Kyoto, only 37 of these are bound to limit GHG emissions. Since Kyoto, climate science has become more precise, the price tag associated with the consequences of climate change has become more daunting, and the need for a broader global agreement has become more pressing. To that end, during the 2007 UN Climate Change Conference, an accord called the Bali Action Plan called for a new legally binding climate change agreement to be finalized by the 2009 conference in Copenhagen, with the aim of it going into force in 2013. Since the administration of George W. Bush proved generally unfriendly to restrictions on carbon emissions, it was hoped that 2009 would be the earliest point at which a broader global agreement could be reached.

The lack of a successor to Kyoto is not just disappointing, it will also be costly. The International Energy Agency’s 2009 World Energy Outlook estimates that each year of delay before moving to an emissions path consistent with the agreed level of a 2° C temperature increase will add $500 billion to the global incremental investment cost of $10.5 trillion for the period between 2010 and 2030. A new global climate change agreement is not simply necessary, it’s urgent.

Though the Obama administration is much more serious about climate change than the Bush administration was, U.S. negotiators have nonetheless had little to offer their foreign counterparts. In particular, the Senate does not plan to begin debating Waxman-Markey, the relatively stringent climate change bill passed by the House of Representatives, until next year. With the world’s strongest economy and largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases currently uncommitted to binding emissions targets, why would the rest of the world possibly want to offer up pledges of its own?

On Monday, Danish Ambassador to the United States Friis Arne Petersen published an article in The New York Times arguing that “Yes we can reach a strong, comprehensive and global agreement next month.” His letter, likely an attempt to control the reputational damage done to Copenhagen during APEC, makes the case for a ‘political agreement,’ with the goal of really, actually deciding upon a timeline for a successor to Kyoto this time. On the one hand, locking in progress made seems like a reasonable way to salvage failed dreams for Copenhagen. On the other, however, a “politically binding” agreement – as opposed to a legal one – will likely lack the teeth to be enforceable. Whatever emissions targets emerge from Copenhagen may thus evolve into nothing more than numbers on pieces of paper.

Can the U.S. & China Save Copenhagen?

Can the U.S. & China Save Copenhagen?

In spite of Senate sluggishness, however, officials in the Obama administration have been hinting that they will try to provide momentum by bringing something to the table in Copenhagen next month, and the other elephant in the global climate room—China—did agree to language in a joint statement during Obama’s Asia trip indicating that a comprehensive agreement would “include emission reduction targets of developed countries and nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing countries.” Some may scoff, but it’s better than nothing. And though it is currently the world’s largest GHG emitter, China is far from ignorant about the dangers of local pollution and global climate change.

One way in which the United States and China could reinvigorate climate change negotiations is by articulating a broad agreement (one which has not yet been reached) on the differentiation of financial responsibilities for mitigation and adaptation. The United States and China are, of course, the world’s most prominent emitters from the developed and developing worlds. How they plan to account for these very different roles would be a useful outcome of Copenhagen.

A legally binding agreement is, tragically (and expensively), out of the question, but Copenhagen is still not a foregone conclusion. China Law & Policy will keep its fingers crossed that the United States and China will give some momentum to the process, and that we can really, actually have an agreement in Mexico in 2010.

Marcy writes about China. In 2007-08, she was a Fulbright Scholar in China, where she was also a Research Fellow with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. She received an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and graduated from Brown University.

Just For Fun: President Obama’s Itinerary to See the Real China

By , November 17, 2009

Susan Fishman Orlins, freelance writer and longtime China-watcher, offers some advice on where President Obama needs to go to see the real Beijing. 

Biking in Beijing - perhaps the best way to get around

Biking in Beijing - perhaps the best way to get around


DEAR MR PRESIDENT:  WHAT TO DO IN BEIJING

By Susan Fishman Orlins

Dear President Obama,

As I bike around Beijing this week, during a short trip to see my daughter who works here, I’ve been thinking about some local attractions you might enjoy during your visit.  I’ve also been thinking about how the ratio of bicycles to automobiles appears to have flip-flopped from the first time I arrived in China, thirty years ago.  When you inhale the acrid smell of motor vehicle fumes and view this smoggy city–as though through gauze or an organdy curtain, soiled with age–you may decide that you too would prefer getting around on a two-wheeler rather than waiting in traffic jams, adding to the pollution.  You can rent a bike at any of several subway stations and drop it off at any of the others.  Just be aware of the rule of the streets:  the bigger you are, the more you have the right of way.  At intersections, cars will turn from all four directions, seemingly at once, without slowing down.

I like starting off my stay here with a foot massage.  Side by side in oversized, cushy club chairs with high backs that recline, you and President Hu Jintao can first soak your feet in a barrel of milk, herbs and Chinese medicine.  Then, in the privacy of a room for two, you can watch CNN on the flat-screen TV or discuss human rights, while young men knead your shins and toes with Healthy Spa Life Cure Professor massage lotion. 

Afterwards, you might want to buy some gifts for Malia and Sasha.  Head to trendy Nanluoguoxiang, lined with coffee bars and boutiques and where you can pick up a couple of Oba-Mao t-shirts with your own image donning a red-star cap. 

Beijing's Hutong Life

Beijing's Hutong Life

I suggest quickly making your way out of there through the crowds of Chinese yuppies and foreign tourists.  To witness something of life as it has been here for decades (try to mentally delete all the cars), head south and turn into any hutong and lose yourself in the maze of narrow lanes lined with low courtyard houses with sloping tile roofs, most of which–unlike in earlier times–provide shelter for several families.  Some hutongs are quieter than others, with maybe only a cat stealthily creeping along the edge of a courtyard wall and a few rusty bikes leaning below.  Then you turn a corner and there unfolds a row of tiny, old shopfronts, many of which are selling dough in its endless forms:  fried, flat, squishy, steamed, noodly.  A bun–that looks like a large cream-colored ball you squeeze to exercise your hands–might be empty inside or filled with bean paste or minced pork.  Or you can get dumplings floating in broth. 

Hutongs are where I most like to watch the bustle.  Watching the bustle is a typical Chinese activity;  they call it kankan renao, literally look at bustle.  I could steer you to the hutong where I talked to a baby and bought striped socks from her grandmother, while a guy in a hard hat working nearby secured a shelf I’d bought to the back of my bicycle with some electrical wire.  But that would take away the fun of discovery.  No matter which way you turn in these lanes, you’ll get a sense of community, especially for elderly folks, whereas at home in the U.S. my sense of life for the elderly is often one of loneliness.

In fact, when I asked a retired Chinese friend what she does all day, she replied, “Wanr,” which is Beijingspeak for play and means hang out.  She hangs out in the park with her friends.  Just north of Jingshan Park, you can experience an inviting “playground” for senior citizens, one of many throughout the city.  Don’t be surprised if the rows of ping pong tables are all in use.  At a small cement table by the fence, some lao touzi, or old men, will probably be playing Chinese checkers with a ring of onlookers that sometimes grows to three-deep.  Meanwhile, lao tai tai, or old women sit on benches chattering.  Try out some of the colorful exercise contraptions:  stand on one to swing front to back, side to side on another.  Some have bars that stick out for leaning against to massage your back.  Ahh, lovely.  Maybe if we provided more recreation like this for our elderly, we could reduce health-care costs.

Another way the Chinese promote good health is by drinking tea.  My favorite teahouse in Beijing is Stone Boat, located in zen-like Ritan Park.  This being an embassy area, the setting is quiet, though you occasionally hear strains of someone practicing Peking Opera.  The teahouse is the shape of a shortened train car painted with intricate designs in which Chinese reds and greens dominate.  The carved wooden window frames open to a pond where a few men may be fishing, bare willow branches weeping over them.  Try for some solitary moments here, an opportunity to think quietly or take some notes, while sipping ginger tea.

If Michelle were with you, and if it were date night, I would suggest dinner at Lan in the business area, more for the exotic atmosphere than the expensive food.  In any case, it’s worth going there just to have a look at how lavish New China can be.  But be forewarned of sensory overload:  there are even paintings on the ceilings.  The blend of contemporary design with baroque and whimsy gives an overall Alice-in-Wonderland effect.  My favorite displays are on glass shelves that line the walls on either side after you enter:  a rainbow of fabrics stacked alongside cones of brightly colored thread, mock elaborately decorated pastries and cakes, Jesus candles of various sizes and shaped burnt down to different heights.  And sprinkled throughout, photographs of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. 

For more down-to-earth dining, I’d have a meal at Liu Zhai Shi Fu, located in a hutong behind The National Art

A feast at Liu Zhai Shifu - ma dofu is on the bottom right

A feast at Liu Zhai Shifu - ma dofu is on the bottom right

Museum of China.  Though it can be a bit chilly, sit in the enclosed area that used to be the courtyard of this family-run restaurant, where silk vines hang overhead.  Be sure to order ma doufu, a dish of old Beijing and, though it looks like chopped liver mixed with wet cement, it’s the most delicious dish made from a soy bean I’ve ever tasted:  sour, spicy hot, smooth on the palate.

Before you leave Beijing, why not drop in on the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) offices and chat with the young Chinese employees there as well as with Princeton Fellows and other American interns who are doing all they can to safeguard the earth?

I hope you have a great and productive trip.

Warm regards,

Susan Fishman Orlins

Susan Fishman Orlins Susan’s work has appeared previously in The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as in Moment Magazine, where she is an associate editor.  She received a Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish journalism for her Moment profile of Deborah Tannen. 

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