Posts tagged: Department of State

Running on Empty? A Missing Assistant Secretary of State

By , April 8, 2013

Is anyone else confused as to why the position of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs remains empty?  Especially as North Korea all but prepares for war?  Two months after its former occupant – Kurt Campbell – stepped down on February 8, 2013, Secretary Kerry – who was sworn in on February 1 – has yet to fill the position.  True former Deputy Assistant Secretary Joseph Yun has capably stepped in, but the question remains – what signal are you giving to the region, especially North Korea, when you don’t officially fill the position?

Hopefully Secretary Kerry is feeling the pressure.  But who will fill the spot?  Here are some names that have been mentioned by others:

  • Joseph Yun – the current Acting secretary and former Deputy Assistant Secretary, of Korean descent and familiar with the issues on the Korean peninsula.
  • Daniel Russel – currently the National Security Council (NSC) Director for Asian Affairs.  While he started his career as a Japan guy, arguably you can’t be NSC Director for Asian Affairs without knowing alot about the Korean peninsula and problems with China.
  • Frank Jannuzi – currently head of Amnesty International’s Washington office, but has decades of experience in DC policy circles, serving close to ten years in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and then 15 years as the policy director of East Asia and Pacific Affairs on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Out of these three names, Jannuzi would likely be the best pick.  And not just because China Law & Policy is partial to policy makers who are North Korea's increasingly belligerent behavior China hands (and speak Mandarin).  China will always be the big issue in the region, and Jannuzi likely has the most intimate knowledge of the country.  But he has also long served as an important and knowledgeable resource on North Korea.  Not to mention, that he served as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while Kerry was a Senator on the Committee (and eventually Ranking member).  To the extent that Kerry is looking for someone he already knows and can trust, that would be Jannuzi.

Jannuzi would be also be an exciting pick because of what the choice would signal to China’s new leadership.  Jannuzi would come back to government after serving at Amnesty International, a very active human rights group that has long been a thorn in China’s side.  Such a choice would  subtly indicate to China that human rights will continue to be on the agenda.

But in looking at the possible nominees and the current senior officials of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, a truly inspiring pick would be a woman.  Out of the eleven senior officials listed on the Bureau’s website, only one currently is a woman.

Prof. Susan Shirk

And that’s why we think there is a good possibility that Susan Shirk – even though she is in academia – is in the running.  Shirk is a professor of political science out at UC-San Diego.  She has also long been an influential thinker on China.  China: Fragile Superpower altered the way that many policymakers viewed China.  Similar to Jannuzi, her knowledge of China comes from a longstanding relationship with the country and its people.  She has had an important part in US-North Korea relations – she all but founded and continues to lead the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, a high-level official dialogue between the two countries.  Finally,  she has experience at State, serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and in seeing her speak on multiple occasions, she has command of a room that is astounding.  The question is – will she want to leave beautiful San Diego for DC?

The one person  we are not putting our money on – Dennis RodmanHis trip in March to North Korea was just plain bizarre.  Hanging out with Kim Jong Un without even acknowledge the suffering of millions of North Koreans at the regime’s hands was also extremely offensive.  That alone would put Rodman out of the running.  But more than anything, do we really want an Assistant Secretary that can’t win at Celebrity Apprentice for a second time?

Why So Secretive? US-China Legal Experts Dialogue

Who received the invitation to the Legal Experts Dialogue?

One would think that after a six-year hiatus, the resumption of the U.S.-China Legal Experts Dialogue would receive a little more fanfare than a cursory four-sentence press release from the Department of State (“DOS”), issued on June 6, a mere two days before the big event.

For the past two years, almost every high-level discussion between the U.S. and China has raised the issue of the Legal Experts Dialogue (“LED”), with the goal of resuming the talks (last held in 2005).  When President Obama visited China in November 2009, the two countries’ Joint Statement directly stated that “[t]he United States and China decided to convene the U.S.-China Legal Experts Dialogue at an early date.”  Ditto for the Joint Statement after President Hu’s visit to Washington, D.C. in January 2011.

It wasn’t until April 28, 2011, at the Human Rights Dialogue, that anyone provided somewhat more of a hard date.  At a press conference, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner announced that the U.S. and China finally agreed to convene the LED in “June 2011.”  This vague date was reiterated a few weeks later in the statement issued at the conclusion of the Strategic & Economic Dialogue.

So why the lame press release about the LED?  It’s been a priority item in the U.S.’s negotiations with China.  One would think that finally being able to achieve the goal of actually having the LED and especially of hosting it in the midst of the Chinese government’s crackdown on rights-defending lawyers, would be a feather in DOS’s cap; something that they would want the world to know about.

Why remain mum on who these “experts” are and what they will be discussing?  Instead, DOS only states that there will be “government and non-government experts” who will “explore key legal issues of mutual interest.”  Could DOS be more vague?

There are occasions when the U.S. might achieve more by pressuring China behind the scenes.  In the case of Xu Zhiyong in 2009, it looks like that approached worked.  But the LED is a completely different beast – the existence of the Dialogue has long been made public and given that there will be non-government experts, it does not appear that there will be high-level discussions here on par with Hu-Obama talks.  It sounds like it is one group of lawyers talking to another.  Given some of the issues that have sprung up in the past few months, including the assault on public interest lawyers, China’s indigenous innovation policy, various WTO cases, and the criminal trials of U.S. citizens, it would be interesting to know what is on the agenda.

But in general, I do not hold out hope that the LED will produce any earth-shattering results, if it produces results at all.  While DOS has stated that there will be “in-depth discussions and practical cooperation on the rule of law” (yeah, I don’t know what that means either), it’s basically two days of meetings among strangers with translators in between.  How much can really be achieved?

And maybe that’s why the U.S. hasn’t given the LED the credit one would think it is due.  Maybe even DOS realizes that bringing over a delegation of Chinese lawyers and legal experts for a mere two days is likely a waste of taxpayer’s money.

I do think that more open dialogue between the U.S. and China is a good thing.  But there are better ways to increase the lines of communication between the legal communities in the two nations and assist China with improving upon its commitment to a rule of law.  Identifying and inviting reform-minded Chinese lawyers to the United States for a longer period of time – anywhere between three months to a year – is a better use of money.  Through that experience, a Chinese lawyer can see how our legal system functions, see the good and the bad, interact with U.S. lawyers, and determine which aspects if any should be replicated in China.

These types of sustained contact are what can best assist China with implementing a rule of law.  A two-day conference likely cannot.  But unfortunately, we won’t really know because nothing about the LED is publicly available.

Clinton on U.S-China Relations – A Changed Approach

By , January 17, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers the Richard Holbrooke Inaugural Lecture

The Obama Administration has a new China policy, or at the very least has gotten better at articulating it. In preparation for President Hu Jintao’s January 19 State visit, key officials in the Obama Administration outlined their goals for the U.S.-China relationship through a series of speeches last week. 

While Secretaries Tim Geithner and Gary Locke each focused on specifics (currency, market access, intellectual property), Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s speech on Friday (click here for speech transcript) provided a new framework by which to view the U.S.-China relationship. Rest assured this isn’t the same soft China policy that accompanied President Obama on his visit to China in November 2009. 

In her speech, Clinton acknowledged the importance of the U.S.-China relationship to each country and the world at large. But while it values its relationship with China, the United States still has choices and the U.S. would “firmly and decisively” address its differences with China. Friday’s speech, which was also the inaugural Richard C. Holbrooke Annual Lecture, in honor of former State Department official and an important peace envoy (key player in the Dayton Peace Accords and envoy to Afghanistan), has already received criticism from China’s leadership.  

Clinton Announces a New Paradigm By Which to View China’s Rise

Perhaps the greatest obstacles in the relationship – at least for the U.S. – have been China’s currency manipulation and China’s protection of domestic industries at the expense of international trade rules and norms.  What the U.S. asks of China – to stop pegging its currency to the U.S. dollar and to open its markets to foreign competition in accordance with international standards – inevitably means that in the short-term, Chinese domestic companies will suffer.  By allowing its currency to float, Chinese exports will become more expensive, hurting the manufacturing backbone of its economy.  Opening its markets to more competition from foreign companies and products – particularly the government procurement market – could impair the development of many of China’s nascent industries. 

Needless to say, it has been difficult to find a convincing argument to make Chian’s leaders willing suffer short-term hurt. In the past, U.S. officials have repeatedly discussed how in the long-run these changes will eventually better promote China’s economic growth and power. But this appear disingenuous since in the short-term, it is the U.S. that will most greatly benefit from changes to Beijing’s current policies.  Additionally, telling Beijing what’s good for it in the long-run is sort of like parents telling their kids what is best. 

But Clinton’s speech took on a decidedly different approach and offers a more convincing, even slightly threatening argument.  Clinton did not bother with a “what is best for China” argument to try to convince the Chinese government; instead Clinton provided an entire new way by which to view China’s rise.  Clinton acknowledged the hard work of China’s people and the far-sightedness of its leaders in creating the world’s second largest economy in just over 30 years.  But Clinton also stressed the important role the United States played in China’s rise; without the United States, which guaranteed military security in Asia and equitable rules to govern the global economy, China’s current success would have been impossible.  

By tying China’s rise to the stability the United States provided in the region for the past 30 years, Clinton makes a much stronger argument as to why China’s leaders should make some changes on currency and market access – basically, these are the rules of the game that allowed you to succeed and now you think you can just change them? 

No rest for Robert Gates

The United States Will Remain a Pacific Power

But if logic isn’t enough to better protect U.S.’ interests, Clinton put China on warning that it is not the only fish in the sea.  Repudiating any notion of a G-2 relationship, Clinton gave a shout out to the other countries in the region, stating that the United States intends to remain a Pacific military power, strengthen its bonds with its allies in the region (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Philippines) and deepen its ties with developing Asian countries (e.g. India, Vietnam, Indonesia).

On some level, this should not come as a surprise to China.  This past summer, the United States involved itself in a long-running dispute between China and Vietnam over the control of a group of rock islands, stating that the U.S. has a national interest in mediating the dispute.  Additionally, recent bellicose developments on the Korean peninsula and China’s ambivalent response to the North’s unprovoked attack on South Korea, makes it apparent that the United States must maintain a strong military presence in the region.  China’s response shows that it is not yet ready to take on the responsibility of maintaining peace in the Pacific region since its loyalties to North Korea still dominate. 

Finally, Clinton noted that China’s non-transparent military build-up leaves one wondering what exactly are China’s intentions.  Military-to-military ties between the

China launches its Stealth fighter jet during Robert Gates visit to Beijing

 United States and China are at all-time low, mostly at the fault of China.  China’s military continues to shroud itself in secrecy and the recent visit of Secretary Robert Gates to China was a complete debacle.  While Gates visited with President Hu Jintao in Beijing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tested – in a very public way – its own stealth fighter jet.  Hu’s admission that he was unaware of the PLA’s planned test fight, is not particularly reassuring.  Not only does the PLA continue its secrative military build-up, but it’s even a secret to China’s own President, making one wonder, what power does Hu still have?  If history is a guide, whoever is in charge of the Chinese military is in charge of China.  If not Hu, then who?

Getting Serious About Human Rights

Clinton was surprisingly blunt when it came to China’s human rights record and didn’t just portray human rights as a peculiar aspect of the American culture (see President Obama’s talk to Shanghai students in November 2009 for this approach).  Instead, Clinton emphasized the universality of certain human rights and highlighted the fact that China is a signatory to many United Nations human rights treaties.  The United States is not interfering with China’s domestic politics; instead the United States is merely requesting that China fulfill its human rights obligations, obligations it voluntary agreed to. 

But Clinton went further and mentioned specific dissidents, including the recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo who is currently languishing in a Chinese prison; rights defending attorney Chen Guangcheng who since his release from prison has been subject to repeat police harassment; and missing rights defending attorney Gao Zhisheng.   Clinton stressed that as long as people like these three continue to advocate peacefully within the confines of the law, China should not persecute them.  Clinton poetically commented that the empty seat for Liu Xiaobo at last month’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony symbolizes China’s unrealized potential.  Clinton stressed that these human rights are necessary to China’s success; freedom of speech is essential to fostering free thought that leads to technological and scientific advancement and a vibrant civil society addresses social-economic problems that are currently one the regime’s biggest fears. 

The Obama Administration has a new policy on China – it’s tougher, more logical and stresses the importance of human rights.  The Chinese government has already responded.  President Hu Jintao, in an interview with the Washington Post, commented that the United States should not interfere with the internal affairs of China. 

Wednesday’s meeting between Presidents Hu and Obama should prove to be perhaps some of the most important conversations in the U.S.-China relationship since Kissinger secretly visited Beijing in 1971 in preparation for President Nixon’s visit.

The U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue: There is News to Report!

us20and20china20flagsAfter a two year hiatus, the U.S. and China resumed their human rights dialogue last Thursday and Friday in Washington, D.C.  Don’t be alarmed if this is the first you heard of the Dialogue; the U.S. mainstream press barely covered it.

The U.S-China Human Rights Dialogue is subject to criticism and much of it viable.  China doesn’t send anyone with much power to negotiate (for last week’s Dialogue the highest official was Chen Xu, Director General of the Department of International Organization of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs); the Dialogue itself is conducted largely behind closed doors and it is unclear what is accomplished; and there are never benchmarks set to determine if these dialogues actually produce any results.

But last week’s U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, even with the little that is

Assistant Secretary, DRL, Michael Posner

Assistant Secretary, DRL, Michael Posner

known about it, is newsworthy; it reflects a changing interpretation of human rights in the U.S.-China relationship.  From what can be gleaned from Department of State press conference, the new emphasis in human rights appears to be almost exclusively rule of law.  While Mike Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, highlighted five different topics which were discussed at the dialogue (religious freedom, labor rights, freedom of expression, rule of law, and racial discrimination), the focus of the Chinese delegation’s field trip on Friday was largely legal.  On Friday, the Chinese delegation made the following visits: a meeting with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to discuss rule of law and an independent judiciary; a talk with Cardinal McCarrisk at Catholic Charities’ Anchor Mental Health Center to discuss the relationship between the religious community and government as it pertains to human and social services; discussions with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services concerning labor rights and collective bargaining; and a talk with Thomas Crothers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace regarding the interplay among law, human rights and food safety.

In addition to the focus of an effective legal system as a part of human rights, here are some other interesting takeaways:

Why discuss with delegates from an atheist country the role of religious organizations?

This is perhaps the most interesting and most puzzling aspect of the talks.  China, run by the Communist Party, is a self-declared atheist country.  In fact, all of the Chinese delegates from last week are admitted atheists.  To be a Chinese official, Communist Party membership is a prerequisite; to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party renunciation of religion (Buddhist, Islam, Christianity, etc) is necessary.   So given this fact, the State Department trip to Catholic Charities offers an interesting insight into the U.S.’ policy toward religion, human rights, and China, particularly in regards to Christianity.

ChristianWhile ostensibly atheist, China is one of the fastest growing Christian nations.  Even based on the Chinese government’s official numbers –which are likely low-balled—from 1997 to 2006, China saw a 50% rise in the number of Christians.  The number, including those that attend the government-run churches as well as the underground, unofficial churches, is around 70 million.  Although this seems like a large number, population wise, it is only around 5%.  So for many Western Christian missionaries, the name of the game is China.  Western Catholics and Protestants both know this and are in China, albeit undercover, in large numbers.

While China has a growing Christian population, the Chinese government remains ambivalent about its development – sometimes seeing it as buttressing its authority and sometimes seeing it as a threat.  Although religious groups and charities have been important in the U.S.’ civil society development, China is a long way from having any sort of religious charities that could support human rights or rule of law.

So why the trip to Catholic Charities?   Perhaps the Chinese officials requested this because they are sincerely interested in learning more about the role religious groups can play in society.  Or perhaps U.S. policymakers’ idea of human rights, at least in China, is becoming less secular and more religious-based, particularly Christian.  Unfortunately, Assistant Secretary Posner did not explain why the Human Rights Dialogue with atheist China focused on the role of religious organizations in supporting human rights and we are left merely to speculate.

U.S. Raises Issue of Liu Xiaobo’s Imprisonment, the Disappearance of Gao Zhisheng, and likely the Disbarment of Tang Jitian and Liu Wei

Assistant Secretary Posner informed the press that U.S. officials discussed many specific Chinese dissents’ cases during the Dialogue.  However, the only two cases he named were those of Liu Xiaobo and the very odd case of Gao Zhisheng.

Liu Xiaobo has a long history of human rights activism in China.  In 1989, he

Activist Liu Xiaobo

Activist Liu Xiaobo

participated in the Tiananmen protests and has repeatedly criticized the Chinese government.  His activism has received many accolades from the West, including Reporters Without Borders’ Foundation de France Prize.  In December 2008, Liu Xiaobo was one of the organizers of the Charter ’08 movement, a movement calling for more democracy, less corruption and greater accountability of the Chinese government.  For these activities, Liu was arrested and sentenced to a very harsh 11-year prison term for inciting subversion of state power.  Even for China, the sentence is particularly long.

Although Liu’s sentence was harsh, the outcome was not surprising from

An emaciated Gao Zhisheng in March 2010 after a year in police custody

An emaciated Gao Zhisheng in March 2010 after a year in police custody

China.  Gao Zhisheng’s case however is just downright bizarre and Kafkaesque.  Gao is a self-taught lawyer and received much praise by the Chinese government for his work in public interest law.  But that was back in 2001.  By 2006, Gao had fallen out of favor and his work, particularly the representation of the repressed religious organization Falun Gong, was seen as a threat to the Chinese government.  In 2006, Gao was detained, arrested and eventually found guilty of subversion.  His three year prison sentence was converted to five year probation and he was allowed to remain at home.  After harassment, physical abuse and threats to his life, in February 2009, one month after his wife and child fled China for the United States, Gao was mysteriously abducted by Chinese police.  His whereabouts remained unknown.  The Chinese government remained largely silent in regards to Gao’s whereabouts until January of this year when in response to questions regarding Gao’s disappearance, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu retorted that Gao was “where he should be.” Although ominous, Gao eventually reemerged in March 2010 at Wutai Mountain, hundreds of miles from his home.  Announcing that he was giving up rights activism for the opportunity to be reunited with his family, Gao went to Xinjiang Autonomous Region at the beginning of April to visit his in-laws.  After one night there, Gao was abducted a second time and to this day, his whereabouts are unknown.

In addition to Liu and Gao, Posner also mentioned that the cases if recently disbarred public interest lawyers were also raised.  This likely means Tang Jitian and Liu Wei, two public interest lawyers who were recently stripped of the right to practice law.  Both Tang and Liu merely represented

China’s increasingly hard-line stance against rights activists and public interest lawyers reflects a country that may not be interested in establishing the rule of law, at least at it pertains to non-economic spheres.  Raising these issues is important not just for the people being detained or harassed, but also to see how China moves forward in response to the issues.  For example, President Obama, in his trip to China last November, reportedly raised the issue of Liu Xiaobo’s detention.  However, the Chinese government did not lighten Liu’s sentence in response.  Instead, the Chinese government sentenced Liu to the overly harsh term of 11 years in December, a month after President Obama’s visit.  It will be interesting to see what happens to Liu Xiaobo, Gao, Tang and Liu Wei after the Human Rights Dialogue.  Does China care anymore about the U.S.’ criticism?

Even the Chinese know what the real purpose of Arizona’s new law

To create a feeling of mutual respect, the U.S. usually voluntarily discusses design-swappableits own human rights issues during these dialogues.  In last week’s Dialogue, Assistant Secretary Posner volunteered Arizona’s new law against illegal immigrants as an example of a potential human rights violation in the United States.  However, according to Posner, the Chinese were not concerned about the law as it may apply to their citizens visiting the U.S.  Even the Chinese know that the law’s likely racial profiling will be for Mexicans, not Chinese.

How to Move Forward

Last week’s Human Rights Dialogue was only the second since 2002, after China suspended the talks.  Actually having the Dialogue itself is a major accomplishment.  Additionally, at the end both sides agreed to have another session in 2011, making the Dialogue an annual event.  For purposes of a continuing conversation, this is a good sign.  But the criticism that China merely plays lip service to the Dialogue is apt.  That is why it is important that during this month’s Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED), to be held in China May 24 and 25, that high level officials, including the Secretary of State, raise human rights.  China places more emphasis on the S&ED compared to the Human Rights Dialogue.  But if the U.S. really wants China to move forward in human rights and rule of law, the topic must also be raised at the S&ED.

Xu Zhiyong and What his Detention Means for Rule of Law in China

By , August 17, 2009

Originally posted on the Huffington Post

Just before dawn on July 29, 2009, the Beijing police apprehended leading Chinese public interest lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, allegedly to question him about possible tax evasion.  He has not been heard from since.  In an increasingly conservative political environment in China, Mr. Xu’s detention is far from an anomaly.  Many speculate that the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on public interest lawyers is merely a part of the preparations for the 60th

Xu Zhiyong; Photo by Shizhao

Xu Zhiyong; Photo by Shizhao

Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China this fall.  But in looking beneath the surface of the government’s recent actions, a different narrative emerges.

The apprehension of Mr. Xu, the forced closure of his legal assistance organization, Gongmeng (in English the Open Constitution Initiative), the investigation of Yi Ren Ping, a non-profit law center that assists AIDS and hepatitis patients with anti-discrimination actions, the recent disbarment of over 20 public interest lawyers, the professional “exile” of a leading legal scholar and outspoken critic to a remote region of China, all of these actions paint the picture of a government that has become increasingly more alarmed by a more vocal and organized group of lawyers.  The government, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which ultimately controls all governmental bodies, has begun to view the development of these non-profit lawyers and legal reform as a threat to its authority and to the one-party rule of the CCP.  Recent governmental assaults on the public interest law field are not just a one-off affair.  Rather, they show a CCP not looking to embrace the “rule of law,” but instead seeking to contain it.

Development of Rule of Law in China from the US & Chinese Perspectives

Both China and the U.S. agree that greater rule of law in China is needed and can benefit China.  Virtually every conference between the two nations mentions the need for rule of law development. But what is never articulated is what each means by “rule of law.”  Many Western scholars claim that rule of law is value-neutral; it is merely a system where laws are enforced in a transparent manner by an independent judiciary and that rule of law can exist regardless of the political system of the country.

And while this is likely true, the U.S. government still largely views rule of law within the rubric of democracy; as the rule of law develops so does democracy and greater protection for human rights.  Of the $27 million the government appropriated to rule of law projects in China in 2008, $15 million were administered by the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and another $2 million was designated for non-State Department rule of law projects (see CSR report, p. 2).

China, however, takes a different perspective.  While seeing the benefits of rule of law in terms of economic development, international acceptance and respect, and the ability for the central government to have greater control over the provinces, China has largely limited rule of law to the economic sphere and at times, a few other select areas.  If a case involves a politically sensitive issue, involves an organized group of plaintiffs, or could unmask government malfeasance, the government will either not allow a case to proceed or will determine the ultimate outcome.

Even with this limited development toward legal reform, many U.S. policymakers believe that rule of law will continue to spread and permeate lawyers’, judges’ and society’s consciousness.  This Trojan horse strategy assumes that legal reform in the economic sphere will inevitably spread to all areas of the law and to Chinese civil society.  Government will be held more accountable to the people, laws will be administered transparently and all rights, political, economic and social, will be able to be vindicated.  But proponents of this theory offer little to no evidence as to why.  Why is this inevitable? Why can’t China succeed in limiting legal reform to the economic sphere?  Why can’t rule of law be contained?

In other words, what if China is the black swan in the whole rule of law theory?

Emergence of a More Conservative Legal Ideology in China

Theory of the Three Supremes

The detention of Xu Zhiyong comes amid an increasing conservative political environment in China, at least in terms of legal reform.  In December 2007, President Hu Jintao attempted to reassert the importance of the CCP in legal interpretation and reform by announcing his theory of  “The Three Supremes:” judges and prosecutors should “always regard as supreme the Party’s cause, the people’s interest, and the Constitution and laws.”   Although initially unclear if the Three Supremes were listed in hierarchical order, a recent announcement in July 2009 by a justice minister confirmed the hierarchical nature of the Three Supremes and the preeminence of the CCP when he called upon lawyers to “above all obey the Communist Party and help foster a harmonious society.”

Wang Shengjun, President of the Supreme People's Court

Wang Shengjun, President of the Supreme People's Court

The Three Supremes is not just rhetoric.  In March 2008, the National People’s Congress named Wang Shengjun, a Party insider without any legal training, as head of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), replacing reform-minded and trained lawyer Xiao Yang.  Upon taking his position Wang has worked ardently to have the courts conform to the Three Supremes.

A More Organized Public Interest Law Movement

While the government expounds the Three Supremes and imposes this conservative ideology on the legal system, public interest lawyers have become increasingly organized and vocal.  In August 2008, a group of 35 public interest lawyers in Beijing issued an internet appeal that requested that the government-controlled Beijing Lawyers’ Association (BLA) to conduct free and direct elections of governing officials of the BLA.  In December 2008, human rights activists, many of whom are lawyers, signed Charter 08, a petition to the Chinese government calling for greater human rights, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system.  In addition, many of the non-profit lawyers, including Xu Zhiyong, have represented plaintiffs in politically sensitive cases, including cases pertaining to the Sichuan earthquake and the melamine milk scandal.  Last year, Xu’s organization issued a report blaming Chinese policies in Tibet for the 2008 uprising in that region.

China’s Recent Response

Under the doctrine of the Three Supremes, China has not responded kindly to these public interest lawyers.  Although the BLA slightly altered its voting rules by allowing for the direct election of representatives who then in-turn elected the governing officials, in February 2009, the local Judicial Bureau sought its revenge.  After withholding a license from Li Subin, one of the advocates of the new voting procedures at the BLA, the Bureau issued an order for Yitong Law Firm, which employed Li, to shut down for six months for permitting a non-licensed attorney to practice law.

Liu Xiaobo, a leading human rights activist in China and signatory to Charter 08 was detained by police just hours before the publication of Charter 08.  He remains in police custody.  He Weifang, a well-known law scholar at the prestigious Peking University has been sent into professional exile and now teaches law in China’s most western region, Xinjiang.

Xu Zhiyong has faced a similar fate.  In May 2009, tax authorities began to investigate Xu’s non-profit legal center, Gongmeng.  On July 14, the Beijing office of the National Tax Bureau and the Beijing Local Tax Bureau each issued a notice to Gongmeng for non-payment of taxes on funds donated by Yale University and levied the maximum penalty of five-times the amount owed, or $208,000.  On July 17, twenty officials from the Beijing Office of Civil Affairs barged into the Gongmeng offices, confiscating all materials including computers, case files, and furniture, and shut down Gongmeng.  On July 29, Xu was apprehended by police for suspicion of tax evasion; he remains in custody.

In a Kafkaesque turn of events, on August 5, after raising at least some funds to pay its fine, the Beijing Public Security Bureau froze all of Gongmeng’s accounts.  On August 10, in an attempt to discuss this matter with tax officials at the Beijing Local Tax Bureau and the National Tax Bureau, Gongmeng officials were escorted out.   Authorities have informed Gongmeng that their recently filed paperwork is invalid because it does not contain the signature of Gongmeng’s legal representative, Xu Zhiyong. As this back-and-forth continues, Xu Zhiyong remains in police custody and the fine of $208,000 accrues daily compounded interest of 3%.

Also on July 29, officials from Beijing Cultural Market Administrative Enforcement Unit inspected the offices of Yi Ren

Click on image to open a PDF version of the Timeline of Events

Click on image to open a PDF version of the Timeline of Events

Ping, a non-profit organization that files anti-discrimination lawsuits on behalf of people AIDS or hepatitis.  Claiming that their search was being conducted under the Measures to Manage Internal Material Publications, a law that was repealed in 2001, the officials seized 90 copies of Yi Ren Ping’s newsletter.

China’s Containment of Rule of Law

The Chinese Communist Party is unified by one principle – to remain in power.  Any organized effort, even if within the confines of the law, will be viewed as a threat to the CCP’s authority.  In recent months, Chinese public interest lawyers have been effectively organizing themselves, especially through the internet, to challenge the current system.  However, these lawyers are far from what the rest of the world would deem radical.  They are merely using the laws passed by the National People’s Congress to protect people, especially those in disadvantaged groups like rural parents in Sichuan or people with AIDS.  They are not looking to overturn underlying constitutional principles; they just want to enforce the law as written.

Even though these lawyers work within the system to improve Chinese society in a way that the law permits, as soon as they amass sufficient numbers, in the minds of the CCP, they are no longer operating within the legal system, but within the political one.  In these situations, the CCP will abandon the legal system in favor of the political one.

But this is not to say that rule of law has not taken hold in China.  Today, foreign corporations usually receive a fair hearing before arbitration commissions and the majority of cases handled by the courts are ordinary cases that involve little to no Party interference.  There has been a marked increase in the professionalism of many judges and lawyers, and there is a sincere effort by many in the profession to develop greater rule of law.

However, those few cases that involve large groups of people or involve issues sensitive to the CCP, often do not receive the same transparent and independent judgment.  In these situations, the outcome is ultimately determined by the CCP.

Thus far, China has been successful at confining rule of law development to non-political cases.  The actions that have been taken against public interest lawyers in the past two years show China’s commitment to maintaining this separation.  The government’s harassment and detention of public interest lawyers is intended to have a chilling effect on the profession.  The low numbers of lawyers who seek a career in the public interest can be seen as a reflection of this impact.

But can China succeed in containing rule of law to certain areas?  Many look to Taiwan and South Korea as an example of the inevitability of legal reform and democracy in an East Asian society.  Both were under authoritarian regimes but eventually developed vibrant legal systems.  However, China is in a very different place.  Taiwan and South Korea were still dependent on the U.S. for trade and for military protection, and thus heavily influenced by the U.S.  China, on the other hand, has become an economic and military powerhouse, beholden to few other nations.  One of those countries is, of course, the United States, but China has gained significant leverage in this bilateral relationship by stocking up over $700 billion in US treasury bonds. All the while, it has been able to develop its economy while limiting legal development in the political and human rights spheres.  Its continued rise only solidifies the need for this separation in the minds of the CCP leadership.

China’s future remains uncertain and only time will tell if rule of law does in fact permeate other areas of Chinese society.  However, at this juncture, where China has become an important global power, it is important for U.S. policymakers to re-evaluate their assumptions of the rule of law landscape in China; and to ask themselves, what if China is successful in containing rule of law to certain segments?  Can the U.S. live with that reality?  Will it have a choice?

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