Posts tagged: Jerry Cohen

Jerome A. Cohen – An Essay for His 90th Birthday

Prof. Jerome A. Cohen

It was my first trip to Taiwan and I was traveling with a celebrity, Jerome A. Cohen.  I had started working for Jerry at NYU Law School’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute only a few weeks prior.  Because it was August, I hadn’t seen much of my new boss who was spending the summer in Cape Cod.  Taiwan would be my first opportunity to get to know Jerry, one of the pre-eminent scholars of Chinese law in the West.

As soon as we arrived in Taiwan, Jerry’s importance in the region was evident.  At the airport, we were picked up in a car befitting a high-level dignitary.  We dined with then-Vice President of Taiwan, Annette Lu, a former student of Jerry’s and who, in 1985, Jerry helped secure an early release from a 12 year prison sentence for her political speech. And wherever we went, people asked Jerry about another of his former students, Ma Ying-jeou, a presidential candidate who would eventually win.  This law professor from New York had the ear of the highest level of Taiwan’s politics.

Jerry’s high-level contacts didn’t stop at politics.  We also met with Justice Lai In-jaw, the recently appointed President of Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan, in other words, the chief justice of Taiwan’s highest court.  He too had been a student of Jerry’s.  For over an hour, Justice Lai and Jerry discussed recent legal changes in Taiwan and Justice Lai expressed his excitement about his new position leading the Court.

At the end of the meeting, when we had already stood up to show ourselves out, Justice Lai stopped us, turned to Jerry, and, after noting that Jerry had clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1950s, asked in a hushed, solemn tone “Do you have any advice for me in my new position?”

Jerry paused, looked at Justice Lai and asked  “Have you ever watched The Graduate?” The seriousness on Justice Lai’s face quickly disappeared with his eyes opening wide.  A smile spread across his face and in a voice louder than I expected said “Yes!  Mrs. Robinson!  The Sound of Silence!”

Jerry in Beijing, 1973. Photo courtesy of Joan Lebold Cohen

Evidently Justice Lai was a fan of the flick.  But I wondered, where is Jerry going with this; how could The Graduate, a movie from the 1960s where a mother seduces her daughter’s boyfriend, provide guidance to the future president of Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan.  Jerry continued.  “Do you remember the first scene, the pool party?”  “Yes!” Judge Lai exclaimed.   “Do you remember when Dustin Hoffman asks his dad’s friend, ‘what should I do?’ And the friend says ‘Plastics.  Get into plastics.’”  Judge Lai, still smiling, nodded repeatedly.  Jerry looked at Justice Lai and with a smile said “So Justice Lai, get into plastics!”  On that note, our meeting was over and I thought, what have I gotten myself into?

What I got myself into was the start of a relationship that would change my life and shape the way I see China, the world and the pursuit of justice.  When I started working with Jerry back in 2007, he was in the thick of supporting China’s human rights (weiquan) lawyers.  But unlike other academics, he didn’t just study these lawyers.  He met with them. He supported them.  He advocated for them before high-level Chinese officials.  Jerry took on the cause of these human rights lawyers, recognizing that they were as much change agents as those in power.  Often it was through Jerry that their stories of persecution were kept alive in the West. Jerry’s unwavering belief that rights lawyers are necessary to rectify societal injustices rubbed off on me.  When, two and half years later, I was offered the opportunity to take a job with a legal services organization in New York City, I spoke with Jerry before making a decision.  I was torn.  Should I abandon the study of Chinese law for a public interest law job in the U.S.?  Jerry didn’t hesitate.  “Yes” he told me.  But that’s Jerry, always encouraging you to take a risk and sometimes knowing you better than you know yourself.

The last time I saw Jerry before New York City went into COVID lockdown was at a talk he was moderating about academic freedom in China.  During the question and answer period, a middle-age professor from China raised his card to speak.  When it was the professor’s turn, he began with an opinion that was contrarian and, as he continued to talk, the groans from other audience members were audible. Even I bristled at what seemed like the party line. The Chinese professor began to slow down, likely unsure if he should continue with all the eye rolls from the audience. But Jerry, looking directly at the Chinese professor, asked him to continue, telling the professor that he wanted to hear the professor’s on-the-ground experience. The professor resumed, a little more confident with Jerry’s encouragement. Jerry engaged the professor, asking pointed questions that developed what turned out to be an important and insightful perspective.

That moment is etched in my mind because it is so different from what we see in today’s society, where we are quick to stake a position and dismiss or objectify those whose opinions differ.  But Jerry is not afraid to be challenged by a different opinion and he has the grace to engage those with different perspectives, making them comfortable to share their life experiences.  We need to be more challenged.  We need to be more respectful of each other. We need to be more like Jerry.

Jerry with his wife, Joan Lebold Cohen

I also often think back to our meeting with Justice Lai where I first got to see Jerry’s mischievous side and learned that none of us should take ourselves too seriously; regardless of our age or where we are in life, we should continue to have fun.

So to Jerome A. Cohen, on this July 1, 2020, happy 90th birthday! May you continue to be the teacher we need now more than ever and may you have many more years of fun!

What is Up with Chen Guangcheng?

Chen Guangcheng, entering a Beijing Hospital with US Ambassaor Gary Locke and State Dep't Legal Advisor Harold Koh

More often than not, I am my friends’ go-to China person; something in the news pops up with China, I get the questions.  So I wasn’t surprised on Saturday when over some carrot cake at the Chelsea Market a friend of mine had questions about Chen Guangcheng: if he cared so much about human rights in China, why would he leave?  What is up with the Chinese government, keeping a blind man trapped in his own home?  How did things get so messy between the U.S. government and Chen?

It’s been almost a month since Chen fled the home that illegally became his prison. So what exactly is up with Chen’s escape and to answer some questions – what does it all mean?

Chen’s Escape Has Propelled Human Rights to the Top of the US-China Agenda

My friend’s question on Saturday caught me off guard – does Chen really care about human rights in China if he fled to the protection of the U.S. Embassy, ostensibly to seek asylum and leave China.

To ask a man with a wife and two children to be a martyr for his cause is asking too much.  As this blog has recounted previously, since Chen’s release from prison (oddly convicted of a traffic disturbance) did not result in freedom.  Instead, for the past year and a half, Chen and his family have been subjected to illegal house arrest and at times, physical torture by his captures.

It is true that by departing China, Chen’s ability to change China’s current system will be much reduced if not extinguished.  But his heroic flight has perhaps done more to highlight the Chinese government’s recent illegal oppression of dissent than anything else.  Over the past year and a half, this blog has increasingly written about the Chinese government’s crackdown on China’s nascent rights defending (weiquan) lawyers. Aside from people already interested in the issues, these posts – and the acts of repression which they have focused on – have received little attention.

Chen’s escape and his subsequent stay at the U.S. Embassy  altered this focus. With Hillary Clinton arriving for the Strategic and Economic

Inspiring Architecture? The US Embassy in Beijing

Dialogue (S&ED), the focus of U.S.-China relations shifted to human rights.  For one week, as the world watched, the U.S. and China’s relationship was thrown back to a 1980s-Cold War paradigm, when ideology played a more governing role.  For one week, the Western media’s attention finally focused on the repression of rights defending lawyers, and the lip service the Chinese government gives “rule of law” when it comes to civil rights and civil liberties.

It is amazing that a single man’s act, that one blind man’s heroic act, can still change the dialogue in U.S.-China relations.  It is a hopeful reminder that in this globalized world, individuals still matter; that one man’s quest for freedom is still “news.”  And don’t think Chen’s act was not a heroic one.  Not only was a blind man able to find his way to Beijing, but imagine if he wasn’t; imagine if he was caught.  Likely his fate would match that of Gao Zhisheng, a rights defending lawyer who, while in government custody, remains missing.

The U.S. Government’s Actions Supported Human Rights

Some have criticized the U.S. government – or more aptly, the Obama Administration – for its dealings with the Chinese government over Chen.  Initially, the U.S. Embassy worked out a deal with the Chinese government whereby Chen would stay in China, study law at a university in a coastal city away from the thugs of his hometown, and be left alone with his family.  This was what Chen initially wanted.

But once he left the safety of the embassy for a Beijing hospital, Chen began to reconsider his options.  As Prof. Jerome A. Cohen recounted to CNN, the promised U.S. Embassy official was unable to stay with Chen at the hospital and once he began speaking other rights defending lawyers – friends he hadn’t been able to speak to for a year – he began to more clearly understand the increased oppression of rights defending lawyers in China.  Chen was scared; Chen realized that without full information, he misjudged the situation.  That’s when he vocally requested that he be able to leave China for the United States.

Were some in the U.S. Embassy a touch too naive to rely on the Chinese government’s promises?  Most likely.  But being naive is not the same as turning one’s back to human rights.  It was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to allow Chen into the U.S. Embassy in the first place.  Chinese citizens cannot just willy-nilly enter the U.S. Embassy; even American citizens are allowed limited access to their embassy (which resembles a high-security prison).  As the N.Y. Times has recounted, embassy officials were notified of Chen’s flight to Beijing and on April 25, Secretary Clinton gave the authorization to sneak Chen into the embassy compound.  Secretary Clinton knew full well that by providing that approval, a throw-down with the Chinese government on the issue of human rights was certain and the ultimate outcome unclear. It is unfortunate – although not all together shocking given the current acrimonious status of politics – that Washington D.C. cannot view this moment as a proud one for America and its ideals; that the web of support that both parties have built for a human rights network in China over the years enabled Chen to come to our door.   Instead, it appears that what could otherwise be a proud moment for Americans, is becoming a political tug-of-war.

Who is Driving the Bus? The Chinese Central Government’s Lack of Control

Beep Beep! Who drives this bus??

What is perhaps the most shocking of all from this whole situation is the Chinese central government’s lack of control of local governments. Chen’s persecution has largely been conducted by the local government in his hometown, with local government officials still seething after his attempt to bring a lawsuit against them for forced abortions.  But even when Chen fled to Beijing, his safety could not be guaranteed, hence his changed desire to leave for the United States.  Many of his relatives left in their villages are being persecuted by local officials.  It makes one wonder – who really drives the bus in China?

Imagine a United States where Governor George Wallace could ignore federal law, have his way and continue segregation in his home state of Alabama.  Likely you can’t.  It’s unfathomable to think that a national government is unable to enforce its own laws, and in the case of China, that a supposed authoritarian dictatorship cannot control lower level party members.

Chen’s case reflects a center weaker than anyone previously thought.  And that is what is most frightening and should give people pause.  Does China really have the power to become a rising superpower or will it revert to its warlord past, where each city is governed by its own power broker and the central government remains impotent?

While China’s weakness appears to manifest itself often in human rights issues, it should not be just a concern for human rights advocates.  Anyone working in or with China – business people, government officials – should be troubled.  A weak center, especially as China undergoes an important leadership transition this year, does not bode well for China.

Prof. Jerome Cohen – The Fixer

On a final note, I want to focus on Prof. Jerome Cohen and his role in all of this.  As a research fellow for two years, I had the privilege of working

Prof. Jerome A. Cohen

with Prof. Cohen at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.  In that time, I got to know a kind, brilliant man who never ceased to amaze me.  It was Prof. Cohen who first identified the ingenuity and necessity of Chen’s unschooled, “barefoot lawyer” approach in 2003 and deservedly catapulted him to the world stage.

While my two years with Prof. Cohen were filled with inspiring moments, I have never been more proud of him than I was with his handling of the Chen Guangcheng situation.  While this is all purely based on hearsay, it appears that it was Prof.  Cohen who got the U.S. and China out of what was becoming a crisis situation.  Prof. Cohen’s lifetime of experience with China, including high-level delegations soon after Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, allowed him to realize that all that was needed was a practical solution where everyone could save face: a scholarship for Chen to study law at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute and invitation for his wife and children to join him.

Now we wait and see.  The United States has approved Chen’s visa application and just yesterday he applied for his Chinese passport.  Although the Chinese government could renege on the deal, that looks increasingly less likely and ultimately not in their best interest.  It’s never a satisfying moment when one of your citizens essentially seeks protection from a foreign government for human rights abuses, but on some level, the Chinese government is likely happy that Chen, who has long been a rabble rouser and a cause célèbre for other Chinese rights defenders and foreign friends, is leaving the country.  Unfortunately for Chen and his family, he will likely never be able to return to his home country.

NYU To Celebrate Prof. Jerome A. Cohen, Founder of the China Law Field – Sept 7 – NYC

By , August 18, 2010

Prof. Jerome A. Cohen

To celebrate Jerry Cohen’s 80th birthday,  NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute will be dedicating its annual Gelatt Dialogue on Tuesday, Sept. 7 to Jerry and the impact that his 50 years of study has had on the study of Chinese law.

A cross-generational event, the evening will feature those who were with Jerry when the field was first born in the early 1960s (Prof. Randle Edwards), those who helped Jerry open law firms in China in the late 1970s, early 1980s (Stephen Orlins, Owen Nee), and those who work with Jerry on his current rule of law projects in China (Daniel Yu, Hyeon-Ju Rho, Alex Wang, Margaret Lewis, Cynthia Estlund).

“Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom: A Roundtable Discussion on China’s Legal System” will analyze China’s progress these past 50 years and look at what the future may potentially hold.  The event is free and open to the public although RSVP is requested.  Details are below or can be found at the US-Asia Law Institute website (http://www.usasialaw.org/?p=3969).  Given the wide experience of the panelists, the event should be interesting and, given that all of the panelists were students of Jerry’s, should be a wonderful homage to his work

Gelatt Dialogue on “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom: A Roundtable Discussion on China’s Legal System”

Celebrating Prof. Jerome Cohen’s 80th Birthday
Tuesday, Sept. 7
4 pm – 6:30 pm
Reception to Follow
Greenberg Lounge, Vanderbilt Hall
NYU Law School, 40 Washington Square South
RSVP req’d to Jeremy.Daum@nyu.edu (Subject Line: “Gelatt”)

Upcoming Event in DC: China, Law & Jerry Cohen!

By , February 16, 2010

February 19, 2010 from 1:30 pm – 6 pm; George Washington School of Law

Prof. Jerome A. Cohen

Prof. Jerome A. Cohen

Free & Open to the Public
Click here for the event’s flier

The name Jerome A. Cohen is synonymous with the study of Chinese law in the U.S.  Why?  Because the man basically created the field.  Prof. Cohen started studying Chinese law in 1960, while mainland China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution and no foreigners were allowed in.  Instead of giving up, Prof. Cohen went to Hong Kong and interviewed refugees as they fled the Mainland.  Through his interviews, he was able to gather information on the criminal law under the Communists.  To this day, “The Criminal Process of the People’s Republic of China: 1949-1963” is the only holistic examination of the Chinese criminal law in early Chinese communist history.

In returning to the U.S. and joining the faculty of Harvard Law School, Prof. Cohen founded the first East Asian legal studies program, inviting many Chinese students who would later become important legal reformers including the current President of Taiwan, the former Vice President of Taiwan, the Chief Justice of Taiwan’s highest court, and former dean of Tsinghua University Law School.  After China opened in 1979, Prof. Cohen joined Coudert Brothers and opened the first foreign law office in Beijing.

But Prof. Cohen’s career is more than just writing books and opening offices.  As a pioneer in the field, Prof. Cohen has taught the second, third, and now fourth generation of Chinese legal scholars and has made the field what it is today.  And this year, Prof. Cohen turns…..well, he turns an age where it is respectable to host a conference in his honor so the world can celebrate his achievements.

This Friday, George Washington School of Law and Georgetown Law present a conference in Prof. Cohen’s honor.  Discussing four fields of law that are undergoing significant change in China, the conference will feature powerhouses in the field, many of which are former students and colleagues of Prof. Cohen’s.  Below is the schedule of events.  This event is free and open to the public.  RSVPs are not required but would be appreciated.  Please email jacfestrsvp@gmail.com

****Prof. Cohen will be in attendance*****

Schedule:

Panel 1 – Google & Freedom of Online Information – 1:45 pm
Sharon Hom, Executive Director, Human Rights in China
Lawrence Liu, Senior Counsel, Congressional Executive Commission on China
Amy Porges, International Attorney, Law Offices of Amelia Porges PLLC
Susan Weld, Adjunct Prof. of Law, Georgetown Law

Panel 2 – Business Law – 2:45 pm
Donald Clarke, Prof. of Law, George Washington School of Law
James Feinerman, Prof. of Law, Georgetown Law
Nicholas C. Howson, Assistant Prof. of Law, University of Michigan Law School

Panel 3 – Human Rights, Civil Society & Criminal Law – 4:00 pm
Xiaorong Li, Research Scholar, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland
Eva Pils, Associate Prof., Faculty of Law, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Karla Simon, Prof. of Law, Columbus School of Law, Catholic University of America
Scot Tanner, China Security Analyst, The CNA Corporation

Panel 4 – International Law – 5:00 pm
Julia Qin, Associate Prof. of Law, Wayne State University Law School
Michael Schlesinger, Attorney, International Intellectual Property Alliance
Timothy Stratford, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for China Affairs, USTR
Alex Wang, Senior Attorney & Dir., China Environmental Law Project, NRDC

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