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October 29, 2010

China expert Jerome Cohen recalls the precise moment that he began his study of Chinese and started his pioneering career in Chinese law—August 15, 1960. Cohen was in a league of his own in wanting to engage China during a period when U.S.-China relations were at a particularly low point. It took until 1979 before the two countries “normalized” their relations, making the development of broader exchange and engagement possible.

In September 1979, two Harvard law students went to Peking University hoping to study Chinese law. The Chinese government at the time permitted only four areas of study for foreign exchange students: Chinese, history, philosophy, and economics. Undeterred, they located the law department and spent weeks looking for a law professor whom they had met at Harvard. The professor finally showed up in their dorm one evening. He told them bluntly: “There isn’t any Chinese law to study. Hasn’t been for years.” Not giving up, the two students designed their own curriculum by reading any available Chinese material related to law and translating law-related essays. They were among the first in a continuous wave of students and legal professionals in the West who want to both understand China and contribute to developing a rule of law. Now, as China’s role in global trade, security, and human rights continues to expand, the challenges of engagement also need to be addressed more clearly and effectively.

After more than three decades of exchange with China that began in the late 1970s, how successful has engagement with China been? What constitutes successful engagement? How can we measure or assess progress? How has the international community influenced the progress of human rights and development of a rule of law in China? How has China influenced the international human rights system and norms? How well do Western scholars and professionals understand China, and how well do their Chinese counterparts understand the West? These questions also implicate fundamental values of transparency and accountability for all actors involved in engagement with China, no matter how engagement  is defined. This issue of China Rights Forum explores these key questions through the reflections and observations of human rights, legal, and education experts, NGO activists, and members of the business and press communities.

Section One, “Engaging China,” presents the experiences of governmental and nongovernmental actors who engage China in a variety of forums to improve China’s human rights and rule of law situation.  Felice Gaer provides insights into the challenges of engaging China at the United Nations. Amy Gadsden describes the beginnings of U.S.-China legal reform exchanges under Presidents Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin, and how these exchanges have changed in the past ten years. In the NGO Roundtable, representatives from the International Federation for Human Rights, International Campaign for Tibet, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International recount their experiences at the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue Seminar and offer their assessments of the dialogue process. Gao Wenqian discusses factors contributing to the lack of progress in the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue and suggests ways it can be made more effective.

Section Two, “The Truth According to China,” explores the Chinese government’s attempts to shape and control foreign media reporting on China. H.W. examines the ethical compromises some Western media companies have made in order to gain access to the Chinese media market. Paul Mooney reports on the tactics that the Chinese authorities employ to limit foreign reporting in China, as well as the financial resources the Chinese government is using to get its propaganda into the international community. He Qinglian explains the Chinese government’s new propaganda strategy of staffing overseas news bureaus of state-controlled media with foreign journalists in order to “localize” propaganda efforts.

Section Three, “Exchanging (Mis)perceptions," looks at the cultural difficulties in engaging in educational exchanges and doing business in China. Seven leading U.S. experts in Chinese law share stories—both humorous and poignant—from their encounters during the early years of legal exchange. Terry Lautz discusses China’s deficit in American studies and offers proposals to improve the situation. Closing this issue is a conversation with longtime businessman M.J., who talks about the challenges of doing business in China.

As the reflections and observations in this volume make clear, despite decades of engagement with China, the challenges of advancing a rule of law, and respect for and promotion of human rights, are difficult and call for long-term commitment and vision. Yet, they also make clear that engagement is, despite frequent setback and frustrations, essential to progress. As Felice Gaer points out, “You can’t change things if you’re just talking to yourself.” Engagement is a process that requires openness and transparency, and standing firm for international human rights principles. This is an ongoing challenge for Chinese and foreign media, governments, human rights and law experts and scholars, NGOs, and the international community.

William P. Alford, a distinguished American professor of Chinese law, recounts that in the 1980s, over dinner, a Chinese law school dean visiting New York anxiously whispered after repeatedly asking for permission to pose a “personal” question: “Do you actually believe in the separation of powers . . . or is it something that, as an American law professor, you are expected to say to Chinese educators?” It is our hope that more effective engagement should aim at fostering a China where people pose questions, discuss issues, and express opinions and beliefs openly, without fear.

—The Editors

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