Judith Koffler, an American lawyer who wrote dispatches for JURIST when she taught Chinese law students 25 years ago as a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Wuhan University, reflects on how China has changed...
This is a dispatch from your former JURIST China correspondent, twenty-five years later. The early dispatches I sent to [JURIST Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Professor Bernard] Hibbitts from Wuhan University roughly at the turn of the millennium when the Web was young are now so antiquated that finding one required an archival deep dive. Indeed, it was a very different time – China was open, ripe for reform, democracy and the rule of law were in bloom; the Chinese Constitution was amended to include the rule of law, and Chinese academics — and some political figures — were aflame with excitement over constitutionalism. This turn of the millennium began China’s “Golden Years,” and its influence on China’s next generation, after the passing of the current regime, may yet be felt.
In 1998 I went as a Fulbright law teacher to Wuhan University in central China and stayed a second year as a university employee on “Mother Teresa” wages. It was the turning point in my life and the richest, most memorable period of my career. Law students from Wuhan University, hungry for rule of law and reform, some even wondering why China wanted Taiwan, some dreaming of democracy and human rights, are now lawyers in elite firms, law professors appearing at international conferences, advocates for disability rights, government officials, and likely enjoy material abundance in a China so modern it beggars description (and makes the US look decrepit by comparison). They will likely contribute to the next generation of Communist Party officials after the passing of Xi Jinping.
One former student who went on to Harvard for an LL.M. just left a large American firm in Beijing to join an even more influential Chinese firm doing mergers and acquisitions. She was by far the brightest, hungry for knowledge, self-effacing, and widely read. Another deeply thoughtful student awarded an LL.M. in the US now teaches disability rights at Wuhan University and can be seen on YouTube advocating for the rights of the disabled – truly, my most courageous student, himself disabled. A third, who also studied in the U.S., teaches law at Shandong University and recently appeared on YouTube speaking forcefully against U.S. unilateral trade sanctions. I leaped with pride when I found him, heard his lawyerly arguments, and saw his professionalism, although I disagree with him and question his information about Xinjiang. A fourth student awarded advanced degrees overseas, is now a prominent mergers and acquisitions lawyer, having worked at Freshfields in London and with two large American firms in China. A fifth student, perhaps the gentlest and most lovable of all, was my Tai Chi master and devoted to environmental protection. He is now an official in the government, likely pushing for the preservation of natural resources and influencing the greening of China (see Xi Jinping’s recent tour of Mongolia).
These now mid-career lawyers and scholars give hope that the next generation to govern the Party will adopt strategies less aggressive and bellicose than the current regime. They have children and families to protect, and they may be voices for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. I have similar if faint hopes for our government, now that a few in Congress are trying to reinstate the China Fulbright program and educational exchanges. But bellicosity and aggression on our side are just as troublesome, and those qualities call on the professoriate and serious China watchers on this side to sit up and restart a missing dialogue. Just today, I read that the University of Virginia’s delegation to Shanghai is eagerly welcoming back Chinese students, engaging with its alumni, led by its Vice Provost, Stephen D. Mull, campaigning for people-to-people exchanges and opening academic communication between the two countries.
What keeps the profession from closer relations with Chinese academics across the Pacific? This is especially urgent since foreign journalists in China no longer have access to life in the streets and villages. The reason is that Chinese citizens have been cowed by government propaganda painting journalists as spies and bad guys, as Mike Chinoy, CNN China correspondent for 30 years, explains in recent university talks (available on YouTube). According to Chinoy, journalists are now unable to convey the rich and complex Chinese culture and what humanity we share with the Chinese people. Instead, journalists cover what’s left to them: diplomatic dispatches, military maneuvers, and intensifying conflict.
What to do? Rethink our orthodoxies, read books that challenge the dichotomies and expose the biases of a hidebound press and sensationalist media, and re-examine self-congratulatory presumptions of political superiority, for a start. Is Xi Jinping an autocrat? Of course he is. Is he completely in control of China’s destiny? Hardly an assumption with oceans of evidence behind it, and who knows what’s truly going on beneath the surface when even putting an image of Winnie the Pooh on the Internet will land you in prison in China? W-t-P, you will observe, has been used as a caricature of Xi Jinping. And a seemingly innocent stand-up comedian’s remark on TV just recently condemned that ill-fated fellow to a black hole. If those dreary facts mean anything, they likely indicate a black cloud of insecurity over the CCP. The recent White Paper protests, even in Wuhan, were followed by “White Hair” protests of retirees there complaining that their medical benefits had been shortchanged. Experts claim that the government deals with tens of thousands of protests every year.
Frankly, few people know on this side of the Pacific what’s lodged in the hearts of those millions of Chinese who have studied and worked in the West over the past 25 years and are now doing well on the mainland. I have a very tiny suggestion that there’s more than meets the eye in the face of universal censorship and the Communist Party’s strangling the slightest whisper of dissent.
What now for those students so ebullient to master contracts, the Uniform Commercial Code and even the American Bankruptcy Code, fired up against corruption in high places and taking on their shoulders China’s rise through the WTO and rule of law into prosperity and promise? They had their virgin tours on Westlaw, looking up nuclear waste disposal, international maritime rules, and subrogation in insurance law, among other sophisticated topics. Sua sponte, these undergraduates put on in highly competent English an entire American contracts trial with judge, jury, direct and cross-examination, introduction of exhibits, bench conferences, arguments to the jury, verdict and judgment while I brushed away tears at the back of the room. These kids were barely out of adolescence; how could you not grow to love them?
Pause a minute and recall that Deng Xiaoping’s injunction to carry out reform and President Jiang Zemin’s anti-corruption efforts were drummed into these impressionable young people. As incredible as it seems today, in June of 1998, just two months before I set out for China, President Jiang Zemin and President Bill Clinton got together on Chinese TV before an audience of Peking University students and good-naturedly debated the two countries’ future together, openly disagreeing about Taiwan, Tiananmen, and Tibet but insisting that their partnership could weather any storm. They even agreed not to point weapons against the other! To see the two together, as you can on YouTube today, so chatty and even jocular sometimes, talking of the three now “forbidden T’s”, brings forward the thought that we have dismissed at our peril public diplomacy and educational exchange – pace President Trump, who ditched the China Fulbright program. As Guobin Zhu details in a chapter in Chinese Legality: Ideology, Law and Institutions (Shiping Hua, ed., Routledge, 2023), Xi Jinping himself, in December, 2012 delivered a speech exalting constitutionalism and rule of law. What happened after that is well known – the great pivot.
What did I leave? It sticks in my heart and sometimes makes me tremble for their safety. In the words of one student, “Koffler, never to be credulous and always to be critically thinking is the inexhaustible wealth you left us, which will certainly benefit my whole life.”
Surely those words are the greatest gift a teacher can ask for. But today, no foreign law teacher can even write a syllabus without the permission of the censors. According to inside sources in China, most law firms must have Communist Party members superintending the practice. Human rights lawyers have been repeatedly thrown in prison all over China (and in Wuhan) even for trying to enforce the Chinese Constitution’s empty guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly; some have been tortured, according to Human Rights in China and Amnesty International. The stories will curdle your blood.
What of the stories of concentration camps, forced abortions and sterilizations, cultural genocide and the eradication of religion coming out of Xinjiang? The Chinese government declares these tales totally false — American lies to defame China, a gross distortion by a West that refuses to view rights to food, clothing and shelter and a chance to prosper more important than political rights (or even accept that some states may prioritize these). Indeed, Chinese government documentaries reveal a land of happy Uyghurs earning piles of money as entrepreneurs, while chubby, grinning Uighur schoolchildren learn Chinese, play soccer and are colorfully clad in fleecy Chinese clothing. It’s the story pushed down the throats of scholars and law professors in China, who cannot and will not (except on threat of peine forte et dure) question it. It’s a story contravened by Tahir Hamut Izgil’s book, Waiting to Be Arrested at Night (Penguin Random House, August 1, 2023).
Indeed, if Chinese thinkers doubt the government’s version, their doubts cannot be expressed due to monitoring, the Great Firewall, 24/7 surveillance via millions of CCTV’s in public, facial recognition software, intrusions into every single cell phone of the entire populace, and vast armies of henchmen superintending — and reporting to the authorities — whatever is written, spoken, texted, or even dared on the Internet. Perhaps AI is overtaking those henchmen today, making surveillance more efficient and threatening. One lonely fisherman, caught in the fog illegally fishing recently was apprehended by the police within 3 minutes.
Please stop here: Everything I’ve just written must be taken with a tablespoon of salt, if you’ll entertain some powerful and divergent views. Daniel Bell’s new book, The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University (Princeton, 2023) paints a picture of the academic life of a Canadian Confucian scholar settled for five years into a Chinese university administration – a story rich in experience, relationships, and adventures notwithstanding the criticism he levels at the Communist Party (he now teaches in Hong Kong). Kishore Mahbubani’s refreshing Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy (Hachette, Public Affairs, 2020) reminds us that our Western liberal democracies are hardly more than two hundred years old, whereas China’s culture stretches back thousands of years. China has survived those millennia through successive autocrats (emperors, the corrupt Chiang Kai-Shek, the tyrant Mao) but before the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, those millennia were never without moderating influences – mostly the highly educated and revered bureaucrats that held up the massive order, just as the 96-million members of the Chinese Communist Party do (or appear to do) today across that nation of 1.4 billion. Mahbubani suggests that our two plus centuries of liberal experimentation pale beside these apparently successful millennia to the point that we must re-examine our assumption of virtue and vaunted American exceptionalism.
Consider that China’s goal is 100% self-sufficiency by 2045, reunion with Taiwan sometime before the 100th anniversary of Communist China in 2049, and that some think it may soon outpace us in space exploration. Its high-speed trains connecting 550 cities and modern airports put our aging infrastructure to shame. That’s nothing compared to China’s eclipsing us with quantum computers, AI research, supercomputers, 7 times the number of engineers graduating every year, 5-G Internet service, a military of over 2 million, and hypersonic weapons. Is this not an argument for constructive engagement, making sure our ambassadors to China are thoroughly competent in Chinese and its culture (they haven’t been since 2011)? Or will we, out of ignorance and arrogance, fall prey to what Stephen Roach suggests may be a catastrophic accident in his book, Accidental Conflict: America, China and the Clash of False Narratives (Yale, 2022)? Martin Jacques’s controversial book, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (Penguin, 2009, updated in 2014) gives pause to the most exacting scholar and most self-assured apologist for Western hegemony.
I hesitate to write this, but my first lesson at the U.S. Beijing Embassy in early September, 1998, was a senior official — one who was highly regarded for his knowledge of Chinese and its culture – pontificating “China’s not going anywhere until it becomes monotheistic.” Later that afternoon I watched, horrified, as another Embassy official browbeat the Chinese bus driver with violent words. Our current ambassador, R. Nicholas Burns, who defended the invasion of Iraq and calls Edward Snowden a traitor, is apparently struggling for dialogue.
And let me leave you with this: one of those brilliant, successful students called me from China late the other night: “We have to stop our two countries from going to war.”
That’s a plea to consider well – one I hope many will take to heart.
Judith Koffler is a lawyer, consultant, educator, and a former JURIST correspondent.
Suggested citation: Judith Koffler, Where Are They Now? Dispatches from JURIST’s 1998-2000 China correspondent, JURIST – Professional Commentary, June 29, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/06/where-are-they-now-koffler/.
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