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Glassman Embraces Complexity of China, as he Girds for Career on Other Side of the World
By Aisha Mohammed
Dorje Glassman

Dorje Glassman, visiting Tibet for the first time, was searching for the Tibet he thought he understood. Growing up in a Tibetan-Buddhist family, Glassman had come to assume that China was exploiting Tibet and that all Tibetans were naturally anti-Chinese. Tibetans, as far as he could see, had nothing to gain from Chinese rule. What Glassman found instead was a challenge.

Waiting for a bus to Mount Everest, Glassman saw an opportunity to commiserate with a Tibetan student about China’s uninvited presence. The student’s pro-China comments took him aback. If China had not annexed Tibet, the student claimed, he would never have been able to attend a University in Beijing. To Glassman, the Tibetan’s words made about as much sense as Gandhi touting the use of guns. After a heated discussion he understood that Tibet’s relationship with China had perhaps led to gains not readily apparent to a foreign eye.

This ability to embrace complexity will come in handy as he prepares to chisel out a future in Chinese law. Towards this end, Glassman, a Levy Scholar, has enrolled in Penn Law’s JD/MA program offered through the Lauder Institute. As part of the Chinese track, Glassman will study Mandarin, spend his first summer in China, and earn an MA in international studies.

Glassman’s study of Kung Fu ignited his interest in China at the age of 17. Several years later as a sophomore at Oberlin College, he became enchanted by Chinese calligraphy. In order to learn the art, however, he had to commit to a year of Chinese language classes. He quickly discovered that he had a “real affinity” for Mandarin, and spent the next year in Beijing, immersed in the language and culture.

After earning a dual degree in Environmental and East Asian Studies, Glassman returned to China to work as a project manager with a local nonprofit. He spent a year at Yunnan Mountain Heritage Foundation, a small organization that promotes eco-tourism and cultural preservation in the ethnically Tibetan areas of Northern Yunnan. In Yunnan, he initiated a Buy Local campaign, which was inspired by a similar campaign he had witnessed in Carrboro, N.C., while working as a carpenter during summer vacations in college. Glassman helped start a series of local markets for Tibetans to sell traditional crafts that still exist today.

In China, where slogans are as common as bicycles Glassman was particularly struck by one of ex-President Jiang Zemin’s: Use law to govern the country. “Chinese today take it for granted that law should be the foundation of government, but it wasn’t always this way. It has gradually become popular opinion,” says Glassman.

Glassman’s interest in law, like his interest in China, began in his teens. His high school English teacher impressed him with the “exceptional clarity of thought and expression” he demonstrated when discussing Dostoyevsky and Melville. Glassman was lit with a desire to develop and use those skills. A legal education, he felt, would be the best way to do that.

Conversations with friends in China led him to contemplate the legal foundations of the country’s pressing social and political issues. “The proper treatment of minorities, the displacement of communities because of development projects, all these issues boil down to the law,” says Glassman.

By Glassman’s account, it is an exhilarating time to be a lawyer in China. Recent years have seen the emergence of a more accessible civil legal system. As the Chinese government attempts to deal with increasing levels of social unrest — incidents of social unrest rose from 8,700 in 1993 to 74,000 in 2004 — judges are reviewing cases in traveling courts, with plaintiffs represented both by non-barred legal workers as well as licensed attorneys. Low-income citizens are seeing avenues open up for legal recourse.

However, those connected to the most politically-sensitive issues, such as Tibetan independence, still face a dead-end. The government declined to renew the licenses of attorneys who represented the Tibetan activists arrested in the spring 2008 Lhasa uprising. But the non-renewal of licenses is rare, says Glassman.

Also excluded from the system are foreign attorneys, since Chinese civil courts are off-limits to them. Although Glassman hopes civil courtrooms will eventually open their doors to foreigners, passing the Chinese bar exams remains a distant dream. Approximately eight percent of attorneys pass the Chinese bar exams, and foreign attorneys are not permitted to sit for the exam. So Glassman, who hopes to work in China, plans to start his career by training with a commercial litigation firm.

Training in Beijing, however, comes with a bonus: grappling with the contradictions and complexities presented by China. Beijing, explains Glassman, is “one of the few places in the world where one can routinely find farmers selling apples from the back of decrepit carts drawn by gaunt horses parked next to the latest model Mercedes Benz.”