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Bok Course Spotlight: “China and International Law”

February 16, 2022

In Fall 2021, Penn Carey Law School offered a dynamic and timely Bok course, “China and International Law,” that looked at international law in the context of topical and challenging case studies, including that of the South China Sea. The course was led by Bok Visiting Professor Bing Bing Jia, Professor of Law at Tsinghua University (Penn Carey Law’s partner institution in Beijing).

Through Bok courses, Penn Carey Law students engage with leading scholars from around the world in 3- or 4-week-long explorations of current topics at the forefront of global legal scholarship. Bok courses supplement the Law School’s wide array of Global Coursework offerings.

The Bok Visiting Professors are an elite group. They are invited for their exceptional expertise, having been selected by Penn Carey Law faculty who greatly respect their contributions to their fields. They bring experienced voices that offer unique perspectives on a broad range of legal topics.

A Distinctive Voice in International Law

Bing Bing Jia is one of China’s leading authorities on public international law, including international humanitarian and criminal law. His recent high-profile work focuses on China’s territorial and law-of-the-sea disputes in the South China Sea. He is a member of the Curatorium of The Hague Academy of International Law, and, since 2020, a member of the editorial board of the American Journal of International Law. Professor Jia earned an LL.B. from Peking University and a D.Phil. from Oxford University before starting his career at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague. In 2004, he returned to academia as Professor of International Law at Tsinghua University.

Jacques deLisle, the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law & Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at Penn Carey Law School, recommended Jia for the Bok Visiting International Professors program. “We were very fortunate to have Professor Jia teach his Bok course on China and International Law,” he stated. “It’s an important and timely topic, given China’s growing influence on—and capacity to influence—international law. And it’s especially valuable to have a perspective from China at this moment when the U.S. and China are increasingly at odds on many issues in international law. As one of China’s leading international law scholars and one well-versed and deeply experienced in both Chinese and Western perspectives on the issues, Professor Jia was (and is) able to appreciate, and convey, the subtlety of issues that are too often reduced to overdrawn contrasts and simplistic dichotomies.”

The Right Topic at The Right Time

Back in 2016, Professor Jia visited Penn Law for a conference. “As a member of Tsinghua Law School’s delegation,” he explained, “I experienced firsthand the ambience of the Law School as well as the engagement of its faculty and community. That visit impressed me, making a decision to visit again much easier when I received the Bok [Visiting Professor] invitation.”

That invitation initially led to plans for Jia to teach in the 2017–2018 academic year. Though Jia subsequently needed to defer due to an appointment in China, he was looking forward to his rescheduled visit when the pandemic unraveled plans for intercontinental travel. It became clear that teaching remotely would be the best option—letting Penn Law students analyze contemporary case studies on China and international law at a time when China is central to global discourse.

Fortunately, Jia enjoys online teaching, citing the ability to observe individual reactions on the screen. He was also impressed by the seriousness of the Penn Law students in his course. “There were several who would often raise questions during class, or engage in discussion by email afterward, showing in-depth knowledge about the general subject matter and the considerable preparatory work that they put into the classes… . [Many] wrote me about their essay topics, inquiring about the way a particular issue should be analyzed, revealing a serious approach to legal writing. Others showed special interest in the subject matter of the course, reflecting their awareness of contemporary international affairs. My exchange of views with the students was rewarding, and from them I learned different perspectives. Their questions spurred me to further reflect on certain legal issues, thus enriching the substance of my course. For that, I am very grateful to have had this opportunity.”

Understanding China’s Approach to International Law

Alvin Ambardy LLM’22 was drawn to the Bok course because he was curious about China’s view of international law. “It was a real eye-opener for me,” he said. “In the first two classes, we talked about general international law, which was interesting. But starting in the third class, we got into the South China Sea, and it was fascinating, yet sensitive, because there are so many conflicts involving that area.”

Professor Jia emphasized that his course was intended to discuss China’s present relationship to international law. Its focus was on China’s present position as a great power that has exerted influence in certain areas of international relations, and it referenced the impact of history on current Chinese practice–especially where historical incidents are not settled, but directly frame certain current disputes between China and other countries.

Jia described the course as “part of a developmental curve in seeking to understand the rationale of China’s approach to international relations, and especially international law.” His hope was that, after experiencing the class meetings and the exchange of views with him as they prepared their papers, “the students may be open to the international lawyer’s perspective on various touchy issues.”

Alvin Ambardy came away from the condensed course with an appreciation for Professor Jia’s unique background. “Professor Jia is a scholar with so many experiences in the international scene who just happens to be from China, so he could share both perspectives.”

Ambardy had one suggestion for improvement: “I really wish that there had been more than six classes.”