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Prof. Jacques deLisle on the China and International Human Rights Seminar Series

March 29, 2012

Jacques deLisle, the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, Director of the Center for East Asian Studies, and Associate Director of the new Center for the Study of Contemporary China at Penn, focuses his research and teaching on contemporary Chinese law and politics. This spring semester he has run an innovative new seminar, “China and International Human Rights,” drawing together Law School students, other Penn students, and members of the wider University community.

He spoke with Penn Law’s Office of Communications about the series, China’s human rights record, and China’s approach to global human rights and norms.

Penn Law (PL): How are you running this series, and how did it come about?
Jacques DeLisle (JdeL): It’s a Penn Law class on China and international human rights law. We have over 30 students enrolled - about half from outside the Law School. Part of each session is open to the university as a colloquium series that we’re co-sponsoring with Penn’s Center for East Asian Studies and the new Center for the Study of Contemporary China. It’s cross-school and cross-disciplinary.
We meet weekly for two hours. During the first hour and fifteen minutes or so, a guest speaker makes a presentation or engages in a dialogue with me on an aspect of China and human rights, followed by discussion with the audience. The last part of the session is a smaller group, primarily the enrolled students, and has more of a seminar feel.
The idea behind the series is that China and human rights is an issue that is perennially important, globally and in U.S.-China relations. During the last 30-plus years of the Reform Era in China, by many measures, the human rights situation has greatly improved, most dramatically in poverty alleviation and a softening of authoritarian rule. But there still are significant problems. The most obvious ones from an American perspective concern civil and political liberties. Beyond those, there are also questions of economic inequality and its social and political implications, the environmental cost of China’s mode of development and other issues.
Human rights are also an interesting and significant aspect of China’s engagement with the international legal order. It can tell us much about the degree to which China is coming more into conformity with, or being influenced by, or accepting the implications of international norms and rules.
I decided to offer this course partly because it’s an area I work on, but also because there is a lot of interest at Penn and because we have access to excellent scholars, activists and practitioners - some at Penn, some elsewhere in the northeastern U.S. and others passing through, mostly from China.
China_InternationalHumanRights_web.jpgPL: Who are some of the experts you have involved in the series?
JdeL: We have many of the leading scholars in the field. Jerome Cohen, of NYU Law School and the dean of Chinese legal studies in the United States, who will speak on civil and political liberties and well-known dissidents and detainees he has helped. Eva Pils from Chinese University of Hong Kong will address the travails of China’s “rights protection” lawyers who represent expropriated peasants, victims of mass torts resulting from the government’s regulatory failures and other public interest causes. Yu Guanghua from the University of Hong Kong tackled the question of the relationships among economic development, rule of law and human rights protection in China. Carl Minzner from Fordham Law School presented his influential and provocative work on official China’s recent “turn against law” and its implications for human rights.

Former Penn Law Bok Visiting International Professor James Zhaojie Li of Tsinghua gave a rich analysis of how international human rights norms do, and do not, enter Chinese domestic law and how China views the emerging international legal principle that states have a responsibility to protect against severe human rights deprivations at home and possibly abroad. Zhu Suli, former dean of Peking University Law School and famously skeptical of efforts to introduce Western-style law in much of China, will speak on challenges for judicial reform. Guobin Yang, from Columbia University and the leading scholar of online activism in China, gave an insightful and subtle account of the dramatic but ambivalent impact of the Internet and other new communications technology on human rights-promoting activism and civil society in China.
We have some extraordinary practitioners and activists, including victims of human rights abuses. Bob Fu, Harry Wu and Penn Law’s own Wang Tiancheng all spent time as what most would call political prisoners in China. Fu is the founder and leader of China Aid, a group that focuses on religious persecution and repression, especially of the so-called “house churches” - primarily Catholic and Protestant groups that worship “underground” in shop fronts, apartments, villages - and periodically face crackdowns as they operate outside the party and state- supervised and monitored system of recognized churches.

Fu brought with him a group of 10 academics and lawyers who work on religious rights and kindred issues, including defending followers of the banned Falun Gong sect in criminal proceedings. They offered striking accounts of the difficulties they face in their work. Wu spent nearly two decades in “reeducation through labor camps” after being branded a “rightist” and a “counter-revolutionary” during the Mao years. He founded the Laogai Research Foundation which documents prison conditions and other human rights problems in China. Wang was incarcerated for his role in the 1989 Democracy Movement and offered a very interesting and innovative assessment of the prospects for, and means to, democracy in China.
We also have a group of judges from China, and Sharon Hom and Amy Gadsden. A former law professor and now head of Human Rights in China, the leading China-focused human rights NGO in the United States, Hom gave her inimitably energetic account of how China blunts the impact of international criticism, tries to limits pro-human rights influences from abroad, and seeks to shape domestic public opinion and, increasingly, international norms in its favor. I think several of the students volunteered to work for her. Gadsden, Penn Law’s Associate Dean for International Affairs, gave a terrific account, rich in stories from her work with the State Department and the International Republican Institute, of the changing landscape and continuing difficulties facing NGOs and civil society more broadly. I expect the judges will give us a hands-on sense of how rights-related cases proceed in Chinese courts. It really has been quite the line-up.
PL: What are some of the areas you feel have to be covered in a series such as this?
JdeL: When teaching about this topic in an American classroom, it would be strange not to focus partly on core civil and political liberties. What happens to political dissidents? What happens to people who want to assert or advocate for rights that overlap with the usual list of international human rights? What are the mechanisms for protecting or denying rights of expression, religion or political participation? I think one also needs to pay attention to economic and social rights, which are often slighted in discussions in the West and where China can claim some impressive accomplishments.

Beyond that, I think it is also important to try to understand Chinese contexts and perspectives. Some strands in the official and orthodox Chinese view are that economic and social rights come first in sequence and priority, that universal human rights vary by political and cultural context, and that development and sovereignty are themselves human rights. One does not need to accept those views—and many Chinese do not - but one does need to understand them, not least because China is becoming more assertive in shaping international human right discourse.
We’d be remiss not to cover the forces that are changing human rights and ideas about human rights from below in China—the new media environment, emergent civil society and other mans that Chinese now have to receive and impart information and views, within China and through connections abroad.
Given how important—at least at times—the human rights issue is to U.S.-China relations, it’s vital to look at how China interacts with international human rights norms and institutions and how the outside world attempts to promote change in China. To be sure, the fate of human rights in China depends on what people in China think and do, but that’s not to say we can’t have an impact or that we don’t have some responsibility. Having that impact and fulfilling that responsibility requires the understanding this series seeks to promote.