On Monday, October 28, 2013 the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) hosted its annual China Town Hall, an event that combined a webcast interview from Washington with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with on-site presentations by China specialists on topics of interest to local communities. USALI Executive Director, Ira Belkin and USALI Affiliated Scholar Margaret Lewis led two of the sixty-six on-site presentations from Fordham University and Bucknell University, respectively.
At Fordham University, Professor Belkin followed Secretary Albright’s comments on major bilateral issues such as trade, energy security, piracy, and peacekeeping with a discussion moderated by Carl Minzner, Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University, on the intersection between human rights issues and doing business in China.
Professor Belkin opened the discussion with his observation that there used to be a divide between business-related conversations about China, which involved talk about open markets and free trade, and human rights-related dialogue. Yet, with the recent surge of public confessions by prominent Chinese and foreign businessmen and journalists who have not been charged or given a trial, as dictated by Chinese law, this has begun to change. “China is using illegitimate means to shape public opinion,” Professor Belkin stated, citing the cases of Peter Humphrey, a British risk consultant who publicly confessed to using illegal methods to buy and sell personal information, Charles Xue, a Chinese-American entrepreneur and human rights advocate who publicly confessed to soliciting prostitutes, and Chen Yongzhou, a journalist who publicly confessed to defaming a partly state-owned firm in articles exposing alleged corruption. When asked to put the situation in historical context, Professor Belkin emphasized that the practice of public confessions is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, not of China’s legal developments over the last few decades. There is no law that prohibits confessions, he elaborated, but there is a law against coerced confessions.
On the issue of progress, Professor Belkin brought up the planned abolition of China’s re-education through labor system, a practice which has been in effect for over fifty years. Yet, he cautioned, China’s progress cannot be viewed from a linear perspective. “Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps backward, or two steps forward, one step backward,” he said, admitting that he once thought that Weibo, China’s largest social media platform with over 500 million users, was the way to a “free China.” But the implementation of recent policies that label forwarded posts as “rumors” has led him to reconsider.
On what has caused these draconian policies and where China is headed, Professor Belkin posited that these new strategies are an effort on the part of the authorities to reclaim authority, but that there is no crystal ball when it comes to prophesying China’s future. It’s what he and all of the other China watchers out there are “always trying to figure out.”
At Bucknell University, Professor Lewis, Associate Professor of Law at Seton Hall School of Law, focused on the Bo Xilai Case and the Rule of Law in China. Professor Lewis’ talk stimulated questions from the audience about corruption in the Party, particularly the investigation of Zhou Yongkang, the former head of China’s Central Political and Legislative Committee, a powerful organ that oversees the country’s legal enforcement authorities. Zhou has recently come under scrutiny over allegations regarding corruption at the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation.
Audience members were also interested in the role of social media in shedding light on officials' activities and the recent crackdown on Weibo.