On Tuesday, February 4, Professor Benjamin van Rooij joined Professor Cohen at NYU to discuss his research and current roles at University of California-Irvine School of Law as the John S. and Marilyn Long Professor of U.S.-China Business and Law and academic director of the John S. and Marilyn Long U.S.-China Institute for Business and Law.
“Professor Kagan from Berkeley once told me that there are splitters and lumpers,” Professor van Rooij told Professor Cohen during the conversation. “The splitter studies a simple-looking problem and opens it up and opens it up and things become more complex…A splitter then concludes that things are more complex than we thought. Such conclusion cannot easily lead to solutions to problems.” A self-proclaimed splitter and inductive scholar, Professor van Rooij has spent the last fifteen years utilizing social science methods and theories to examine the implementability of legislation, regulatory law enforcement and compliance, and rights invocation and legal empowerment in China. He developed an interest in China after watching the student Tiananmen protests unfold from the Netherlands, where he had grown up during the height of the Cold War. “It was the first time seeing a glimmer of hope,” Professor van Rooij recalled. Years later, following the completion of degree programs in law and Chinese studies, Professor van Rooij found himself in Chengdu and Kunming conducting fieldwork for his PhD project on environmental law enforcement and compliance. Here he interviewed both local level law enforcement officials, local factories and citizens living next to such factories.
Since beginning this work, Professor van Rooij has found that skepticism and preserving people’s confidence are key components to navigating through complicated topics. Yet, difficulties always arise. “You always end up having sensitive questions,” Professor van Rooij said of his recent project on lawyers and tax compliance. “You have to ask, in so many words, ‘Did you break the law?’” After fourteen years of researching “complex problems,” ranging from environmental pollution to land disputes, and from worker safety to tax evasion, Professor van Rooij has come to the conclusion that a more nuanced understanding of problems of enforcement and compliance is important. It shows one that implementation of law is weak in China due to limited capacity and independence of state regulators. It shows that society has an important role to play in helping unearth violations of law and providing incentives for compliance. Also it shows that violations of law in China cannot be simply deterred through higher punishment. However, for the nuance this type of research brings, it does not easily translate into solutions, as many proposed reforms are politically and practically challenging.
In response, he has recently shifted his methodology to a solutions-based approach based on psychological research that demonstrates how minor interventions can impact people’s compliance. In such way, a pragmatic approach can be developed where not the problem as a whole is addressed, but rather possible solutions are explored and expanded to help deal with part of the larger problem of, for instance, industrial pollution, unsafe labor, or unfair land takings. He has recently started the Compliance Action Laboratory where he and colleagues from Law, Psychology, Criminology and Business Administration in UC-Irvine and Chinese partners collaborate to conduct experiments in laboratory and real-life situations in the U.S. and China.
USALI’s next weekly lunch will take place on Thursday, February 13 with guest speaker Zhang Xudong, Professor of East Asian Studies at New York University. Professor Zhang has co-taught courses on Law and Society at NYU Law with USALI Co-Director Frank Upham.