Written By: 程洁 Jie Cheng
Posted on: June 30, 2020
I have known Professor Jerome Cohen for more than 20 years. When I was in graduate school, Professor Chen Xiaoping told me the story of Jerry helping the June 4th dissidents. Shortly after joining Tsinghua University, I got to meet Jerry in person. When he recounted his experience of meeting with Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s and the early social and legal conditions in China, it was like reading a living history book. Later our paths crossed because of our common interest in legal aid and government information disclosure.
When Jerry visited Beijing around 2002, I was the supervisor of the Civil Rights Assistance Legal Clinic at Tsinghua. At that time, many construction projects were promoted by local governments. Illegal land acquisition and demolition triggered social unrest. The Legal Clinic was approached by many landless farmers, urban demolished households, and other affected homeowners, including Liu Zhengyou and Hua Xinmin, who later became well-known rights defenders. However, the registration and trial of such cases often encounter interferences and pressure from the government. Friends and colleagues of mine also believed that clinical education was a distraction from conventional legal pedagogy, and that constitutional scholars should focus on theoretical research. But Jerry always confirmed the importance of the work of the clinic, which gave me great encouragement.
Another common interest we share is government information disclosure. After the SARS epidemic in 2003 ended, I participated in the State Information Office’s research project on information freedom and security. In 2003-4, I was fortunate enough to visit the United States as a Fulbright scholar. Jerry invited me to give a public lecture at the Foreign Relations Committee. After 2007, the “Government Information Disclosure Regulations” began to take effect, causing lots of controversy and litigation. These new phenomena have also become areas of common concern to us. From 2009 to 2014, I participated in the Sino-US Judicial and Human Rights Dialogue almost every year and discussed this topic with Jerry and other experts from both countries.
Jerry has recently reflected on his own journey of Chinese law as a “missionary.” He is of course being modest: many think of him as not a “priest”, but a “godfather” figure who pioneered the study of contemporary Chinese law in North America. I personally think that Jerry’s contribution to the deontology of Chinese law will be more lasting than that of scholars of legal doctrines. To some extent, the “missionary” thinking reflects the traditional paradigm of transplanting American law and exporting legal cultures. In the context of social pluralism and the increasing multi-polarization of international relations, it is inevitable that they will be resisted and questioned. But unlike Frank Goodnow and Roscoe Pound in the first half of the 20th century, Jerry has always maintained solidarity with the dissidents and various minorities. This makes Jerry a moral icon and a true legal preacher. As other studies have demonstrated, the realization of legal ethics is more difficult than statutory enactment.
Jerry’s rich life experience is beyond any simple narrative. My understanding of him is almost like “blind men touching the elephant”, which can only be one-sided. I hope he will forgive me for the inadequacies. I also hope that all of us can restore a more multifaceted Jerry. But one thing I’m pretty sure is that even though Jerry is 90 years old, he has been the same intellectual with full passion for justice. I want to learn from him, and I wish him follow his own heart and stay young forever.