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Law unto Itself

Authors: Jerome A. Cohen, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies, and Yu-Jie Chen, U.S.-Asia Law Institute, New York University
April 1, 2010
South China Morning Post


Although this week's Rio Tinto case focused world attention on China's domestic legal system, it also raised doubts about a rising China's adherence to its international legal commitments. After the People's Republic began to represent China in the United Nations in October 1971, it steadily increased its participation in the development of international law. Despite continuing grave violations in practice of existing international standards for protecting civil and political rights, China's overall direction in international law, at least until recently, seemed progressive.

Now, however, an old, nationalistic tone has begun to mark its criminal prosecutions of foreigners as well as Chinese dissidents, often explained with merely vague references to "judicial sovereignty" without further elucidation. This may reflect the setbacks that China's domestic criminal justice system has suffered since the 17th Communist Party Congress introduced tougher policies and personnel in late 2007. This may also reflect a change of the Chinese government's attitude towards international law in light of its growing influence on the world stage.

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Sage Advice

Author: Jerome A. Cohen
South China Morning Post

Jerome A. Cohen says, "China can boost its 'soft power' with some Confucian-style compassion towards jailed dissidents."