Harold Koh gives behind-the-scenes details of Chen Guangcheng incident in Bernstein Symposium keynote

The complex and delicate relationship between China and the rest of the world regarding human rights was the focus of the 2014 Bernstein China Symposium at NYU Law. Hosted by the US-Asia Law Institute and Human Rights in China, the daylong event included panels on domestic policy, Chinese civil society, human rights developments in Taiwan, and international engagement. The symposium culminated in a closing keynote by Harold Koh, Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School, a dean emeritus of that school, and the former legal adviser of the State Department.

Harold KohKoh focused on his latter role in his talk, which was the first time he had ever recounted the whole story of his part in what he called “the Chen Guangcheng incident.” The beginning of Koh’s remarks touched on President Obama’s vow to usher in a new era of international engagement focused on respect for the rule of law, as well as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s coinage of “smart power” as a term encompassing defense, diplomacy, development, human rights, and other elements that fall outside of military “hard power.”

The example of US efforts on behalf of Chen Guancheng, the blind, self-taught Chinese civil rights lawyer who sparked international attention—and tension—when he escaped from house arrest and sought refuge within the US embassy in Beijing in April 2012, offers “broader lessons for human rights advocacy and what it illustrates about smart power in action,” said Koh. He added, “Even though a lot of the story transpired here and involved this university and this law school and individuals here, I’ve never actually told anybody what happened here in full.”

Koh begins his story on April 25, 2012, when, during a trip to China, he received a call from Clinton’s chief of staff asking him to get to a secure line. He ends his story on May 19, when Chen and his family arrived at NYU, and they were greeted by Professor Jerome Cohen, who had counseled Chen via telephone. “As you can tell,” said Koh, “I have huge regard for NYU, for Jerry Cohen, for the role that was played by this institution in making this exciting story possible.”

The lessons learned from the situation, Koh said, involve the role of precedent in previous human rights incidents in China, lawyering in negotiations, and human rights strategies. “It’s an example of smart power, engagement,” he said. “We engage with the Chinese government. Translation—adapting law to a modern reality—and then leveraging it as a tool of smart power. That seems to be a broad approach that works, and I think it should be how this case is remembered.”

Watch the full video of the keynote (1 hr, 20 min):

Watch the full video of Panel 1, "Domestic Policy and Human Rights" (1 hr, 23 min):

Watch the full video of Panel 2, "Chinese Civil Society and Human Rights" (1 hr, 20 min):

Watch the full video of Panel 3, "Human Rights Development in Taiwan: Model for the Mainland?" (1 hr, 35 min):

Watch the full video of Panel 4, "China, Human Rights and International Engagement" (1 hr, 17 min):

Posted April 10, 2014