By SORAYA DIASE COFFELT/Special to the V.I. Free Press
BEIJING — I had the special opportunity to study Chinese law and business in the People’s Republic of China this summer for five weeks. I joined a group of American students and law professors in Beijing.
Our classes were held at the law school of a major Chinese university and we had the additional privilege of being taught by Chinese law professors and had about ten Chinese students participate as well.
Why did I choose to study Chinese law and business? Over the years, the U.S.’s debt to China has grown substantially. As of August 30, 2016, it owes the most money to China than any other foreign country – a whopping $1244.0 billion. Regionally, the Chinese have become an important force in the Caribbean, waging what some people have described as “checkbook diplomacy.”
Many Caribbean countries believe that the United States has had a declining interest in the region and that China now is filling the gap in America’s own backyard. China’s President Xi Jinping visited eight Caribbean nations in 2013 to solidify his government’s commitment to assist these economically depressed areas. With the Chinese presence comes money, which the Chinese offer to island countries for major infrastructure developments. With increasing frequency, there are news reports of an island country entering into some type of financial arrangement with China. For example, Jamaica is one of the largest recipients of Chinese funds.
It is estimated that as of June, 2016, the Chinese have poured into Jamaica, via loans and grants, over $100 billion, with still more infrastructure developments planned, including massive roadways. But, at what expense? Some have opined that the desire for Chinese investments have yielded too many significant environmental and labor compromises and that in regard to Jamaica especially, the island may have sold its paradise in return.
Closer to home, we now know that the Chinese government-owned oil company Sinopec, is involved with the former HOVENSA facility at Limetree Bay on St. Croix through ArcLight LLC. The extent of the involvement is not clear, however. According to news reports, Sinopec is interested not only in oil storage, but also possibly restarting the oil refinery.
During my study trip, I wanted to learn firsthand about Chinese culture, business and law and draw my own conclusions as to what the possible ramifications would be if we, as a Virgin Islands people, do business with the Chinese. In addition to class lectures and reading books and other study material, we visited government agencies such as the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC) and the State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China (SIPO) and spoke with officials about the development of these agencies and their work.
We also met with lawyers in one of the top five law firms in China to discuss their profession. During some afternoons, evenings and weekends, we were able to take tours and travel to other cities, including Shanghai and Hong Kong. I as well as many of the other students used primarily the metro for transportation within the cities and we were regularly among the “locals”.
China is an enormous country with an estimated 1.3 billion people. Beijing, its capital, consists of about 22 million people. Think about that. The entire state of Texas has a total of approximately 25 million people, so Beijing’s population is almost as large as that of Texas. My first impressions of the city and the Chinese were drawn from the airport. Our flight landed about 10:30 p.m.
The airport, however, was almost empty. Walking toward the section for customs and immigration, I only observed a few janitors cleaning the facility. I later learned that the public metro system closes down at 11:00 p.m. I also observed a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) restaurant. As I soon discovered, KFCs and other American fast food restaurants are very popular in China, including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Dairy Queen. It is said that one KFC opens each day in China.
China is still considered a developing country and appears to be very westernized. In fact, there has been a great push to modernize quickly. In the cities, everyone dresses in modern, western clothing, and almost everyone carries a cell phone – young and old. The major cities are lined with modern skyscrapers.
However, at what cost is the rapid modernization? The morning after I arrived, I experienced for the first time in my life significant air pollution. It was the beginning of summer and the smog just hung thick in the air, making it very hot and difficult oftentimes to breathe, as well as leaving a dirt residue on my clothing and body. Smog continued throughout my studies in Beijing, except for a few days when it rained and the smog temporarily dissipated. Some days, I used cotton masks with air filters, but those proved to be very hard to breathe with as well hot to wear. People in the city were obviously used to it, because very few people wore any type of masks. Even athletes training on the university’s track and field seemed not to be bothered by the smog as they were outside daily running and doing various types of other exercises.
We toured the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace which are all located in Beijing. Throngs of tourists packed all these sites. The Great Wall is believed to have been started in the 3rd century BC as a fortification to keep invaders away. We spent about 4 hours climbing and walking on one of the newly restored sections. To my surprise, after finishing the tour of the wall and taking the toboggan slide down to the main entrance, what awaited us there was a Subway restaurant and a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlor! The mixture of the very old and the new is common to see in China.
Part 2 – Development of the Law
To understand the China of today, one has to know some Chinese history. The Chinese claim that their civilization is the oldest continuous one dating back at least 6,000 years. The first known dynasty was in 2100 BC -the Xia Dynasty. Emperors ruled China through 1912. They were believed to have been given supreme authority from the ultimate celestial authority in heaven to rule over the people. The emperor’s authority was legislative, judicial and executive.
Although there was a somewhat developed criminal code during Imperial China, there was no development of civil and commercial law as we have seen in the United States. It was not until after 1949 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China did a formal legal system begin to develop, but even then, it was not until 1978, that a comprehensive system was fully adopted.
During my second day in Beijing, I went searching for the law school and the location of our classroom on the university’s campus. I was eventually directed to a nondescript building, but there was no sign or other indication on the building itself that it was a law school. As it turned out, the law school only occupied a few floors in the building. That surprised and puzzled me.
What we later learned was that the legal profession under Imperial China was nonexistent as law was not viewed as a specific specialty. Again, it was not until particularly after 1978, that formal training was given in law and the legal profession developed.
China has had four constitutions. There is an executive, legislative and judicial branch, but no separation of powers as in the United States. No matter what any constitution may provide, though, the Communist Party of China holds the ultimate power. The Communist Party has its members throughout the government and effectively controls it. In fact, we were told that a person could not serve in any capacity in the government unless that person was a member of the Communist Party. For example, in 2013, President Xi Jinping was elected president by China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, and he also is simultaneously the head of the Communist Party.
There is a judicial system with courts and judges, but as noted earlier, no separation of powers. Again, the judges are all members of the Communist Party and political pressures are often brought on them. Unfortunately, we were not able to visit any of the courts. We were told that, because we were Americans, there was too much red tape and bureaucracy involved, and it would take a very long time to get approval from the persons who made that decision, if we were allowed to at all. We were told that cases in court lasted a few hours at the most, nothing compared to trials in the United States. We were also told that a lower court judge could speak with an appeals court judge about the parties and issues in a case and ask for advice about how that lower court judge should rule on issues. On appeal, that same appellate court judge would hear the case too, despite the close involvement in the lower court’s decision. The term “recusal” is not known or used.
Human rights violations by the Communist government continue to increase, especially under the current president. Even though human rights lawyers do exist, there is virtually little that they can do.
Part 3 – Chinese Communism
China, of course, is a Communist country, but the Chinese say that it is “Communism, Chinese style”. What that essentially means is that the government is generally Communist, but with exceptions made by the ruling elite. For example, private enterprise is allowed, but heavily restricted with government regulations. Foreign companies that want to do business in China typically have to hire Chinese lawyers and have some form of ownership interest held by the Chinese. We were told that in order for a Chinese person to be in any type of business in China, that person had to be a member of the Communist Party.
The day after my arrival I began to experience how restrictive and controlling the Chinese Communist government is. When I tried to access my gmail email account, I was not able to. I learned that the government completely blocks access to many websites, including Google and Facebook. In fact, it implemented an elaborate system to monitor and control the use of the internet that has been dubbed the “Golden Shield”. As a result, it has the ability to follow internet communications, find locations of the persons involved, and quickly and easily make arrests.
The Chinese government also controls all media sources – newspapers, television and radio stations. The English newspaper and the one English speaking television station that I had access to only had propaganda touting what a wonderful job the Chinese government officials were doing as the economy was booming, businesses were flourishing, tourism was on the increase, money was flowing to assist its people as well as the underdeveloped countries all over the world, etc., etc. For any problems that exist, the Communist government is seen as the savior of the people and has all the answers. Essentially, the Communist Party took over the role held by the emperor in Imperial China.
What was not told was that if anyone dared to speak out with a differing opinion, whether the person was a lawyer or a news reporter or in any other profession, that person could be arrested, charged with a crime, quickly tried and
convicted, and sentenced to prison. Often times, family members would never see the person again. The government has even rewritten history books used in the schools to remove those parts of Chinese history that the ruling members of the Communist Party do not like and included only their versions. A chief example is the massacre by the Chinese army of thousands of students during demonstrations for democracy in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. There is no indication whatsoever at the Square today that this event ever took place, nor I am told, any reference in the history books.
When investigative journalist David Barboza of The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his reporting on the corruption of high level Chinese government officials, the Chinese government responded by blocking web access to the newspaper. Recent news reports establish that threatening and bullying of news reporters continue to date. Amnesty International reports that China has the largest number of journalists incarcerated. Even the intellectuals, a group who deemed themselves relatively untouchable, have become publically outraged after the death of scholar Lei Yang in police custody this past May. It was alleged that he had been beaten to death after being arrested on trumped up criminal charges. The real question is – how long can China experience economic growth while stifling its people?
Part 4 – Shanghai – An Economic Model for the Virgin Islands?
Of all the places I visited in China, I loved Shanghai the best. It is known as the “Paris of the East” for its beauty and charm as well as being the financial capital of Asia because of its international business and financial acumen. All these attributes merge well in Shanghai and make it the multi-cultural city it is today.
Shanghai means “City on the Sea” because it lies on the Yangtze River Delta on the east coast of China by the Pacific Ocean. It began as a small fishing village but has grown into a major river and sea port in China. The British, French, and Americans each held parts of Shanghai as their own – areas called concessions. The people in Shanghai embrace what they have learned from these world powers: they say that from the British, they learned finances; from the French, they learned how to enjoy life; and from the Americans, they learned manufacturing.
In 1990, China’s leader Deng Xioping, who is credited with bringing massive economic reform to China, determined that Shanghai would be reborn and become the financial and commercial center of Asia. He described China as a dragon, with Shanghai as its head. Within less than 30 years, Shanghai has become that and more. It has seen massive development from huge skyscrapers and highways to a new Disneyland that just opened in June. It even hosts China’s stock market too. Yet, with all that, it has still retained its charm.
The waterfront area is known as the “Bund” and is beautiful. It is filled with historically and architecturally renowned buildings as well as park areas. Its skyline is breathtaking. Although it is said to be one of the largest cities in the world, it is very clean. I was told that it has crews working 24 hours a day to keep the city clean.
I visited a small fishing village just outside Shanghai. There, many diverse local crafts were on display. I met a man who takes palm fronds and makes many different figures from them, such as dragons and dinosaurs. The intricacies of his designs are amazing.
Again, in Shanghai, there is the harmonious juxtaposition of the old and the new. Its people have a profound understanding of their past and a true sense of purpose. As a major city, Shanghai has its problems- including traffic congestion and air pollution- but its accomplishments over a short period of time are very impressive.
Part 5- The Chinese and Us
In my opinion, the Chinese are very shrewd planners. Yes, they have had a considerable amount of money to invest throughout the Caribbean, but what are their ultimate goals? The Chinese tout that they have an unlimited supply of money to continue investing and spending, but is this true and what do they want in return for these investments?
It is apparent that they no longer want to be seen as a developing country but a major power player in world events and economies. Over the recent years, China has been investing in and expanding its military from manpower to
weaponry. Early this summer, satellite photos showed that it is rapidly building military bases on various disputed islands in the South China Sea. After a UN tribunal held that China had no historic rights over the South China Sea, Chinese officials released images of its new arsenal of long range missiles to display to the world that it was ready for a fight if any country intended to enforce that decision. Recent news reports in mid-August revealed that China is building its first overseas military base in Africa, near Ethiopia. Does it have similar plans for the Caribbean?
China’s history of environmental violations is extensive and extremely concerning. Its rapid industrial growth and modernization, without adequate planning and safeguards, has had deleterious effects on the environment. Air pollution has been rampant for years but the government seems to be in no rush to do anything about it. What affect has it had on the health of the people? During my studies there, the English speaking television news station had a round panel discussion on the growing rate of sterility among married couples and whether air pollution was causing it. Polluted water is another environmental hazard. Beijing is known for its many water canals, but the ones that we saw had extremely polluted water, yet people were bathing and washing their clothes and kitchen items in it. One of Beijing’s main rivers, the Yongding River, became so polluted that its water could not be used for drinking any more. Many people have termed these problems as an “environmental crisis”.
As the Chinese invest in Caribbean nations, are these island countries allowing environmental violations to occur in the name of modernization or progress? With the huge Chinese developments in Jamaica, many there claim so.
In the Virgin Islands, we have federal and local environmental laws, but how strictly will they be enforced? We cannot let money blind us and compromise away our environment.
With Chinese-funded projects comes the demand for a work force. Who will that work force consist of locally – Chinese workers or our own residents? In his 2011 internet article on the Chinese presence in Dominica, Sir Ronald Sanders wrote about the growing presence and influence of the Chinese in that island country. The Chinese agreed to fund infrastructure projects, including roads, a sea wall and a hospital, by way of grants and they were allowed to bring in their own work force. It was reported that when the local people were asked how they
felt, many responded that since they were getting the projects built “for free”, they were more interested in the projects than jobs. With the roads project completed, the ground-breaking ceremony for the hospital project just took place on August 8, 2016.
In dealing with a foreign power such as China, especially one that is Communist, as well as with its business people, we have to be very careful with what we say and do. We, too, need to be shrewd planners. Let us not be blinded by the money aspect of any arrangement but ensure that the people of the Virgin Islands will come out as winners.