I’ve been reading about the Uighur uprising and the subsequent Chinese government response with a certain amount of sadness and lack of surprise.  What I find interesting is the province’s top Party official has invoked the death penalty to punish anyone who is found guilty of perpetrating the violence.  The death penalty is a big black mark on China’s criminal justice system since the country kills more people each year than any other nation in the world and to invoke this cruel method of punishment against unknown targets is even more troublesome.

In my classes this semester we had discussions and debates about whether the death penalty should be abolished in China and most of my students said that the death penalty was necessary in China in order to promote a harmonious society and bolster economic growth.  I’m not sure about the latter point, but the emphasis on the nebulous concept of harmony that I have denigrated more times than I can count in this blog as a justification for the death penalty is in line with how most of my students stake out positions on controversial issues.  They start with a very general justification for a certain policy position, continue to speak in generalities, and then conclude without providing any concrete examples. For example, harmony as a justification for the death penalty.  Then some comments about it’s important for Chinese society to be harmonious.  Finally concluding that harmony should be maintained at all costs, including the possibility of erroneously killing some people when invoking the death penalty.  Errors such as these are a small price to pay when harmony is at stake.

What my students do not seem to get or articulate is that the Chinese government sometimes uses the death penalty at inappropriate times, such as this uprising in Xinjiang (新疆), when using such methods makes today’s Chinese government seem less associated with the economic juggernaut that China has become to much of the world and more akin to the China of the Cultural Revolution and all its attendant chaos and injustice.  However, my students do not view the government’s actions or policies through such a lens and are unwilling to criticize the government when they also depend on that same government for their jobs and livelihoods.

I understand the difficulty attached to criticizing your own government.  We as Americans seem to have made criticizing our government and its actions a national pasttime, which is also not always the most productive approach to building a successful civil society.  But at least such criticism keeps all the parties involved vigilant about trying to do better. Perhaps China will one day reach this point, but I’m not holding my breath that this day will arrive anytime soon.

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This past week, I miraculously became a mini-expert in both anti-monopoly law and Jewish culture in America.

One of my graduate students, Maggie, asked two weeks ago if I would speak at the university’s business English salon  this past Thursday evening about a topic of my choosing.  The salon is open to the public and a lot of the attendees actually live and work in GZ.  

I figured that I would use my legal background and interest in antitrust law to give a talk about the recent attempted acquisition by Coca-Cola of Huiyuan (汇源), a successful Chinese juice company.  The government rejected Coke’s bid under the country’s new anti-monopoly law and it was the first cross-border merger to be rejected under this law, which has only been in effect since August 2008.  Since the Chinese government only provided a vague explanation for the rejection, many are speculating that the decision was politically motivated because Huiyuan is a profitable private company and the government did not want it to fall into foreign hands.  Since that decision last month, Australia has made taken some negative actions against Chinese companies looking to acquire Australian companies.  The first point of my speech was the importance of implementing laws in a fair and transparent manner, whether it’s in China, the US, EU, or any other country.   The second point was that the world should be working to fight the impulse to let political or nationalistic concerns rule over sound economic policies.  I was careful not to blame any one country because most of the world is to blame in this era of rising protectionism.  

The speech was well attended with at least 50 or so people in the audience, even though my Powerpoint presentation did not work.   Initially the questions were relevant to my topic.  However, as soon as someone asked me my opinion about the Chinese currency and how China is buying all of the US government’s debt, the Q&A session turned into one of “ask Peter his opinion about anything and everything pertaining to America”.  Thus, I began fielding questions about whether it was a good time to buy stocks, the NBA, why only rich people could go to Ivy League schools, what city one guy should live in when he moves his family t to America, real estate prices, troop withdrawals from Iraq, whether Obama was printing too much money, and whether I was scared about China’s rise.  All of the questions were prefaced with, “In your opinion . . . ” and then the topic of their choosing.  I was done speaking and answering formal questions around 9pm, but ended up staying until nearly 10:30pm answering all of these random questions and becoming the mouthpiece of America.  By the end I was so tired and the questions so far removed from what I came to talk about that I just did not have an opinion about whether there was anything wrong with partially lifting the embargo on Cuba. 

However, I could not turn the tables and ask in their opinion how they felt about Tibet, Taiwan, Mao, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen or any other number of topics off limits when talking informally with most Chinese people.  Even if I did ask about these things, I would receive some received wisdom echoing the party line and it would be almost impossible to find any difference in opinion.  Whereas when I answered these questions, I made sure to make it clear that these were my opinions and did not represent those of all Americans.

Then Friday morning my friend Michael invited me into his culture class that he is taking as part of his master’s program to talk about Jewish culture, which was interesting because I am not at all religious, but consider myself very culturally Jewish.  So I was brought into the class to debunk some myths about Jews in America including the ones that they are all rich and all clever.  It was another interesting talk, but ended more quickly than the other one because it was limited to a class period.  Of course I gave the students the requisite lesson on grammar.  You cannot say he is a “Jewish”, but rather that he is a “Jewish person”.

I am still recovering from the week of mini-lectures and think I may need a Golden Girls mini-marathon to regain my composure.