Foreign NGOs - Wang Daohan, Ford Foundation and the Chinese government’s attitude at the start of Opening and Reform

This year’s events in China – including the passage of a law that emphasizes strict control of foreign NGOs and the show trials two weeks ago of Chinese rights activists whom Beijing accused of working with “hostile foreign forces” – have shown that Chinese leadership is extremely wary of a “color revolution” inspired by the outside world.

In light of current concerns of the international community, it might be useful to recall the very different situation in 1979. China was just opening, and I was in Beijing at the invitation of the city government to help train its economic officials in international business law. I got to know Wang Daohan, then head of the new national Foreign Investment Commission, through his very able assistant, a young economics graduate named Tang Yunbin, whose English skills had proved helpful in efforts to develop an updated Chinese legal vocabulary for terms like “foreign tax credit”.  Wang had just been moved into his new job from an earlier post as Minister of Foreign Economic Relations. More than most PRC leaders, he saw the need for Chinese officials to learn about foreign economic transactions and institutions but felt frustrated by the limited opportunities for them to do so.

I knew that Ford Foundation, which had sponsored Harvard Law School research on the legal systems of China, Japan and Vietnam, was eager to enter China and be helpful but seemed frustrated in efforts to do so. It plainly made sense to try to bridge the gap, so I invited Carl Green, an American lawyer who was then Ford’s representative in Tokyo, to come to Beijing to have lunch with Wang.

Since the PRC for three decades had been denouncing foreign foundations like Ford as running dogs of imperialism, Green was understandably apprehensive that China might spurn Ford’s interest. Lunch was pleasant through the main course, but neither Wang nor Green appeared willing to initiate discussion of the subject that brought us together.

As dessert arrived, feeling a bit anxious about the way things were going, I said to Wang what he obviously already knew - that Ford might be willing to help with the training of Chinese officials in international economic matters. He feigned welcoming surprise and asked Green to what extent Ford might help. Carl, visibly tense, mustered all his gumption and said that Ford might be willing to contribute as much as one million USD to such training.  Wang almost snorted in scornful disbelief. “What”, he said, “do you know how poor China is and how huge its needs are? One million dollars is nothing.”  

At that point Green, instead of being offended, began to relax, for he saw that China was prepared to behave like the governments of many other developing countries and that cooperation would be possible, at a heftier price, to be sure!

What a difference 37 years have made!

More Questions on the American Bar Association Story: Who in Washington Ordered the ABA’s Book Publishing Unit to Rescind the Offer to Teng Biao?

By Jerome A. Cohen

The report by Isaac Stone Fish in Foreign Policy, “Leaked Email: ABA Cancels Book for Fear of ‘Upsetting the Chinese Government’,” which I wrote about earlier this week here, has finally stimulated the beginnings of an ABA response.

An email from Jen Leung, the Country Director of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative China Program, on the China Law Listserv makes it clear that the Beijing office of the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) had no knowledge that some people in Washington headquarters, where ROLI’s central office is located, reportedly influenced the ABA’s book arm to rescind its offer to Teng Biao. The email implies that ROLI’s central office in Washington, which directs its Beijing office and has fought vigorously and successfully to maintain the valuable work its Beijing staff is doing, also was unaware of the ABA’s book offer to Teng.

Presumably this will be confirmed by either the ABA’s internal investigation or further journalistic efforts. Whatever the outcome of that specific inquiry, however, it is clear that, despite the ABA’s belated and pathetic attempt to deny the reason its employee originally gave for its embarrassing change of mind, there is nothing fictional about the Foreign Policy story. What we don’t yet know is who in Washington ordered the book publishing unit to rescind the offer.

To its credit, another wing of the ABA, the ABA Journal, has published three articles reporting on the Chinese Government’s current repression of lawyers, and, under the leadership of the highly respected sociologist of law Terry Halliday, the American Bar Foundation has done important research on the plight of those Chinese lawyers courageous enough to try to defend human rights. So perhaps there are advantages as well as disadvantages to the ABA’s lack of efficiency regarding its China policy!

It will be interesting to see whether this important fuss leads to a debate during the annual meeting of the ABA House of Delegates this summer. Surely some outstanding ABA members would like to take part.