04/09/2014 03:44 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

Lawful Change

NYU's Jerome Cohen speaks to Forrest Lin

Professor Jerome Cohen is one of the most renowned China Hands of his generation. Currently serving as Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law, he is an expert on Chinese law and founded the US-Asia Law Institute at NYU. Over his storied career, he has mentored two of the most influential political leaders in Taiwan, and in 2012 helped advise Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng after escaping house arrest. I sat down with Professor Cohen to discuss some of his career highlights, as well as the prospects for political and legal reform in China.

During his time at Harvard Law School in the '70s, Cohen taught Ma Ying-jeou, the current President of Taiwan, and former Vice President Annette Lu. I asked Cohen what it was like to watch his students' political careers develop after Harvard. "It was a tense time in Taiwan. The government of the Republic of China in Taiwan realized at that time [late 1978] that the United States was about to recognize the People's Republic of China on the mainland," Cohen described. "[The ROC government] was determined to stamp out any dissent or agitation."

Cohen recalled a conversation with Lu -- already well-known for her pro-independence outlook -- before her graduation, where they discussed whether she should return to then authoritarian Taiwan. "She wanted to go back to Taiwan to take part in political developments there, knowing it was a crucial stage." He described joking with her about very real possibility of her being punished politically for her political activism. Lu would go back to Taiwan, where in 1979 she delivered a speech criticizing the government at an International Human Rights Day rally that led to her imprisonment by the government.

Cohen would travel to Taiwan five years later to push for Lu's release from prison. "Ma [then Deputy Secretary General of the Nationalist Party and President Chiang Ching-kuo's translator] set up a meeting between Lu, himself, and I at the prison hospital. For an hour and a half we talked with Annette Lu. It was the most moving conversation I ever had with ex-students in over 50 years of teaching." Ten days after this meeting, Cohen's pressure and a campaign involving Amnesty International against the nationalist government led to Lu's release. In 2000, she became the vice president of Taiwan.

After moving to New York University, Cohen founded the US-Asia Law Institute. The Institute is designed to facilitate the development of rule of law throughout Asia. "The Institute works with Chinese legal institutions and especially Chinese law schools in cooperating in the training of judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and scholars in China," Cohen says.

Every year, the Institute invites roughly 50 scholars to come complete a Master of Laws degree. The institute also plays a role in bringing legal scholars from Taiwan to the mainland. Cohen asserts that law professors play a crucial legal role in China because they cooperate more closely with officials than legal scholars in America. As a result, the institute's education and training of Chinese legal academics is fundamental in transforming China's legal atmosphere.

I asked Cohen which is more important for China's future development: legal or political reform? Cohen asserts that the two concepts are not divorced. "In Chinese, when you talk about law, you talk about the political-legal system or zhengfaxitong (政法系统), in which politics comes before law. The legal system is an important aspect of the political system, and the question is how to arrange them." The extent to which the Party is willing to subject itself to the authority of an independent judicial system will determine how fast the rule of law takes hold.

Cohen believes that Taiwan's political and legal reforms -- many of which were led by his two former students -- offer lessons for mainland China. "I've become a great admirer of Taiwan's evolution from an authoritarian dictatorship to a genuine democratic political system." As cross-strait interactions increase, Cohen argues that Taiwan's democratic institutions -- its courts, legislatures, and free media -- present a template for political development that mainland China can follow.

"It's often said by people in the mainland, Communist leaders, and others who represent dictatorships in Asia, that Confucian culture is distinctly different from Western rights-oriented political systems," said Cohen. "Taiwan is a refutation or counterexample of that."


Forrest Lin is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact him at

This article also appears in China Hands.