Beijing trip, May 2007

For ten days in late May and early June, 2007, three American prosecutors were guests of their counterparts in the Chinese legal system in Beijing. I was one of those prosecutors and it revealed to me not only China, but a completely different world view that made “globalization” more than just a buzz word or a curse.

China was formerly referred to as the “Middle Kingdom,” and that symbol is still used in Mandarin ideograms. Ancient Chinese emperors believed that the Temple of Heaven in Beijing was not only the center of their kingdom, but of the entire world. You can actually stand at what they thought was the epicenter of all things.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven, encircled by the Echo Wall. Before the railing was built and the noise of tourists made it impossible, two people could stand at opposite sides of the Wall and whisper to each other.

The culture that invented fireworks and spawned a vast empire while many Europeans were living in caves has evolved into a towering economic powerhouse with a new middle class that numbers about the same as the entire population of the United States.

China's decision to pursue economic freedom has had profound effects on its legal system and its relationship with the rest of the world. I had expected to see a third world country with smatterings of wealth. While that may exist outside Beijing, the city I saw and visited without restriction was very much a first-world mega-city throbbing with commerce and vitality.

In one of the storefronts on a busy market street, I bought at 1 gigabyte MMC card for the camera, for the equivalent of $10.

Hopefully the bicycle culture won't completely disappear.

Chinese prosecutors and judges are working to establish a “rule of law” which bears remarkable semblance to the system we endorse in the United States. Like so many other reforms, economic necessity will likely foster the change. There is enormous foreign investment in China. The nation's leaders understand that investment is unlikely to continue unless investors are assured that their property and rights will be respected. As a result, the highly centralized Chinese legal system is developing cadres of lawyers to provide legal aid, training for prosecutors and increasing autonomy for the judiciary, which still technically reports to China’s prosecutor-general. (Contrast China with Russia which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, chose a form of political freedom rather than economic freedom. Early investments retreated when laws governing property and investment rights didn't materialize and/or weren't upheld by a poorly-functioning legal system, and early political freedoms are being lost as well.)

Is it the American system? No, but it revealed a different China than I had expected. I met counterparts who had many of the same problems I encountered, although I was envious of the private dining rooms, chefs, and incredible banquets all of our hosts provided in their offices.

Banquet at the Beijing Municipal Prosecutor's office.

The bird
is sculpted from a single radish.

And the prosecutors have guards!

Of particular interest to me was the overwhelming Chinese interest in the apparently unheard of process of “plea bargaining.” We explained that if we actually tried all the cases we filed we’d need ten times the number of prosecutors, judges, and so on. The Chinese legal system is just being to be faced with having to make the sort of legal triage that has become all to common for American prosecutors.

I was fortunate to be friends with Honolulu District Attorney Peter Carlisle, who in turn was lucky to have employed the first person born in the People’s Republic of China to become an American prosecutor - Mangmang Brown. Brown helps her husband, Professor Ron Brown of the University of Hawaii, operate the US-Asia Law Institute that has for more than 15 years sponsored exchanges of judges and lawyers between mainland China and the United States. Peter, Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett and I were the first state and local-level prosecutors to be formally invited to meet our Chinese counterparts.

Honorable Chairman Honolulu District Attorney Peter Carlisle consults with Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett. Note all the bicycles.

Left to right: Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett; me; Dr. Zhan, director of Beijing's Institute for Prosecutorial Studies; Honolulu District Attorney Peter Carlisle; Professor Ron Brown, Judy Carlisle, Aspen Carlisle, MangMang Brown holding Gracie Brown.

In China the legal system is centralized so that there are twelve different levels of prosecution ranging from the national down through provinces, municipalities down to the counties (or most local level). The Chinese were fascinated to learn of the extraordinary autonomy of American prosecutors and that we were popularly elected.

China is indeed a world, and 18 time zones, away from the West, but my first surprise was the spotless Beijing International Airport, with Immigrations Agents whose work stations had a small electronic key pad with five universal symbols of “smiley faces” in shades of green to red. The five faces ranged from smiling, to neutral, to a frown. As you completed what was about a 30-second process of presenting your Chinese visa, you were asked to punch in your satisfaction level with the agent’s service.

This is leaving China, but you get the, er, picture.

I had been told to expect someone holding a sign with my name on to be standing in front of the “KFC”. The KFC? Yes, the Kentucky Fried Chicken! It's wildly popular in China, as are McDonald’s and Starbuck's who even have stores inside The Forbidden City.

But the incursions of Americana do not take way from the fact that you entering an ancient culture.

Preparing to serve famous Peking duck -- while avoiding avian flu?


Our first day was a 40-minute trip down a freeway jammed with Buicks and Volkswagens made in China. The highway passes from the Beijing mega-city through rice fields and ends up at one of the recently acknowledged Wonders of the World -- The Great Wall. It is, well . . . great. Built over a thousand years ago to defend the Middle Kingdom, much of it remains intact, snaking improbably for hundreds of miles up and down hills and valleys.

There were two more days to explore Beijing, most significantly the Forbidden City, the home of many Chinese emperors. Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci was given permission to film on location the story of Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China, who lived from 1906 to 1967. His film “The Last Emperor” won Best Picture in 1987. We learned that Queen Elizabeth visited Beijing but was unable to visit the Forbidden City because of the filming. It stands as a remarkable story of China’s journey into today’s world and I strongly recommend watching the movie either in its original theatrical or longer DVD release formats.

Calling my wife from the Forbidden City.

All the interesting signs are slated to be replaced before the Summer Olympics this year.

The working part of our trip was a dizzying series of meetings with Dr. Ye Fen, our host and the Vice President of the International Association of Prosecutors, as well as a judge of China’s Supreme People’s Court, the Chief prosecutor in the high-tech Haidian District of Beijing to Dr. Zhen Zhen, the Deputy Chief Prosecutor of Beijing. Many of our meetings were covered by Chinese TV crews and while all our hosts spoke remarkably good English (as opposed to my three words of Mandarin), we were assigned two young women prosecutors from the SPP (Supreme People’s Procuratorate). They served as our guides and translators and also helped us in our shopping expeditions.

Our guide, Ms. Li, of the Prosecutor General's Office

Supreme People's Court, ruled this day by Gracie Brown.

I had purchased a suitcase full of Josephson’s smoked fish (tuna, salmon, and sturgeon) as examples of local commerce on Oregon’s north coast and figured I could use the suitcase when emptied for return gifts for friends and co-workers. In addition to the exquisite official gifts, my favorite being the mythical lion/dragon beast that symbolizes prosecutors, I ended up buying so many local handicrafts that I had to buy another suitcase - a suspiciously low-priced Samsonite - which I jammed with Mao hats, Chinese army watches and a few pearls bought at amazingly low prices.

Outbound treats from Josephson's.

Some of the inbound treats.

What I came to realize (once again) is that we are all much more alike than we are different, and that in a world where I could check in with my office from the Forbidden City or withdraw 700 Yuan from an ATM at the Temple of Heaven, globalization is not necessarily a dirty word.

We do, in fact live in very interesting times, and there is much to be hopeful about.

Power to the people!
(taken at the Military Museum)