Professor Jerome Cohen had so much to say that his comments had to be continued in this blog post.
When asked about the recent spate of attacks in kindergartens and primary schools in China, Cohen said that people who kill or maim many children are not normal people. "They have reached a level of frustration where they feel a sense of unfairness and injustice," he explained.
While 17 percent of the Chinese population have some kind of mental illness, many of them are involved in crime. Premier Wen Jiabao spoke publicly about the kindergarten killings saying there needs to be more mechanisms set up to resolve disputes, as the petitioning system is not allowed so people feel like they have no where to plead their case.
Cohen cites the case of Yang Jia, the young man who walked into the Zhabei District police station in Shanghai last year and killed six policemen. It turns out he had had a long festering grievance with the police who had accused him of stealing a bicycle. The frustration may have been too much for him and resulted in him eventually developing mental issues before resorting to violence. Despite his heinous crime, many people flocked to the courthouse to attend Yang's trial to support him, though he was convicted of murder and executed.
In this case, Cohen explains that Yang should have been acquitted of all charges due to his mental condition and sent to a mental institution. "But instead, his mother was locked up in a mental institution so that she couldn't testify on the evolution of his mental health," he says.
As for the second disappearance of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, Cohen is very disappointed at how this incident is still unresolved while the authorities make a "ridiculous succession of excuses."
Cohen admires Gao for taking on the system, as do many young lawyers who look up to him. But now with his disappearance yet again, it sends a chilling message to lawyers, especially those interested in human rights or even criminal law that they should not mess with the system. For Cohen, this is a black mark on China's reputation, and the situation with Gao is a "sad commentary of the Chinese system."
Gao's case led to Cohen's concern about the oppression of lawyers which is impacting the number of them who are keen on going into criminal law. For those lawyers interested in having a stable, lucrative career usually go into corporate law, but even then businessmen can get tangled in criminal cases which can involve human rights and corruption.
What is interesting to Cohen is that the few who do take on criminal law are either motivated by religion; earnestly believe in human rights ideology called fazhi (法治) or rule of law; while others hope by doing their bit they can change the Chinese legal system into a more western and democratic one.
As for the petitioning system, Cohen says people use it for a variety of things that do not necessarily fall into the legal category. Nevertheless, he thinks it is crucial to have some kind of informal outlet that is properly administered for non-legal situations and cases. While Cohen says the government has done a lot more ideologically in terms of "socialist human rights" in heightening the legal awareness of the public, at the same time it has done much to frustrate people when they actually try to go through the system.
In looking at his over 50 years in dealing with China in some capacity, Cohen has seen great strides but also setbacks. As a zhengyou, or "true friend of China", he hopes to help the country better administer the rule of law. And one cannot help but admire his optimism and dedication in this on-going and long-term goal.