With Election Day right around the corner and candidates making their final push to voters, a very select group of people met recently to learn more about how the American political system works.

The Peking University Alumni Association – Minnesota (PKUAA-MN) and Tsinghua University Alumni Association – Minnesota (TAA-MN) held a joint seminar on civic engagement and the 2016 election at the Ramsey County Library on Oct. 15. With more than 3,000 Chinese students and scholars currently studying at the University of Minnesota, and another 200 alumni from both universities working and living in the Twin Cities area alone, this was a unique opportunity for this group to learn about the American political process and the unique climate of this year’s race.

Chang Wang – chief researcher at Thomson Reuters, an attorney and a member of Civic Engagement Steering Committee for the State of Minnesota – helped lead the discussion, which was held in conjunction with the Civic Engagement Committee,  a program introduced by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s Diversity of Inclusion Council.

We caught up with Wang to learn more about the focus of the discussion and what made this engagement so unique:

Legal Current: What were some of the key issues that you covered with this audience, and of them, which topics were of particular interest?

Chang Wang: Our audience could be placed in three groups: one third were naturalized citizens; one third were non-citizens, but on the path toward a residency and possibly citizenship; while the other third were visiting students and scholars. So we really wanted to offer an overview of the U.S. election.

We started with a look at the guiding principles of the U.S. government: the rule of law, separation of powers (legislative, executive, and judicial), checks and balances, independent judiciary and representative democracy. It was also important for us to cover the election process, voter registration and resources, including the Minnesota Secretary of State website, and how to research a candidate.

From there, we presented a factual look at the Democratic and the Republican party platforms on key issues, including economics, abortion, gun control, gay marriage, military spending, energy, the death penalty, affirmative action and immigration.

We also took at look at immigration through the years, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act – a United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882. It was one of the most significant restrictions on free immigration in U.S. history, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. It was eventually repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943.

We then took a closer look at this year’s election, reviewing Professor Naill Ferguson’s analysis on the rise of populism.

The audience was particularly interested in topics like affirmative action, the 2nd Amendment and gun control. In fact, I was surprised to learn that one pro-gun member of the audience had not heard of NRA and the critical role the organization plays in the gun control issue

LC: What was the sentiment among the audience regarding the U.S. election: are they curious, concerned, optimistic, or something else entirely?

CW: Again, with a third of the audience being naturalized citizens, another third non-citizens on the path toward a residency and possibly citizenship, and the final third visiting students and scholars, sentiment was mixed.

Among the naturalized citizens there was a sense of concern and confusion. Some in this group needed clarification on basic constitutional principles including the legislative process, judicial independence, and the executive power.

Non-citizens in the group were more curious and eager to learn the basics of the U.S. system and how it differentiates from the Chinese system.

LC: China, both as an economic and military power, has been a recurring issue for the presidential candidates this year – how did the audience respond to this?

CW: The naturalized citizens in the audience were more concerned about domestic policies and their children’s education; they cared less about the candidates and their views of China as a threat or as a strategic partner.

On the other hand, non-citizens were more concerned about foreign policy and the relationship between the U.S. and China going into the future. They were far more sensitive to the political rhetoric the candidates use when talking about China.

LC: I understand that a review of the U.S. political process was a part of this discussion – what misconceptions, or perhaps enlightened perspectives, did the audience have walking away from the event?

CW: In the end, I wanted to take a very basic, but enlightened look at the differences between the U.S. and Chinese political systems.

As a common law country, the United States and its legal system are deeply rooted in precedent – or Stare Decisis – relying heavily on the courts’ interpretations of both codified law and previous judicial opinions. This doctrine of precedent helps ensure the predictability, consistency and integrity of the American legal system.

In contrast – notwithstanding its civil law framework – current Chinese law is a “socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics”: a legal system designed to support “socialism” and the Chinese Communist Party (CPC). In China, the law is used primarily as a tool to reinforce party rules and strengthen its policies, while the party itself operates outside the law.

In an attempt to prevent one branch of government from holding more power than others, the U.S. legal system incorporates a system of checks and balances and separation of powers. Because governmental responsibilities have been divided among different branches of government, and because the different branches of government are accountable to the American people, each branch can act independently, according to its own interpretation of what is best for the country. This is true even if the interpretations of the various branches of government are in conflict with one another. This is the very rationale that underscores the principle of separation of powers, especially “judicial review.”

Government in China, by contrast, is based upon single-party rule. The Chinese Constitution blatantly ensures that the CPC is the dominant political party in the country and in charge of all aspects of government. The CPC reviews its own actions and is above the law, but nevertheless, the CPC has promised to strengthen the “rule of law” in China.

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “rule of law” is defined as:

1) A substantive legal principle

2) The supremacy of regular as opposed to arbitrary power

3) The doctrine that every person is subject to the ordinary law within the jurisdiction; and

4) The doctrine that general constitutional principles are the result of judicial decisions determining the rights of private individuals in the courts.”

From these definitions, you can see that as long as the CPC retains power over the Chinese legal system and judiciary – and, as long as the judiciary is not independent and is denied the power to review legislative and administrative actions – there will be no “rule of law” In China.  Rather, there will be “rule by law.” In other words, the CPC will use the law as a tool of governance.

 

To learn more about the Civic Engagement Committee, click here.