A Conversation with James Dee (FACES '07)

James Dee is an associate attorney at Morrison Foerster, a top corporate law firm. A FACES delegate in 2007, James graduated from Pomona College with a degree in International Relations and then Yale Law School. While at law school, James worked at Yale’s China Law Center on several projects related to Chinese legal reform, including some groundbreaking LGBT civil rights cases. James also assisted the Open Government Initiative, a program that facilitates the development of a comprehensive, open government regime in China. James has always been interested in international relations both at the top level and also at the human-to-human, grass-roots level. The following is the edited transcript of our conversation with James.

James Dee (FACES '07) talked with Olivier Tabi (FACES Stanford '15) in early March.

James Dee (FACES '07) talked with Olivier Tabi (FACES Stanford '15) in early March.

Olivier Tabi: First, James, could you introduce yourself, and tell us how you heard about FACES? 

James Dee: Sure, I’d love to. I am very glad to be back on campus. My name is James Dee. I recently graduated from Yale Law School and am now an associate attorney at Morrison Foerster’s Palo Alto office.

I went to Pomona College, where I majored in international relations. FACES was a natural fit for me and I became a FACES delegate in 2007. It allowed me to both deepen my understanding of US-China relations, but also to develop a network of people in fields all the way from business and government to nonprofits and NGO’s and make sure that regardless of where I ended up on the “Sino-US” spectrum, I’d be able to have a diversity of different minds to connect with. I wanted to be able to have people around me to discuss these issues with, to develop a comprehensive understanding of not just US-China relations, but globally how China plays a role in international relations. I am happy to say that in both my professional and nonprofessional lives, I’ve been able to act upon that.

Olivier Tabi: Can you tell us more about this 2007 experience as a FACES delegate? What was your experience like? What were some good times, and what are some specific people you met or things that you did when you were a delegate?

James Dee: First of all, let me start with one of the key memories that stick out from my experiences at FACES. During one of the closing nights of the FACES summit (then organized at Renmin University in Beijing), you had this mini-party going on, trying to teach people ballroom dance, actually all different types of dances. Not just me, but a lot of different people: Chinese delegates teaching the U.S. delegates, the U.S. delegates teaching the Chinese. I think something like that, despite all the political, economic, social issues, I think that really encapsulates what FACES is all about, the person-to-person interaction. Because let’s face it, you can read about these things in the news or in books, but to really have that level of interaction, to connect, to really realize “hey, we have some commonalities here, and there is still a lot for us to learn from each other,” I think that is the most remarkable part of FACES. It brings together people from two sides of the Pacific Ocean, and gives them these opportunities to connect in these very memorable ways. FACES also maintains these key relations: with FACES, I know that wherever I am moving around, I will be able to find these people and reconnect with them again.

Aside from some of those more personal connections and those types of events, the crisis simulation was one of the touchstones of my FACES experience. The reason for that is because, as I mentioned, you can read a lot about crises or challenges that happen on the US and China side, but to be, say, an American delegate and play the role of the Chinese Commerce Minister during a hypothetical terror incident in China, and to work on a team where there are both Chinese and American delegates playing the role, everyone technically being the representative of one side, I think that really forces you into a different perspective, and it makes you think about both the constraints and the different images that the U.S. side and the Chinese side, and even within those two governments, different factions or government departments, have to take into account.

FACES gave me the opportunity to participate in this very structured crisis simulation, but also provided the unstructured time to meet with people both here at Stanford in the U.S. and in China. It definitely drove my passion and reinforced my desire to continually be involved in this arena.

Olivier Tabi: I’m always glad to hear our alumni’s stories about their captivating experiences at FACES. Also, I was wondering, as a law graduate and an associate attorney, what is your perspective on the development of rule of law in China, and potential China’s political development in the future?

James Dee: Overall very positive progress, I think, especially within the last decade. I’ll allude back to my experiences at Yale Law School, at the China Law Center, to give you an example. I think now it’s called the China Center, and run by Professor Paul Gewirtz (who has been a FACES speaker in the past), but also Jamie Horsley, who is the executive director of the organization.

The China Law Center brings together individuals who work in the government in China, as well as a lot of different academics, and we ran weekly workshops. What was very fascinating is the academics would come in, very open in their various views, critiques of the Chinese government similar to what we might hear in the United States, perspectives that we also might not hear in the United States. On the government side, I saw a very demonstrative willingness to work with international partners, to learn in the area of administrative law for instance. They cared about citizens saying “hey, how come all of these buildings were torn down? For what reason?,” making a request to the local government, to the central government. They cared about determining the value of disclosing all of this information, and how that affects the rule of law.

In a lot of ways it makes rule a little bit easier when people know what is going on, when people are aware not just of what the government is doing, but for what reason. Despite the differences between the Chinese and American legal and political systems, I think that goes a long way because, regardless of political system, when you want to effectively lead a very big country, whether it is in the case of the U.S. or China, people need to know things. I think overall the Chinese government is flowing in the positive direction, as I have seen from its willingness to host workshops run by U.S. government officials and law professors as I have described. And there is still a lot of progress to be made.

Olivier Tabi: So overall, the evolution is positive?

James Dee: I would say it is positive, partly because of the integration of China into the international scene. On the one hand, it is better able to flex its muscles, as we have seen in the recent controversies over the definition of its airspace, and so forth. The other side of this is that China now has a stake in the international order. When there are crises that appear, traditionally and historically China has been fairly inward focused. But in this modern age, if it wants to become a responsible global power, it will participate in international crises and try to play a balancing role, even if sometimes it is against whatever the U.S. side is on.

Olivier Tabi: Perhaps you have heard about the initiative of Stanford’s professor Dr. Gechlik, the China Guiding Cases Project, about improving the transparency of China’s legal system?

James Dee: I think Dr. Gechlik’s China Guiding Cases Project is an incredible step forward. First of all, the guiding cases are released by the judiciary in China saying, here are some cases that we think have strong precedential value that other courts should look at.

We all realize here in the U.S., especially if you are a student of law, that it is very important not just for ensuring consistency of law, but also being able to form a thriving and vibrant legal environment where lawyers can make creative arguments, arguments in the way the law should be evolving. At least they have that as a reference point.

I think the Guiding Cases Project, at least as an initial step, is an important step and now there is some benchmark that lawyers can work off of and that is open to the public, that is easily accessible. And I am very impressed by Professor Gechlik’s effort to translate these cases into English so that now the international community on both the academic side, and even U.S. government officials who are interested in how China is developing. It makes this information much easier to access.

Some of the questions I would think about are to what extent the courts in China are actually looking at them or adhering to them, and to what extent are lawyers actually using them as a basis because that is what will really determine the success of a project like the Guiding Cases. I think it is an important step forward, but its ultimate impact still remains to be seen.

Olivier Tabi: To come back to FACES, are you still in touch with all the people you met as a delegate?

James Dee: I am with a lot of them actually. And just today, a former Chinese delegate doing a Master’s degree at Columbia just called me and wanted to catch up on things. So I would say I probably talk to someone from FACES at least every two weeks, and it really helps that I am here in Palo Alto, and that is where the base is, at Stanford.

Also, I have seen a lot of people at Yale Law School who were members of FACES, my class, in 2007. Some of them, like Reed Schuler is one example (he currently is Climate Change Treaty Negotiator in the U.S. Department of State). Bryan Townsend, who now has what I think is a promising career in politics. He is in one of the Delaware legislatures. He just got elected last year. He is a Yale Law grad, and was in FACES my year too.

The connections really do last, and they really matter. I can’t say that about every organization I have been to. I think it’s all about the way FACES is structured. Two weeks, one week in the U.S. and one week in China, you know you are really involved in these panels and simulations, and you have a lot of down time to bond with each other. I think that really is the way to go.

Olivier Tabi: James, thank you very much for sitting down to talk with us this afternoon. I’m sure the whole FACES community will enjoy reading this interview.

James Dee: I’m very happy to have been part of it. It was nice to have this opportunity to reflect a bit on the past, and look towards the future. It’s been my pleasure.