Global Times: Three ‘surprises’ I got in the US while discussing the return of Chinese cultural artifacts – Huo Zhengxin

BEIJING, April 9, 2024 /PRNewswire/ -- In early April, the 118th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law (ASIL), the largest and most prestigious academic conference in the global international law community, took place in Washington DC as scheduled. Given the US' prominent role in shaping the postwar international legal system, ASIL plays a crucial role in the theoretical research, rules development and reform of the international legal system.

This year's meeting featured keynote speeches by heavyweight officials such as US Trade Representative Katherine Tai. The meeting covered a wide range of hot topics in international law including laws of war, economic sanctions, artificial intelligence and international law, extraterritorial effects of law, climate change, legal issues faced by small countries, and international dispute resolution. As an invited participant, I attended the forum on "China's Looted Cultural Property: Historical Injustice and Current Dilemma," where I elaborated on the issue of looted cultural artifacts being returned to China, their place of origin, and I also engaged in in-depth discussions with foreign counterparts.

I would like to summarize my participation in this meeting with three "surprises."

The first "surprise" is that this year's conference dedicated a forum specifically to the issue of returning China's looted cultural relics. The topics of the ASIL Annual Meeting forums are meticulously selected through repeated deliberation and screening, mostly focusing on international law issues of greatest concern to the Western world. It is relatively rare that this year's meeting would focus on China's looted cultural relics and that Chinese scholars had been invited to present their views.

In fact, the attention from the US academic community to this issue stems from an editorial published in the Global Times on August 28, 2023, entitled "British Museum must return Chinese cultural relics for free." The moment it was published, it attracted high international media attention, even sparking a new wave of demands from countries such as Greece and Egypt to reclaim their artifacts from Western museums. The ASIL also took notice of this call and included it as one of the main themes of this year's meeting. It is surprising how the issue, raised by Chinese media in first place, has evolved into a focal point of Western academic attention.

The second "surprise" is that, amid the diverse range of topics at the globally renowned ASIL Annual Meeting, the issue of returning China's looted cultural relics received significant attention. This year's meeting was held against the backdrop of the turbulent international situation, escalating regional conflicts and unprecedented challenges to the international legal order. The themes at the conference addressed the most pressing issues in international law today.

Therefore, before the forum began, I was not sure how much attention this topic would attract. However, soon I found that the large venue was full of scholars and officials from the US, other regions and international organizations.

My third "surprise" occurred after the keynote speech of the sub-forum I attended. The speech was followed by enthusiastic questions and intense discussion. Lining up in front of the microphone in the center of the venue, a number of participants asked questions and engaged in rounds of frank, enthusiastic and even heated discussions and debates on various topics. These topics included the status quo and the legality of Japan's looting of Chinese cultural relics, including the Chinese legal community's opinion on the reform of international law and China's position on the return of cultural relics lost overseas.

These three "surprises" perhaps mean that China's defense of its foreign-related rights and interests has stepped up to a new level. From my experience during the above-mentioned conference, this new stage is characterized by three features: First, China has a global media that can voice China's viewpoint and take a lead in international issues. Second, China's voice, interests and concerns can be heard by the world, including the US and West, as long as they are delivered in a reasonable and restrained manner. Third, we should no longer rely solely on the government to defend our foreign-related rights and interests. Instead, the media, the academic community, the civil society and the government need to work together and use their respective strengths to promote the cause.

China and the world have witnessed tremendous changes. On the one hand, the world has never paid more attention to China or attached more importance to the ideas of Chinese scholars of international law. It is now expecting China to contribute wisdom to the development of international law more than ever. On the other hand, the discourse power of international law is still mainly in the hands of the US, and China is still a follower. Thus, Chinese scholars should understand better the opportunities they are facing and the reality of the gap between China and the US in the field of international law. They should seek to safeguard China's foreign-related rights and interests with a new mind-set, perspective and theory.

The author is a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law and vice president of the China Society of Private International Law.


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