“I’ve always been drawn to the role of a public intellectual,” says 2011 Rhodes Scholar and current second-year Harvard Law School student Mark Jia. “I want to be someone who doesn’t just pursue truth for its intrinsic value, but aims to influence society on the level of ideas.”
An aspiring legal academic, Jia describes his journey into US-China relations as a comparative one. “My fascination with U.S. constitutional law was really the starting point from which I started asking questions about [Chinese] legal developments,” he remarks, citing how knowledge of one system can help inform an understanding of the other side.
Perhaps the best illustration of parallels between US and Chinese law is Jia’s own academic research. While at Oxford, his dissertation addressed cases in which the Chinese government responded to activism connecting constitutional argumentation with mass grievances. The phenomenon of popular constitutionalism, Jia notes, was originated in the U.S. Jia’s writings have been featured in prominent news outlets like the Huffington Post and Foreign Policy, and he hopes to publish his current work in academic journals.
Yet, legal scholarship on China is not without its challenges. Whereas in other academic fields researchers may pursue truth for truth’s sake, Jia states that, oftentimes, “engaging too much in pursuing truth” in China studies can lead to certain restrictions, such as being banned from traveling to the country. In addition, access to source material in China can be especially difficult. When in Beijing conducting his thesis research, Jia lived by his e-mail account everyday to see if he could speak with a Chinese human rights lawyer who had been placed under house arrest. “When he was allowed to leave his home, we’d have to meet at a KFC on the outskirts of Beijing,” recalls Jia.
Beyond his academic work, Jia has served in a number of professional positions, including stints as a Princeton-in-Asia Fellow and a research intern for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Studies program. When discussing his time at Princeton-in-Asia, he tells us he taught U.S. constitutional law to undergraduates at China Foreign Affairs University. And while issues like democratic governance certainly brought controversy, Jia happily tells us that the discussions were always frank and constructive. After all, Jia notes, the role of a public intellectual compels one to interact with people of all perspectives.
Today, Jia remarks he is humbled to study in the intellectually rigorous environment of Harvard Law School, where he serves as an editor for the Harvard Law Review. He’s cautiously optimistic about China’s recent legal reforms, but hopes that he can one day influence further positive developments in Chinese law. “Having a direct say in these efforts is difficult—the Chinese have their own law and their own rules—[so] the best role I can play is to advise, consult, and influence in terms of ideas.”