They spoke multiple times by phone, and Chen eventually accepted Cohen’s invitation to defuse a political crisis by coming to the United States as a visiting scholar at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute. It was Cohen’s idea and a typically elegant solution: By departing China as a traveling scholar rather than as an asylum-seeker, Chen would spare both governments political embarrassment.
“This has been a hectic 72 hours,” Cohen said Friday, speaking by telephone from his New York home, hoarse from a cold. “But it’s coming out well, I hope. You know, I’m an eternal optimist.”
Cohen, known for his mustache and bow tie, is a towering figure in Sino-American legal relations, with credentials befitting the political elite.
The son of a New Jersey lawyer, Cohen graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, graduated at the top of his Yale Law School class and clerked for two U.S. Supreme Court justices. He taught law at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University, where he founded the United States’ first East Asia legal studies program.
“There’s probably not anybody teaching today who wasn’t either Jerry’s student or someone he impacted in some way,” said Adam Segal, a senior fellow and colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, where Cohen is an adjunct senior fellow.
Cohen embraced China when the nation and its legal system were not deemed worthy of serious attention. He learned Mandarin in the basement of his Berkeley home and became the first Western lawyer to practice in Beijing, according to a profile in the NYU School of Law’s magazine. By chance, Cohen shares a birthday with that of the Chinese Communist Party.
“I just knew that China was going to be very important to our future, and its law was going to be very important to our interaction,” he said.
Human rights was always on Cohen’s radar. In recent years, it has moved toward the center of his agenda.
Cohen has leveraged his diplomatic stature to help negotiate the release of several political prisoners, including Kim Dae-jung, who later was president of South Korea and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Annette Lu, who would rise to be vice president of Taiwan, according to the university profile.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert from the Brookings Institution, recalled a function he attended with Cohen, “where a former student walked up to him and said, ‘Jerry, it’s amazing, you’ve built a career teaching around Chinese law. But as you seem to point out in books, there is no Chinese law.’ In that funny way he has, he simply said, ‘Yes.’ ”