Watching A Chinese Professor Watching American Democracy

On the morning of Election Day, I joined He Haibo, a legal scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing, as he spent several hours observing a polling station in the upscale Graham and Parks public elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “If I were a voter, I would vote for her just for this,” He said, pointing at Massachusetts State Representative Marjorie C. Decker, who was running unopposed for reelection, aiding a very old woman walk up the stairs. “I know it’s just a gesture, but it’s a nice gesture.” Later that morning, Senator Elizabeth Warren, swarmed by cameras, entered to vote. “She makes my heart sing,” one elderly woman said, a look of bliss on her face. “The world is such a mess, and then there is Elizabeth Warren.” After He watched her purchase pastries at a bake sale, and then confirmed with the bake sale volunteers the amount she had spent—$20—he approached her with a shy smile. “I'm a visiting law professor from China. I come not to vote, but to observe American democracy,” he said. “Good for you,” she said cheerily, as He flashed a thumbs up. “This is American democracy. Voting and food.” She paused for a minute, and tried again, before politely turning away: “Voting and fundraisers for the kids.”

He told me that Warren’s ease with voters impressed him. “She didn’t say a word about her policies,” he said. “The election is not about those sort of things. She just shows up, shakes hands, takes pictures with people, and that makes her closer to voters. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Isaac Stone Fish for ChinaFile
Democratic State Representative Marjorie C. Decker, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, stands with He Haibo on election day.

He is spending the year at Harvard studying administrative and constitutional law and researching, writing about, and experiencing American democracy. In September, He blogged about his experience canvassing—in Chinese, the expression is “to pull votes”—in New Hampshire for the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. A Chinese citizen, He cheerily knocked on doors and smiled as his two fellow canvassers, both Americans, asked the residents about their voting choices. A gentle listener with a mischievous smile, kind eyes, and a wispy, Lincolnesque beard, He marvels at the personal nature of American democracy, the handshaking, easy compliments, and selfies. And, comfortingly, over the turbulent 24 hours I spent with him, he also marvels at the structural integrity of the American system.

The evening of Election Day, He bar-hopped through Cambridge and Boston, speaking to roughly a dozen voters about their politics and outlooks. As the audacity of hopelessness sunk in at around midnight on November 8, He comforted me by comparing America in 2016 to China 50 years ago. “The good thing about the American system is it prevents awful things from occurring. With the American system, you could never have a Cultural Revolution,” He said, referring to the 10-year period in which a tyrannical Mao Zedong encouraged millions of young Chinese to rebel against, overthrow, and in some cases murder their teachers, bosses, and parents. “Even if Trump wins, you can’t say the American democratic system failed,” he said. “For a society to adjust itself to the will of its people, that’s a great thing.”

It’s a fraught time to remember it, but the United States remains the preeminent democratic experiment in the world. “We look at the United States differently from American scholars looking at China,” He told me, choosing his words carefully. “American scholars think, ‘ok, [China’s President] Xi Jinping is the highest leader in China, how does that affect China and Sino-U.S. relations?’” He and some other Chinese scholars, he said, studied which elements of the American system would benefit China. He asked polling officials about early voting, about how to divide wards and precincts, and whether they would tell him if his neighbors voted. Throughout the morning, He took photos every chance he got, sometimes asking for permission, a large camera in his hands, sometimes just surreptitiously photographing with his phone. I had assumed he did it for documentation purposes. But He described it as testing the tension between what is permitted and what is allowed. “When I asked about taking photos [at the polling station], most of the people said no,” He said. But even when they refused, sometimes they accepted it—like when Warren entered the school, and suddenly photographing seemed permissible everywhere. To He, that detail is a teaching point. “We ask ourselves,” he said, “what parts of the system can we adopt?”

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Like many Chinese raised during the Mao years, when mass campaigns, sloganeering, and struggle sessions were regular features of life, politics got into He at an early age. But his positive association with politics come from his father, now deceased, who was the village head in He’s birthplace, a small village in the mountains of Zhejiang province in eastern China. “Some people in China, and in America, think that politics is evil,” but it doesn’t have to be if people’s interests are respected, he said. He describes his father as a patient, intelligent man, who educated and bettered his compatriots without patronizing them. “My father knew that Americans walked on the moon in 1969,” he told me. His fellow villagers, however, dismissed this as impossible; instead, they believed the tradition of the Cowherd and the Weavergirl, two mythical lovers who every year on July 7 reunite as two stars moving across the sky. On one July 7, to prove that the two stars did not travel the length of the sky to meet each other, He’s father stayed up all night with one of the doubting villagers, observing the movement of the stars.

He grew interested in the American system in part because of its structural elements: the way the parties connected with one another, the separation of powers, the bustle and din of American presidential elections. When he was sixteen, his older sister gave him a book called A Brief Biographical Sketch of The Previous American Presidents, from George Washington to Jimmy Carter. He memorized biographical information about the U.S. presidents, and can recite most of them today: “Polk. Only four years in office but pushed America’s borders to the Pacific Ocean. Good.”

In 1989, He performed excellently on the gaokao, the national college entrance exam. But in June of that year, soldiers massacred pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square. Because 1989 was a “non-regular year,” he said diplomatically, he could only get into Zhejiang Politics and Law Polytechnic, a mediocre school. He wanted to retake the gaokao. “But my father said something to me, that even today, left a deep impression: ‘You can find the Buddha even in a small temple,’” he recalled. He passed the bar at 21, becoming the youngest lawyer in his province. Then, after working for several years in his local Bureau of Justice, He entered Peking University, one of China’s top schools, where he earned his Ph.D. and wrote a thesis on the “legitimate foundation of judicial review.”

Since 2005, He has taught and researched at Tsinghua Law School. He is proud of his dispassionate mind, and unlike his father, he’s a scholar, not a practitioner. “He’s devoted to his studies, and his students,” said Ye Doudou, He’s wife. “He doesn’t really have many hobbies. He basically just reads books and reads the news. In terms of daily life, he’s a boring guy,” she said with a smile. But unlike some scholars, He doesn’t let his ego interfere with his research. “He’s smart, subtle, and genuinely very humble, which helps in advancing his ideas,” said William P. Alford, the director of the East Asian Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. “He doesn’t come across as an imperious academic.” At the polling center on Election Day morning, He’s neighbor in Cambridge, Lori Berenson, told me that “he’s very interested in listening.” She contrasted him positively with some of the other tenants in their apartment building, professors at Harvard and nearby universities who she said condescended to her because she had a stroke and was on disability leave. “They’re all elitist,” she said. “I don’t think he is.”

In liberal Cambridge, He had difficulty finding Trump supporters. In his two months in the United States, he had only met two—a couple from North Carolina, who told him that God sent Trump to America. (“It was at this point that I realized religion played a large role in American politics,” He told me.) At a bar in Boston, we found two men wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, who He listened to speak passionately about their views of how Trump would improve their nation. Daniel Dahnke, a 25-year-old sales representative who told me “I’d hate to see Clinton shot, even though I can’t stand her,” praised He’s curiosity in observing the election. Instead of looking down at the election “like from a blimp,” Dahnke said, He is in the trenches with everyone else. “I like that he’s here,” Dahnke said. Dahnke’s friend, a 24-year-old who asked to just be quoted by his first name, Luke, imagined it might be frustrating for He, who comes from a country with no national elections, to watch Americans choose their leader. Despite the disagreement, Luke said, “we get our own personal say, our own personal vote as Americans.”

As the polls closed, and The New York Times began reporting that Trump had a greater than 95 percent chance of victory, He grew pensive. “The basic things about the American system are unchangeable,” he told me. “The federal system, the separation of powers. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of America’s most powerful presidents, had to deal with a lot of constraints on his power.” He, like everyone else at the Harvard Law School student center, looked shocked as Clinton’s loss grew apparent. But his faith in American democracy remained unshaken and unsullied. “China may not choose a system like America’s,” he told me, earlier in the day. “But at least we can learn something.”