As a Chinese national in my first year of law school in the United States, the global pandemic has been especially strange and challenging for me. In January, I returned to Virginia from my winter break back home right as the COVID-19 situation was beginning to spiral in Wuhan, where many of my relatives live. Throughout January and February, the tragic updates came in nonstop over Chinese social media — and getting my American friends to take the threat of COVID seriously was not easy.
When the virus reached the U.S. and shut down campus, I rounded out my 1L year virtually, prepared to do my internship remotely, and looked forward to going back to China, where things were seemingly more under control. Unfortunately, travel restrictions on both sides cast uncertainty on my plans, so for now, I’m hunkered down in the Burg. But amidst all this, it brings me a special kind of fulfillment to be working on issues of justice in my home country, even if it’s unclear when I’ll be able to travel back and see my family there.
This summer, I’ve been working remotely with International Bridges to Justice in China. The practice of criminal defense law is often regarded as a high-risk profession in China, and as a result, an incredibly large number of criminal defendants remain unrepresented at trial. In providing remote assistance to the China Office of IBJ, I am working alongside attorneys from the Chinese criminal justice community to help improve the quality of criminal advocacy in China, an area that few of my Chinese lawyer friends know much about.
But above all else, my work with the China Office of IBJ has been very much in sync with the story of the year, COVID-19. A week and a half ago, I drafted a memo for IBJ, titled, “Remote Advocacy in the Time of COVID-19”, detailing the ways in which criminal justice systems around the world are attempting to adapt to the pandemic. I originally set about researching how the Chinese criminal justice system has adapted to “online”, a process set into motion by Supreme People’s Court in mid-February.
For example, through the social chat app WeChat, people can access legal services, submit documents, and track the status of their case, as well as make use of “mobile micro court” in at least 12 provinces and cities. But many aspects and challenges of the Chinese criminal justice system’s transition to online are globally relevant, as all criminal justice systems figure out how to cope with pandemic-related restrictions on indoor public gathering.
Like many people in America, I had begun to think the worst of COVID was over—but now, I am no longer so sure of it. And so, the uncertainty—over whether 2L will be in person, whether there’ll even be a job market on the other side of law school, and whether I’ll get to see my family any time soon—goes on. But for now, as I hold out hope that I’ll get to see my classmates in the fall, I can at least be glad I’m doing meaningful work for my home country with IBJ.