Forc­ing pro­ce­dural cor­rect­ness can be harm­ful

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When New York City sud­denly an­nounced in Au­gust that it would build a new jail close to Man­hat­tan’s Chi­na­town, the Chi­nese com­mu­nity went up in arms – it was un­pleas­ant to have an­other jail at your doorstep. And when the city an­nounced at the end of Novem­ber that it had dropped the pre­vi­ous plan and would in­stead make the ex­ist­ing prison in Chi­na­town big­ger, the wave of anger surged again. The sec­ond an­nounce­ment also came out of the blue. In a demo­cratic coun­try, this is at least the­o­ret­i­cally un­ac­cept­able. Elected of­fi­cials rep­re­sent­ing Chi­na­town called in a uni­fied voice for the city to restart the process to al­low for more com­mu­nity ad­vice. That was the easy part. The hard part is, then what?

Dis­cus­sions be­tween city au­thor­i­ties and the com­mu­nity can lead to three pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios. First, the city builds the jail some­where else. It is not very likely. The Chi­na­town jail is part of the bor­ough­based prison sys­tem the city en­vi­sions cre­at­ing by 2027, with big­ger jails in four of the five bor­oughs to re­place the cur­rent de­ten­tion cen­ters on the iso­lated Rik­ers Is­land. City of­fi­cials say that de­tain­ing peo­ple in places in the cen­ter of com­mu­ni­ties is more hu­mane than iso­lat­ing them and will lead to a bet­ter out­come for in­mates. Most elected of­fi­cials in this lib­eral city, in­clud­ing those rep­re­sent­ing Chi­na­town, agree. What they don’t agree on is the lo­ca­tion of the new jails. But how do you make a con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment that one neigh­bor­hood de­serves a jail more than an­other?

In the sec­ond sce­nario, the anger of the com­mu­nity dis­si­pates dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions and it de­cides to ac­cept the jail. Not likely ei­ther. The cur­rent de­ten­tion cen­ter in Chi­na­town, which was built in the 1980s, trig­gered the big­gest protests from the com­mu­nity then. Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple poured onto the streets. The jail was built any­way. Then New York Mayor Ed Koch made an in­fa­mous com­ment: “You don’t vote. You don’t count.” That hurt the Chi­nese com­mu­nity so much that even to­day it is still used, to­gether with the im­age of the ugly win­dow­less jail build­ing in the cen­ter of Chi­na­town, as a way to shame Chi­nese vot­ers into cast­ing their bal­lots. Given this back­ground, it’s hard to imag­ine the Chi­nese would ac­cept a big­ger jail in their neigh­bor­hood.

The third pos­si­bil­ity is that the city launches a bet­ter plan mind­ful of the com­mu­nity’s in­ter­ests. But the plan an­nounced in Au­gust al­ready came with some quite gen­er­ous perks in­clud­ing the of­fer of some ad­di­tional space for pub­lic use. The Chi­nese re­buffed the plan. It is quite clear by now that Chi­na­town just doesn’t want a larger jail, pe­riod.

In a dead­lock like this where there is lit­tle com­mon ground for a com­pro­mise, putting all the weight on com­mu­nity en­gage­ment without be­ing fully pre­pared for the out­come may back­fire in the fu­ture. That is es­pe­cially true given the Chi­nese com­mu­nity is in trans­for­ma­tion – there is a ris­ing aware­ness of ci­ti­zen rights and an in­creas­ing pas­sion for po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. But there are un­prece­dented waves of po­lit­i­cal con­ser­vatism as well.

Do­ing things by the book and hold­ing talks plays an in­dis­pens­able role in the Amer­i­can sys­tem and means its ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions re­tain at least a mea­sure of sup­port. But it is not al­ways aligned with the pri­or­i­ties of new im­mi­grants, many of whom grew up in coun­tries and cul­tures that are prag­matic and re­sult-driven. This is par­tic­u­larly so with re­cent Chi­nese im­mi­grants coming from a coun­try where peo­ple’s in­tense com­pet­i­tive spirit and sharp fo­cus on re­sults have con­trib­uted in a ma­jor way to its rapid eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in the past few decades.

The last time pro­ce­dural cor­rect­ness ran amok in the Chi­nese com­mu­nity was when Chi­nese-Amer­i­can cop Peter Liang ac­ci­den­tally shot dead an un­armed black per­son while pa­trolling a gov­ern­ment hous­ing project in 2014. Lib­er­als in the com­mu­nity called for Liang’s in­dict­ment, trust­ing the ju­di­cial sys­tem to give the rookie cop a fair treat­ment. It didn’t work out well, es­pe­cially when peo­ple saw that sev­eral white cops in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions were not in­dicted.

Liang’s case was a cat­a­lyst for the cre­ation of a rights move­ment among Chi­nese im­mi­grants. And those fresh off the boat raised their voices play­ing a lead­ing role in protests. And the protests of­ten took place when their own in­ter­est was sac­ri­ficed for that of oth­ers, in turn help­ing push them fur­ther to the right.

I once asked a vet­eran lib­eral ac­tivist who hap­pens to be an Amer­i­can-born Chi­nese what she thinks about the right-wing views of many new Chi­nese im­mi­grants. She re­sponded: “They need to be ed­u­cated.”

Re­sponses like this are, in my view, the very rea­son that Amer­i­can lib­er­als are los­ing ground among new Chi­nese im­mi­grants.

Pro­ce­dural cor­rect­ness is im­por­tant. But sim­ply forc­ing it on peo­ple can do more harm than good. When the right pro­ce­dure leads to the wrong re­sult, as of­ten hap­pens, it can only deepen dis­trust of pro­ce­dure as well as those who have been push­ing for its use.

The au­thor is a New York-based jour­nal­ist. rong_x­i­ao­[email protected]­mail.com

Il­lus­tra­tion: Liu Rui/GT

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