Chinese Documents Fight Stays in U.S., For Now

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge has refused to relinquish U.S. jurisdiction in a dispute over ownership of a trove of historic Chinese documents housed at Stanford University.
     Eight descendants and one Chinese historical institution have claimed rights to the papers and personal diaries of two former Chinese leaders, which were loaned to Stanford University in 2004.
     The collection consists of hundreds of thousands of documents belonging to Chiang Kai-shek, China’s political and military leader from 1928 to 1975, and his son, Chiang Ching-kou, China’s premier from 1972 to 1978 and president from 1978 until his death in 1988.
     Ching-kou’s eldest son, Chiang Hisa-yung, or Eddie, loaned the papers to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in 2004. The college keeps redacted copies of the documents in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, available for scholars from around the world to view.
     In 2013, Stanford filed an interpleader action to protect itself from any lawsuits or liability over disputed claims of ownership of the papers.
     Descendants of Ching-kuo claiming ownership rights include his granddaughter, Chiang Yo-mei; his son, Chiang Hsiao-yen, or John H., and his three children; his daughter-in-law, Tsai Hui-mei, or Michelle, and her two children.
     Stanford also named two other descendants with potential ownership rights – Ching-kou’s daughter and grandson – but neither has participated in the lawsuit thus far.
     Another entity claiming rights over the papers is China’s self-described “highest-level organization tasked with affairs related to the nation’s history,” Academia Historica.
     Academia and Ching-kuo’s son, John H., filed a motion to dismiss Stanford’s lawsuit for forum non conveniens, claiming that a Taiwanese court is the proper place to determine ownership of the papers, not the United States.
     Stanford opposed the defendants’ motions to dismiss, arguing that Taiwan has no procedure for interpleader actions and therefore can not guarantee the university protection from liability. U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman agreed.
     “Here, the undisputed fact that Taiwanese law does not have a mechanism for interpleader actions deprives Stanford of any practical remedy in a Taiwanese court,” Freeman wrote in the Sept. 2 ruling.
     However, the judge also conceded that Chinese and Taiwanese laws regarding inheritance rights and historical preservation undeniably apply to the disputed claims and should be litigated overseas.
     “Unquestionably, the public-interest factors weigh in favor of allowing this ownership dispute over papers of national and historical significance to be litigated in Taiwan,” Freeman wrote.
     Stanford had asked the judge to strike evidence submitted by Academia concerning Taiwanese laws and its Presidential and Vice Presidential Records and Artifacts Act of 2004.
     Freeman denied Stanford’s request to strike the evidence, finding the declarations “inform the court regarding a foreign law that is potentially applicable to the claims in this suit.”
     The judge identified two crucial issues that must be addressed to determine ownership – the rights of the descendants under Taiwanese inheritance law and the portion of papers that are considered “official documents” under Taiwan’s Artifacts Act.
     “The only disputed issue among the parties that have appeared in this action may be whether the diaries in the deposit are personal property or ‘official documents’ under Taiwanese law,” Freeman stated in her 19-page ruling.
     However, because Stanford has no guarantee of protection from liability under Taiwanese law, the judge refused to dismiss the case or indefinitely stay proceedings until legal action is filed in Taiwan.
     “Proof that the claimants are actively working to resolve their ownership interests in a Taiwanese court may tip the balance in favor of a prolonged stay of this action pending resolution of the legal issues in Taiwan,” Freeman wrote.
     The judge agreed to freeze further proceedings in the lawsuit for 90 days, giving the defendants a chance to file an appropriate lawsuit in Taiwan.
     She asked the parties to update the court in writing by Nov. 25, ahead of a further case management conference scheduled for Dec. 3.

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