Amidst global economic crisis, rule of law on the rise in China

BY RUI GUO

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping’s slogan was “only capitalism can save China.” Thirty years later, it has been replaced by “only China can save capitalism.” These slogans, recounted by Cam Cowan, the managing partner of Orrick’s Washington D.C. office, opened a panel discussion celebrating the F.Y. Chang Foundation’s twentieth anniversary. The Foundation, founded by Julia Chang Bloch, the first U.S. Ambassador of Asian descent, seeks to promote Sino-US exchanges and the rule of law by sponsoring legal education of Chinese scholars.

These slogans help to explain the vast transformation of America’s perception of China over the past thirty years. In 1978, Americans viewed China’s opening-up as a gesture to seek wisdom from the West to reform its economy; in 2008, Americans expected China to help bail out its troubled financial sector. Indeed, Americans seem to have become much more open-minded, going so far as to search for wisdom from China, a nation which had previously been heavily criticized by the U.S. for its poor regulation of market. Today, China remains perhaps the only economy not hit hard by the global crisis.

For F.Y. Chang Fellows – Chinese legal scholars and practitioners both on the panel and in the audience – the inherent message of the slogans was more of a polite gesture from a humble host than anything serious. As accomplished legal scholars or active participants of China’s legal reform, they did not believe China had anything to boast about at this point. Instead, they believe China still has a long way to go.

Former Tsinghua Law School Dean Wan Chenguang, for instance, pointed out the serious challenges to judicial independence facing China during the “Rule of Law” panel discussion. From the market regulation panel, Shen Yuanyuan’s analysis of the food safety issue made the case even clearer: despite strict laws issued and inspections required, Sanlu and other toxic food products had slipped through and harmed consumers worldwide – and law suits against the producer were barred by the government.

The fellows did acknowledge that some progress had been made on the rule of law in China. Professor Liang Zhiping, for instance, presented a report on Chinese legal development. He referenced a database with measurable indicators, such as the number of lawsuits against the government, legal professionals in urban and rural China, and courses provided by Chinese legal education institutes, to show China’s progress towards the rule of law.

The courageous efforts of many Chinese legal scholars have led to a stronger rule of law in China. Once upon a time just to speak up for the rule of law was highly challenging – even dangerous. Scholars would be labeled as “capitalist liberalists” if they spoke for the rule of law. They also faced many other challenges such as the lack of laws, the lack of institutions to implement laws, and cultural biases against the rule of law.

The Foundation is named after Fuyun Chang ’17, Bloch’s father and the first Chinese Harvard Law School graduate. Chang played a central role in the recovery of Chinese control over the Customs Service. Given that the British had controlled the Chinese Customs Service since shortly after the Opium War, using it to pay for the war compensation that the British believed Chinese government owed to them, “the recovery of Customs represented a major milestone in China’s re-assertion of its sovereignty in both actual and symbolic terms,” according to Professor William Alford ’77.

Chang would have been proud to witness the fellows converge upon Washington. The Foundation sponsored some 50 fellows in the past two decades. Some fellows have become law school deans – Fang Liufang and Li Shuguang at China University of Political Science and Law, Wang Chenguang and Wang Zhenmin at Tsinghua, Zhu Suli at Beijing University, Wang Liming at Renmin University. Others have become distinguished scholars – Liang Zhiping from CASS, He Weifang and Zhang Qi from Beijing University, Yu Xingzhong from Hong Kong Chinese University, Shen Yuanyuan from Harvard University, and Zang Dongsheng from Washington University in Seattle. Yet more have become governmental officials, such as Xin Cunyig of the Standing Committee of the NPC, Xia Yong of the President’s Office, Li Bo of the People’s Bank, and Peng Gaojian of the State Council.

Most of the fellows have continued to promote the rule of law in China, believing whole-heartedly that it will help China’s development. At one point during the symposium, fellows on the panel were asked about “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

In 1982, Xiaoping claimed that his economic policy, which entailed the state having ownership of a large fraction of the Chinese economy while at the same time having entities participate within a market economy, would lead China towards “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”Xiaoping’s rhetorical innovation silenced many hard-line communists, ensuring continued economic reform.

As time passed, however, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was hijacked by hard-line communists, who used it to hinder changes towards judicial independence. They argued that the “Chinese characteristics” meant China had to differentiate itself from the West, where judicial independence was broadly adopted. Because of this development, many Chinese legal scholars abandoned the use of this term.

The fellows stated almost unanimously that it was China’s commitment to the rule of law and not “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” that held the future of China. Professor Zang Dongsheng commented that while the rule of law might be abused, said abuses would only inspire more efforts towards a genuine rule of law in China.

Alford, who also serves as the Director of East Asian Legal Studies and Vice Dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies, asked the fellows what President-elect Barack Obama ’91 should do to foster a strong relationship between the U.S. and China. The question, while of great interest for Americans in the audience, was not directly answered. Perhaps as a result of their inborn politeness, the fellows considered it pretentious to tell their American friends how to run the country, even in such a friendly setting.

The fellows did answer Alford’s question in an indirect way. The message conveyed to their U.S. friends was clear: that the U.S. should continue to help China establish the rule of law.

Rui Guo is an SJD Candidate.

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