The Faculty of Law recently welcomed distinguished visitor, Zhenmin Wang, the dean of one of China's most prestigious law schools, Tsinghua University School of Law, in Beijing. Dean Wang taught an intensive course to students, for his third consecutive year, and participated in the first joint conference between the two law schools: "Frontiers of Constitutional Jurisprudence in China and Canada." Nexus executive editor, Lucianna Ciccocioppo, sat down with Dean Wang for a chat and learned a lot more about China's unique legal system--and a new lawyer joke.
China is changing so rapidly, and in so many ways. In your dean’s message on the Tsinghua University School of Law website, you write: “The fate of the country rests on the rule of law.” How so?
Over 2,000 years ago, the Chinese people already had a complete legal system. But commentators always said: You have law, but not necessarily rule of law. That’s the case in the past. The criteria are to look at how the law is made, whether or not the law is independent from the government. In China many people have a long-time understanding: laws are made by the government. That was the case in feudal times. Law was made by the emperor, and the emperor was above the law. That’s why China had laws, but not rule of law. Since 1979 China was developing a new set of laws. Now, I think China is very serious to build rule of law. If you look at the 1982 constitution, it states all government agencies, all individuals, all political parties, institutions, must abide by the constitution and the laws, including the Communist Party and top leaders. The Chinese constitution does embody the spirit and principles of the rule of law. China has made continuing efforts in this regard since 1979.
But what is it like in practice?
Last March, the Chinese national people’s congress chairman, Mr Wu Bangguo announced that a new legal system had been established after over 30 years’ efforts . This new legal system is different from the feudal Chinese laws, different from the capitalist Chinese law, and also different from the previous Soviet Union-style Chinese law (1949-1979). It is a brand new Chinese law; we call it Chinese-style socialist legal system.
It is a brand new Chinese law; we call it Chinese-style socialist legal system.
What challenges does the Chinese legal system face?
The challenges are law enforcement, judicial performance and social justice. Recently Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao paid a visit to Tsinghua University and gave a speech. To the surprise of many, the Premier didn’t mention economic matters; instead he talked about rule of law, democracy, equality, judicial independence, social justice and freedom. China has achieved tremendous economic growth—its economy is the second largest in the world now, next just to the US. But if you look at the development of the rule of law, we have a lot of challenges. The main problem now is law enforcement and judicial independence. Is the Chinese court powerful enough to enforce the law? That’s a big problem. Many people in China are very unsatisfied with the law enforcement.
The second challenge is we need more high-quality lawyers. The number of lawyers in the country has substantially increased to 215,000 now, up from about 200 lawyers in 1979. It’s still not a lot. In the 1980s, a lot of judges were laymen, not legally trained. Many were retired soldiers and servicemen. Now, in most of provinces, many judges are very well-trained, professional lawyers. But if you interview citizens whether they were satisfied with courts in the 1980s or today, they very likely would choose 1980s. Why? Because the judiciary was very clean. Servicemen at that time, even though they didn’t have legal training, had the sense to be a good judge and a sense of justice, common knowledge and fairness. I think that means legal education today has serious problems. We don’t produce enough high-quality lawyers and judges with a strong sense of social responsibilities and high ethical standards.
How can you overcome that problem?
We need to reform legal education. In the past we emphasized too much teaching legal knowledge and skills. Today we have the Internet, so it’s easy to get knowledge. The first goal of legal education is no longer to teach legal knowledge, but to train all-around, high-quality lawyers with a strong sense of social commitment and responsibility, and of justice. I think we need to enhance legal ethics training. Law should not be treated as a business. The objective to go to law school is not to make money, but for the rule of law. This should be the common goal for all sectors of the legal profession— lawyers, judges, prosecutors.
What can China learn from Western legal systems?
We have a great deal to learn from the West, such as the professionalization of legal education. Legal education is an undergraduate degree. In 1996, China decided to introduce North American-style legal education, and introduced the JM, Juris Master program. It has been very successful. Also I think we need to professionalize the court. We need to enhance independence of the court according to the Constitution. We need to guarantee the income of the judges and guarantee their independence. Another point I suggested long time ago, we need to select judges from among experienced lawyers like that in Canada. Law graduates need to practice law first, and then we select the best of them to be judges.
And what can we learn from the Chinese legal system?
Chinese law tradition is to combine written laws with natural justice. In history, the magistrate could make a judgment according to state law and Confucian teachings. In government buildings, there was a slogan: “You need to combine state law, natural justice and human interactions together to make a judgment.” I think that is quite reasonable. If you only look at the written laws to make a judgment, the outcome could sometimes be very strange and unacceptable to anyone. So lawyers need to take into account the culture and customs, the people’s common wish. I think that’s the Chinese tradition.
Why was it important for Tsinghua University School of Law to develop an English-language, international LLM program?
The idea for this program came from many friends from overseas. There is much foreign investment in China. Foreign lawyers don’t know Chinese law and there is no place for them to study Chinese law. It’s important for the West to know Chinese law, and we had many requests from overseas lawyers for such a program. We only had the Chinese-language program. So there was a need from the international business community. Tsinghua Law School took the lead to organize this program in English language. It’s been very successful.
What do your graduates do with their law degrees?
About 40 percent go into corporate law, employed by big companies and banks because there’s a tremendous need. Chinese companies in the past didn’t have legal departments. But now it is required for all companies, especially state-owned companies and banks to have a legal department. About 30 percent go into public service, join the central and local governments. Previously, the government did not have legal departments either. But in 1990, China made administrative litigation law, to enable citizens to sue the government. Now the government must have a legal department. We encourage students to go into public service. In Western developed countries, a lot of state leaders are lawyers. But in China, almost all are engineers. The law school has a social responsibility to train state leaders, not only to train private lawyers. The remaining 30 percent of our students go into private practice or the academic field.
Diversity in the legal profession and in law schools is a big issue here. Is it an issue at Tsinghua Law School?
In China, we don’t have racial discrimination, but we have regional discrimination. In the past, a lot of law students came from cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai. In recent years, we are trying to change this. We pay more attention on the western and central provinces. We increased admission from those regions of the country.
In Western developed countries, a lot of state leaders are lawyers. But in China, almost all are engineers. The Tsinghua law school has a social responsibility to train state leaders, not only to train private lawyers.
What can you tell us about the contributions of the late Prof. Betty Ho to Chinese law?
I knew Betty when I was a visiting student in Hong Kong University in early 1990s. In 2002, she eventually joined our faculty. She published several influential books on securities law, corporate law and trusts, and translated them into Chinese so that Chinese lawyers could read. Her contribution to Tsinghua University and to Chinese legal education, and the rule of law, is quite substantial. In the early 1990s, she was invited by Chinese government to craft the legal framework for Chinese companies to be listed on the Hong Kong stock market. That was a “Mission Impossible.” Why? Because at that time, China didn’t have corporate law established yet. We did not have a stock market on the mainland. So the legal system was very incomplete. Betty did tremendous research and did a great job. That was a huge contribution to the Chinese legal system.
A second contribution, of which I am very much impressed, is her wholehearted devotion to training students. She didn’t have children, and almost all of her income and time were spent for students. She invited students for meals, gave subsidies to students who needed it. Sometimes, she even spent her own money to invite other professors from overseas to teach at Tsinghua, covering their airfare and honorarium.
She read each and every student paper very carefully. Her comments were sometimes longer than the paper. It was unbelievable! I don’t know if we’ll ever have in future another professor like Betty. She was unprecedented. When people asked her why she decided to join Tsinghua University while Hong Kong has much better salary and living conditions, she said: “I want to train the future leaders of China.”
She created a course on the foundations of common law—it’s now her ‘trademark’ in China. When Tsinghua law students are interviewed by firms and companies, they are asked if they took Betty’s course. If they did, they are hired; that’s why her students are so hot in the market. We manage to continue this unique course after she passed away two years ago.
Why do you want to establish ties with the Faculty of Law, what are your goals?
I hope to strengthen student exchanges between our two law schools. Currently, at Tsinghua law school, we have one UofT law student on exchange, and university wide we have 10. It’s not sufficient. Secondly, I hope to increase faculty exchanges. Starting from this year, our two schools will be organizing an annual joint conference. This year, the conference held at Faculty of Law. And next year, I hope the conference may be in Beijing. As agreed by Dean Mayo Moran, we also invited Hong Kong University to join. Joint research could be another possibility.
Know any good Chinese lawyer jokes?
Mr. Zhang came across Mr. Chen who was walking with a crutch.
Mr. Zhang: Are your feet still not well yet?
Mr Chen: My doctor said they were, but my lawyer said they weren’t!