China’s Lawyer Leaders and the Rule of Law

March 23, 2013

Great post by Rachel at Tea Leaf Nation on whether China’s new leaders, some of which have law degrees, will be more likely to work on rule of law issues. My conclusion: maybe, but not because they have law degrees. Most of the post is devoted to netizen chatter on this issue, and I particularly enjoyed these bits:

While some hold high hopes that this means China will usher in a golden age of the rule of law, others are not so optimistic. Many have pointed out that Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro also had law degrees. User @Joey_Gillatt wrote, “If those who studied law would attach more importance to law, then Hitler would have supported the arts, Mao would have supported education for teachers and Stalin would have supported the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Activist Professor Yu Jianrong (@于建嵘) and others have pointed out that the names of the degrees can be deceiving. Even though Xi and Li Yuanchao have LLD degrees, they did not study the law per se, but rather Marxist theory and socialism ideology. None of the leaders have ever practiced law.

Let me agree wholeheartedly with that second comment. The legal education that these guys had, decades ago remember, is not at all what you would think of when typical modern lawyer training comes to mind. Chinese law schools still suffer from a lot of doctrine and rote memorization,  and many profs out there insist on doing little more than reading the law to their students, who are expected to memorize it.

Not exactly much help if your job is to either draft new law or create new policies. What I tried to do with my students is focus on the “why” and the “how” of the law. Why was it written the way it was? Why do we need the law at all? What problems are being solved? And on the other end, how is it implemented and how do practitioners and interested parties deal with it on the ground?

During my time here in China, I’ve often said that I’d rather have a lawyer running the legislature of a country than an engineer. At least the lawyer knows how to read a law — it’s gotta help, right? Legal training may/may not be good for crafting policy, mind you, but when it comes to the law itself, I’d say yes.

Even if legal training here doesn’t really get into those “why” and “how” issues, our law degree-bearing official would at least know what a law is supposed to look like; however, she (oops, I forgot, we’re talking about China here) he might not have a clue when it comes to policy. The good news here is that China, compared to the U.S. at least, is much better at bringing along promising politicians for decades, training them in a variety of posts and ensuring they know what they’re doing. You might not like the substantive policy result, but you can’t say they don’t understand the system. In the U.S. we have some Congressmen who are frankly too young and inexperienced (not to mention, in some cases, too stupid) to add any kind of value in D.C., if such a thing is indeed possible these days.

So what about rule of law? I don’t see too much in terms of specific training that would separate these folks with law degrees from other guys in any significant way. Might they have some special reverence for law and legal institutions as a result of their education? Maybe, but just think about your typical lawyer out there hustling clients. Reverence for the law? Meh.

Last point. Let’s keep our terminology straight with this discussion. A law degree does not a lawyer make, particularly here in China. When you get out of school here, you’re qualified to do essentially nothing without a whole lot of additional training. That’s still mostly true for many Western law programs as well. For anyone who received a law degree from a PRC school a couple decades ago, forget about it. Unless that person went on to actually practice law, I’m not gracing them (or burdening them?) with the designation “lawyer.”

2 thoughts on “China’s Lawyer Leaders and the Rule of Law

  1. D

    Yes, burdening them, but not in the Western sense of (dis)respect shown to lawyers: a lawyer in China is someone on their way to jail probably for trying to do the right thing.

  2. Huangse Ren

    As someone noted in the comments section on that original piece, lawyers don’t make laws, they interpret them. Meaning the impact on the CCP is coincidental and unlikely to be legal reform related. Legal reform would be handled by legislators at the CPC., not by any lawyers per se. So it’s a nice idea, but No.