Promoting China Law to Foreigners. Wait, What?

February 1, 2013

See if you can figure out what all this means:

Local television should broadcast an English-language legal program to make foreign residents more aware of Chinese law, a partner from a local law firm proposed Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Shanghai People’s Congress.

“If Shanghai wants to become an international finance and shipping center, it is indispensable to establish the authority of law as the number of legal disputes involving foreign parties is expected to increase,” said Wu Jian, a partner at the Duan & Duan Law Firm. (Global Times)

What’s going on here? I have a few thoughts.

First, this looks like a throwaway suggestion that won’t go anywhere. As much as I’d love to see an English-language television show devoted to China law (I get excited just writing about it), I doubt that anyone, even a State-run media outlet, would jump on a narrow topic like that.

Second, why would lawyer Wu even bother making such a suggestion? Well, when you’ve got the opportunity to speak at a government meeting, you need to come up with something to make yourself sound useful. What to do about legal disputes? Public awareness! I have it on good authority that governments the world over are keen on programs whose goal is to “educate” the public. So lawyer Wu here is following standard operating procedure.

Third, lawyer Wu might just have an ulterior motive as well. He is a partner at Duan & Duan, a very well respected Chinese law firm that makes a lot of money handling foreign investment/foreign company deals and disputes. A television show whose purpose is to make foreigners more aware of Chinese legal issues? Gee, that might just result in foreigners seeking legal assistance, right? Sounds like this would be a good thing for lawyer Wu and his colleagues (not to mention yours truly).

But let’s put all that aside and take the suggestion at face value. After all, there must be a good reason why Global Times ran this piece. ;)

Indeed, if you read between the lines here, you can dig out the following argument:

1. China desires to continue developing its economy.

2. Foreign investment is a key part of that development.

3. Rule of law is important when it comes to foreign investment decisions.

4. Foreigners do not know much (or not enough) about China law.

5. [This is the big one.] Therefore, if foreigners learn more about China law/rule of law, this will encourage more use of the legal system and encourage additional foreign investment.

Any takers? It’s a simple and reasonable argument, and it definitely has merit. I am hopelessly biased of course, but remember that I talk to foreigners on a regular basis who have erroneous views of China’s legal system. I’ve talked about this perception problem many times in the past, mostly with respect to views on China’s IP legal regime.

As a simple proposition, teaching foreigners about China law would be a good thing and might very well lead to positive outcomes.

However . . .

As a law professor, I can tell you that it’s hard enough capturing the attention of law students who have paid money to learn about foreign investment law. Your typical foreign business type may not be too excited about throwing away 30 minutes of her life watching an entire show about, say, the most recent draft amendments to the Copyright Law. And even that topic is a lot sexier than many others I can think of, such as competition law, government procurement, or taxation. Even with copious amounts of baijiu, we’re talking about a painful experience.

I’m sure the boredom factor would be exacerbated by a healthy amount of content restrictions. Not only would certain topics be verboten (e.g., forced technology transfer), but I doubt that the folks in charge of the show would be too happy with any guest commentator who wanted to talk about local protectionism, corruption, WTO violations and other “negative” subjects. If the show turned out to be the legal equivalent of CCTV 9′s Dialogue, you’d be better off staring at the wall for a half hour.

But even if everything was done well, I’m still not sure this would work. China law is, after all, a complex and nuanced topic. I can talk to someone for hours about how far China has come in terms of protecting IP rights, but give that person a single article on the latest foreign company with a trademark squatter problem, and all that information gets pushed aside. Whatever “education” is achieved by a show on China law, the negative anecdotal news floating around out there in the English-language press will probably neutralize any positive message.

Self-serving motives aside, lawyer Wu’s suggestions are sound in the abstract. In reality, though, any attempt to educate foreigners on China law via a television show is a fool’s errand.