Sydney Law School students in Asia: (3) China

Sydney Law School has a close relationship with the East China University of Politics and Law (ECUPL) in Shanghai, which has been teaching a short-term course in Chinese Law for our students for almost 20 years. We also have relationships with many other leading law faculties in China, especially Shanghai Jiao Tong, Wuhan and (in Beijing) Tsinghua, Renmin and Peking universities. USydney LLB and JD law students can apply for semester-length exchanges at all these universities via university-level exchange agreements (except Renmin, for now, and Wuhan), although places are limited as students from other USydney faculties also apply for exchanges.
Angelica McCall, a final-year LLB student, reports below on her experience in the short-term Chinese Law course offered at ECUPL. She also enjoyed taking the short-term “Sustainable Development Law in China” course offered generally every second year in Wuhan, and in June will be attending an international law students forum hosted by Renmin University.

Written by: Angelica McCall
China is all the rage at the moment. Just ask anyone who attended in 2012 the Shanghai Winter School in Chinese Law and they will have ample stories to tell you. Everything you hear about China’s gargantuan economic growth in the media, the journals, the books is true. But it’s impossible to even imagine just how this actually looks let alone how this is affecting every facet in Chinese society – socially, culturally, legally- without actually being in the centre of it all. It is simply impossible to grasp a genuine understanding of what goes on by sitting in a classroom in Australia with a textbook. Even having a textbook in China didn’t completely help. This is because China has a unique legal system. For one, it is a civil law jurisdiction (very alien for those of us accustomed to common law). For another, there is what is written on paper, and then there is what actually happens. Whether you are simply curious or seriously considering a legal career in the future, this course will be a great starting point to appreciate ‘how things work’ in China.
China’s growing presence on the world stage means the knowledge of Chinese law has become an essential resource for students and legal professionals who want to pursue a career outside of Australia. Since 1979, China has experienced continuous tides of change as part of the ‘opening up’ economic reforms first introduced under the leadership of Deng Xiao Ping. The economic philosophy of the time was to attempt to merge a market economy model with a socialist political system -very much encapsulated by Deng’s famous proclaimation, “ it doesn’t matter whether it is a white cat, or a black cat, as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat”. What does that mean? Indeed. We pondered this through much of the course but towards the end it became apparent, that it was hard to reconcile this phrase with what we see today. China leads the capitalist market road (although the government still retains some monopolies in areas like banking- like I said earlier, huge differences between theory and practice) and it is difficult to see how once upon a time it didn’t. But, it looks like the “good” cat (no matter if you’re black or white) caught more than it could swallow. For this process of rapid development, has beset an array of problems to throw into the mix of those caused by a socialist political system; the ever growing gap of inequality between the rich and the poor, the alarming rate of environmental degradation, the lack of independence of the judiciary, corruption and ‘guan xi’ as the modus operandi (think nepotism, not merit), problems enforcing intellectual property laws and the list goes on. As you can probably start to envisage, without some guided introduction, it can at first be quite daunting. It is also very easy to forget that the current Chinese legal system and laws are only 30 or so years old and it has had to play catch up in a relatively short span of time although that is not to dismiss much needed reform.
In terms of the academic program, the course is taught in conjunction with local professors, and so you get a wholemeal picture of the law and the areas that present most problematic from a legal perspective. Of course, that is not to say that we didn’t need to take a critical approach to learning- the course readers- one which consisted of Chinese Legislation and the other consisting of journal articles by academics (both from China and internationally) usefully steered the way to adopt this need for critical evaluation. For instance, during the Constitutional Law lecture we learned that the constitution was not a direct course of legal rights nor was constitutional review available. We put forward interesting questions about this and the stock response tended something to the effect of, “it’s different because we’re different”. Or, if questions were asked about Tibet or Taiwan, the standard response was “Let’s have a tea break”. It was thus a great experience to see these responses first hand but at the same time, be forced into a position where we literally had to take things with a grain of salt. Of course, it was clear that the professors were very knowledgable in their areas of expertise; the limits of what could be said however seem to correspond to the political atmosphere. This is an essential skill that any lawyer in international practice should be exposed to given that this is a likely encounter whenever on the ground.
The assessment for undergraduate (LLB) students was a 100% final exam, which we sat in Shanghai. If you’re accustomed to the comfort of precedents and nice binding case law with clearly discerned ratios, than you’ll need to be prepared to study out of your comfort zone. It will truly drive you crazy when you realise that the law can come from many, many sources such as Court opinions, notes, replies, legislation, cases, state policy, overlaps with ‘Special’ (Specific) Law/regulations, custom and international treaties! But, that is all part of the challenge of the learning experience. What is beneficial about getting this picture clear (or unclear) is that it does hone in on the realities, difficulties and practicalities of a legal system in its rapid yet emergent stages of development. Also, be sure to know about “Sherpa’s” a website in Shanghai in the days leading up to the exam- they will virtually deliver any type of cuisine you want to your door- it’s extremely cheap, quick and tasty.
In terms of student and social life at ECUPL, the students were both friendly and accommodating, and extremely keen to engage in a dialogue about the differences between Chinese and English legal culture and traditions. My friend and I were quickly invited to the “English Legal Club” where we were welcomed with enough lollies and Chinese sweets to last us through two entire STUVACs. It was comforting to know that they felt the same sort of confusion that we did when they were studying western legal subjects as we did studying Chinese law. “Cases!”, they would say in astonishment, “How do you have time to read so many pages?”.
To add to that, after class you get to soak in the incredible street life in Shanghai. It truly is a meeting point between the east and the west. You only need to take a stroll down the Bund (which I guarantee is really, quite a beautiful place to procrastinate pending the 100% exam assessment at the end) to realise this. From the old European architecture which now houses some of the world’s biggest and leading multinational corporations, it is truly one of the main centres of global activity in the world (even the Aussie favourite Boost juice is trying to weave itself in and have a crack). From the shopping in new modern malls to more traditional markets, acrobatic shows, the amazing food, the museums to visit, the massages to be had, the karaoke bars… there is an endless list of things to do, no matter what the time. It became quite clear that Shanghai is a city where there is no conceptual difference between day and night. There is also a beautiful weekend getaway as part of the course to go to Hangzhou, famous for its lakes and scenery, a bit more quiet (by Chinese standards) and an all round interesting place to visit.
If any of the above interests you, than that is enough reason to go to Shanghai and get a subject knocked out of the way whilst doing it. I did it. And I would do it again.

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM LLD Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.