Sydney Law School students in Asia: (4) China

Following on from the report by Angelica McCall on her learning experiences in China, another final-year LLB student, Diana Hu, outlines her participation in an international forum for law students held from 19 August by Renmin University in Beijing – one of Sydney Law School’s important partners in China.
“Legal Integration within the Asia-Pacific: The First China International Legal Elite Camp”
Written by Diana Hu.
“China is now such a powerful country – in terms of size, people, and the economy. What does China have to gain by forming a union with Japan or South Korea?”. This astute question was asked by a PhD student from South Korea and directed at Associate Professor Dong Yang, Vice President of Asia Pacific Legal Studies at the Renmin University of China (RUC). And so begun an intensive week of multilingual lectures, team-based discussions and thought-provoking presentations, all centred around one theme: legal integration within the Asia-Pacific region.
Nineteen law students from 17 universities across the Asia-Pacific met during Beijing’s hot summer, eager to attend the “Future Leader – First China International Elite Camp” hosted by the RUC Law School. Armed with prior research and materials, we all expected to learn about the Chinese legal system while examining the interaction between our diverse laws across the Asia-Pacific region. What I did not expect was one of the most enjoyable weeks of my 6-year (extended) double degree, full of new cultural and social experiences.

Renmin Law School had thoughtfully planned a range of activities which truly highlighted Beijing as the political, historical and cultural centre of China. Politically, our tour to China’s highest Supreme Court revealed both the official and influential power wielded by the National People’s Congress (NPC), which sits above all courts as the highest organ of state power. Historically, a trip to the National Museum displayed an interesting mix of exhibits – from aesthetically beautiful pieces of jade and porcelain pottery, to patriotic artworks highlighting the Communist Party comrades who fought against the Nationalist Party. A show at the Lao She Teahouse boasted many culturally-rich performances such as Sichuan’s “Bianlian” Face-Changing show, the breathtaking Vase Balancing act and, of course, a traditional Peking opera. For us foreign students in particular, these sites and programs allowed us to experience for ourselves China’s rich culture and deep history. At the same time, students from mainland China also enjoyed these activities – and all the camp attendees were very appreciative of Renmin University’s generosity in providing for our accommodation, meals, transportation and ticket costs.
Of course, a legal elite camp week is not all shows and tours. Aside from lectures which guided our discussions on integrating China with other legal systems within the Asia-Pacific, we were split into three teams for a “non-competitive” challenge. Each team had to present for 30 minutes on a chosen topic, followed by 10 minutes of Q&A by PhD students from various universities. During the three days of preparation, there was some debate about whether our team’s chosen topic – the impact of the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands dispute on regional peace and stability – was too contentious to be presented. Among the camp attendees were several Japanese students, who were genuinely keen to be involved in discussion of this territorial issue. The main concern appeared to be that if journalists attended the presentation, a media spin might impact the university. The final compromise was to change to a more general “territorial disputes” topic, and we were careful to use a range of examples from the Asia-Pacific region (such as between Japan and South Korea, over the Takeshima / Dokdo islands).
Barak Kushner from the University of Cambridge recently published an article in the East Asia Forum discussing the value that Japan can offer in terms of freedom of speech, media, and political debate. Perhaps this minor anxiety from within a major institution in China is just one example of the everyday avoidance of controversy that many Chinese citizens will habitually practice. Alternatively, it may have stemmed from a genuine concern that the Japanese visitors might be offended by a deep discussion of this heated topic. Despite this issue, our team ended up winning the award for “Best Teamwork” – which I personally feel is a highly satisfying result given the overall purpose of this camp. The other two teams presented very intellectually interesting but less politically controversial topics, on cross-border consumer protection in the context of food safety, and adapting the EU model for regional integration of Asia-Pacific countries.
Finally, it may be worth sharing a few interesting points that I learned about China’s legal system. Coming from an adversarial common law background based on the Westminster parliamentary system, it was difficult to reconcile this with the Chinese inquisitorial civil law system, which also distinctly lacks a separation of powers. Luckily, I had the advantage of studying with many intelligent and pro-reformist law students from mainland China. Some were eager to share the many challenges of a legal system where absolute, unquestioned power is held by the NPC: the underwhelming requirements to join the judiciary, where judges were often chosen due to their political connections rather than legal aptitude; the pursuit of an ideal career in public office, where bribes could significantly boost an otherwise average income; the inverse correlation between a well-established university and your chances of passing the bar exam, due to the extreme focus on exam preparation by lower-tiered institutions.
These were a few of the key issues I learned about – not from the lectures or formal discussions, but rather from gifted law students, many of whom believed their best chance to practice law successfully and honestly could only be found outside of China. Most were keen to pursue a practising certificate in Hong Kong, but others were considering Macau, Australia, or even Finland. And so I left Beijing with a slight tinge of dismay. Of course, I would miss these new friends who shared a passion for legal knowledge and a genuine desire to see successful legal and economic integration between our countries. More importantly however, it was regretful to know that, due to a lack of personal or political connections, so many brilliant legal minds in China may never have the opportunity to practice law or join the judiciary – something which talented law students in Australian universities do perhaps take too much for granted sometimes.

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.