China's First U.S.-Style Law School | Wilson Center

China's First U.S.-Style Law School

China is about to launch its first American-style law school, declared Jeffrey S. Lehman, Wilson Center Senior Fellow and chancellor and founding dean of the School of Transnational Law, Peking University. At a May 21 event sponsored by the Wilson Center's Asia Program and Division of United States Studies, and co-sponsored by the Business Coalition for Capacity Building, Lehman explained that the new school is located on the Peking University branch campus in Shenzhen, southern China, just across from Hong Kong. The courses at the new law school will be taught exclusively in English, the curriculum will be based on that of U.S. law schools, and the school will grant doctor of jurisprudence degrees.

The new law school, noted Lehman, is the brainchild of Hai Wen, vice president of Peking University and currently head of its Shenzhen campus. (Note: the university, considered the Harvard of China, was founded in 1898. It refers to itself in English as Peking rather than Beijing University.) Several years ago, Vice President Hai was concerned that graduates of China's best law schools were not being hired by multinational corporations. He and other university officials decided to establish an American-style law school on Chinese soil. Hai asked Lehman to be in charge of creating the school, which will start teaching its first class of 55 this fall. The faculty will be drawn mainly from the United States, and the courses will be taught in six-week modules, rather than by semester.

Lehman described the "larger meaning" of the founding of the school in terms of five narratives: legal pedagogy, rule of law, law and development, cognitive encounter, and individual motivation. In terms of legal pedagogy, he stated that, as opposed to legal education in China, there would be no teaching of undergraduates. The curriculum will pay more attention to common law than civil law, with the opinion of judges as the basis. Student participation is expected. Two intellectual skills would be particularly stressed. The first, which Lehman referred to as living in an "a-contextual context," is the ability to generate abstract structures of characterization, then to describe a given situation that is relevant to that body of law. He further explained this concept as law students being taught to move from the specific to the more general. The second intellectual skill to be taught is the capacity for sympathetic engagement with counterargument. In all cases of instruction, added Lehman, the Socratic method, also known as the case dialogue method, will be used. Students will also be subject to constant questioning, which Lehman described as the signature pedagogy of American legal education.

The rule of law, Lehman emphasized, receives a lot of attention in Chinese society, with everyone noting its importance, stating China is making a lot of progress toward this goal, but also admitting there is a long way to go. He pointed to a white paper, recently issued by the State Council, which notes at its beginning that the rule of law is desired and pursued by all countries. The paper further admits that from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, during the time of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, China's socialist legal system was "severely damaged." The objective of the white paper is to encourage the rebuilding of China's socialist legal system, with the aspiration that Chinese society is to be governed by the rule of law, rather than by the arbitrary actions of individuals. The white paper notes that China's new constitution, promulgated in 1982 and amended four times since then, guarantees legal protection for its citizens, human rights, and the lawful ownership of private property.

Under the concept of law and development, Lehman noted the academic debate over the past few decades as to whether encouraging a country to develop a western-style legal system is either beneficial or detrimental to that country's economic development. He stated that on balance, most developing countries felt that the development of such a legal system was for the good.

Lehman described the literature of cognitive encounter as positing questions and demonstrating situations where Asian students think differently than Western students. One professor, for example, has a study which describes how Western students, when presented with certain objects, will focus on that object specifically, whereas Asian students are more likely to focus on the object in the context of its total environment, emphasizing the relationship of each to all. Lehman himself stated he personally does not believe in such cognitive differences, but his Chinese students seem to believe that there are such differences, and if such differences do exist, they will have to be taken into account as the legal pedagogy for the school is developed.

In terms of individual motivation (his), Lehman explained he is fully aware that he is a Westerner, and not a Chinese expert (he does not speak Chinese), coming to China to introduce a significant amount of change. He referred to an account of 16 Westerners who had traveled to China to change it. He said that one lesson that could be taken from this story is that it would be wise to be cautious. Often, people came to China with the intention to change it in one area and wound up changing it in another. The Jesuit missionaries of the 16th century, for example, went to China to introduce religion. Their historical legacy was more in teaching the skills of astronomy and cannon warfare. Over the next five years, concluded Lehman, he is hopes to have a better understanding of the aforementioned five narratives.

Drafted by Mark Mohr, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program. Ph: (202) 691-4020