By Gang Lin

Alison W. Conner, Professor of Law, University of Hawaii, and 1999-2000 Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow

While China's latest reforms of its legal system and profession have attracted substantial media coverage, the introduction of a modern legal profession in China nearly a century ago is not well known. What distinguished China's first modern lawyers and law schools? Is China's experience in the early 20th century relevant to its new efforts at developing civil society and the rule of law in the 21st century?

At an Asia Program seminar on July 24, 2000, attended by approximately 55 U.S. government officials, think tank analysts, businessmen and journalists, law professor Alison Conner presented her research on Soochow Law School (1915-1952), China's first modern law school. Her presentation, relying on documentary materials and personal interviews, was followed by a wide-ranging discussion of issues relating to China's progress and difficulties in developing civil society and the rule of law.

According to Conner, Soochow Law School, founded by Americans in Shanghai in 1915, became one of the most influential law schools in China during the 1920s and 1930s, achieving fame throughout the country for its emphasis on comparative law studies, professional competence and ethical standards. The school taught law courses on Chinese and Anglo-American law, and introduced a graduate program and a preparatory program to ensure a higher standard of pre-law college training. Because China lacked a tradition of an independent legal profession bound by ethical rules, the school stressed moral values to distinguish China's modern lawyers from the country's traditional pettifoggers. Its graduates played prominent roles in the legal profession and in civic life during the Republican period, producing more than 1,200 graduates by 1949. In contrast with traditional law schools in China, Soochow produced lawyers rather than legal officials.

Soochow Law School and its graduates suffered a great deal during the 1949-79 period. The school was closed in 1952. Former faculty and graduates were mistreated during the 1957 Anti-Rightist movement and the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution years. Since the implementation of economic reforms in 1979, however, Soochow Law School graduates have resurfaced at courts, law offices, universities and other institutions. Despite the passage of thirty or forty years, their legal training has enabled them to participate in the re-establishment of China's legal system.

Asked by the audience about the relevance of the Soochow approach to China today in view of the tension between the Chinese political tradition and Western legal culture, Conner readily acknowledged that law is still perceived by the Chinese government as a tool to promote economic reform rather than a means to protect individual rights, and that it is inappropriate to regard the Anglo-American legal system as the only model and impose it on different societies. However, she added, Chinese society is changing, and modern society needs modern lawyers. The Soochow approach, with its strength in comparative law studies and ethical standards, may once more be relevant to Chinese legal reform and education.