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20 years in, Temple’s program in China teaches ‘rule of law’ amid tensions between Beijing and Washington | Trudy Rubin

The success of the Temple program says much about the paradoxes of contemporary China.

Students celebrate graduation at 20th anniversary of Temple-Tsingua LL.M program.
Students celebrate graduation at 20th anniversary of Temple-Tsingua LL.M program.Read moreTemple University

BEIJING — On every visit I’ve made to China, I’ve looked at issues connected with rule of law, a concept interpreted very differently here and in the USA.

On this trip, I decided to check out a joint program between Temple University and the law school at Tsinghua University, one of China’s finest, a program that is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Temple’s “Rule of Law” master’s degree program, taught on the sprawling, leafy Tsinghua campus, draws Chinese professionals – judges, prosecutors, government officials, law professors, and commercial lawyers – who want to understand how the U.S. legal system works.

This may seem unusual, given that China’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Zhou Qiang warned China’s courts in 2017 to guard against Western ideas of judicial independence. Courts here ultimately defer to the leadership of the Communist Party. And unlike in the West, in Chinese tradition, law has served the rulers, not limited their powers.

But the success of the Temple program says much about the paradoxes of contemporary China. There is a continued hunger here to learn how other systems operate, even as tensions mount between Washington and Beijing. So Temple’s program of legal education is fully subscribed.

The fascinating history of the program has much to do with its survival. In 1979, the legendary Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping -- architect of China’s market-oriented economic reforms — accepted an honorary degree from Temple at a ceremony in Washington. (The link with Temple was established through Deng’s friendship with a Chinese-born professor at the university.)

That unique connection led to a Chinese invitation to Temple to establish a Rule of Law program in China, the first foreign law degree-granting program approved by the Chinese government.

Amidst an ebullient gathering of Temple officials for the 20th anniversary, former Tsinghua law school dean Wang Chenguang told me why he worked to bring the program to his university in 1999: “We wanted to make [Tsinghua] more open, to the benefit of students. Learning new concepts is an efficient way to train the new generation.”

Indeed, China has built a legal system virtually from scratch over the last 40 years, starting under Deng, in consultation with foreign experts. “In 1980, we had no understanding of law,” Wang said.

The initial focus of China’s efforts was on creating commercial codes (to reassure foreign investors) along with a body of criminal codes. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it widened to public interest law, seeking to help those denied justice, such as peasants displaced by developers. During this period, legal reformers sought to make the judiciary independent of the Communist Party. Under President Xi Jinping, that debate has been closed (along with firms that practiced public interest law).

However, the Temple program continues unabated, teaching 15 courses, including contracts, torts, legal reasoning, and criminal procedure. All students go to Philadelphia in the summer to learn about trial advocacy. (There are more private lawyers and fewer government officials in attendance these days, but that is mainly because State Department scholarships to fund them dried up.)

“We have not been affected by the changes,” says Robert Reinstein, the former dean of Temple law school, who ushered in the program in Beijing. “They have never attempted to censor us.

“We still teach a course in U.S. constitutional law. What the students do with their education in Western legal systems is up to them.”

There are many reasons why Chinese professionals seek out the Temple program, as I learned talking to students after a class on U.S. property law, taught by program director Tarrant Mahony. (It was a bit strange listening to Chinese students discuss how to register a deed in Massachusetts).

Some students seek an additional credential to get promoted. Others want the grounding to work for international law firms in Beijing or abroad. Still others want to know how the United States handles legal problems in areas where the Chinese civil code is expanding, such as juvenile justice or environmental law.

Several students told me they appreciated the exposure to critical thinking, and to the “Socratic method” of teaching by question and response, rather than the strict Chinese style of lectures. “You can use the Socratic method with your boss or your husband,” one joked.

Of course, it’s hard not to wonder what long-term impact this exposure to critical thinking and con law – not to mention Philadelphia — will have on the growing body of Temple-Tsinghua graduates. But in today’s China, these students come across as pragmatists, thinking practical thoughts about how to get ahead.

“The value of this program to me,” says Mahony, “is about creating a bridge and trying to facilitate a conversation based on reason and learning how to work together.”

At a time of growing U.S.-Chinese tensions that look unlikely to lessen, that is an admirable goal.

Trudy Rubin is writing from China for the month of November.