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Michigan Law Hosts Once-in-a-generation Conference on Chinese Law

By James Weir
October 31, 2019

Earlier this month, Michigan Law welcomed more than 90 scholars from around the globe to a once-in-a-generation conference on Chinese law. The three-day gathering was convened by the Law School and U-M's Lieberthal Rogel Center for Chinese Studies with the extraordinary support and vision of L. Bates Lea, '49.

"In the history of the study of Chinese law, this gathering was unprecedented, and likely never to be repeated," said Nico Howson, the Pao Li Tsiang Professor of Law. "To have all of the leading scholars of Chinese law from across the world, together in the same room, engaged in free-flowing and frank discourse in Chinese and English and for such an extended period, is something that has never happened before, and won't happen again."

The conference, "China's Legal System at 40 Years—Towards an Autonomous Legal System?", brought to Ann Arbor scholars in law, political science, sociology, history, anthropology, and economics, as well as Chinese world judges, lawyers and legal activists, to engage in an intensive dialogue about the Chinese political legal system. Two years ago, invited attendees were urged to "write free" and contribute papers on any topic related to China's legal development (82 papers were ultimately pre-circulated). Howson and U-M political scientist Mary Gallagher, director of the Lieberthal Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, will edit and publish the best original work presented at the conference in what promises to be a comprehensive volume on China's legal reform over 40 years.

"Much of my and Mary's focus has been on the domestic Chinese legal system, and how the Chinese political legal system functions, or doesn't, for Chinese citizens across a broad range of sectors. The conference stayed close to that orientation," said Howson. "It was not so much about China from an overseas standpoint, or about China's legal, political or economic relations with foreign nations or public or private international law, but instead focused on issues important in China domestically, from constitutionalism and rights protection to labor law, economic and market development under the law, the Hong Kong Basic Law, the function of the judiciary and the rising private bar, and much more."

The scholars and legal activists who presented new papers included critical figures in the field, such as: Teng Biao and Lu Jun, who have won the most important constitutional review cases in China's post-1949 history; Peking University's He Weifang, China's greatest advocate of an independent judiciary; China People's University Vice President and Law School Dean Emeritus Wang Liming, draftsman of critical Chinese civil law statutes including the Contract Law and the Tort Law; Harvard Law School's Director of East Asian Legal Studies and legal historian Bill Alford; Hong Kong University's acting Dean of the Faculty of Law and human rights advocate and theorist Fu Hualing; Hong Kong Court of Final Appeals Justice (retired) and author of countless constitutional rights opinions Kemy Bohkary; Tsinghua and Peking University administrative law specialists and advocates He Haibo and Shen Kui; Shanghai Jiaotong Law School Dean Emeritus and leading law and society theorist Ji Weidong; Peking University academic constitutionalist Zhang Qianfan; Indiana University and University of Toronto sociologists of the Chinese law Liu Sida and Ethan Michelson; Columbia and Yale's Chinese law specialists Ben Liebman and Zhang Taisu; and the founders of the field of study of Chinese law in the United States, Jerry Cohen and Stanley Lubman.

"Many of the attendees have participated in the creation of substantive Chinese law and legal institutions, or worked with that law and litigated before those institutions in furthering the development of China's governance system, myself included. For most of us, it has been our life's work," said Howson. "To gather a group like this together at Michigan Law—many of us very old friends and comrades in arms—to freely explore and theorize about what has happened, and what will happen, is just one of the things that made this event absolutely unique. It also confirmed the University of Michigan's standing as one of the strongest, and truly cross-disciplinary, centers for the study of China in the world."

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