Not in Beijing, Not in Shanghai, Not in Shenzhen: A Different Model of Teaching American Law in China

Vol. 43 No. 2


Ming-Yu Bob Kao is a visiting professor at Henan University Law School in the People’s Republic of China. He previously practiced housing and consumer law at nonprofit organizations in California.

“Why Henan?” is a question I have been asked often in China. Since September 2013, I have been a visiting professor at Henan University Law School in the city of Kaifeng, located in the central Chinese province of Henan. Kaifeng, the capital of seven Chinese dynasties, was also the base of the famous jurist Bao Gong, a judge and official in the early 1000s who is a symbol of justice in China and the subject of many television series. Henan University was founded in 1912 as the Preparatory School for Further Study in Europe and America, and, as the name indicates, the school had an international mission to train students to study abroad.

Despite the historic allure of Henan University and Kaifeng and the attraction of Henan as a tourist destination (it is home of the Shaolin Temple and Longmen Grottoes, both UNESCO World Heritage sites), the province is not generally seen by Chinese people in other provinces as a place to settle down. I am here, however, for a year, and possibly longer, to teach American law in English to Chinese law students.

International Legal Education in China

Legal education in East Asia has seen dramatic changes in recent years. Both Korea and Japan have transformed their legal education so that they focus on graduate programs culminating in degrees akin to the American Juris Doctor (JD). Law schools in Hong Kong have kept the traditional undergraduate law degree but have also started offering the graduate JD degree concurrently.

Reform has not escaped China. The Juris Master (JM), a three-year graduate degree, was approved in 1995 and structured to be similar to the American JD. In practice, however, many schools have failed to meaningfully differentiate between the JM and the traditional civil law LLM program. Perhaps the most famous example of the internationalization of Chinese legal education may be the Peking University School of Transnational Law, a law school in Shenzhen founded in 2008 with the mission of teaching American law with an American JD curriculum that adheres to ABA standards.

Short of establishing a brand new law school, other Chinese law schools have focused on increasing course offerings on American law taught in English by visiting instructors from the United States. This trend began in the 1980s and has only accelerated with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 and the subsequent opening up of various industries.

The sites of these international visits, for the most part, have been limited to well-funded and well-connected schools in large cities that have the resources, opportunities, and networks to attract top visitors. Many of these visiting faculty members are practitioners at international law firms based in Beijing or Shanghai or Fulbright scholars teaching on short-term bases. Because of its location, however, neither law firm practitioners nor Fulbright scholars are viable options for a school like Henan University.

Teaching Outside Large Cities

This is where I come in. The vast majority of my students are from rural Henan. Most of their parents are farmers or laborers. Attending university is already a relatively great feat, and attaining a law degree is regarded as a stepping stone to a stable life as a local civil servant.

Upon arriving at Henan University, these students do not have access to the resources that better-funded schools enjoy. It is exactly these students that need the extra guidance in knowledge and skill acquisition, as learning American law and the associated critical thinking skills hopefully would make them more competitive in the job market and create options other than civil service.

Without a doubt, I have had to make sacrifices in terms of both income and living conditions. My salary is on the high end of the domestic law professor salary scale but is lower than that of many new American college graduates teaching English in China, and I use my law school building as an example of a breach of the implied warranty of habitability under American standards. But the opportunity to teach these students and to immerse myself in central China was one I could not decline.

I taught an introductory class on Anglo-American law last semester and am currently teaching U.S. tort law and U.S. contract law to first-year graduate students. I have an English-only policy in the classroom. My students are new to learning law in English, and, given that they only found out about my required course a few days before the start of last semester, they were unsurprisingly unprepared. They are struggling with both the language of instruction and the method of instruction, the latter involving lectures, case analyses, group discussions, and student presentations. This is a far cry from the lecturing to which they are accustomed.

This problem could have been avoided with a more structured implementation of the program, and this is where long-term sustainability is essential. An established program would also ensure that, when I leave, the institutional memory will guarantee a coherent program in which expectations will be known far in advance and the roadmap to follow after my classes are over is clear. The dean at the Law School has a strong, long-term commitment to internationalizing the curriculum, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of the beginning.

Lessons Learned

In my short time here thus far, I have learned some lessons from mistakes that I hope will not be repeated by myself or others teaching in China.

First, classes should be geared toward undergraduate students. Both my students and Chinese faculty members have indicated to me that undergraduate students’ English abilities are in general better. This might be a function of younger students being more motivated or graduate students finding that other pressures, such as those that accompany job hunting, take precedence over language learning. Regardless of the reason, prioritizing English-language American law classes for students with better English abilities and earlier in their education will ensure that students are focused on substance, rather than vocabulary, and that students will have greater opportunities for further study.

Second, where possible, it is important to divide up classes into different sections by English ability. The most important outcome is that students learn as much as they can, and it is a disservice to everyone when students of various levels of comfort with English are forced to be in the same class. It has been a difficult struggle in my class of 90 students to teach at a pace that ensures the best students are learning while not leaving anyone behind. An additional benefit of tailoring sections to student language abilities is that it leads to smaller classes that are more conducive to student participation.

Third, I have found that summarizing individual cases with students in class is helpful because it gives them a frame of reference and allows them to follow my train of thought. It also narrows the students’ focus when I ask questions, allowing them to find the answers and consequently be more encouraged to participate in class. This, of course, requires heavy editing of cases by the instructor, as casebooks for American law students are too dense and casebooks for non-American law students are far from adequate.

Fourth, the instructor should be self-aware of her or his position as the conveyor of knowledge. Teaching American law to Chinese law students imparts more than just objective skills or facts. It is important, when teaching a foreign law system, that any hint, conscious or otherwise, of legal imperialism—that is, of suggesting that American law is being taught because it is inherently better than Chinese law—be avoided. The role of the American law teacher is, foremost, to teach Chinese law students how to think from a different, comparative perspective—not to champion it.

One of the best ways to combat legal imperialism for me was to include immigration law as a unit in my introductory course because it is a good vehicle to teach students the good of American law along with the bad. American immigration law after 1965 has been welcoming for the most part and offers many more ways to immigrate and naturalize than do the laws of China and many other nations, but it is also important to place this in the context of immigration law history, which is rife with discrimination and racial exclusion.

Accordingly, I taught my students about the Page Act, Chinese Exclusion Act, Gentlemen’s Agreement, Johnson-Reed Act, and other similar laws severely restricting or barring Asian immigrants from entering the United States. By introducing U.S. immigration law in this unit, students get a sense of the positive aspects of the laws along with the deficiencies, and they learn that American law does not always have the better or best answer.

By learning immigration law, students are also better able to relate to the materials on a personal level. Cases with Asian parties, of which immigration law has an abundance, have drawn greater interest from my students because they feel a closer connection. Chae Chan Ping and Wong Kim Ark are not just names of cases; they are people whose treatment is a reminder of the role American law has played in the history and lives of people of Chinese descent. Any opportunity to engage students should be seized.

Next Steps

This article, in a way, is a call for American legal scholars and lawyers with a commitment to teaching to investigate possibilities of teaching in Chinese law schools—not in Beijing, not in Shanghai, not in Shenzhen, but in the smaller cities of China, where the “other” law schools are. The Peking University School of Transnational Law and similarly situated schools can attract top Chinese students and top international faculty, but the majority of the Chinese law students who need American and transnational law training are elsewhere, and their educational needs have to be met.

One Saturday morning last semester, as I was working in my office, a group of students came to discuss a case I had assigned. It was outside my office hours and they arrived unannounced. I was heartened that they cared about the materials to seek me out on a weekend morning. My students may matriculate at the school satisfied with being civil servants and they may not speak perfect English, but I hope that, through my teaching, they will learn some necessary critical-thinking skills that will make them better civil servants and open up other options should they decide to seek them out.

I do not know how long I will be here, but I hope that whatever I build will be sustainable. I also hope that other American lawyers and legal scholars with deep commitments to legal education will consider teaching in the “other” parts of China.


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