However, caution is warranted. First, a closer look at the bios of the seven Politburo members who are portrayed in the media as having a legal background reveals a somewhat different picture. To understand this, it is important to note one peculiarity of the Chinese college degree system: law/legal studies (faxue) is actually an umbrella term that encompasses not only the discipline of law stricto sensu but also political studies, sociology, ethnography and Marxism. Unfortunately, media reports claiming a new era for China ruled by legal minds fail to note this distinction. In fact, only three Politburo members have received a legal education as is normally understood, and only one has a true law degree. Premier Li Keqiang has his first degree from the law faculty of Peking University while Du Qinglin, Vice Chairman of the CPPCC undertook part-time distance legal education at Jilin University. Sun Zhengcai, the young Party Secretary of Chongqing, did some part-time postgraduate courses on legal at in the Central Party School. In contrast, the other four leaders were not actually trained in law in the strict sense. President Xi obtained a doctorate in law from Tsinghua University, but he majored in Marxist theory and ideological-political education. Vice President Li Yuanchao specialized in Scientific Socialism when reading for his doctorate in law at the Central Party School. Vice Premier Liu Yandong studied political theory for her PhD in law. And Wang Huning, Director of the Policy Research Office of the CPC Central Committee, was a graduate of international politics. More important, none of the 25 Politburo members, including the three trained in law, has ever practiced law.
Committed to the Law?
Still, although it might be premature to herald rule by lawyers in China, the situation is not necessarily discouraging. Three national leaders with a proper legal education is already groundbreaking for China and would seem positive for those hoping for the rule of law. But before we get too excited, it would seem worth asking precisely the kind of legal education these three leaders actually received. In fact, that information is not easy to come by, with the exception of several reported anecdotes about Premier Li, a graduate of the prestigious Peking University Law School and the man deemed most likely to be an advocate for the rule of law among the top leadership. Li was enrolled in the law school in 1977 and established a close relationship with Professor Gong Xiangrui, a former student of Harold Laski at the London School of Economics who taught comparative constitutional and administrative law at Beida, as Peking University is known colloquially. In college, Li and a few other classmates frequently went to Gong’s house to discuss Western politics and law. One of his peers recalls that Li was open-minded and utterly opposed to the Cultural Revolution and the idea that the law is merely an instrument of class domination. Under Gong’s supervision, Li translated with others Lord Denning’s The Due Process of Law in his junior year. Li also developed a strong interest in economics and took courses on economic law, international business law and maritime law. As to practical experience, he completed a short-term internship while at college with the then newly established China International Trust & Investment Corporation in Beijing and reviewed case materials on investments and contracts. He also interned at a district court in Nanjing, where he was the lead defense lawyer in one criminal case.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
While all these media sketches do help to portray the young Li as an excellent law student equipped with a strong intellectual capacity and some practical experience with the law, private and public, it is a stretch to draw any reliable conclusions about his own philosophy of law and governance. While Li used the term “presumption of guilt” in rejecting accusations of Chinese hacker attacks against the U.S., it remains to be seen whether uphold the principle of due process with sufficient vigor domestically to improve the Chinese judicial system, which is frequently tainted by procedural irregularities and injustices.
There is one last reason – and perhaps the most important of all – why we shouldn’t overstate the prospect of rule by lawyers in China: overstating the influence of one’s education background. A legal education at some point, or even throughout a lifetime, by no means guarantees a genuine commitment to the law. Look no further than the lawyer-turned-president of Taiwan who is now in prison. Leaders with a legal education may well deviate from the path that would be dictated by law for one reason or another, even in good conscience.