Beijing Law Students Grab Chance
by Peter Hessler
Hong Kong Standard

There is no stereotypical mainland lawyer. China has no lawyer jokes, no celebrity attorneys, no courtroom dramas on television.

The country has lawyers - more than 100,000 of them - but the field is still new and developing, and most attorneys are young people like Cui Dengshan and Choky Yangtso, both of whom came to the career from unexpected directions. In the past, Mr Cui worked as a college English teacher and as a purchase representative for a Guangdong province nuclear power plant. Ms Choky, who is Tibetan and has degrees in forestry and ecotourism, was  formerly a travel agent who specialised in trips to Lhasa.

Ms. Choky and Mr. Cui have few similarities, other than the fact that both gained their mainland lawyer certifications through self-study, opening the door to what some consider to be the most promising field on the mainland. Since the beginning of August, however, they have shared something else in common. 

Along with 32 others, they are part of the first class to enroll in the new Master of Laws program that is jointly sponsored by America's Temple University and Beijing's University of Political Science and Law. The program, which is based in Beijing, is the first to offer a foreign law degree on the mainland. It is in many ways an unexpected venture, in which citizens of a communist country explore classes like American Constitutional Law, Civil Procedure, Evidence, and Property Law Concepts. All courses are in English, taught by American professors, and graduates will receive the same LL M degree as students in America.

Although unimaginable not long ago, such a program occupies a distinct niche on the mainland's current climate of reform and opening. ''In the past, Chinese had to go to the States to study American law,'' explains Jan Ting, a  professor from Temple Law School who has come to Beijing to help start the new program.

''The downside was that they had to give up their jobs in China, and they had to deal with the expense of living in the US. And the government and  companies were afraid to send students to the US because often they wouldn't come back. So this program was the answer.''

It was also a natural endeavour for the Philadelphia-based Temple University, which already had overseas law programs in Japan, Athens, Rome, and Tel  Aviv. In addition, the public university has a long history of China exchanges, as well as some impeccable alumni connections.

When Deng Xiaoping visited America in 1979, Temple awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree, and 20 years later this honour helped show the mainland government that the university was committed to good relations.

''The biggest problem was financial,'' says Professor Ting. ''We're here for the long term, and we didn't want to launch a program without a solid financial basis.'' The university was able to attract donations from a number of American companies active in China, and most of the students are receiving scholarships.

About half of the students are government employees, including six judges from the mainland court system, and the rest from the private sector. ''We're trying to give them a vision of all the possibilities that are out there as China  transforms itself,'' says Professor Ting. ''We want people who can function in a global economy.'' Certainly, this seems to be the future of students like Cui Dengshan and Choky Yangtso. Both say that they hope to work on the mainland after graduation, focusing on international business, and they recognise the possibilities in a field largely unfettered by tradition or stereotypes.

''Eventually I want to start a law firm in Beijing or Lhasa,'' says Ms Choky. ''I want to help Tibetans do business internationally and attract foreign investment to Tibet. And I hope that maybe I can start a foundation to help Tibetans study English and foreign technology."

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