In May, 23 legal professionals from 14 countries in Africa came to Beijing for a month-long legal exchange program. The program was held by the China Law Society, hoping to establish partnerships with African legal workers and provide help to overseas Chinese companies, and also to promote China’s image and promote cooperation in the long run.
Students from African countries listen to a lecture amid a month-long legal exchange program at Beijing Foreign Studies University in June. Photo: Courtesy of China Law Society
Before coming to China to study its legal system, South African-raised Wil Huang didn’t understand why his Chinese clients behaved the way they did. Huang, a lawyer, was born in Taiwan and speaks Chinese.
Getting his clients to understand the legal culture in Africa was a big hurdle, and sometimes his words just couldn’t get through to them.
For example, South Africa has a Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BE) policy, put into place after the end of the apartheid regime. The policy uses quotas to balance the economic benefits given to blacks and whites.
The policy says companies investing in South Africa need to transfer a certain percent of shares to local partners who are black or other disadvantaged groups.
“Lots of Chinese companies would say, ‘Why would we give 26 percent of the shares to local black people that I don’t know and have no understanding of?'” Huang said.
Getting clients to understand that they must obey the policy rather than try to skirt it is one of the most difficult parts of his job.
In May, Huang came to Beijing to attend a series of legal lectures, as part of an exchange program held by the China Law Society.
Last year, the society initiated the program, which invites people in the legal field from Africa to attend a series of lectures at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU).
This year, 23 people from 14 countries participated in the program. Among them are lawyers, consultants, government researchers, judges and prosecutors.
Gu Bin, a lecturer at BFSU, said he sat in on a few of the classes from this month-long training session, such as Constitutional Law or Company Law. The professors were all knowledgeable experts in each area.
They explained the Chinese system and how the laws are adapted according to the situation in China. The classes were conducted in an interactive way, where the African students can talk about the practice in their own countries.
Gu Zhaomin, the director-general of the Overseas Liaison Department of the China Law Society, said this program was created because of the rising need to solve friction between China and Africa as trade and communications increase.
When solving these issues, going to court might take a long time because of an individual country’s laws and customs, Gu Zhaomin said. He recommends solving issues by arbitration, which mostly depends on local lawyers.
In his previous research, Gu found that going to court to solve differences takes more time and is expensive. He said in the legal field, experts agree that arbitration is a more efficient way.
From a long-term perspective, China can have a better image and develop more relationships by having interactive programs like this, Gu said.
The China Law Society first developed a concept called “legal diplomacy.” Holding the China-Africa exchange class is one way to reach out to the talented people in the legal fields of other countries.
There are a few ways to conduct “legal diplomacy,” including governments actively participating in international legislation, law enforcement, and creating mechanisms and institutions that enforce these standards.
On a grass-roots level, forums and exchange trips can be held.
He hopes the students can go back to their own countries after the exchange with more understanding about China, and its legal system.
Step by step
At the closing ceremony, many exchange students said that they did understand China better now, they hope there can be future cooperation after they return to their countries.
Huang found the class to be especially beneficial. Now he works for ENSAfrica, the biggest law firm in South Africa, under the Chinese division established three years ago because of rising conflicts involving Chinese companies and an increasing need for Chinese-speaking lawyers.
There are many Chinese construction companies in South Africa, and when dealing with them, Huang found that many have difficulties getting used to the legal environment and culture in South Africa. They face investment risks if they are not willing to understand or accept certain rules.
This is the main reason Huang came to the program. He wanted to get to know the Chinese legal environment and culture, to see where his clients are coming from. He hopes to communicate with them more easily in the future.
In the past, when he helped Chinese companies to set up in South Africa, they almost all asked what the minimum capital requirement was, and Huang had to repeatedly explain that in South Africa, unlike China, there is no required minimum capital.
Others have changed their views about China.
Kahaki Jere, a legal counsel from the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs in the government of Malawi, said this past month has made her realize that China has more to offer than what one sees in the media.
“The perception people have is that China is flooded by fake products, there is a lot of oppression by the government and that everything is controlled according to the rules of the Communist Party,” she said.
But during the program, she learned that culture plays a crucial role in society and that people conduct themselves by paying high regard to moral codes first and that the law is based on these moral codes.
Ruth Mnambi, a senior researcher from the Zambia Supreme Court, also noted the importance of culture in China. She feels that China’s legal system is on the right path because laws in China support the existing culture, rather than radically change it.
“In Africa, we depend entirely on laws, and punishment is severe, yet the crime rate is going up,” she said.
What impressed her most during her stay was how safe it was walking back to her dorm near midnight. She noticed that in China, security guards at the banks aren’t even armed with guns, which she said would never happen in Africa.
She thinks there are binding morals and values in the culture here that prevents people from committing crimes. Instead, they are focused on family traditions, she observed.
Her classmates also mentioned that learning about and analyzing the cultural side of China helped more than learning the technicalities of China’s laws.
When dealing with a conflict, the traditional way to solve it in China is through relationships, Gu said.
But Gu said leaning on relationships can damage the long-term ties between two nations. He hopes that Chinese companies can adopt a culture of following Chinese and local laws, a smooth bilateral legal infrastructure can be in place in countries before Chinese companies travel there, and that there can always be available arbitration and lawyers when issues arise.
Gu said there needs to be communication globally in the legal field, so that each country can look at the success of others and learn from it, and not copy a system entirely. By having African lawyers and prosecutors come to China to learn about the legal system, Gu hopes to show how laws contributed to China’s success and learn from the students about the laws in their own countries.
In a separate initiative to smooth out legal friction between China and Africa in 2010, the China Law Society started working on the China-Africa Joint Dispute Resolution Mechanism, an effort to set up a system of arbitrators in African and Chinese cities that African and Chinese clients both feel comfortable using.
Previously, when some Chinese companies chose arbitration, they would choose arbitrators in cities like New York or London, because they don’t trust the arbitrators in Africa, Gu said.
Under the law society’s new mechanism, groups including the Arbitration Foundation of Southern Africa, Africa Alternative Dispute Resolution, Association of Arbitrators Southern African and Shanghai International Arbitration Center have signed a cooperation agreement and will together establish a China-Africa Joint Arbitration Center.
In the future, if a Chinese company needs to solve conflicts in Africa, it can contact the centers with a China connection, which will be more convenient than going to a third country, Gu Zhaomin said.
This will simplify the arbitration process. In June, more than 30 Chinese and African organizations attended a seminar organized by China Law Society on the mechanism. A document has been written establishing the mechanism, titled the Beijing Consensus.
The China Law Society has high hopes for its exchange program and is set to have more such classes in the future.
Gu and the law society are taking a long view, hoping that a smooth legal framework and cooperation can be in place before Chinese companies go to other countries to set up shop.
At the closing ceremony of the most recent seminar, Gu Zhaomin told the African students, “You are the seeds, and I hope you’ll grow to be big trees and bear fruit.”
Newspaper headline: Laws in translation