Professor Benjamin Liebman in Beijing as Part of U.S. Delegation

Discussions Focus on Benefits and Practical Implementation of Rule of Law

New York, April 27, 2012Benjamin Liebman, the Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies, and Sarah Cleveland, the Louis Henkin Professor in Human and Constitutional Rights and faculty co-director of the Human Rights Institute, are in Beijing this week as part of the United States delegation to the latest round of the U.S.-China Legal Experts Dialogue.

The discussions, co-sponsored by the U.S. State Department and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, focused on the benefits and practical implementation of the rule of law. The U.S. delegation was led by Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael H. Posner, and State Department Legal Adviser Harold Hongju Koh. Senior Judge Hu Yunteng led the Chinese delegation. Attendees included dozens of officials and nongovernmental experts from both the United States and China. 

“It’s about fostering dialogue. There are areas in which we can work together,” said Liebman. “Being engaged with people trying to make [China’s] legal system stronger is a good thing.”

Liebman, a recognized expert on Chinese law and legal systems in the U.S., visits China frequently and is well known to top policymakers and judges in Beijing. He also travels to small cities as part of his research about how ordinary people interface with the Chinese legal system. This time, he was joined on the trip by his Law School colleague, Cleveland, an expert in international human rights who recently completed a two-year term at the State Department as the counselor on international law in the office Legal Advisor Koh. She helped develop the State Department's position on U.S. litigation involving international and foreign relations law issues.

This is Liebman’s second trip to China in little over a month. In March, he spoke about judicial review and mechanisms for ensuring the consistency of law at an international symposium organized by the law commission of China’s National People’s Congress, China’s top lawmaking body. In his talk, he noted that the American legal system is a product of unique historical and cultural conditions. But he added that all “systems need some institution that reviews the legality of the vast range of legal and administrative norms that emerge in any complex society.” 

Liebman also addressed the role of robust public debate in the democratic process and cited the importance of transparency in ensuring that government agencies and legislatures follow the law. “The American example suggests that the formal processes and institutions do not succeed on their own, but rather are supported by a legal and political culture in which transparency, professionalism, and respect for process are deeply rooted,” Liebman told the symposium. China has taken steps to improve transparency, he said, by adopting new rules on open government information. But he added that more can be done, noting the importance of creating mechanisms for ordinary people to challenge laws they believe are invalid.

In an interview, Liebman said he does not expect China to have a system of judicial review by courts anytime soon. “But China is very serious about taking steps to ensure that local laws and administrative regulations are consistent with national laws,” he added. “They are thinking hard about what are the best mechanisms for facilitating review of the vast range of legal documents now in force in China.”

In his remarks, delivered over two days of meetings in Huangshan, Liebman noted the importance of professional norms and review by lawyers prior to the enactment of legislation in the U.S., which seeks to ensure that laws are constitutional long before cases ever reach the courts. “This is important for China, where lawyers are just beginning to take on roles advising the government,” he said. Liebman added that another message he tried to articulate is that “uniformity is not the only value. Pluralism is also an important value in the U.S. system.”

When in China, Liebman lectures frequently in Chinese and also talks to students, judges, and lawyers in smaller cities and rural areas far from Beijing and Shanghai. “It is really important to be talking to high-ranking government officials, to understand what’s going on at the top,” he said. “It is equally important to get out there and talk to the people to know what’s happening.”

At Chinese law schools far from major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, Liebman said, often he is the first foreign academic to speak to students in their own language. “I talk to them about my research in China,” Liebman said. “My goal is to encourage them to do their own research. Many of these students will have an important role in their country in the future.”