Professor Benjamin Liebman Speaks at Conference Promoting U.S.-China Exchanges

Recalls How Spending a Semester in a Beijing High School Gave Him Invaluable Language Skills and Lessons in Life

New York, Feb. 28, 2012Benjamin Liebman, Robert L. Lieff Professor of Law and the director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia Law School, gave the opening address at a conference held at Boston University on Jan. 27 to educate school teachers about the value of sending U.S. students to study in China. 

The conference, “Global Education Strategies: U.S.-China School Exchanges,” addressed the need for more and better pre-college exchanges with China. While China sent more than 158,000 students to study in the U.S. in 2011, only about 14,000 American students studied in China’s schools and universities. 
In his remarks, Liebman recalled traveling to China in 1986 as a member of the first group of Newton, Massachusetts, high school students to attend the Beijing Jingshan School for a semester. Upon arrival, he said, he and his fellow exchange students were greeted with “indescribable” warmth by their Chinese counterparts, who hung out with them after school and taught them to speak “street Chinese.”
In addition to acquiring invaluable language skills and lifelong friends, Liebman said that the most important thing he learned in 1986 is that every person he meets has an interesting story to tell.
“Much of the work I do today involves trying to figure out how ordinary people use and experience the Chinese legal system,” he explained. “The cases I study don’t wind up on the front pages of the newspaper—they are the ordinary experiences of ordinary people, often people who have encountered misfortune.”
His research often involves going to small towns and talking to officials, lawyers, judges, and residents, Liebman continued.
“I approach every meeting, whether politically scripted with officials or off-the-cuff with local residents, with the belief that I can learn something from that interaction—that there is something fascinating that will emerge from our conversation that will give me some insight into China,” he said.
As a result of that first visit, Liebman developed a lifelong connection to China. He now visits three to five times a year and has lived there more than four years in total, he recalled. He said that he realizes that not every student who goes to China on an exchange is going to develop fluency in Chinese, or commit their life to the study of China.
“But my hope,” he concluded, “is that every student who goes to China on an exchange, or comes here from China, will hear a story that makes them rethink some basic beliefs—and will carry that story with them wherever their life takes them.”
The conference was co-sponsored by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Asia; Primary Source, a nonprofit that prepares teachers in global education; The China Exchange Initiative, an organization which facilitates secondary school exchange programs with China; and the Brookline (MA) China Exchange Committee.