“Welcome to Beijing airport, ladies and gentlemen, where the local time is 7.00am. The outside temperature is
cold. Um, it’s negative 9°C.”
It wasn’t yet sunrise when we landed in Beijing, home for almost 14 million people and capital city for some 1.3 billion Chinese. Our landing was ushered in by the tens of construction cranes lined up by the runway-side, silhouettes in the bleak pre-dawn light. It sure looked cold.
And it sure felt cold as we walked outside and were hit by a blast of chilly Beijing air. It took about half an hour to reach the hotel in a car provided by CUPL, our host university. Thus started Beijing Winter School, a law elective with a reputation for being one of the bludgiest subjects available. Here are some trip highlights. Get comfortable, it’s a long post.
Beijing’s city centre is roughly at Tiananmen Square. Encircling the Square are six “ring roads”. The majority of the main city is within the first two or three ring roads, and by the time you reach the fourth and outer roads, you’re in Beijing’s equivalent of the burbs. However, Beijing is large and sprawling, so there’s no real clearly defined “built-up” zone as there is in Sydney.
Taxis are an inexpensive way to get around town and there are three varieties of them. 1.20 taxis are the cheapest, the most cramped and are identified by their aerials which are placed to the side of the roof. 1.60 taxis have an aerial in the middle. I never travelled in a 2.00 taxi, but they are supposed to be relatively spacious.
Beijing taxis also charge by distance rather than time, which is a good thing because the time spent wading through peak hour traffic can be significant. I also learnt the hard way that the back left doors on taxis don’t open.
Taxis are a particularly good way of commuting because in Beijing vehicles have complete right of way over pedestrians. The only reason they slow down is so your body doesn’t make a dent in their new car. I don’t even know why they bother drawing in zebra crossings.
I don’t know what’s going to happen for the Olympics, but currently Beijing taxi drivers aren’t a very communicative bunch. They don’t speak English. When you tell them where to go, they don’t even acknowledge you they just start driving. You actually have to ask them whether they know where they are going, because the answer is sometimes “no”.
Kev, who lived in Beijing for half a year studying Mandarin, is a bit of a shit-stirrer. He likes to ask taxi drivers what they think of Tiananmen and other inflammatory questions. One day, he managed to piss off our driver by demanding that he not smoke in his own cab. Tensions were alleviated later however, when our cab was neatly cut off by a passing van. After a few blasts on his horn, the driver let loose with a magnificently enunciated string of superlatives and profanities. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying, but I was impressed. It was like a triple hit combo. Kev complimented his swearing skills and the driver puffed up his chest in pride. Kev then proceeded to teach the driver how to swear in Cantonese, Hokkien and English.
Beggars at Wangfujing
Wangfujing is next to Tiananmen Square and is a prime shopping and business district. There’s a large shopping mall there, filled with more designer labels than you’d be able to find in Australia. There’s even a Volkswagen showroom inside the centre. Outside on the street are a variety of market stalls. Some stalls sell fruit coated in toffee which is skewered onto a stick. It costs Y5 in this area, whereas anywhere else it’d only be Y1. Strolling down the street, you’re assailed by hundreds of stall keepers trying to get your business. A man yelled out to Louise: “Hello! Hello, beautiful!” When he managed to secure her attention, he picked up a skewer and shook it at her. “Snake?” he offered, with a toothy grin.
“Someone should tell him that that’s not the way to attract Westerners,” Shan later said. Some stalls sell more exotic things, such as scorpions, silkworm larvae and goat’s testicles.
The gap between rich and poor in China is the largest of any nation in the world and there are a network of beggars that roam Wangfujing. One woman had managed to run into us four times over the course of a single night, each time following us for a hundred metres or so while tugging insistently on our sleeves. I seemed to freak her out a bit though when I started staring at her and not speaking.
When it was time to go home, we found ourselves at a darkened intersection where the normally ubiquitous flow of taxis had dried up. After a minute or so of waiting, a kid emerged from the gloom. His face was smudged with dirt and his clothes hadn’t been changed for some time. Beggar. He started soliciting money from Shan. I started to make my way back up the street, urging the others to do the same.
Unfortunately, the kid had by that time neatly attached himself to Shan’s leg. He began wailing for money, sitting on Shan’s foot and hanging onto his thigh with a vice-like grip. Unable to move, Shan tried shaking him off, which only made him squeeze tighter. A few minutes passed and the kid only pleaded louder. We then broke the cardinal rule and gave him some money.
Shan was about to find out why never giving money is a cardinal rule. The kid took the money, and then demanded more. Louise and I helplessly looked on while Viv tried to negotiate with Shan’s release in Mandarin. They flagged over a waiting trishaw guy, who turned out to be no help at all.
“Where are you from? Korea? Japan?” he said, sussing us out. “Why don’t you just give him some money?”
To make matters worse, a taxi finally pulled up. Louise got in, followed by me. I held the door open to prevent the taxi from speeding off. Things were getting frantic and the kid wasn’t showing any signs off letting go. I tried to get the taxi to move closer so Shan could pull himself in and prise the kid off using the car door, but Beijing taxi drivers don’t understand English nor any amount of gesticulation or body language. Eventually another trishaw driver passed by and rode his bike into the kid, who promptly let go. Shan immediately made a break for the taxi with Viv following closely yelling out, “Drive! Drive! Drive!”
Cultural Exchange: Backstreet’s Back
CUPL separates its postgraduate campus from its undergraduate campus. One afternoon we took a trip out to the undergraduate campus for a “cultural exchange”. We were led into a room which contained a karaoke machine blasting out music from what must have been a “Boy bands of the 90s” VCD.
The odd thing about UNSW’s contingent this year was that it didn’t look like we were from an Australian university. Out of the 45 or so students on the trip, only two were not Asian. The rest were mostly from Hong Kong. In fact, most people had flown into Beijing direct from Hong Kong or Shanghai, as opposed to Sydney. Many could read Chinese, and a sizeable number could speak Mandarin.
So, it must have be a bit confusing when the CUPL students started to wander into the room, expecting a bunch of white Aussies and finding instead a bunch of Chinese.
CUPL put on a couple of student performances for us, kicking off with a small dance. It was followed by one of their students singing a Mandarin pop song. I thought it was cool when Yumin jumped up and joined her something they wouldn’t have been expecting at all. Cynthia then taught a group of UNSW and CUPL students some dance moves and had a “dance off” which had hilarious results.
The Unregistered Taxi Driver
Eric and I had to leave the CUPL “cultural exchange” early in order to catch an overnight train to Harbin. The campus was about 45 minutes’ drive from Beijing’s central train station, and the city’s registered taxis don’t drive out that far. April, one of the CUPL postgrad volunteers, managed to find us alternative transport.
There were a line of cars down a sidestreet with a bunch of guys in sunglasses leaning on them. April leaned close to us, “These are unregistered taxis. But don’t worry, we use them all the time.” She paused, then added, “Oh yeah, and try not to speak English if you can.” She procured a guy who was willing to take us back to Beijing for Y90. As we were about to get in, April realised the car didn’t have any number plates. The driver just laughed. “Don’t worry!” he snorted, opening his boot to reveal several sets of plates in it. He shut the boot again without taking any of them out. That seemed to satisfy April, so Eric and I just shrugged and got in.
We soon discovered why he didn’t have plates on. When he reached the toll gate at end of the expressway back to the city, he pulled up behind the car in front. As the boom gate went up for it, he expertly manoeuvred his car so that it was touching the rear bumper of the one ahead and followed it through before the boom gate came down. No toll? No worries.
We had to pay our intrepid driver his fare before we got to the train station so the cops didn’t realise he was unregistered. Funnily enough once we got there, none of them pulled him over for not wearing plates.
The Train to Harbin
You can buy tickets for inter-province trains in China at five levels: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat and standing. Soft sleeper tickets are equivalent to first class ones and are where all the Chinese bourgeoisie hang out (not bad for a Communist country). There are four beds to a compartment, and each bed comes with its own LCD TV. Soft sleeper carriages also come with a sit-down toilet which has a supply of 3-ply toilet paper. A polite attendant waits in the corridor if anything is needed.
We travelled to Harbin in hard sleeper class. The beds in hard sleeper class are actually no harder than in soft sleeper. However, here headspace is minimal as they cram six beds into each compartment. The compartments don’t have doors and the lights automatically switch off at around 10.00pm. Here is the domain of China’s rapidly growing middle class. “Don’t dangle your feet over the bedside here, it pisses the locals off and they’ll swear at you,” Kev warned. Trolleys occasionally trundle down the corridor selling fresh fruit, magazines and instant noodles. Only a couple hours into the journey, people break open their bowls of instant noodles and pour in hot water which is available in each carriage. Soon, the unholy stench of chemical fertiliser fills the air. Being a student living out of home, instant noodles are a staple food for me, so there was something disturbing about instant noodles whose smell made my nose wrinkle.
The seats are for the peasants. They are uncomfortable, messy and smell. They are also shared with the standing class, who end up tangled on the floor during the night. These carriages work on the “you move, you lose” principle go to the toilet and you’ll find someone has taken your seat. Here the train attendants are gruffer. Brushing against one of them accidentally is enough to earn an earful of admonishments from them.
Everyone laughed when we told them we were going to Harbin. When the Beijing locals think Harbin is too cold even for them, you know it has to be some serious frigidity happening up north. On the train up, Eric inquired about the weather to some other passengers. One of them had a piece of wisdom to impart.
“In Harbin, make sure you always carry a pen.”
Eric was puzzled. “A pen?”
“Yes, if you take a piss outside, you’ll need to tap it off,” he answered, making a brushing motion near his crotch.
“Tap what off?” Eric replied incredulously.
“Well, it’s so cold it freezes when it comes out!” The man laughed maniacally.
Four of us, Kev, Cath, Eric and I ended up heading to Harbin a 12 hour journey. Eric had booked separately from us, so was enjoying a soft sleeper. I was surprised the train up was so full, actually, but then I read that Harbin has a population of almost 10 million. Strange for a city which is further north than Vladivostok and buffeted by arctic Siberian winds during winter. Eric, however, hadn’t yet booked a return ticket. When we pulled into Harbin at 5 in the morning (it was -27ºC), our first duty was to get Eric a return ticket. All tickets to Beijing were sold out
except for hard seat class. He had been unceremoniously downgraded from soft sleeper to peasant class.
When Eric discovered that, he merely said, “I’ll do it.” Eric is hard core in that way. He went around Beijing in just three layers of clothing. He went around Harbin in four, and his jacket was unzipped. Harbin’s daytime temperature at that time of year averages -20ºC.
When we got back to Beijing, Eric had managed to snatch five hours of sleep. Keeping the “you move, you lose” principle in mind, he stayed in his seat the whole time. Along the way he had made conversation with a medical student who was on his way home for the Spring Festival. If you thought Eric had it bad, this guy’s lot was even worse. Home for him was in Kunming, involving a 12 hour train to Beijing and a 15 hour one to Kunming, followed by a two hour bus ride. And this was all with a standing ticket. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad. He was travelling with eight other students. Between them, they had purchased two seats, and took turns sitting. But still.
We were looked after and led around Beijing by some friendly CUPL postgrad students who had volunteered for the job. It wasn’t until the start of the second week, however, that we got to know them a little better. After an entertaining show given by a Chinese acrobatic troupe, we had dinner in this place which was a sort of combined Mongolian barbeque, Japanese teppanyaki, hotpot and buffet restaurant combined into one. Jack, one of the postgrad students, approached our table with a large mug of beer, sat down, and told us that everyone’s first beer was on the house. So four of us went to claim our beer and to our surprise were handed a whole jug, each. After managing to pass one jug off to a neighbouring table, we were still left with the problem of three jugs to get through. The solution? Drinking games, of course.
We kicked off with a favourite called “Ar Saw Chor”. Kev had taught it to our group a few nights prior and it’s supposed to be an old game Japanese kamikaze pilots used to play to psyche themselves up before flying off. Given the strong anti-Japanese sentiment that still exists among many Chinese after what happened in the last World War, we conveniently omitted this fact when Jack asked us where the game came from. The rules are simple. There are three words which are yelled out: Ar, Saw and Chor. Each word is associated with a hand action. Ar is said with the right hand being brought down once in a karate chopping motion. Saw is the same, but with the left hand. Chor is said with both hands being brought down. Whenever you make the chopping action, you point to another person, and their job is to continue the sequence. So the first person says, “Ar!” and points to another person with their right hand, who then has to shout out, “Saw!” and point to another person with their left hand, and so on. First person to break the sequence by using a wrong hand action, or by thinking too long takes a drink.
It’s pretty fun, and you can really get into it by screaming out the words and trying to go as fast as you can (especially when you get locked into a one-on-one face-off). That we did, and pretty soon the rest of the restaurant was looking at our table wondering what the hell we were doing. Dave, Shan and Jack were the most confused with the game (in that order) and their wits deteriorated rapidly as the night wore on and the beer supply dwindled. Viv was virtually untouchable, astonishingly fending off several concerted “everyone get Vivian” attacks.
The other game we played doesn’t have a name, but it’s Korean and involves pointing chopsticks. Apparently Koreans are renown for the amount of alcohol they can drink and consequently their drinking games are aimed at getting the booze flowing as fast as possible. Everyone sits in a circle. One person gets to call out a number higher than one, and at the same time everyone points at someone else. Then, starting from the person who called out the number, you follow where the chopsticks point and hop from person to person, counting up to the number called out. The person it finally lands on has to drink. That person gets to call out the next number.
When we left the restaurant for a bar, Jack was already off his nut. Jack was in his late 20s and had aspirations of studying law for a stint in McGill University in Montreal. He spoke English well, in a clipped, somewhat nasally accent, rolling his Rs like most Beijingers did. He had a habit of exclaiming “Oh my God!” in such a unique way that everyone imitated him for days afterwards. Fantastic bloke.
As we stumbled out of the restaurant, Jack cried out, “Everyone look! My chi gong is so strong! I can stop a car by holding up my hand!”
“Yes Jack, but only the red ones right?”
“No! I can do black ones too, but it will take more time!”
Just then, a black car rolled past David noticed it was an unmarked police car and quickly forced Jack’s arm down “You don’t want to stop that one.”
The next day we went out to the many Beijing hotpot restaurants which serve free beer. Jack revealed another one of his many (dubious) talents and started reading people’s palms. Among the various revelations was one that Eric would have two or three girlfriends at one time in his life. He was pretty pleased by this. We were finally forced out of the restaurant when a man on the table next to us, filled with Mafioso-looking types, turned around and told us to “stop speaking English and speak in Chinese so we could be understood”. Given we were the only two tables left, we decided to make our exit. By the time we reached outside, Jack had dredged up another game, one purportedly to test how sober people are. It basically involves making yourself look like a retard and spinning around trying to keep your balance. Eric took up Jack’s challenge and soon both were spinning around to the soundtrack of Eric hollering to himself, “Concentrate Eric! Concentrate!” Eventually, both Eric and Jack ended up flat on their back on the filthy Beijing footpath, desperately trying to make the world stop spinning before their eyes.
Access to Jack’s dorm at the university shuts at 11.30pm and it was past that time. So he ended up spending the night in Eric and David’s hotel room. Not wanting to sleep on the floor, Jack got them to push the two beds together so they could share them. Rumour has it there was a bit of ass grabbing that night.
The Great Race
We went to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, which is heavily trafficked in the summer, but not so much in winter. Seeing it made me realise what sadistic bastards the old Chinese Emperors must have been. The Wall is constructed across the spines and peaks of hills and is incredibly steep in sections. It’s hard enough walking it, let alone having to be the poor peasant building it. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive structure, ducking and weaving its way over the rugged terrain. Crenellations make up one side of the Wall, a defence against the barbarian hordes rampaging from the North. It’s with some measure of irony that China now earns a healthy buck by letting barbarians clamber all over the Wall. Watchtowers are also placed periodically along it, and our destination was the highest one, at 888m.
Only a quarter hour into the walk and not satisfied with simply admiring the views, Jack, Eric and Shan decided to have a race up to the nearest watchtower, which involved a climb up a steep flight of uneven steps. They stripped down to only three layers of clothing (two for Eric), and amidst a set of bemused onlookers and several groups of Japanese tourists yelling “Go for it!”, bolted off. It wasn’t long before the three runners were noticeably fatigued. Shan cramped up and was the first to fall behind. Eric managed to stave off Jack for a while, but was soon overtaken by the seasoned Beijinger, who won the race.
When Dave and I got up there, a good five minutes later, the three of them were still struggling to catch their breath. That’s when things started to turn sour. Jack started to feel dizzy, clutching his head and wobbling from side to side. Seconds later, in his usual nothing-fazes-Eric manner, Eric stood up and declared, “I’m okay guys, I’m just going to throw up now.” He staggered over to a nearby bucket, tucked away in the corner, and proceeded to make retching sounds into it. We later discovered that the bucket was actually already full of camel shit which, we were told, smells quite horrendous when it mixes with puke. Five minutes later, Eric was right as rain again. Unfortunately, there weren’t any “I threw up into a bucket of camel shit at the Great Wall of China” t-shirts being sold to commemorate the achievement. Jack recovered after popping a couple Panadols and eventually made it to the top with us.
Every sunrise, the People’s Liberation Army conducts a flag raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square. We had to wake up at 5.30am to catch it, and bleary eyed, we made it to Tiananmen an hour later. As soon as we clambered out of the taxi, we were immediately set upon by a group of hawkers trying to sell us postcards, hats and other assorted paraphernalia. At 6.30 in the morning, no less! Tiananmen was fenced off and we were informed by a policeman that it wouldn’t be open for another half hour and were directed to a line of roughly thirty people who were also waiting for admission. By 7.00am, we were shivering in the morning air. The line had swelled to several hundred patriotic Chinese and curious foreigners. They then opened the gates and we were led in by another policeman.
“This is quite orderly,” Dave remarked to me, as the crowd shuffled towards the flagpole. Then the policeman glanced back and snapped, “Hey! No pushing! Stand in line!” There was more jostling and the pace picked up a little. He turned around again and yelled, “I said, don’t push! Walk, don’t run!” but this time he had a slight smirk on his face. I started to feel a bit of pressure from the people behind and had to scramble. Soon the policeman had a wicked grin on his face. “Don’t think I don’t see you! Stop pushing!” As if on cue, the crowd surged forward past him and broke into a run. Shan disappeared into the throng. Eric kept pace alongside me while Dave yelled out, “Stu, I’m right behind you!” hanging grimly on to my backpack. It was chaos.
I guess the only time civil disobedience against the commands of a State official is tolerated is during displays of unbridled patriotism.
By the time we got to the viewing line, we’d managed to get good vantage points and the crowd quickly settled down to wait for dawn. Tiananmen was once again silent, in a surreal contrast to the pandemonium only minutes before. We had to wait another twenty minutes, by which time we had frozen solid again. Soldiers emerged from the entrance to the Forbidden City carrying the flag. Soon it was ascending the pole, accompanied by the 48-second Chinese national anthem (which had to be repeated twice) blaring over loudspeakers. The flag reached the top, the crowd dispersed, and that was that.
The Chinese legal system bears little resemblance to English common law systems. The PRC has a Constitution, but everything is different after that. China is not a federalised nation. The whole country is governed by a central government and all provincial and local authorities are completely subservient to it.
The peak legislative body is the National People’s Congress (NPC), run out of the ornate Great Hall of the People which stands on the west side of Tiananmen Square the equivalent of our Parliament House. Tourists visiting the Great Hall are required to don plastic bags over their shoes to avoid marking the marble floors. Inside are a multitude of artworks, each a gift from China’s provinces. There are also a bunch of reception rooms, one for each province, used to receive dignitaries arriving from their respective provinces. There was one for Taiwan, but the door had been barred up.
The NPC proclaims basic laws which override everything except the Constitution. Further down the hierarchy is the Standing Committee of the NPC, which also proclaims laws, as does the State Council which is a rung further down the ladder. Each province or major city has its own local People’s Congress, which is free to pass regulations that do not conflict with laws made at the national level.
It is when the judicial system is considered that any notion of separation of powers goes out the window. There is no concept of judicial review in China. Courts are not permitted to interpret the Constitution. This means that courts cannot review a law passed by the NPC to see if it conflicts with the Constitution (“ultra vires” in Latinspeak). In fact, the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest court, can only make judgments and interpretations of laws made by the Standing Committee of the NPC and lower (so long as no interpretation of the Constitution is required). The NPC is effectively a law unto itself. The Constitution is also a “soft” one, modifiable without the manner and form requirements safeguarding Constitutions as we know them.
With regards to judicial independence, a Professor referred us to Li’s Case (2003). It involved a conflict of laws. A regulation concerning seeds passed by the Henan provincial People’s Congress conflicted with a law made at the national level. The judge ruled that the provincial regulation was invalid. She was subsequently removed from her judgeship by local authorities while the NPC took no action.
Nonetheless, China’s ways are slowly changing. The Rule of Law was a recent development in Chinese law and had to be written into the Constitution. While the Professors stressed that theory and practice remain two different things in China, at least recognising these fundamental principles in writing is a start. Contrary to what you might expect, I found the Professors who lectured us were generally quite open-minded. Many had completed an LLM at various ivy league universities, which may be the reason for that.
We had the opportunity to observe a criminal trial in one of Beijing’s intermediate courts. We were all given earpieces and the case was simultaneously interpreted to us. Courtroom procedure is quite foreign. The judge occupies centre stage, as he should, but he is curiously flanked on both sides by two jurors. The prosecutor sits on the left, defence counsel on the right. The defendant takes a seat in the middle, in front of the judge. No one stands to deliver oral submissions.
The case we heard involved a man who was charged with robbery of a Nokia phone. The robbery involved a knife and assault, though I’m not sure if he was charged with that as well. The trial started with the judge interrogating the defendant about various introductory matters name, age, whether he understood what he was being charged with, and so on. This was followed by the prosecution’s submissions and then the defendant’s submissions.
Peculiarly, there were no witnesses, no procedures for the admission of evidence, no cross-examination
not a trace of anything we learnt (or in my case, failed to learn) in Litigation 2, UNSW’s evidence course. Evidence was only given by the prosecution in the form of pre-recorded witness statements which were read out. And those statements were pretty much second-hand hearsay. The defendant’s counsel delivered a relatively short submission, consisting solely of a few factual objections, such as how one of the prosecution witnesses identified the defendant as wearing a white coat when in fact he was not. The prosecutor gave a short rebuttal, saying that the defendant’s memory was similarly dodgy, therefore her witness’ account should at least be given as much evidential weight as the defendant’s. I gather from this that the concept of burden of proof operates differently in China.
The trial concluded with the verdict to be delivered a week later (so we never found out the outcome).
Astonishingly, despite the formality of the trial, once the legal personnel had left the room, the entire courtroom was suddenly accessible. A few students rushed up to the judge’s bench and began snapping photos. At one point someone even found the judge’s gavel and began waving it about and bellowing, “Order! Order!” before a stenographer or judge’s associate or whoever he was rushed out to confiscate it. After this initial shock (because I don’t think anyone would contemplate doing this in an Australian court room!) I figured it would be the only opportunity I would get to sit in the judge’s chair and tried it out for myself.
Speaking of Crimes
Beijing is a relatively safe city. Kev and Cath, who had both lived there for some months insisted that women could walk the streets alone. The only warning of crime I got was to watch out for counterfeit notes. If you pay someone using Y100 or Y50 notes, the locals will all inspect the note to make sure it isn’t dodgy. As a foreigner, you have to make sure that when you get change in 100s or 50s that it’s real money. There are several security features which are used to determine this: (1) there should be texture when you rub Mao’s collar; (2) there should be a metallic thread through the middle of the note; (3) there should be a watermark of Mao in the white space of the note; and (4) certain numbers should be printed in a metallic ink.
Eric was the first to come across the phenomenon on our second last day in China. Having bargained a North Face jacket down to Y120, he handed over some cash to pay for it, including a Y100 bill. Something happened and the sale didn’t go through, but Eric noticed that the hawker had swapped his 100 for another. Sure enough, upon closer inspection back on the bus, it was reasonably clear it was a counterfeit (the watermark was printed on and the colours were too vibrant).
Later that night, we went out to karaoke (where, I should add, the standout singers were Sandra and Viv). Soon after word spread around that Jess had somehow managed to get a date with a local working at the k-bar, the night went downhill. Someone else had fallen prey to a taxi driver who had passed them two fake 50s. Another person discovered that their hotel luggage had been rifled through and had lost Y300. Another person was informed that one of their grandparents had passed away. It was like Beijing knew we were leaving and all the seedy elements had decided to crawl out and have their way with us.
Commercial Law in China
One afternoon saw us take a visit to De Heng, China’s biggest local law firm. Unfortunately for them, it was a visit that didn’t impress. The lawyer sent out to talk about the firm spoke poorly, didn’t seem to understand the point of the questions we asked him (the few that there were), and even answered his mobile phone which went off in the middle of his speech. Given his audience, a bunch of undergraduate law students who would soon be applying for vacation clerkships, it didn’t help that he emphasised that De Heng primarily dealt with local Chinese firms. You could almost hear the sound of everyone tuning out, seeing no relevance in learning about this firm. We also had a five minute floor tour, during which nothing was explained to us and where I saw an abnormal amount of staff who all seemed to be checking their e-mail on Yahoo!.
De Heng has around 500 practising lawyers spread around the world. It’s an interesting statistic. The big six Aussie firms have somewhere in the range of 1000 lawyers each. When you consider that China’s population is 65 times Australia’s, that their GDP ranks them seventh in the world and is growing at around 9% per year, there must be some reason for the scarcity of lawyers in China. I never found out what the reason was, but I speculate it’s a mixture of the history of their newish legal system and the way they culturally handle disputes.
On the other hand, one of the morning lectures we had on trade law was conducted by two partners from the international US law firm Jones Day. The lecture was meant to be on trade law, but a bunch of career-minded fourth years managed to change the topic to legal careers. Ashley Howlett, one of the partners, kindly obliged and gave us an interesting talk.
Originally a New Zealander, Ash had spent most of the last decade acting in prominent property and construction matters across Asia. He told us that if we wanted truly international legal work true cross-border work we needed to join either a US white shoe firm, or a UK magic circle one. Unfortunately, while he held great respect for the top tier Aussie firms, they are ultimately minnows in the global playing field. He expected the industry to undergo consolidation so that all the major legal work in the world would go to around a dozen firms (composed of 7-8 US and 4-5 UK ones).
For Australians, getting into a US firm is difficult due to the requirements of having a US JD degree and to be admitted in a US State. It didn’t help when Ash said, “We accept grads from the top law schools, such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford.” We were hoping that he’d add, “and UNSW,” at least to give us a little face, but he didn’t.
UK firms are easier to get into. Unfortunately, Australian firms are very competent and there is an oversupply of lawyers in Australia. The result is that there is little room left for international firms to set up shop here (exceptions are Bakers and Coudert Bros). In order to work in UK firm, Aussies have to travel overseas. The most convenient way to get into a magic circle firm is via Hong Kong, which suited most of the people at the lecture who were Honkies anyway. Personally, I don’t speak anything but English, so that essentially bars me from that route. I asked Ash if there was any other way in for people like me, and he basically said that the Asian offices in a firm like his would look for one of two things: language skills or experience (or both). “Get a good job in Australia and try in a few years,” he recommended. “Maybe learn Chinese, because when you get to my age, it isn’t so easy anymore.”