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Bar News - February 23, 2007

Teaching in China: A Window on Another World



When Elliott Berry was contacted to teach at the Central University of Finance & Economics in Beijing, he was surprised and pleased—and overwhelmed. “I never thought it would actually happen,” he said.


It all began when a Chinese student from Franklin Pierce Law School told Berry about an exchange teaching program at the Central University. “You should apply,” she said. Berry, an attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA) in Manchester, decided to give it a try. His application was accepted and he left for China in late August 2006 to teach a six-week course in American Legal Process and Constitutional Law.


Berry, who majored in Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, had planned for years to someday visit China, but never dreamed it would come about in this way. He speaks some Chinese, although he did not have to teach in that language—Chinese law students are strongly encouraged to speak and read English and “considering the profound differences between our languages, they handle English pretty well—especially reading,” said Berry.


“I found the experience fascinating and nerve-wracking,” he said. For two hours a day for four weeks Berry lectured on the design and structure of the American legal system and American constitutional law to a class of 110 students. “I’m no expert, but we put the key concepts on the blackboard in Chinese—and I tried to break down the lectures into language I thought they would understand.”


The course was voluntary, and of the 120 who began it, only 10 dropped out.


A Great Respect for Teachers


“Some of my students told me that there’s an old Chinese proverb which says, ‘Having a teacher for a day is like having a parent for life,’” said Berry. “They’re so respectful of teachers. But what I found disconcerting was their hesitancy to engage in class discussion—they are just so used to listening instead of talking.”


Nevertheless, Berry was impressed by the students’ openness, their curiosity and enthusiasm. “Parents have to really sacrifice to send their kids to university—and the students feel a tremendous responsibility to pay them back.” In addition, there are lots of law students, but not many jobs. The competition is fierce.


 “Commercial law is now the huge focus of Chinese law, as more and more businesses grow in China,” said Berry. Yet, while the economy is booming, there are still hundreds of millions of very poor people—and forums for their grievances are limited, because individual rights are not highly valued in Chinese society.”


 “Naturally, their legal system is not like ours,” said Berry, “but it’s developing rapidly.” Still, much of it is based on guanxi [closest phonetic pronunciation, guanshi] a system involving political connections.


The desire for change, for the rule of law, exists, but the system itself is still very political. The idea of an independent judiciary is foreign to the average Chinese citizen. “The People’s Congress makes the rules—and there is very little anyone outside of the power structure can do to change them. Moreover, Chinese culture is very heavy on tradition and communal dispute resolution,” said Berry, “and the use of courts to resolve disputes tends to be seen as a failure of the social order.”


The Place of the Individual


When asked about the Chinese understanding of “natural or inalienable rights” derived from a Judeo-Christian-based “Creator,” (as stated in the American Declaration of Independence—which is at the heart of the concept of substantive due process), Berry answered: “The emperor ruled with the mandate of heaven, so when he spoke it was as if God spoke; so rights handed down by the Creator would mean those laws handed down by the emperor-god. And some of that thinking carries over to the present age, in respect to the current leaders.”


While many Chinese people aspire to a more open society, they believe it must exist within reasonable limits. “Their idea of reasonable limits is much more rigid than ours,” said Berry. “I often asked myself, ‘what am I doing?’ when I wasn’t sure I was getting through. But still I’d get up and try again, because I loved their enthusiasm and really wanted to do my best for them.”


Because every judge is a political appointee, party officials often tell judges how they think cases should be decided. There is little separation between the executive and judicial branches in China. The Communist party is still very strong. “By the time I left, I had seven close Chinese friends and five of them were members of the Communist party,” said Berry, “largely because being a member helps a person get ahead in this very competitive society.”


Viewing Ancient Wonders


After his teaching assignment ended, Berry and his wife, J. Campbell Harvey, also a Manchester attorney, traveled to Yunnan province in the foothills of the Himalayas. They hiked on the famous Jade Snow Dragon Mountain near the city of Lijiang.


During China’s week-long holiday at the beginning of October, Berry also traveled to Dunhuang in the northwestern desert country. “The dunes are magnificent,” he said, “and there are many grottoes filled with statues and paintings—and of course, there’s the Great Wall. But not the version most tourists see; rather the one built with mud and straw dating back to the Han Dynasty [206 BC-220 AD].”


Berry also spent time in Xian [called the “Eternal City”] in Shaanxi province [central China], where he saw the famous terra cotta warriors and their horses. “There are just no adequate words to describe them,” he said.


Asked if the opportunity presented itself for him to teach in China again, Berry exclaimed, “Absolutely. It was the experience of a lifetime.”



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