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“Perspectives from the Founding”—— Remarks on the STL 15th Anniversary Celebration

Jeffrey S. Lehman


October 22, 2023

Vice President Zhang; Associate Dean Liu; STL colleagues, graduates, and students; dear friends.

Fifteen years ago today, we gathered on this campus to dedicate the Peking University School of Transnational Law. The hopes for our school were symbolized by the dignitaries who came here to mark the day with our first class of 54 students, our founding faculty, and our founding administrative team. In addition to senior leaders from Beida and the city of Shenzhen, those dignitaries included:

Tung Chee Hwa, Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and former Chief Executive of Hong Kong;

Anthony Kennedy, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States;

Zou Yu, former Minister of Justice;

Andrew Li, Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong;

Shi Shaoxia, President of the National Prosecutors College;

Jiang Ping, Emeritus Professor and former President of the China University of Politics and Law;

Robert Goldberg, Consul General of the United States;

Stewart Schwab, Dean of the School of Law of Cornell University;

Wang Chengguang, former Dean of the School of Law of Tsinghua University;

and many other celebrities from communities of law and economy in both the U.S. and China.

These prominent figures came to University Town because they believed that Peking University was doing something very bold and very exciting. Something that no other university had done before. Something that expressed an inspiring and hopeful vision for the world.

Back then the world was struggling with a global economic recession. Nonetheless, the participants in STL’s dedication ceremony believed in the almost unlimited promise of globalization. They believed that an ever-expanding movement of goods and services, people, ideas, cultures, and values across national borders would require an ever-expanding system of transnational law. Even more importantly, globalization would require transnational lawyers with the vision and the spirit to lead in that new, globalized universe.

Peking University was the first to see the need to create a brand new kind of law school to ensure that a new generation of transnational lawyers would have the knowledge, the skills, and the values that this exciting new world would demand. And I was honored to have the opportunity to work with Hai Wen to launch STL as a fully functioning institution with talented students, teachers, and administrators.

We knew that these new lawyers would have to develop many important qualities. But we also had no doubt that the most important quality was the ability to engage sympathetically with counter-argument. That ability demands that transnational lawyers cherish complexity, subtlety, and difficulty. It requires them to be comfortable with uncertainty. It requires them to understand how another perspective, another approach, another way of understanding might make perfect sense. It requires them to overcome the urge to rush to judgment.

At STL, we would teach our students that there are often several different good answers to a legal question. For example, they would learn how a legal rule might promote several different social values at the same time. In such a situation, the answer to the question of how the rule applies to a particular situation might depend upon which of those several social values is thought to be most important. By teaching classes with the Socratic method, STL would nurture within its students the ability to argue in favor of each possible answer rather than rushing to say that one is right and the others are wrong.

Hai Wen and I believed that, in launching STL, we would not only be building the best institution in the world for preparing transnational lawyers. We also believed that we would be building two important new communities of bridge people: our Chinese students and our foreign faculty.

Our Chinese students would be bridges from China out to the rest of the world. They would come to us with a base firmly cemented in Chinese soil, able to think deeply about what kinds of legal rules and legal institutions fit well within Chinese culture and Chinese society. At STL they would learn how people from different cultures interpret the world at the same time that they learned how to be most effective on the international stage.

Our foreign faculty would be bridges from other countries into China. They would bring to their students at STL a more accurate understanding of what the rest of the world is like. And at the same time they would have the chance to get to know this country as it really is, instead of as they read about it or see it on television. And when they returned home they would be able to bring that more accurate understanding of China back to share with their fellow citizens.

It has been simply amazing to me to see how, over the past fifteen years, STL has realized those early dreams and so much more. Under the leadership of Dean Yandle and Dean McConnaughay, STL continued to grow and develop in absolutely spectacular ways.

Yes, every year STL has graduated another cohort of transnational lawyers with the capacity to engage sympathetically with counterargument. Yes, STL is a precious developer of bridge people – both students and foreign faculty.

But, in addition, STL has built a superb Juris Master program that integrates the study of Chinese law with an STL pedagogy. STL has recruited a world-renowned research faculty of scholars from all around China and all around the world, scholars who publish original and important insights in the world’s finest journals of legal research. And STL has built deep relationships with the amazing city of Shenzhen, relationships through which our students and faculty are able to draw on the city’s creative resources while at the same time lending their own talents to the city’s development as a mature center of transnational exchange.

Today, as we celebrate fifteen years of achievement, it is certainly appropriate for us to ask how STL might add to its catalog of contributions during the next fifteen years. When STL celebrates its thirtieth birthday, what new features might we hope to see?

Obviously the outside world today is very different from the outside world we were looking at when STL was first launched. The simple pattern of ever-increasing globalization, ever-increasing interdependence, ever-deeper supply chains, a common information ecosystem, and an ever-more-unified transnational legal culture is long gone. Nationalisms have come roaring back. All around the world, government leaders are telling their citizens not to trust people from other countries. They portray foreign nations as sources of danger rather than opportunity. Instead of emphasizing the opportunities that come from cooperation and trade, they advocate decoupling and self-sufficiency.

These changes might lead some people to wonder whether there is less need for a school like STL than there was fifteen years ago. To me, however, these changes all make STL that much more important, that much more precious. And I believe they also may be creating new strategic opportunities for STL in the years to come.

The skills of a transnational lawyer are obviously important when people from different countries want to create new partnerships, new joint ventures. But they are just as important, perhaps even more important, when people from different countries are experiencing mutual mistrust and conflict. The capacity to engage sympathetically with counterargument helps to prevent tensions from escalating needlessly and creates the possibility of restoring harmonious and mutually beneficial interactions.

And when people in different countries are being pushed apart by different information ecosystems and destructive social media businesses, the world has an even more profound need for bridge people. In 2023, it is much too easy to uncritically believe false assertions about how things are in another country, much too easy to turn away from the complexities of life today.

Humanity today is facing unprecedented challenges, such as climate change, pandemic disease, and terrorism. The newest generations of artificial intelligence could be used to dramatically improve the quality of human life, but those same technologies could also be used to cause great harm.

These challenges simply cannot be overcome by a decoupled world. We need bridge people more than ever. We need STL graduates more than ever.

And these challenges also create new opportunities for STL research. We are no longer on a path to a hyper-globalized world, a world where governments and cultures converge more and more in a single direction. But that does not mean countries have no choice but to decouple.

We need to develop stronger transnational institutions through which countries that have chosen very different political and economic models can interact and cooperate, engage and trade, under systems that are fair to all. We need to develop structures through which each sovereign nation can choose its own domestic policies and then those systems can be harmonized so that they do not cause extraterritorial harm.

STL may well be the best place on earth to design and develop such institutions. This is a home to serious scholars who share a cosmopolitan spirit. And we are located in a city whose very DNA is experimental, innovative, and transnational.

On this special day of celebration, it is important that the Peking University School of Transnational Law remember its past. It is equally important that STL appreciate its present. But most of all, on this day when we celebrate our school’s maturity, let us commit ourselves in the years ahead to stepping forward and responding to a world that needs this one-of-a-kind law school more than ever.

Thank you.

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