Yiwei Chang, J.D. ’86/J.S.D. ‘90’s life was turned upside down by China’s Cultural Revolution when she was still a girl. In 1966 all the schools in China were closed and she was separated from her parents and sent for “re-education” to a remote mountain village that was among the poorest in China. There she labored in the fields, plowing and carrying heavy loads. But the farming families with whom she lived were “the kindest and most generous people I have known,” she says. “They took good care of us, as if we were their own children.”
Instead of crushing her, the experience was transforming. “It taught me to be humble, to endure hardships and difficulties, and to care about others,” she says.
“Yiwei is extraordinary,” says Jack Barceló, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of International and Comparative Law. “She has self-possession, a powerful inner will, and sense of what’s right. But at the same time there’s a graciousness, friendliness, warmth, thoughtfulness, and a generosity of spirit.”
“My parents always encouraged me to get more knowledge, to go for the highest education possible,” Chang says. After China’s schools reopened, she jumped from middle school to college, then graduate school there. Then, in 1980, she enrolled in a graduate program in English at the University of California–Los Angeles as part of a new exchange program with her Beijing University.
“Wow! Everything in the United States was new to me, eye-opening,” she says. “I was amazed at the opportunities and how rich and open the life was.”
Linguistics seemed like a natural extension of her interest in English so after UCLA she enrolled in a doctoral program in Cornell’s linguistics department, completing her qualifying exams before switching to law.
“I wanted to do something that would have an impact on society, to help the less privileged with my knowledge. Cornell had a good law school so I contacted them. I’m still very grateful for the opportunity Dean Lukingbeal gave me.”
“Yiwei was really a pioneer,” says Anne Lukingbeal, dean of admissisons at the Law School in 1983 when Chang applied. “Not many people could transplant themselves the way she did and become a successful law student in a competitive environment.”
After getting her J.D. degree in 1986 and pursuing her J.S.D. at Cornell (awarded in 1990), Chang joined Milbank Tweed, a Wall Street firm she credits with teaching her “all my legal practice skills.”
While there she assisted former U.S. attorney general Elliot Richardson, then a senior partner at Milbank. “He helped persuade the U.S. government to relax some of its trade restrictions toward China, arguing that China was beginning economic reforms and should be granted a special status,” she relates. “He was a great statesman, a man of tremendous integrity, and a great friend of China.”
Chang left Milbank in 1994 to join the Raytheon Company in Boston as assistant general counsel for international operations. “I learned how to utilize my legal knowledge and skills in connection with growing a business with extensive international operations.”
In 2003 she returned to China permanently when she became vice president of government affairs and general counsel with General Electric’s plastics business in Shanghai.
It was an exciting moment. “As soon as I stepped on Chinese soil, I felt that this was my home.” She observed with wonder and pride “the tremendous changes” in the country—highways, modern buildings, department stores with a rich variety of consumer goods and a wealth of fruits and vegetables.
In 2009 Chang became vice president and general counsel for the North Asia region of ABB, a European Fortune 500 company that is a leader in automation and power technologies. In 2011 she was promoted to senior vice president, general counsel, and head of legal and integrity for both the north Asia region and China.
She likes her job, despite the demands of time and travel (to factories throughout China as well as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong).
“I try to bring value not only to my company but also to society,” she says. “By helping China grow its economy, we contribute to the economic and social progress in this country. We help it open up to the world and help the rest of the world get a deeper understanding of China. China is a great marketplace for international companies.”
But she has not forgotten China’s past, or her own. Soon after she returned, she traveled to the mountain village where she had endured hardship as a young girl. The farmers there immediately recognized her and called her by her first name.
“I was so amazed,” she says, with wonder still in her voice. “There were tears in my eyes and theirs.” She has since hosted villagers in her home and contributed to the village school for essentials like books, electricity, and heating. “It can get pretty cold there in the winter,” she remembers.