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Xingzhoung Yu Discusses the “Rule of Zheng” at Clarke Colloquium

Ithaca, NEW YORK, Oct 15, 2015

On October 6, the Clarke Colloquium welcomed Xingzhong Yu, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Professor in Chinese Law at Cornell. His topic was “the rule of zheng,” or government maneuvers—a key obstacle, he argued, in “China’s long march toward the rule of law.”

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Yu has been on the Cornell Law faculty for three years. Previously, he was with the Faculty of Law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong where he taught jurisprudence, constitutional law, and Chinese law. Yu has also taught at Beijing University, Jilin University, Northwest University of Politics and Law, Shandong University, and Harvard Law School. He has also conducted research at Columbia Law School, Australian National University, and the University of Sydney. As an associate at Chicago's Baker & McKenzie, he assisted clients doing business in China, providing expertise on investment law, labor law, and intellectual property. He is the author of numerous articles and three books, including Rule of Law and Civil Order (2006).

“[Professor Yu] is, without a doubt in my view, the most interesting, imaginative, and erudite person writing on Chinese law in English, and so we’re very luck to have him here,” said Annelise Riles, Jack G. Clarke Professor of Far East Legal Studies and director of the Clarke Program, who introduced Yu at the colloquium.

Yu began his presentation by discussing his research background, addressing some problems he has observed in China scholarship, such as path dependence and defensiveness. He also presented an “anatomy of Chinese normative culture,” identifying the high rhetoric of virtue and sagacity favored by intellectuals, the philosophy of pragmatic governance favored by rulers, and the philosophy of survival favored by commoners.

He went on to elucidate the concept of zheng, which encompasses government maneuvers, policies, and strategies. Features of “the rule of zheng” include institutional as well as personal hierarchy, flexibility, unpredictability, manipulation, and linguistic delusion. In the contemporary manifestation of the rule of zheng, he explained, power is wielded by the upper echelons of the Communist Party of China rather than by the National People’s Congress, which is ostensibly the government’s most powerful organ. Administrative supremacy is the rule in all sorts of institutions, from hospitals to universities, and laws and institutions are used selectively as implements of control.

A central theme of the session was the tradition of “normative dualism” in China. Yu explained that, in Chinese culture, it is believed that one must look at two sides of a concept to have a complete understanding of it. In this conceptual model, the rule of law cannot be isolated; it must stand in complementary opposition to some other rule. This mindset, he proposed, is one reason why it is so difficult to extricate the rule of zheng from the Chinese system of governance.

Nonetheless, Yu asserted, overcoming the rule of zheng is a necessary step for China. Doing so, he proposed, will require the cultivation of public awareness, the promotion of professionalism, and a new debate on the relationship between law and policy.

The presentation was followed by a far-reaching question and answer session. Riles, citing the persistent influence of Greek, Roman, and Christian thought in western culture, questioned whether China could really do away with its tradition of normative dualism. Other audience members observed the similarities between the Chinese system and others elsewhere in the world, probed Yu on what the debate he proposed might look like, and wondered what implications foreign policy might have for the rule of law in China.

The Clarke Colloquium Series presentations take place each week during the term. Faculty, senior graduate students, and visiting speakers meet to present and discuss works in progress on law and culture in East Asia. The informal setting encourages discussion, and the series' focus on new and cross-disciplinary research provides attendees with a nuanced view of Asian institutions and practices. The Colloquium is presented by the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture, funded by a gift to Cornell Law School by Jack and Dorothea Clarke.