The Law and China's Evolution as a World Power

“The protestor on the bridge is a brave individual,” says UW Law alumnus Keith Hand, J.D. '00 when asked about Peng Lifa. Peng, who has since disappeared, has been called the 'man who lighted a spark in the darkness' after his high-profile protest in October. His actions appeared to inspire a chain reaction of demonstrations in China related to COVID restrictions and beyond.

“The space for public dissent in China has narrowed over the last decade,” says Hand, now a professor of law and the director of the Center for East Asian Legal Studies at UC College of the Law, San Francisco. At the same time, he also points to the recent reversal of China’s COVID policy in early December, noting that the wave of unrest seemed to accelerate the lifting of restrictions.

For many reasons, Hand and the rest of the world are paying close attention. “China is home to 1.4 billion people, nearly 1/5 of humanity, a nuclear power and a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council that is exerting its influence on the world stage and protecting its national interests with new assertiveness, confidence and sense of destiny,” says Hand.

It’s also a member of the World Trade Organization, consistently one of the top three recipients of foreign direct investment and the largest purchaser of U.S. treasuries. What else? It’s the world's top energy consumer.

In all of this, law looms large, especially as competition between the United States and China deepens. “China is expanding its legal toolkit to safeguard national security and counter U.S. legal capacity,” Hand says. He gives the example of China's Anti-foreign Sanctions Law, which multinationals could violate if they comply with foreign sanctions.

Recent developments in U.S. policy aimed at China’s tech sector will undoubtedly lead to more legal responses from China. “We must deepen our understanding of these historic changes in the political-legal system, particularly as U.S.-China competition intensifies,” says Hand.

Inspired Scholarship from Washington to California

After getting a master's degree in China studies from the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at UW, Hand applied to law school. “I chose UW because it had one of the most established Asian law programs in the country for a fraction of the cost,” he says. “It was a great decision.”

When he joined the faculty at UC Law SF (formerly UC Hastings) in 2009 after being Beijing director, senior fellow and lecturer-in-law at Yale Law School’s China Law Center and visiting scholar at Peking University Law School, Hand wanted to replicate what he saw happening at the University of Washington. He especially appreciated the work of the Japanese law scholar Dan Henderson, who founded the groundbreaking UW Asian Law Program (now the Asian Law Center) and then taught at UC Law SF after retiring.

Inspired by Henderson and with Senior Professor Setsuo Miyazawa, Hand co-founded what is now the UC Law SF Center for East Asian Legal Studies in 2015. In addition to advancing future lawyers and scholars, he’s also a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and a non-resident scholar with the 21st Century China Center at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy.

A Personal Calling on a Global Stage

The journey began during undergraduate school at Whitman College when Hand participated in the school’s teaching program in China in 1993 and 1994. “It was a life-changing experience,” he says. “From the moment I set foot in the country, I’ve been fascinated with the energy and culture.”

Since then, he’s been watching legal developments there. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, while the Communist Party leadership wouldn’t tolerate overt challenges to its authority, Hand noticed some movement. “We saw citizens and legal scholars starting to use new laws and procedures and the leadership's rhetoric that China is a socialist rule-of-law state to raise some arguments about controversial issues in Chinese society.”

By leveraging the language of the laws and publicizing it, they increased public pressure that contributed to modest reforms. These citizen legal initiatives, however, threatened the status quo, and when Xi Jinping assumed leadership in 2012, things began to tighten up further.

“Xi renewed the party's commitment to law as a core instrument of governance and central control,” says Hand. “He also started taking more aggressive steps to contain some of the unintended consequences of earlier legal reforms and concrete steps to marginalize, harass and disbar activist layers and constitutional law scholars.” Given recent events, Hand sees this restrictive trend continuing.

It's also taking Hand's research in new directions, focusing on the many facets of emerging legal action related to global competition. For example, China is using domestic law to fortify its territorial claims in Taiwan and to push back against U.S. action. There is also plenty of legal activity in the economic, technological and investment arenas. Cybersecurity is another critical area of focus. “It's something legal scholars are well placed to write about and advise the government on,” he says.

Although increasing restrictions alongside a more competitive global environment impact Hand's ability to do some of his in-country work, it also emphasizes why that work is so critical. “We've had a trickle of exchange the last few years, and I'm excited about China announcing that they will reopen borders,” he says. “Face-to-face experiences are crucial, particularly as competition heats up. I feel called to cultivate understanding between two great countries and cultures. If I've contributed to that in some small way, I've done something meaningful.”