The recent arrival of visiting Law School professor Xu Zhiyong marks a new chapter in the history of collaboration between Yale and China. During the year, Xu and other professionals involved with Chinese non-government organizations will work with Yale’s China Law Center to suggest reforms to the country’s legal system.

Along with Chinese scholars and universities, the China Law Center, established at the Law School in 1999, is working towards reforming the Chinese legal system and increasing awareness of China’s laws outside of China, China Law Center Director Paul Gewirtz said. During the past year, the center has focused on empowering NGOs to create a more “open” and “participatory” Chinese law system in a country where citizens are not encouraged to speak out against the government or contribute to rule making, Gewirtz said.

Only 25 years ago, China barely had a functioning legal system, he said. But with the increasing popularity of newly developing Chinese NGOs, he said the country is beginning to build Rule of Law. Within the past year, the center has been working with leaders of Chinese NGOs devoted to legal reform. The founders of these NGOs, such as Xu, have travelled to Yale to study amidst law students and professors.

“It’s a collaboration with the University and working with those internationally in both the [Chinese] government and universities,” University Secretary Linda Lorimer said.

Gewirtz said now is an “exciting” time at the law center. Yale Law students are fortunate to be a part of the relationship with China as they are able to learn form their Chinese counterparts, he said.

“The emergence and modernization of China is an event of extraordinary world importance,” Gewirtz said. “Legal development of China is part of that and our students, of course, are interested in understanding this phenomena and participating in activities.”

Members of the center are working with three leaders of Chinese NGOs including professor Wang Xixin, director of the Peking University Center on Public Participation, professor Cheng Jie from the Tshingua University Law School Center on Constitutional and Civil Rights, and professor Xu founder of the Open Constitution Initiative.

Xu, a visiting professor at the Law School, first gained prominence a year ago when he petitioned the National People’s Congress to abolish the system of “custody and repatriation” in China — one of the country’s most serious human rights problems, Gewirtz said. As the founder of a Chinese NGO and a visiting scholar at Yale, Xu said he appreciates the partnership with the China Law Center.

“The China Law Center has given me the chance to come here,” Xu said. “I learned so much from here, and got some ideas from here and maybe we can start to do research in China.”

Like Xu, other NGO leaders are interested in learning from the American legal system and working with American legal students and professors, Gewirtz said. Through the cultivation of visiting scholars — there are four visiting Chinese scholars this year — and the implementation of workshops in China on particular legal reform issues, the center is fostering an exchange of ideas between the two countries, he said.

“China is benefiting from the individual ideas of scholars and NGOs about how to reform the legal system in China,” Gewirtz said.

Though there are many collaborative interactions between the China Law Center and Chinese leaders, Gewirtz said the center understands that any advancements in China’s Rule of Law need to originate with the Chinese.

“Legal reform in China is going to be done by the Chinese, but legal reformers want to borrow and adapt ideas from other countries,” Gewirtz said.

There still exist many challenges to implementing a legal system in China comparable to the United States’ system, Gewirtz said. But he said he does see continued progress in the future.

“I think the legal reform process in China is long term,” Gewirtz said. “If we can continue to stay engaged, we can add to scholarship here in the U.S. and we can assist legal reforms in China.”