Deciding between Duke and Columbia University for law school was a tough choice for Gao Xiqing, Law ’86. His phone rang several times a day for about a week with calls from the dean at Columbia. But Gao, now the president of the China Investment Corporation and a member of Duke’s Board of Trustees, had a full-ride scholarship waiting for him at Duke, as well as beautiful landscape and beautiful girls, he said. He ultimately chose Duke because of Durham—he thought it was a place where Chinese students could be free-thinking without oversight. Wanting to be completely immersed in American law and culture, Gao thought there would be too many Chinese people in New York City for him to achieve that at Columbia. “After [the Cultural Revolution], we were still in fear of being reported by people,” Gao said. “There might be students who were spies for the government, and any free thinking we had would be reported back.”
But in Durham, Gao could take advantage of the academic freedom promised by an American education—thanks in part to a flub in the School of Law’s admissions in the late 1970s. Mistakes in budgeting and yield prediction left Duke Law without enough students, and they decided to fill the empty seats with a previously underrepresented population—international students. “It was a comical beginning,” said former Dean Paul Carrington of his first year in that role, 1978. “One thing led to another, and we started letting international students in…. It was something we could and should do.”
Carrington, now a professor, didn’t come to Duke Law to internationalize it. As an outspoken member of the Association of American Law Schools, he wanted to reform legal education in universities across the country, minimizing time spent in the classroom and teaching with lawyers rather than academics—starting at Duke. But Carrington was only able to implement these philosophies here and there; instead, much of his time as dean was consumed by the arrival of the international students that began to trickle in. Chinese students, though generously represented on campus today, were absent due to political tensions until 1980, when Carrington received an unexpected hand-written letter from China. This correspondence would set in motion a series of events coinciding with the development of the Chinese legal system and the expansion of Duke Law’s presence there.
In 1980, Shi Ximin, who had been imprisoned by the Communist Party and flown military helicopters, wrote to Carrington, saying he wanted to study law at Duke. “It was like getting a letter from the moon,” Carrington said. “It was just amazing. I was flabbergasted—I don’t even know how it got to the post office. So I thought, what the heck? That ought to be fun to have him here.”
At the time, the Chinese legal system was only budding. Whatever legal structure the country had up to the mid-19th century was lost during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. There were only a few law schools, and instead of law firms, the government relied on groups of professors, economists and various Communist Party officials for counsel, Carrington said. But when Communist Party Leader Deng Xiaoping began moving China toward a more open economy, a comprehensive legal system quickly became necessary and the only place to go for quality training was the West. But the Chinese government didn’t want Shi to leave, so Carrington called on an influential Law School alum for assistance.
Former President Richard Nixon, Law ’37, wrote a letter to the Chinese government urging them to let Shi go to Duke. Because of his groundbreaking presidential trip to China in 1972, Nixon was greatly respected throughout the People’s Republic, despite his tainted reputation at home. As a result, Shi, who could not be reached for comment (sources have not spoken to him in more than a year, though he is believed to be living in China), arrived in Durham in 1982. This opened the door for his friend Gao to come the next year and approximately 25 more Chinese students to attend Duke Law during the next decade. And Nixon’s letter and a meager scholarship donation made in his name—$25,000, which Carrington called “just peanuts”—earned this program the unofficial name, the Richard M. Nixon Scholarship.
When Gao, Shi and the other Nixon scholars came to Duke, China was still relatively shrouded from the outside world. Many of the scholars knew very little about the West and nothing about Duke. “The West for me was about Richard Nixon,” said Yan Xuan, Law ’87. “And the fact that he was a graduate of Duke Law School—it was a ‘wow’ moment…. Of course [I knew] very little about how he was forced out of office, and the scandals and Watergate.”
In the 1980s, there were very few Chinese students studying law in the United States at all. Some were at Columbia University, University of Michigan or New York University, but the majority of them were at Duke, Carrington said. At the other universities, many of the Chinese students only attended one-year programs, whereas those at Duke studied for three years for a Juris Doctor degree. Carrington partnered with law firms around the country to sponsor these students, providing them with full scholarships and summer work. Several of them, including Gao and Shi, lived in a house off East Campus owned by Carrington’s son, Clark, Pharmacology ’84.
When China began to open itself to the international market in the years following Chairman Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, several American entities sued the country over business disputes. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. didn’t know any lawyers—particularly ones with a background in both Chinese and American law—and the Chinese students studying American law in one-year, post-graduate programs were underexperienced, Carrington said. The embassy called on the best resource it could find—two Chinese J.D. candidates, one a first-year and the other a second-year, studying in Durham. Throughout their time at Duke, Gao and Shi worked on several cases concerning both Chinese and American economic law. “We were not obligated to do this,” Gao said. “But the embassy had very little legal knowledge, so either I or the two of us would drive to D.C. and go there and give them lectures.”
The Chinese Embassy soon realized that if the country was to be successful in the global market then China would need lawyers skilled in both Eastern and Western law, Carrington said. So they encouraged Duke to continue inviting Chinese students to study at the Law School—with the caveat that they return to China afterward. “We were trying to help the Chinese develop a legal system,” he added.
Carrington traveled several times to China to hand-pick the Chinese scholars who came to Duke Law, sometimes interviewing them on a boat on the Yangtze River. He emphasized that they should take their skills back to China if they accept the scholarship. Most held up their end of the bargain, but some—particularly the women—stubbornly stayed in the United States, accepting the scholarship only to get away from China and its gender issues at the time. One woman, Ping Yuan, Law ’87, left behind a husband and children to come to Duke, and she never went back to China. But many did return and have been wildly successful in the rapidly growing Chinese legal market.
Gao always knew he wanted to return to China, but immediately after he graduated, he spent two years practicing in New York at Nixon’s former law firm, Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon. Gao was hesistant to commit to the firm for more than one year, because he feared that China might not take him back if he stayed away any longer. Once again, Gao benefitted from his Nixon connection. The former president sent another letter to the Chinese government, convincing them that Gao would come back to China as a better, more effective lawyer after two years of practice.
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Two years after graduating, Gao was welcomed back to China where he taught law classes at night. During the day, he co-founded the Stock Exchange Executive Council and contributed to the development of the Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges, a crucial step in building China’s capital market. Now, he manages around $400 billion worth of Yuan under the CIC .He explained, “In the U.S., the legal system has had such a long tradition, you no longer need that much creativity. But in China you do.” Chinese education, he said, focuses on memorization and test taking. Gao’s Duke education provided him with the critical thinking skills necessary for developing a brand-new, international economic system and legal framework.
Many other Nixon scholars have also achieved prominent, multinational positions in the Chinese legal system. Li Xiaoming, Law ‘90, who heads the China office of leading global law firm White and Chase, said a far from comprehensive list includes Gao and Yan, now the president of Nielson Company’s Greater China division, who has also held executive positions at Microsoft and AT&T. Still more graduates can be found in powerful law firms or counseling the China offices of Dow Chemicals, Marriott International, Pepsi Co., Shell Co. and others.
“Together, we have made a contribution to the practice of [Chinese] law,” Li said. “And we indirectly have an impact on how law is made through more contributions to the practice of law and the training of the next generation of Chinese lawyers. People learn from [alums], they learn from Duke.”
The Nixon scholars and others have made significant contributions to the Chinese legal system, but the legal culture is not progressing at the same speed. Today, corporate lawyers or business leaders with a background in law are highly respected in China, though this was not always the case. Li remembers his Chinese peers sneered at his decision to come to Duke to study law instead of a hard science because law was not a lucrative field at the time. But because of the rapidly growing need for skilled international business lawyers, this perception has changed. And this small cohort of Chinese lawyers from the 1980s—with Duke prominently represented—spearheaded this transformation.
Chinese legal education is also growing and changing. Today, Li estimates there are about 2,000 law schools in China, and some of them are interested in applying the Socratic method to their teaching. The best students still vie to study or practice in the United States, even if for just one or two years. International legal training is increasingly necessary as China furthers its standing in the global market, but to Chinese individuals, understanding and appreciating the law—as opposed to simply memorizing it—still doesn’t matter as much as it does to Americans, Li added.
“We need a whole army of lawyers to function,” Gao said. “The system becomes more important than a person itself. If you allow the system to evolve by itself—that would take a few hundred years.”
To slake the demand for a more developed legal culture, American law schools are increasing their presence in China and recruiting heavily in the country. Even though the Nixon scholarship faded away in the 1990s, last year 17 out of 640 Duke Law students were Chinese, and the school received 191 applications from China. Duke Law has a summer institute in Hong Kong, an exchange program in Beijing and it often participates in scholastic projects with universities throughout China. And this year, Duke Law will be seeking its first Global Leader Scholar—a single outstanding Law School applicant from China who will receive full tuition. Gao, Li and Yan sit on the scholarship’s selection committee.
With almost every law school—in and outside of China—responding to this demand, it is becoming less of a novelty for Chinese lawyers to have a background in Western-style legal education, said Paul Haagen, who oversees Duke Law’s Chinese programs. Students looking to distinguish themselves are no longer traveling to the United States to study at just any law school as they might have 20 years ago. It’s only worth the money and effort if they can attend one of the best, so Duke Law and its peers are now competing to attract the best Chinese students. This is the goal of programs like the Global Leader Scholarship, said Haagen, senior associate dean for academic affairs.
“Carrington’s model is not going to work now because [Chinese students] were an incredibly rare commodity in the 1980s,” Haagen said. “Now it’s a different kind of challenge…. Getting Chinese to come to the U.S. is not hard. Figuring out who really adds value to your community—that’s very hard.”
Duke Law’s reputation in China is expressed through relationships. Alice Feng, a current master’s of laws candidate, said she, like many of her peers, chose to attend Duke because her boss at a law firm in China is an alum. Although some might choose Columbia, Harvard, the University of Chicago or New York University because they are known as big-name, highly-ranked law schools in China, many choose places like Duke because they have a connection to someone who went there. Duke’s ties run deep in the current Chinese legal system, so these relationships can be found throughout the entire country. Instead of its 2011 U.S. News & World Report ranking as the 11th-best law school, Duke is known for its tight-knit community and far-reaching influence.
“Duke is low key in China,” Feng said. “It’s low key, but respected.”