I had a very interesting Monday morning earlier this week, which happened to be in a law firm conference room in Palo Alto. I gave a presentation introducing the basics of American administrative law to a delegation of senior officials of the Legislative Affairs Office (LAO) of China’s State Council (as well as some officials from provincial legislative affairs offices). The group of 14 officials are in the US on a study tour, spending this week in the SF Bay area and next week in Washington DC. In DC, they’ll visit the US Department of Justice and the Interior Department.
When my research assistant Shuyang had researched ongoing activities of the LAO, he came across an interesting administrative reform pilot project, loosely translated as the 3 systems (pillars?) of administrative law enforcement. These pilot projects, supervised by the LAO, are being implemented in many places in China and are designed to enhance government transparency and to ensure that enforcement occurs consistent with the law. A February 10, 2017 English language press release of the State Council describes the purpose of this pilot project as focused on “information disclosure, full-process recording, and legal review of major law enforcement decisions.” That appears to mean sharing more information about administrative enforcement processes with the public, better documentation of the enforcement proceedings themselves as well as evidence collection, and ensuring through LAO audits that enforcement processes comport with applicable law.
That is an interesting development, based on what I have seen in my previous lives as head of the US-China Partnership on Environmental Law at Vermont Law School and as EPA Deputy General Counsel. In many respect, any reform effort that increases transparency of government decision-making, especially administrative enforcement processes, and ensures that enforcement proceedings comport better with the law will be really valuable in moving China closer to the rule of law.
However, I have to confess that none of that came up in my discussions with the delegation. What did come up was a government proposal to add lawyers to each ministry/agency in China. The parallel that some of the officials seemed to draw to the US are agency general counsels. (It was only when they mentioned this that I understood the context of their numerous questions about my former role as EPA Deputy General Counsel.) I have no idea how definitive this proposal is, but it seemed intriguing. Compared to the US government, the role of lawyers is rather limited in China’s government bureaucracy. Formally introducing “general counsel” officers into China’s government ministries would certainly focus government decision-maker more explicitly on the legality of their actions and the rule of law. At the same time though, it was not clear to me how such new legal officers would interact with existing entities in the bureaucracy that already house lawyers, such as the Law and Policy Department within the Ministry of Environmental Protection. That Department has always had great lawyers. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned to future developments.
Here’s a picture of me with the head of the delegation, Director General Li Mingzheng of the Government Legal Affairs Research Center in the LAO. The gift in the picture is a stylish silk neck tie. Undoubtedly, it will seriously enhance my wardrobe. But even with out that gracious gift, the discussion with the delegation members itself was well worth my time that morning.