American scholars and policy makers concerned with legal development in the People's Republic of China share a deep faith in the value of China developing a legal profession that operates as we would like to think our own does. Indeed, this idea is so deeply ingrained that it is rarely broken out for critical examination, but instead is treated as an obvious good, the attainment of which is essentially a matter of time. Virtually all such observers seem to assume that lawyers, whether out of idealism or self–interest or some blend thereof, will prove to be a principal force leading the PRC toward the rule of law and a market economy, while some go so far as to treat the development of an indigenous legal profession as crucial to the promotion in China of a more liberal polity.
The hidden assumptions regarding the Chinese legal profession found in both US academic writing and policy papers warrant a scrutiny they have yet to receive here or abroad. Lurking not too far underneath the surface of such portrayals are further assumptions about the inexorability of convergence along a common path, remarkably (surprise) similar to our own. Unexamined, such assumptions run the risk of leaving us with an impoverished understanding not only of the role that the emerging legal profession is playing in China, but also of both the complexity of legal development there more broadly and the limits of the ideology of professionalism in law. This, in turn, may generate unwarranted expectations on our part as to the manner in which change may come in China while reinforcing the inflated sense that far too many of us in the American legal world have of our own profession's historic importance.
This essay consists of three parts. After a brief discussion of the manner in which the PRC?s legal profession has been portrayed, Part One endeavors to depict, in more balanced terms, its growth over the past twenty years and its current situation, drawing in part on a series of interviews I conducted among Chinese practitioners between 1993 and 2000, as well as more conventional research sources. Part Two then seeks to explain why scholars and policy makers, particularly in the United States, have so misunderstood the development of the Chinese legal profession, suggesting that the problem may have as much to do with their appreciation of their own legal profession as with the difficulties of comprehending China's. The final part of the paper offers further thoughts regarding the challenges that we need to confront in thinking about the place of lawyers and legal development in the PRC.