We are not the only ones spending significant resources to promote our position in the global legal world. At the same time as we are launching our post-Brexit campaign, the Chinese government and the All China Lawyers Association are trying their hardest to promote their new Belt and Road association for lawyers.
‘Belt and Road’ is the name for the new Chinese silk route. It is officially called the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, also known as ‘One Belt, One Road’. It is a development strategy proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, focusing on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries, also aiming to bridge the infrastructure gap in some Asian countries. It is not narrowly conceived: the plan is to integrate the wide region into a cohesive economic area through building infrastructure, increasing cultural exchanges, and broadening trade.
Vast billions will be poured into Belt and Road by the Chinese government, and many people hope to profit from it. The UK government joined its main investment vehicle, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite protests from the US government at the time - this was in the pre-Brexit age when Barrack Obama was president.
Lawyers are clamouring to take part, including our Law Society. The previous president of the Law Society spoke at the end of last year in China about the role of English law to support the Belt and Road project. He said that solicitors ‘stand ready and able to support delivery of the project… We are a dynamic, inclusive and outward looking profession, with skills, experience and network required to make sense of the Belt and Road scheme’.
The Law Society was also present at the conference held by the Law Society of Hong Kong to promote Belt and Road, where a manifesto was signed by 38 legal organisations from 22 countries and regions along the route. Other legal representatives came from France, Germany, Luxembourg and Lithuania.
The manifesto contains some grand statements, like:
‘We, the representatives of associations of lawyers, believe that commitment to the core values of the legal profession of integrity and justice is what all lawyers share and treasure.
This manifesto endeavours to foster cooperation between lawyers’ associations and create a platform for exchange of information and knowledge in order to optimise the benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative.’
I pause here to comment that this is not only what all lawyers share and treasure. There are several internationally accepted core values of the profession, and one of them is independence. Lawyers in China are not independent of the government, and the Chinese government has a history of detaining local human rights lawyers – and worse. The rest of the manifesto encourages cooperation and interaction among the signatories, including regular meetings.
Earlier this year, it was reported that leading law firms in Belt and Road countries will work together to compile a practical guide to investment-related laws, to reduce risks when companies invest. The guide is funded by the Chinese Ministry of Justice to the tune of £125,000, and aims to enable Chinese officials, businessmen and experts to understand fully the legal systems and laws of the Belt and Road countries and provide legal support for Chinese companies expanding their businesses in those countries.
The All China Lawyers Association will establish representative offices in some Belt and Road countries, too, and has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a number of them to strengthen legal cooperation, including with Poland.
It looks like there is a new international legal player on the block, using Chinese government money to boost Chinese trade. There are already organisations like the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative, which uses US government money to open offices around the world. But the main thrust of its work is to promote the rule of law, with some additional side-benefit to US trade when solutions coherent with US law are proposed. The International Bar Association has regional offices, but once again the bulk of its work is in the area of rule of law, with some training of lawyers in business and law firm management issues added in.
On the other hand, this new player aims to help the Chinese government and its economic aims. We should all be aware of the difference.