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US legal expert experienced China's opening-up

By ZHANG ZHIHAO | China Daily | Updated: 2017-10-22 07:23

Editor's Note: The Communist Party of China is holding its 19th National Congress in Beijing. China Daily asked two prominent experts for their views on developments in China and the country's global leadership.

US legal expert experienced China's opening-up

Laurance Brahm advises locals on clinic management at rural Choezen Ling Monastery in Qinghai province in this summer.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Author says culture offers window into nation's behavioral patterns and psyche

Silver-haired Laurence Brahm is arguably more Chinese than American.

The 56-year-old legal expert and social activist speaks fluent Mandarin, loves Chinese pancakes, and practices martial arts daily. Even his Mandarin name, Long Anzhi, has a nuanced Chinese vibe, meaning a dragon with serenity and aspiration.

Brahm lives in a traditional Beijing courtyard home that he helped restore. It is packed with books, Chinese woodcraft and sculptures, and mementos from his 26 years of traveling throughout China, from Hong Kong to Lhasa.

"I feel such a deep connection with Chinese culture that my previous life was probably Chinese, and I am coming back to get my stuff," he said.

Apart from being a cultural enthusiast, Brahm was also one of the few foreign experts who witnessed China's opening-up from the start.

Over the past two decades, he has written more than 20 books on China, ranging from its socioeconomic development to a biography of former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji.

Brahm was one of Zhu's economic advisers and helped pave the way for China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. He also served as economic adviser to the State Council Office on Reforms of Economic Systems on State-owned Enterprise.

"In the 1980s, China had a huge dilemma in terms of what direction it would take," he said. "China had no market economy then, and the idea of building one and transforming the entire country was an ambitious experiment that really interested me as a lawyer."

During the 1990s, he was the go-to legal consultant for some of the world's largest companies when they needed help entering the Chinese market.

In June 1981, Brahm was studying at Nankai University in Tianjin where he saw China's earliest private market-a handful of street vendors selling cabbages and peanuts.

After six months, he went to Hong Kong to continue studying law and Chinese. "I remember seeing Shenzhen for the first time, it was just a fishing town, and the modern Shenzhen was just an idea."

Outward thinking

Brahm began working for a US law firm in Beijing in 1983. "At that time, most of the law offices in China were only representative offices where legal workers would camp out and meet government officials, but all the actual deals had to be done in Hong Kong," he said.

But this inconvenience fueled Chinese officials' constant curiosity and pioneering spirit, he said. "They were very curious to learn what other countries were doing to solve their problems from a legal perspective, and they would compare and test their policies to find the best solution for China.

"They were also extraordinary outward thinkers. China's reform in the past 30 years could not have happened at the speed it did without it being so outward thinking, and I am very proud to be part of the process."

Part of the excitement for Brahm was seeing China "not following the Western models and shock therapy, where they demand an immediate free market, free currency exchange, free stock market and other unbearable conditions".

Instead, China's success was a result of sequencing, "doing things in its own way, at its own pace, based on its own capacity", he added.

But building a healthy economy required a solid legal foundation, which the country lacked in the 1980s. "Back then, every time we wrote a contract, we were essentially writing new law, because everything was blank."

The legal framework for investment, holding companies and the settlement of disputes were all new concepts for Chinese businesses and lawmakers, "and laws and regulations had to revolve around business deals".

In 1992, when China began seeing a huge influx of foreign investment, the legal framework became more important than ever. A year later, Brahm founded Naga Group, a legal consultancy that took his career bridging Chinese and foreign companies to new heights.

"When we brought in foreign investors and technology to help China's huge State-owned enterprises, we had to make new laws about restructuring, debts, employment, joint ventures and many other factors," he said. "We were transforming those massive enterprises into globally competitive corporations."

Inside look

At the turn of the century, China went from a country with "absolute commodity scarcity" to the sixth-largest economy in the world, but doubts and rhetoric about China's economy collapsing began surfacing in the West, he said.

In response, Brahm published a book called China's Century in 2001 using detailed analysis and examples from Chinese and foreign experts to explain "why the 21st century will belong to China".

US President Bill Clinton echoed Brahm's prophecy about a rising China during his meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1997 and in his speech on China's Trade Bill in 2000.

However, Brahm said his book received a lot of scrutiny from Western scholars.

"One problem with Western analysis is that scholars often look at China through their prism," he said. "Everything has to fit in their models, or something is wrong. They are not trying to look from the inside and understand why that is."

To understand China, one must start by respecting and understanding its culture, he said. For example, in martial arts, the three key principles are "place a solid foundation with footwork, be ready to react to change, and hold the position to gather your pose".

"These are the three principles that can help you understand China's behavior, from economic growth to international relations to its anti-corruption campaign," he said. "It helps you get the rhyme and sequencing of China's behavioral patterns and psyche."

For example, in diplomacy, the border standoff between India and China in Donglang de-escalated because leaders from both sides paused amid growing nationalistic sentiment and realized there is actually so much to gain through trade, Brahm said.

In the end, cooler heads prevailed, and the "moment of pause for clarity, which is the same as holding your position in martial arts, was the key", he explained. "I wish all the think tanks in Washington could take time to learn calligraphy or tai chi, so they will have a better grasp of why China does things the way it does."

To promote cultural understanding and sustainable economics, Brahm left his lofty legal job in 2003 and became a full-time cultural and ecological activist.

He began traveling to western China and produced a documentary series called Searching for Shangri-La to teach people the beauty of China's diverse ethnic cultures and their spiritual wisdom.

He also set up NGOs such as the Himalayan Consensus, which is working with the United Nations Development Programme to protect ethnic diversity and the environment, and "find sustainable business solutions to social issues".

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