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The World Is Opening Shop in China: Legal Publishers Activities – Can We Learn What They’re Up to ?

China China China. 

It’s the mantra of global business & finance and following their lead comes the legal industry.

The flood of international law firms into the Asian region to service the new opportunities in an ever expanding legal market over the last decade has been phenomenal and in 2010 there’s a new gold rush for law firms with china connections for this year’s huge IPO boom

Where the law firms go, so go the feeders, all of them desperately hoping for a piece of the pie.

The region’s two leading locations with a rule of law based on the British common law system, Hong Kong and Singapore have for years benefited from wave after wave of Asia development because of and due to this colonial legacy.

Now though; like the firms, legal publishers of all stripes perceive China as a revenue generator that can longer be ignored. 

And in order to grab their slice, the publishers have seen over the past five years that they too have to work on the mainland in order to have any chance of making the right political and business connections that are essential to being a successful operation in China.

But what are they doing? Who are they publishing for and how are they working with the Chinese authorities to bring sophisticated legal information exchange and process to this rapidly expanding market that harbours many risks and pitfalls due to the nature of the Chinese state apparatus and physical enormity that is China itself

Last year NYU legal professor Jerome Chen wrote on the East Asia Forum blog an article entitled The PRC Legal System At Sixtywhere he makes no bones about the role of the Communist Party’s desire to control the country’s legal system, processes and decisions:

Despite the importation of Western norms and forms, including constitutional endorsement of the rule of law, human rights and property rights, the Party makes no bones about its airtight control of the judiciary and the legal system generally. Its central political-legal committee and local Party counterparts ‘coordinate’ the work of the courts, the procuracy, the Ministry of Justice, the legal profession, and the regular and secret police.

So at House of Butter we ask ourselves: How do western legal publishing companies work with these strictures to produce information that both satisfies the needs of their client base and the control mechanisms of the Chinese state on a national state and local level?

Cohen concludes his piece by writing

Unfortunately, prospects for immediate significant reforms are dim. Since the 17th Party Congress two years ago, the Party line on law has discouraged most professional progress and called for renewal of the simple ‘mass line’ for judicial affairs that first prevailed in the rugged, rural conditions of the pre-1949 ‘liberated areas’ governed by the Party. Courts are instructed to reemphasize informal mediation of disputes instead of adjudication and, when making decisions, to rely on Party leadership, with secondary consideration also to be given to socio-economic conditions and law.

So what role do or should we say can the publishers play if the power of the written word which as Professor Cohen illustrates plays a secondary role to concepts such as “informal mediation” and “party leadership”?

As good a place to start as any are the company statements on the Lexis and Westlaw websites to see if we can get any hint of how they see themselves in the Chinese legal market

Lexis write on their China home page (please excuse our use of the Google translation tool):

LexisNexis (LexisNexis) entered Hong Kong in 1994, currently in China with Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou offices and employs nearly 100 people. LexisNexis adhering to its usual style, in law and business fields is dedicated to providing our customers the best products and services, and to strive for China to contribute to the development of the law. 

So far, we have the product introduction and innovation, products and related services to achieve a number of landing the Chinese market, customers in major industries, including government, Chinese and foreign enterprises, domestic and international legal clinics in major universities in China. 

After much trawling we found a copy of the original press release sent out by Lexis when they launched in China back in January 2005 where they announce who they were working with to publish Chinese legal materials:

LexisNexis has also announced that it recently entered into exclusive licensing arrangements with the State Information Center (SIC), through its subsidiary Beijing Guoxin Xunjie Information Resources & Develop Technology Co., Ltd>., for content provided under its Chinese legal, tax and regulatory product “chinalaw.net” and Chinalawinfo, for its “lawinfochina” English language content.

Search as we might we can find no online reference to the above organization after the 2005 date.

So it seems from what we can glean: Lexis desires to help China “Strive” to develop law in the country working with the authorities corporations and law firms in order to do so. 

Westlaw are even leaner with their desire to share information and stick to describing the process only. There’s no mention whatsoever of what they hope to achieve in the market on their .cn page.

This is all they have to say:

Westlaw China online legal database is a powerful legal research tool customized for legal professionals. It is provided by Thomson Reuters Legal basing on Westlaw online legal database. 

Our editorial team comprises lawyers and experts with years of experience in legal work. The team has been carefully reviewing and organizing laws and regulations as well as court cases of mainland China in order to provide users with well-processed legal information and value-added data services. 

Containing both a Chinese database and an English database, Westlaw China is designed not only to provide users with accurate and bilingual legal information but also to satisfy customized needs of both Chinese-speaking and English-speaking users. 

Westlaw China’s content is updated on daily basis so as to ensure the currency and accuracy of the information we provide to our customers.

[For further “detail” go to http://www.thomsonreuterslegal.com.cn/about_westlaw_china.php]

We’ve also asked around and emailed both organizations to see whether they’d be happy to talk about who, what, where and how in China. As always with our enquiries we’ve been met with deafening silence.

It’s no surprise to us that both these organizations, which in our opinion dislike transparency at the best of times, are not going to share any thought about China’s legal system and how they hope to grow their businesses in partnership with the desires of the Chinese Communist party.

So what about the other English language publishers of legal information operating in the market. Will their online presence give us any indication of how they think?

We’ll start with Kluwer who made a big splash back in August with this announcement:

Wolters Kluwer China and Commercial Press Collaborate to Serve Legal Community in China and Globally

BEIJING–(Marketwire – August 30, 2010) – Wolters Kluwer China yesterday announced the strategic partnership agreement with Commercial Press to be able to better serve its legal customers in China as well as across the globe. The collaboration will bring the quality of legal and regulatory content to a greater height by pushing Chinese content outward and pulling global content into China.

Wolters Kluwer China is a part of Wolters Kluwer, a market-leading global information services company focused on professionals. Commercial Press is China’s first print publisher dedicated to the translation and introduction of foreign laws and regulations since the commercialization of the publishing industry.

The agreement was signed today at the 2010 Beijing International Book Fair by Ms. Nancy McKinstry, CEO and Chairman of the Executive Board of Wolters Kluwer, and Ms. Shasha Chang, CEO of Wolters Kluwer China, and Mr. Yu Dianli, President of Commercial Press.

“Wolters Kluwer and Commercial Press each have accumulated a wealth of editorial experience and knowledge, both internationally and locally. Wolters Kluwer’s flagship brands in the legal and regulatory markets, such as Aspen Publishers, Kluwer Law International and CCH, are recognized and used by legal professionals globally. Through this partnership, a continuous translation and co- publishing of leading international legal content will take place on an ongoing basis and be delivered in a format that meets our customers’ needs best,” said Nancy McKinstry.

Through the collaboration, Wolters Kluwer will draw a wealth of global legal and regulatory content into China, translated into Chinese with the help of Commercial Press. This will provide the Chinese professional community with world-class expert information and web-enabled solutions. At the same time, Commercial Press is able to publish Chinese legal and regulatory content in a timely manner through Wolters Kluwer’s established global information resource network that is available in both Chinese and English.

“We are very proud to partner with Commercial Press. Their history of over 100 years has made Commercial Press a long-standing, renowned print publisher and a highly recognized institution among legal academia and professionals”, said Shasha Chang, CEO of Wolters Kluwer China.

[Full press release at http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/Wolters-Kluwer-China-Commercial-Press-Collaborate-Serve-Legal-Community-China-Globally-1310967.htm]

Their press release also goes on to say: 

Wolters Kluwer China recognizes the importance of providing its Chinese professional community with highly relevant, expert information and web-enabled solutions. “The partnership acts as the window for Chinese professionals to connect with our intelligent solutions locally and globally. For tax, accounting and legal, our leading positions in these markets in various regions combined with more meaningful engagement with the community here will further strengthen our commitment to Chinese professionals to drive results and efficiencies for them.

Again no mention of indigenous law instead its all about “results & efficiencies”.

At least Kluwer’s partner, Commercial Press, state in their About Us section:

Today, The Commercial Press thrives as three independent companies located in Hong Kong, Beijing and Taiwan. Because of their common origin and history, these companies frequently work together in long-term, close cooperation. In 1993, in order to better facilitate working hand in hand for the advancement of education and enlightenment and the promotion of Chinese culture.

It’s not much of a statement but it’s a lot more than we’ve heard from anybody else

There’s also the Euromoney Group, one of the oldest players in the business, publishing related legal information about the China market via publications such as Asia Law & China Law & Practice.

Their “About Us” section happily informs the reader that the publication has over 22 years’ experience in:

collating, translating and commenting on the law in China, China Law & Practice is the leading legal and risk management resource designed to help you interpret changes on the ground in China. Since launch in 1987, China Law & Practice (CLP) is an indispensable partner for senior executives and in-house legal counsel of many of the largest foreign invested companies, joint ventures and domestic Chinese companies, government organisations and leading law firms to keep abreast of the legal developments in China and their impact to the ways companies do business in China.

Yet again no mention of who the company needs to work with or around in order to garner PRC information, but it is worth pointing out that the oldest player in the legal information market in China decides after almost a quarter of a century only to run freelancers on the mainland and keep their official office in Hong Kong.

Our next stop is Informa Law. After half a dozen fairly infuriating phone calls to various Informa departments in the region we’ve learnt that the company now only operates a sales office out of Singapore these days in order to sell European & US legal information in the region.

A relatively new player, Vantage Asia Publishing Limited, based in Hong Kong, publishes the China Business Law Journal ten times a year; and publisher Kelley Fong is only too happy to state that the reason their head office is based in Hong Kong with a network of freelancers and contributors on the mainland is simply because this means less interference by other parties in the information they choose to publish. A refreshing stance indeed.

It’s also interesting to see the network of individuals that they say they have collected as their editorial board in order to discuss business and commercial law issues in China:

Additional guidance and vision is provided by China Business Law Journal’s editorial board. Members include prominent business leaders, lawyers and academics from a diverse range of China-based and international organizations including the Bank of China, AT&T, Google, TCL, Danone, China Life Insurance, Motorola, Citibank, Jones Lang LaSalle, Standard Chartered, Sony Ericsson and Marriot.

Let’s hope that their editorial board does feel free to express opinions that might not be too popular at all times on the mainland. And it looks as though editor in chief at Vantage Asia, Jerome Cohen, is leading by example. He tells us via email tells us that his:

human rights and jurisprudential advocacy and activism are born out of several decides’ experience at the forefront of commercial law in the PRC across all business sectors, from dispute resolution, contentious and non-contentious transactions to capital flows both in-bound and out, IP protection and M&A. It is in this area of law that China and the outside world have interacted ever more intensely these past 30 years.

Cohen adds that interaction between parties has over time built “familiarity and trust on both sides, and greater understanding and appreciation among Chinese legal circles of the benefits society can enjoy as awareness of property and other rights grows.” 

Cohen also adds that he’s been taking advantage of the “unique and well-earned position of trust” he enjoys in China “to air fresh legal alternatives on the use of the death penalty” and much more. Importantly, he believes that he is being listened to. 

Last but not least we come to Legal Studio, who have been operating in China for nigh on 15 years and have offices in Hong Kong, Beijing & Shanghai. They say about themselves on their website:

LegalStudio’s leading China legal know-how services uniquely combine a comprehensive China law and case database with extensive bilingual know-how resources. LegalStudio is the only China legal publisher with a focus on know-how: the provision of practical resources (articles, model contracts, drafting notes) for lawyers.

We spoke with Craig Calkins the company’s founder and CEO, who said: 

I think that an article on them [Lexis/West], even if not positive, just gives their China businesses some much needed publicity and is thus not good for us independent publishers. It makes them look pioneering and gutsy to the readers in the West, whereas in reality they were the last two publishers to set up. CCH was the real trailblazer in the 1990′s, followed by us.

We also asked Craig to give us an idea what conditions legal publishers have to operate under in the PR. These comments may prove useful to those readers needing to understand how these publishing companies operate in China: “China does seem to draw a distinction between an online database and a printed book. You need to publish in paper copy with a PRC publishing house, those are PRC rules.”

We imagine any legal publisher reading this piece will ask why we are singling them out as these topics are applicable to all international companies working in the PRC.

This is true to an extent, but there are a number of issues concerning this industry in particular that we suggest make these questions ever more relevant.

One is the repeated denial of basic human rights to selected individuals and communities, and especially rights based lawyers in 2010, culminating in this months’ decision by the PRC authorities to ensure that Liu Xiaobo is kept under wraps after the announcement of his winning the Nobel prize. 

But there is also the fact that the Chinese authorities felt that they could both officially complain to other governments about the awarding of the prize and the subsequent restrictions on other lawyers in China some of whom have been put under house arrest or have not been allowed to travel either internally or out of the country.

Secondly those publishers who have chosen to work with the government in China do so only in non “political” subjects such as IP, Business, Commercial and Financial. If the PRC government deems an area of law political it appears that some publishers are only to happy to not to have a particular China publishing programme that might affect current or future business activities in the country.

If only we’d seen one press release this year or last from any of the major publishers even vaguely alluding to the fact that they have to work within various strictures and that there is a desire, however minimal, over time to develop a dialogue with China’s authorities to talk about legal issues such as human rights environmental rights issues and a myriad of other social rights concerns, as well as other issues in the PRC, from housing law to dealing with the fallout of local government mismanagement after disasters such as the earthquake in Sichuan.

But no, not a whisper. Maybe it’s time for their worldwide client base to demand just a little more from these publishers so that those law firms operating in China, especially domestic ones, can feel that there is a modicum of support from these publishing companies who say they are helping bring the Rule of Law to a new globalised China through their commercial activities.

We’ll finish up by saying congratulations to Vantage Asia who are at least attempting to create dialogue about rights based law in China as a part of their daily business activities — and to the other independents for working on the ground with freelancers and local firms to create alternative channels of communication that we hope in the future will bring rule of law by stealth. Maybe there are a couple of other publishers out there who might want to step up to the plate as well?

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