Back to School: Inside a Chinese Law School Negotiation Class

 I felt right at home in Peking University’s School of Law. Perhaps this is because so much of my own law school experience seemed to me to be going on, at times, in Chinese. Alternatively this may be due to Andrew and Vivian’s skillful and gracious integration of a group of professors from abroad into their law school negotiation class.

The first activity of the day was to observe the Chinese students conduct a role-play, and to assist them with coaching and/or debrief. The case was a familiar North American case, somewhat adapted to use in China, involving ethical questions regarding withholding crucial information. The best way to summarize the students’ performance is to say that they played the case out exactly as I would have expected to see it played out by students of mine in the US or in Israel – providing food for thought on multiple levels, regarding cultural tendencies, negotiation pedagogy and ‘globalized’ negotiation practice/training.

After the small-group debrief, a full-group debrief focused on the ethical issues embedded in the case. As often happens in such cases (in the US or, apparently, in China), none of the students shared the information with their counterparts. This did not inhibit parties reaching interest-based solutions; it just meant that these solutions were based, to some extent, on a foundation of half-truths or omissions. The discussion expanded from the implications of this for negotiation to the implications of ethical conduct for legal practice in general. As Andrew and Vivian challenged their students with ‘What would you do if…’ questions, students’ worldviews about their role as lawyers was revealed, with a very familiar spectrum thoroughly represented, from the justice-pursuers to the sharks. It was heartening to see that, based on many students’ answers, lawyers in China spend most of their day (as do many of their counterparts in other parts of the world, based on discussions with students in Israel and the US), turning away clients due to ethical reasons.

After the negotiation simulation, we heard presentations from three groups of Chinese students. These students had taken the negotiation course at Peking U. last year, and were continuing to pursue their interest in the topic, mainly on their own. Each group volunteered to present a current dispute or negotiation going on in China (or in which China is involved), and to conduct a negotiation analysis of the case. All the cases had to do with a theme of energy and public policy.

The presentations were, in addition to being interesting in terms of content matter and the Chinese perspective through which they were presented, both creative and entertaining.

One, regarding the dispute of China’s management of Rare Earths Metal, was presented as a TV talk show, with the interviewer inviting in other students playing experts and representatives of the parties to present the basic facts as well as a breakdown into the situation into discrete elements roughly paralleling the Harvard seven element model, but without utilizing this terminology explicitly.

The second presentation revolved around a long-standing dispute between the coal industry and electricity companies. The conflict has its origins in China’s transition from a centralized, government-controlled market, to a free market driven by supply and demand beginning in the late 1970’s. Some industrial relationships, such as the one under discussion, were left off-balance by this transition. The coal market became a free-market industry, with the price rising and falling in response to local and international supply and demand. The electricity providers, however, remained constrained by government regulation of the price they could charge for electricity. Dependant on the fluctuating market price of coal, they could not adjust their own pricing accordingly. This led to a government mandated annual negotiation between representatives of these two sectors in order to reach agreements on pricing and contingencies. This presentation was a textbook breakdown according to an adaption of the seven element model, one slide per element, in a style very familiar (note the understatement) to the audience.

The third presentation focused on a dispute between China and Japan over the rights to a large offshore gas and oil field discovered in the East China Sea. This field was discovered in the 1960’s but due to both parties recognition of the need to build positive diplomatic relations at the time, they shelved the dispute for about 30 years (“the Honeymoon Period”) and neither country attempted to develop the field. The problems legal source is in the difficulty in establishing each country’s Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) – the right to exploit or benefit from natural resources located 200 miles off a country’s shore – given that at its widest point, the width of the  waters involved are less than 400 miles. In addition, each country employs a different means of measuring and delineating its EEX – with much of the oil field located in the disputed zone. In addition, the nature of oil and gas extraction results in a well drilled in one point draining oil from a large surrounding area; even wells located in undisputed territory could have a ‘sucking effect’, draining oil in the other country’s territory.

This presentation began with a wonderfully clear introduction to this dispute, including the complex issues of oil drilling and EEZ delineation. It continued with students play-acting a round of negotiation (0-impasee in 30 seconds), followed by a breakdown of the dispute as it stands at this moment, focusing on interests and alternatives. The standard mapping out of the seven elements was then paused for an important and interesting analysis of the prospects for the resuming of negotiations, after which it continued with an exploration of options that might be explored should this occur.

After some reflections by our groups on what we had seen, we proceeded to the second half of our day – adventure learning activities on the campus of Peking University. University campuses are a very good venue for adventure learning (see why here), and Peking’s campus has the advantage of being a very beautiful place to spend the day walking about, with wide lawns and a large lake right in the middle of the campus. Each group comprised 2-3 visiting professors and 2-3 Chinese, so this was not only a good opportunity to complete learning assignments, it was also an opportunity to spend a few hours time with these extremely bright and talented students and to be able to see their world and our own through their eyes.

My own group’s activity ended a bit early, as one of the professors seems unable to overcome my his jetlag. Yawn.

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