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I didn’t know where to look. It was my first experience talking through an interpreter. And here, with an editor from a Chinese media company in our conference room, I was struggling with the most fundamental of actions. Whom do I address when speaking? Whose eyes do I meet? The editor’s name was Chang Shaoyang. He was visiting the offices of Legal Times earlier this month through a State Department exchange program. His newspaper, like ours, covers the legal industry. The interpreter spoke: “He wants you to know that just by looking at the name of your newspaper that he feels comfortable here.” “Why?” I asked. “One of our newspapers is also named Legal Times.” As icebreakers go, it wasn’t bad at all. We both relaxed and began to swap stories about running a legal newspaper. (Reporters: Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them — at least not in the United States.) It’s beyond a clich� to say that we found more similarities than differences, but the differences are significant. And they say much about where China stands today as it moves forward with an experiment that mixes market-based principles with a firm government hand. Chang was here in his capacity as a deputy chief editor for China’s Legal Daily. The newspaper was launched in 1980, in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s sweeping reforms. The paper was created by the ominous-sounding Legal Propaganda Department of the Ministry of Justice. (Paging Aldous Huxley.) But now, Chang says, “We are totally market-oriented. It is rare to find a government-funded newspaper in China these days.” Instead, its revenue comes primarily through subscriptions. Interestingly, as the Chinese economy has opened up, so has its legal market, and with it, the number of publications that cover it. Chang’s paper lost its monopoly and its circulation dropped accordingly — from 2 million to 400,000. (Like Texas, everything is on a larger scale in China; suffice it to say that here at LT, we would would gladly take 400,000 subscribers with no questions asked.) With Deng’s reform movement came the government’s first real attempt to establish a working legal system, a step toward it becoming a nation of laws rather than a society built around ideology or imperial rule. And Chang’s paper has been there every step of the way. (As he says, the government — and his newspaper — are giving the law back to the people.) The system is sprawling, with 200,000 judges working in 3,000 courts across the nation, according to testimony before Congress in 2005. There are now an estimated 120,000 practicing lawyers in the country. They were illegal before 1980. Legal Daily now primarily covers the National People’s Congress, which is continuously grappling with new reform legislation. “It’s a very exciting time in terms of legal reform,” Chang says. A recent highly controversial proposal: whether private property rights should be made equivalent to those long-held by the government. “The conservatives in China took exception to this idea,” Chang says. A dramatic illustration of this tension occurred earlier this year, when a husband and wife in Chongqing, a city 850 miles southwest of Beijing, refused to sell their building to developers who wanted it for a shopping center. They became the lone holdouts after 280 other buildings were destroyed, and the “nail house” story as it became known, garnered national and international attention. “It was a prominent image in Chinese newspapers,” Chang says. (They finally gave in, and any critic of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo surely mourned.) Information, however, is still not freely exchanged. Even though Chang says his newspaper isn’t financially backed by the government, it still has a say in content. He hedged a bit when asked about censorship. “I can only tell you that these kinds of situations exist,” he says. “But they are getting fewer and fewer.” Chang was surprised by the openness of American court systems that allow reporters — and citizens — to view documents in ongoing cases or to watch legal proceedings. Chang’s paper is only permitted to report on cases when a decision is released and cannot provide details of ongoing controversies. Beyond that, our missions sound pretty similar. The cases his paper covers, Chang says, involve “prominent people and large sums of money.” That’s a formula for legal journalism wherever it’s practiced — usually much to the chagrin of those prominent people. And if Chang can practice that brand of journalism without reprisal, then his country really is making progress toward freedom.
James Oliphant is editor in chief of Legal Times . His column appears occasionally. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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