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Among all the biggest, fastest, tallest, gee-whiz facts about China, one number stands out: $18 billion. That’s roughly the size of the U.S. trade deficit with China. Not the annual trade deficit, but the monthly trade deficit, as of July. It also happens to be the approximate purchase price of Unocal Corp. That little big number helps explain a lot of things, among them the gold rush mentality of Western law firms now hurrying to stake their claims on the mainland. The American Lawyer examines the advent of those firms and the legal business that is now swirling through the China market. That gargantuan trade imbalance explains how China could afford to pump nearly $100 billion into its banking system since 1998. This cash infusion has made China’s banks, despite a history of corruption and indiscipline, attractive to both capital markets investors and Western banks seeking entree to the world’s largest potential market. It also explains how the state-controlled CNOOC Limited could afford to bid for Unocal, and why, despite CNOOC’s rebuff, Chinese companies will keep returning to launch overseas mergers. China’s burst of public offerings and mergers, both inbound and outbound, has fired the dreams of U.S. law firm leaders. The economic boom has also created a clutch of domestic firms that boast first-world legal training and third-world cost structures. And it has even given a few lawyers the audacity to become clients and build entertainment empires in their own quirky images. Handel Lee encapsulates all of these trends. After mastering the art of the Chinese deal at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Lee launched a Beijing office for Vinson & Elkins. Last year he took the throne as managing partner of China’s King & Wood. Along the way, he became not only a restaurateur, but a real estate developer, a patron of the arts, and a visionary of Chinese materialism. Lee aspires to be a mix of Joe Flom, Donald Trump, Danny Meyer and Lorenzo de Medici. The group that has shared least in China’s economic boom is the rural poor. Rural unrest exposes the drastic limits of Chinese justice and could be the most likely brake on China’s growth.

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