China has long been understood (and misunderstood) through the presuppositions and biases of the West. From canonical political philosophers, who have debated whether China represents an “oriental despotism,” to contemporary scholars who question the very existence of law in China, the study of the country is rife with analytical blind spots. But how can American legal scholars avoid such a fate? One underrated tactic is to adopt an empathetic approach, an openness to different possibilities in legal and non-legal ordering that does not take the necessity of formal Western legal institutions as a given. While an empathetic orientation does not preclude critique, it is a check against orientalist perspectives that see different laws, institutions, and cultures as self-evidently inferior.
In comparison with American courts, which increasingly adjudicate a narrow set of transnational cases, Chinese courts rarely forfeit authority over transnational cases. This development is reshaping the landscape of transnational litigation, as China’s appetite for taking on transnational cases calls attention to the advantages of exercising jurisdiction over a case — advantages that can dictate the outcome of cases in favorable ways, and which play an underappreciated role in the configuration of the international legal order.
In a world where differences between the United States and China are increasingly amplified and weaponized, how can legal scholars study China fairly, insightfully, and constructively? Should we adopt a “metaphysical approach,” which holds that scholars can set aside their own value preferences and study other societies neutrally and objectively, or should we adopt a “postmetaphysical approach,” which presupposes a world marked by epistemic pluralism and casts comparative scholarship as inherently an exercise of discursive power?
From the 1990s until the Trump presidency, political and economic elites on both sides of the Pacific held a largely uncomplicated enthusiasm for the re-centering of global supply chains within the borders of the People’s Republic of China. More recently, however, the U.S. federal government has resorted to a range of interventions to try to derail China’s ascendance, including, improbably, a newfound commitment to labor rights in China. By examining this trajectory, we can see why efforts to address labor exploitation will not succeed unless they transcend the narrow political vision engendered by the increasingly hostile U.S.-China rivalry.
Given its history, China is acutely aware of the hypocrisy of powerful countries speaking in the language of international law. Over the past two years, however, the so-called “foreign-related rule of law” (涉外法治) has gained enormous influence in Chinese official and academic discourse. While this turn is motivated, in part, by the China-U.S. rivalry, to fully understand the importance of this development, we must begin with a more basic question: why does a geopolitical power need law in the first place? And what kind of LPE-inspired approach is best suited to address this question?
Though its contemporary theorization emerged from Cedric Robinson and other scholars of the Black Radical Tradition, racial capitalism is neither an idea somehow restricted to the U.S. or Europe, nor an idea that can be provincialized solely within the processes and structures of Western colonial expropriation and exploitation. Rather, this approach can help us understand the immense expansion of securitization and forced assimilation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, not as an aberration, but as the logical extension of Han settler capitalist development strategies since at least the early 1990s.
There is an urgent need to develop a genuine critical left internationalism to help think through issues related to China. Yet engaging this subject from an LPE perspective confronts two broad challenges. First, it requires bringing LPE concepts into conversation with debates regarding the diverse legal underpinnings of the global economic order. Second, it requires developing a left internationalism that embraces a non-U.S.-centric anti-imperialist position, moving beyond limited Cold War imaginaries.