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The China Project

It’s literally on the other side of the globe. The village’s quiet streets and wooded hills stand in sharp contrast to the pulsing energy and notoriously smoggy air of the city of 21 million people. And yet, over the last eight years, Vermont Law School has gained an outsized presence in Beijing and within certain corners of the vast capital of the Earth’s most populous country. The school has extended its reach into the halls of environmental policymaking in a nation facing some of the biggest environmental challenges the world has ever known.

“Many Chinese environmental law scholars and students, they know the program,” says Professor Cao Mingde of Beijing’s China University of Political Science and Law. “We know how good it is.”

Professor Cao (pronounced “Tsow”) helped draft changes this year to one of China’s chief environmental laws. The reforms have been applauded for giving environmental concerns more weight and for strengthening environmental groups’ ability to go to court. Now, he has traded the busy Beijing sidewalks for nine months on Chelsea Street. He has come to South Royalton to learn from the best.

Credit his presence, and the law school’s reputation in China, to the U.S.-Asia Partnerships for Environmental Law. Since its start in 2006, the Partnerships have brought Chinese scholars and lawyers to Vermont; sent professors to China to train prosecutors, judges, and electricity regulators; helped establish a university environmental law clinic; and played a pivotal role in the creation of China’s first environmental public interest law firm.

It’s hard to overstate the need for help. China’s meteoric economic growth in the last three decades has far outstripped its ability to protect the environment. Massive dams flood vast tracts of land. Water pollution is so severe that 20 percent of the country’s rivers have been called too toxic for human contact. Air pollution, much of it from coal-powered industries, blankets northern cities in smog and accelerates the world’s changing climate. China has become the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. In the last three years, it has built the equivalent of half the entire U.S. fleet of coal-fired power plants. The country’s thirst for natural resources extends around the globe, as more and more of its 1.3 billion residents become middle-class consumers. On this increasingly small planet, China is the single biggest environmental stage. And some of its main actors are learning their parts in South Royalton.


“It is a little known fact that every top regulator in the energy or pollution control field in China, and every environmental law professor in Beijing and Guangzhou, comes to the United States for guidance,” says Vermont Law School President and Dean Marc Mihaly. “And when they come, they come to San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and South Royalton, Vermont.”

The law school’s entrance into China was a mixture of serendipity, good timing, and, as any lawyer will appreciate, networking. The school was winding down its first foray into overseas law, a seven-year program in Russia aimed at helping environmental lawyers and regulators raise their game in a post-Soviet world. Seeking to continue this international influence, some of the school’s leaders turned their eyes to China. A young visiting professor had spent a year studying at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, a hub of the hard-charging southeast Chinese economy. She helped introduce law school officials to their counterparts at Sun Yat-sen. It turned out to be an ideal match.

“I felt quite strongly that to continue our standing as the leading environmental law school in the country, we had to be engaged on the global scene,” said Bruce Duthu, vice dean of academic affairs at the time, and the Partnerships’ first director. Today he’s a professor at Dartmouth College. “Where we struck gold was in finding the law school that had started the first environmental clinic in the country.”

With the help of Vermont’s congressional delegation, the law school in 2006 won a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, better known as USAID. The primary mission: Give a boost to environmental protection in China by helping build the skills of lawyers, regulators, and enforcers.

Much of the work has been done through classes at Sun Yat-sen and elsewhere in China. In the program’s first five years, the Partnerships held trainings for more than 7,000 Chinese scholars, government officials, and advocates involved in environmental and energy law. It brought 49 professors and students to South Royalton to study.

Vermont Law School professors like Michael Dworkin, a leading expert on energy policy, have made frequent trips to China courtesy of the Partnerships. There, he has given lectures to law students about the intersection of energy and environmental policy. He has met with people helping run the country’s electrical grid to talk about “environmental dispatch”—taking environmental costs into account when deciding which power plants to use. But Dworkin has found some of the most meaningful exchanges occur when Chinese scholars visit Vermont. In South Royalton, he can show the possibility of environmental restoration by pointing to a tree-covered hill that was once an eroded, overgrazed sheep pasture. Stopping at a stop sign on a deserted country road, even when there are no police around, is a vivid illustration of the rule of law—following laws because they are considered legitimate, not out of fear of punishment. “That concept of rule of law is much better demonstrated on a day after day, month after month basis,” Dworkin says.

From that first year at Sun Yatsen, the China program has grown in complexity and ambition. Fueled by more than $11 million in grants —much of it from USAID and the U.S. State Department—the school has forged alliances with two more universities, one in Beijing and the other in Yunnan Province, in the country’s southwest interior. It has also branched out beyond the classroom. Perhaps its most intriguing and unusual new venture is helping to launch China’s first environmental public interest law firm. The Huanzhu Law Firm translates to “Environmental Legal Aid Office.” It’s the brainchild of Wang Canfa, a lawyer and professor at China University of Political Science and Law and a celebrity in environmental law circles. He earned a spot on Time magazine’s 2007 list of “Heroes of the Environment” for his work on behalf of pollution victims.

The firm represents individuals in lawsuits over environmental damages, and could also take cases from environmental groups as reforms to China’s legal system open the door to these cases, according to Partnerships’ Director, Professor Siu Tip Lam. Vermont Law faculty have provided technical assistance to the firm. At the same time, VLS instructors are teaching Chinese environmental groups how to better use the legal system.

Governance isn’t just government. Once you have the laws on the books, you still need implementers and you need people who will enforce the laws."

It’s part of a strategy to extend the school’s impact into all the elements it takes to have a robust environmental legal system. “Governance isn’t just government,” Lam says. “Once you have the laws on the books, you still need implementers and you need people who will enforce the laws. You have government enforcing the laws, okay, now you have citizen groups involved in that process.”

But she acknowledges that as it ventures into the realm of environmental activism, the law school is treading on sensitive ground with the Chinese government. “We try to be a little bit more careful,” she says. “Professor Wang Canfa is very politically savvy.”

At the same time, Lam acknowledges that the space to work on environmental issues in China is broader than it would be in human rights or other rule-of-law issues, which helps enable their programs to succeed. The current Chinese government recognizes that environmental problems have risen to an untenable level. The recent changes in the country’s Environmental Protection Law, enabling NGOs to bring public interest litigation, suggest that the government is open to different ways to combat and control environmental problems.

The Partnerships’ ambitions are also reaching beyond China’s borders. In 2013, it began working in Myanmar. As that country emerges from nearly half a century of military dictatorship, businesses are pursuing investments that bring with them environmental risks. Government officials are wrestling with how to carry out a new law similar to our National Environmental Policy Act, the 1970 U.S. law that requires reviews of environmental impacts from many actions by the federal government. Much like the early years in China, law school staff are training government officials in the broader and finer points of environmental enforcement.

In early October, Adam Moser ’11, the Partnerships’ assistant director, had just returned to his Beijing home from several days in the Myanmar capital, Naypyidaw. There, he met with some of the 190 bureaucrats in the Environmental Conservation Department who vet projects for environmental impacts. Just two years before, the department didn’t exist. Many of the officials are freshly minted college graduates trying to negotiate a system of rules written in ink that has barely dried.

Some of Myanmar’s recent college graduates, such as Master’s in Environmental Law and Policy student May Aung, have made their way to Vermont Law School to learn from experts in one of the most advanced environmental legal systems in the world. “I want to take what I learn here back to my country so I can advocate for better policies,” she says.

“They’re at a very basic level,” Moser says. “The capacity remains extremely low, and the confidence level of being able to deal with some of these issues is very low.”

The stakes can also be very high. One committee he’s working with is reviewing the massive and controversial Letpadaung copper mine, the subject of tumultuous protests. Other lower-profile cases illustrate that environmental regulations are in their infancy. At a training session, one official brought with him an environmental study submitted for a shoe factory that would employ 1,300 people. The document contained pages of seemingly irrelevant details about the town’s historic population density, Moser says, but just 50 words about how the factory would deal with wastewater and solid waste.

Meanwhile, a new $700,000 USAID grant extends the Partnerships’ reach beyond China and Myanmar to other countries in Southeast Asia, including Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Much of the work in the region will focus on environmental governance issues, with particular attention paid to mining projects, hydropower development, and agriculture.

Vermont Law students play a support role in the work of the Partnerships through a number of activities. Several VLS students have been placed with Chinese environmental groups for internships. Others have spent a semester abroad at Renmin University of China in Beijing. The Partnerships have helped create several courses at Vermont Law School about Chinese law. And each year, a group of students in South Royalton are paired with Chinese students for yearlong research projects that culminate in a trip to China.

The international program was one reason Erica Lewis ’12 chose Vermont Law School. She had spent three years living in China, and wanted to make use of that experience. In Vermont, she spent a year collaborating with a Chinese student on a study comparing U.S. and Chinese water pollution permitting systems. Their work was published in a Chinese law journal. “It was incredibly rewarding,” she says.

Today, Lewis is starting a general law practice in Randolph, Vermont. But she remains interested in finding opportunities to use the international law skills she has cultivated.

After eight years, how do you measure the Partnerships’ impact on 21st-century China? The challenges can seem overwhelming, the numbers daunting: Nearly 20 percent of the world’s population and 29 percent of the carbon emissions. Greenhouse gases that grew four percent last year.

On the other side of the ledger, you can tally the Partnerships’ statistics – thousands of Chinese legal eagles trained; tens of thousands of lawsuits filed; dozens of Chinese scholars at the South Royalton campus, some in positions of influence; China’s first environmental public interest law firm.

“I can tell you exactly how we’re making a difference,” says Dean Marc Mihaly. “There is no shortcut. We have in the United States probably millions of people, of whom many, many, many thousands are lawyers, making their living on pollution control. They don’t exist in China yet. China doesn’t have enough environmental lawyers, and it doesn’t have enough people to teach them. And not only that, environmental law in China, like it was here in 1970, doesn’t have the prestige that business law does. So what we have done is identify the top law schools in China, and we are training and pouring money into their environmental law departments. We’re putting on conferences for environmental law professors. We’re increasing the visibility of environmental professionals in China. In other words, we’re training the trainers. And no one else is doing it. There is no other entity in the world doing what we are doing in China.”

And how do you measure the benefits of the personal connections forged between scholars from opposite sides of the globe, the understanding that comes at a stop sign on a quiet country road? It’s hard to know how that might translate into a subtle but crucial change in a Chinese environmental law.

For Professor Dworkin, the answer of how to gauge the Partnerships’ accomplishments comes in a comment that has the ring of a Chinese proverb. “I think it has to be seen as one drop of water on a stone that’s of great magnitude and great importance.”