Last summer, Alan Smurthwaite, a 3L at the University of Utah S.J. College of Law, completed an international law internship in China through the Utah-Qinghai EcoPartnership. Upon returning to Utah, he published two co-authored articles, “Improving Water Quality in Qinghai Province” and “Open Innovation and IP Trends in China: Insights on the Utah Qinghai EcoPartnership,” both of which subsequently appeared in the Diplomatic Courier.
Below, he details his experiences, contrasts U.S. and Chinese environmental laws, offers thoughts on his future plans, and describes how he benefitted from the College of Law’s emphasis on developing practical skills.
What did you learn through the Utah-Qinghai EcoPartnership?
Working with the Utah-Qinghai EcoPartnership as the Innovation and IP Coordinator has allowed me to study the relationship between China’s statutory law and the country’s enforcement mechanisms, particularly in the areas of environmental and intellectual property law. UQEP is a non-profit organization supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission, both working to promote clean air, water, or transportation; clean electricity; and conservation of forests and wetlands.
In particular, the People’s Republic of China, in terms of environmental regulation, seems to be where the United States was in the 1960s and 70s. China is often criticized, both domestically and abroad, for its rapid use of natural resources necessary to catapult the country into modernization. Yet, often unknown to many outsiders, China’s environmental laws and land use regulations are in some instances are more stringent than in the U.S. Where the country does possess comprehensive environmental laws, I found that such laws are not always enforced because of political influence and the absence of structural checks like the separation of powers between political branches, citizen suit provisions within statutes, and the prominence of private interest groups. [Something] similar can be said with respect to intellectual property. Through UQEP I have been able to see China’s response to domestic and international criticism, which has led to increased enforcement of already existing laws and regulations.
How your involvement in the partnership changed your view of China;
Being involved with UQEP has expanded my overall understanding of the People’s Republic of China. While my undergraduate and graduate degrees both involved the study of Chinese politics, living in China for an extended period and being involved in China’s business and political sectors has been a first-hand experience that books cannot replicate. The Innovation and IP Coordinator position, in particular, is a unique opportunity because UQEP works with the national and provincial governments. Most scholarly study of Chinese politics is limited to national politics, which makes this experience even more enlightening as I was able to witness and partake in the top-down policy implementation. Thus, working with local officials, provincial leaders, and national figureheads alike has provided a more accurate depiction of the Chinese political system.
Further, the everyday cultural observations were of particular importance to my time with UQEP. Possibly one of the most considerable cultural observations is the significance of personal relationships throughout Chinese affairs. Close personal relationships, or guanxi, is part of a two-headed dragon of social control. The other being the legal system. China, and many other Eastern cultures, strongly emphasis close personal relationships rather than a strict reliance on the legal system. By contrast, Western countries heavily rely on legal remedies in an ex-post fashion and often misinterpret China for not utilizing legal mechanisms. The Innovation and IP Coordinator position dealt with both U.S. and Chinese interests, requiring an understanding of both approaches and allowing me to see that China does retain an adept legal system, but emphasizes it differently due to distinct cultural aspects.
How might your opportunity with the EcoPartnership affect your plans post-graduation?
The opportunity plays into my interest of eventually working in the international legal community, whether in China itself, or in a place like New York City that maintains strong business interests abroad. China is strategically positioning itself to be a dominant global actor, if not now, in the near future. Accordingly, having this experience ensures that I am connected in some manner to a country that will likely be the major player in global politics.
How did your classes, clinics, and other experiences prepared you to serve as UQEP Innovation & IP Coordinator at the U?
Personally, I believe the practical skills acquired over the course of obtaining a Juris Doctor degree are often overlooked in light of substantive material. These practical skills have prepared me to excel in this international setting. Many professors at S.J. Quinney College of Law are not only substantive experts in their field, but are able to share a wealth of practical knowledge that I was able to draw upon. Practical considerations become even more important in cross-cultural political relationships, like the EcoPartnership framework, where the effects of one’s decision-making are magnified.
Additionally, a large component of working with UQEP is the ability to communicate effectively. Whether drafting reports to the U.S. Department of State, communicating with the U.S. Embassy Beijing, negotiating on behalf of U.S. businesses and universities, or engaging with Chinese government officials, the ability coherently present complex concepts was paramount. In that regard, the University’s commitment to strong legal writing, combined with past clinical experience, prepared me to serve as the Innovation and IP Coordinator.