Journey to the East: A Conversation with FACES Alumnus Matias A. Sueldo

 Sophy Wang from Beida FACES interviews Mathias (FACES '11) at the Great Leap Brewery during the FACES Beijing Summer Social.

Sophy Wang from Beida FACES interviews Mathias (FACES '11) at the Great Leap Brewery during the FACES Beijing Summer Social.

So no matter if it is in the corporate world or in government, because of FACES and because of my time at Renmin, China will always be with me. I will always be working on China issues and with Chinese clients.”  

- Matias A. Sueldo, FACES ‘11


The Interviewee: Matias A. Sueldo graduated from University of Southern California and went on to Yale Law School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government for a joint degree of J.D. and MPA. After graduation, he came to China to teach as a law professor at Renmin University. For the past two years in China, Matias travelled around the country and to many other places, learned Chinese and passed HSK5 (a fairly impressive feat!). Now he is taking off to New York to begin a career in a prestigious corporate law firm.

The Interviewer: Yue (Sophy) Wang is an officer of FACES Beida, a Peking University student majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

Prologue: We caught up with Matias seated in front of a small bar, nestled beside a bustling Beijing city street. He was coming to the end of two years in the Chinese capital, where he worked as a professor at the prestigious Renmin University Law School. When we interviewed Matias, he was one week away from a long-awaited return to the United States, and a planned reunion with former-employer Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, a multinational law firm headquartered in London, that has brought Matias on to its financial law team. 
Here, Matias shares insights from his time as a teacher—the lessons he hopes to have imparted to his students, and the lessons they unwittingly passed on to him. To the tempo of chattering traffic and clamoring travelers passing through the street, he unfolds broader thoughts on China, developed through years of study and immersion: on the possible shape of rule by law in China; on the successes and inequities of the country’s system of education; on his faith in the growing exchange of laws from around the globe. And, of course, he recounts his first steps with FACES, that helped set him on the path to discover it all. 

Sophy: Could you briefly introduce yourself to us?

Matias: I was born and raised in California. I spent some time living abroad in South America during high school, then I went to University of Southern California (USC) for college where I studied international relations and public policy. After that I went straight to Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and ended up pursuing a joint J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree from Yale Law School and Masters in Public Administration from Harvard. I joined FACES in 2011, the last year of my joint program. After that, I moved to China to teach American Law at Renmin University, and I’ve been here in Beijing for two years now.
S: What are some of your favorite memories from FACES?

M: The main thing is the people. I met a lot of smart and interesting people from both sides who are interested in the U.S. and China. And this was really unique for me—I was never an “Asia” person or a “China” person. So getting involved in FACES for me was part of the process of learning more about China, and of being able to talk to people who are passionate about China and start to imagine what opportunities there would be for me here. But ultimately, the most important thing I took away from FACES are all the friends I’ve made who have stayed with me here in Beijing and who are waiting for me when I move to New York. And you know, I probably wouldn’t have moved to China if it was not for FACES. At the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to move or work in Beijing, and I didn’t really know how to navigate that. For me, FACES was the first step in discovering China, in being able to understand it as a real place with really great and interesting people.
S: And you are now a professor at Renmin University. I’m curious: what has drawn you to an academic career and what kind of impact do you see yourself making along this road? 

M: Good question. I never wanted to be an academic. When I was in college I taught in high schools in LA. I enjoyed teaching, but in a strict sense. I knew it was something Ilike but not something I want to do as a career. The way it links to China, to be a professor here, is that essentially it is a really great job, at a prestigiousplace, with a solid salary. It gives me a way to learn a lot more about China, through my students, my colleagues and the conferences. It also gives me a lot of free time to study Chinese and to travel around China—I’ve been able to travel to so many different places! So when I started exploring jobs in China, this was the one opportunity that fit all the goals I had for my time here. 

For the second part of your question… I teach American law in English to Chinese undergraduate and graduate students. My focus isn’t research, it really is teaching and working closely with my students, a great many of whom are interested in going to international law firms or traveling abroad for graduate school. So first and foremost, my impact is in helping my students reach their goals and live a better life. Beyond that… my classes are focused on American law and international law. We don’t have time in class to discuss the Chinese legal system and, frankly, it just isn’t my job. But students would often come to me after class, or in office hours, and want to discuss Chinese law in light of what we had studied. I think it’s natural that studying a foreign society helps you understand your own society better, and insofar as I’ve been able to help the next generation of Chinese judges and lawyers and civil servants to understand China better and know how to seek the best practices from countries around the world, insofar as I’ve achieved that I think I’ve been able to leave a profound impact. 

I won’t know whether this actually happened until 20 years from now, when I can see where my students have gone and what influence this time had on their ideas and their careers. I won’t continue being a professor, but it has been an amazing experience and it’s a really meaningful job. And who knows, after a few years of working in corporate law, I may come back again to teach at Renmin.
S: So you’re at the end of your term here at Renmin, what’s your next five-year plan? What do you envision yourself doing?

M: When I was in law school, I spent a summer working for a British law firm in their New York office—a global law firm called Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. And I’m essentially going back to my old firm, to work in the finance group. I’ll be doing IPOs, debt issues, project financing in Latin America, basically working on the legal side of the whole spectrum of financial transactions. So that’s my five-year plan from here, living and working in Manhattan with this firm. 
But in the future, having gone to Kennedy Schoolof Government and studied public policy with other experiences related to China, I don’t think it will be surprising to anybody that I hope to work insome capacity in the U.S. government or an international organization with an obvious focus on China or East Asia. Actually, at my firm we have tons of Chinese clients, and my employers are really excited in my China experience, my Chinese language skills and cultural knowledge. So no matter if it is in the corporate world or in government, because of FACES of because of my time at Renmin, China will always be with me. I will always be working on China issues and with Chinese clients.
S: Yes, best of luck in New York! Now having been teaching Chinese students for about two years, what’s your general impression about the current generation of Chinese College students?

M: I can't speak for the whole generation of Chinese students, mainly because my students are usually from middle class, tier one or two cities who did well in Gaokao (高考). First I’ll talk about them and other Chinese students from Fudan University and other similar universities, whom I met at the international law competitions that I coach. I’ve met at international competitions from Fudan University and other places like that. They are very smart, motivated, very respectful, and they try extremely hard. Problems in my class would be English ability, critical analysis and production skills, such as giving a group presentation or writing a memo--these are lacking. And first off, there are no genetic or cultural barriers; most of them just haven’t had the opportunity to develop these skills.

In my class, we do legal cases every week. And the better part of the class is not me lecturing, but me asking them questions: What are the most important facts of the case? What are the main legal issues? How are they resolved by the judge? How can we apply this analysis to another case? My students have the opportunity not only to practice their English, but also to think, to structure their thoughts in a way that is systematic and organized. At the beginning it’s like pulling teeth: a lot of them are frustrated by the structure of the class, or by low grades on the memos and projects. But at the end of the course, you start to see progress, and now I’ve had students who have studied with me for two or three semesters, and they are every bit as good at this sort of thinking as the students from top universities abroad. 

But I don’t think my students are representative. Their parents are professionals; they’ve had access to tutors and English institutes and good schools in good cities. And there are many students out there who don’t have the same financial resources and for whom educational opportunities are extremely lacking. I don’t know if these students have the foundation that allowed my students to advance so quickly. And at many of the bigger schools that these students will attend, the teachers are not as good, the curriculum is more closely circumscribed, and they aren’t really able to get the experience my students had at Renmin, exploring different international legal systems and thinking about what are the best practices from each.
S: And talking about the legal systems in both China and the U.S., some people say that it is hard to make conversation between the two because the systems are so different. As a scholar in this field, how would you respond to this?

M: Yes and you know, as soon as I say I'm a law professor to a taxi driver, store seller, or, you know, to an average person on the street, the first thing they say is “美国的法律体制比中国的好的多啊 (the legal systems in the U.S. are a lot better than those in China)……” 

The Chinese legal system was copied from the Japanese and they copied from the Germans. So, the underlying legal system is a Continental European civil law system. Then you see legal reformers in the 1990s and 2000s introduced many features of British common law legal systems, such as those in the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, and other places. Therefore, it is not difficult for Chinese and Western legal professionals to communicate and exchange ideas, and it is not difficult for China to incorporate Western legal principles

Further I think the frame of China's legal system is fine. There is legislation covering the range of human activities in China, and, for the most part, these are good laws. So basically there are two kinds of problems. One is the implementation of the law: laws either not being implemented or being implemented selectively. The second thing is that there are certain areas where the law is not similar to established best practices from around the world. I’m thinking of criminal law and procedure, and of state and national security laws. I think there are still some legal deficiencies in these areas.

Problems in legal implementation can generally be traced back to one of two things: government capacity and government will. Now government capacity in China is pretty good -- although China is still a developing country there is good civil service and well-resourced tax collection; it’s just a matter of putting in place the mechanisms. So I’d say the bigger issue would be government will. People ask me about the concept “rule of law” (法治). In fact there is nothing legal about rule of law; it is not a legal concept -- it is a political concept.
In my country there are opposing party leaders, media and civil society groups. When government selectively, doesn’t apply the law or misapplies the law, there is a reaction and a corrective mechanism. I think people in power in China understand that they need to create a system where the laws will be applied uniformly and fairly. It doesn’t have to follow that American model—and hopefully there will eventually be a distinctly Chinese solution to this problem—but you do need some mechanism to ensure that law does not become arbitrary. And when you talk to a person on the street, they’re not interested in the abstract concepts or the ideology—they just want to know what the rules are, know that these laws are enforced uniformly and fairly, and get on with their daily life.

But one thing that’s interesting: empirically among the richest, most advanced and most harmonious nations in the world, the top 10or 20, only a few are not liberal democracies. And most of these are either very small or are states with one single major resource that allows the government to fund itself. But China is neither. So to achieve the rule of law, one of two things will need to happen: China will become a liberal democracy, or it will create a new system that we have never seen before, a Chinese solution to this problem. That would be super interesting from an academic perspective; it’s a fascinating time for somebody interested in legal and political system to be living and studying China.
S: Now, as you mentioned, for the second problem of Chinese legal systems: certainly there are still laws in China which diverge from international “best practices”, but there are also many, many examples of these foreign practices being transplanted into China. And some people are very critical of grafting foreign laws into the Chinese system: they argue that the laws of a nation should be localized, should be deeply rooted in a nation’s culture. Do you foresee that these transplants will encounter cultural and social resistance in China? 

M: Well, tackling that last part first, there are laws in the U.S. and Europe that have been adopted in Africa, and Latin America, and most importantly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which fit well with many of the traditions of Chinese societies. But actually, more fundamentally, I think the people resisting this practice misconceive the process of making laws. Law is just a set of rules; there is no cultural impediment to import laws. Laws are reflections of a policy: you see some problems in a society, and you want something to fix it -- you are the policy entrepreneur. So to me, the bigger problems when you are importing a law are, first, through that process of importation will you generate enough domestic political support for what has to be passed and applied? Secondly, are there any governmental or social institutions in place to make the laws succeed? And these problems are universal to the undertaking -- you will face these issues whether you are a legislator in the U.S. borrowing from China or the other way around. 

But the more unique problem in China is that laws are conceived of as built into a cultural context. That’s not necessarily true. These laws are all the products of some human society. Now, when we’re importing a law, it may fail because there’s no popular support for it, or because we don’t have the institutions and infrastructure to implement it effectively. But there’s no reason to think that just because a law originated in another country, it will fail when we bring it here. 

Alumni Interview Program: In February 2014, we started the Alumni Interview Program. Our Alumni Affairs staff have since conducted ten interviews with alumni in Beijing and the Bay Area. We hope that these interviews will inspire younger generations of FACES alumni to pursue their dreams and make their unique impact on U.S.-China relations.