Thursday, December 17, 2015

Richard Cullen Reflects on Life, Work and the Rise of China in the Asian Century

I was born in Colac, Victoria in 1948 and brought up in Echuca, Victoria, where I attended St. Joseph’s College. I began my legal career with Blake & Riggall in Melbourne in 1983, after completing my LLB at Melbourne Law School (MLS) in 1982. I was with Blakes for two years, first as an Articled Clerk, under Geoff Hone, and then as a junior solicitor. I commenced my PhD at Osgoode Hall in Toronto, Canada in early 1985. I am admitted to practise law in Australia, Hong Kong and England and Wales. Prior to entering MLS and completing my LLB, I worked as a manager with CSIRO in Australia.
     I enjoyed my time working with Blakes immensely. Notwithstanding the comparative newness of the premises high-up in the then BHP Building, the remarkable history of Blakes in Melbourne dating back to 1841, could be plainly felt. The intellectual atmosphere was demanding, in the best way. The opportunities to relax in fine company were excellent – not least the ad hoc meetings of the junior staff, “Escape Committee”. Tunnelling out of BHP House was never a serious option but it was a great way to keep a sense of balance – and fun – in the midst of all of those inevitable, early-career work pressures.
     The experience of completing my PhD in 1986 spurred what proved to be a long-term engagement with academic writing. Shortly after this, I decided, with some regret, to leave Blakes. I accepted a position as Senior Lecturer at Monash Law School, in Melbourne, in 1987. In late 1991, I moved to Hong Kong, to take up a position in the then new School of Law at the City University of Hong Kong. I returned to Monash University in 1999 as a Professor and Head of the Department of Business Law and Taxation. And I took early retirement from Monash in 2006.
     Since then I have been a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). I am also, nowadays, an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Law at The University of Western Australia.  I have written and co-written several books and more than 160 articles, notes and commentaries and have supervised a number of PhD and MPhil theses...

The Asian century & the rise of China
The late, remarkable, Belgian-Australian Sinologist, Pierre Ryckmans (pen-name: Simon Leys) put the special position of China, in my view, better than anyone else (in, The Burning Forest, (Paladin,
London, 1988):
“From a western point of view, China is simply the other pole of the human mind. All the other great cultures are either dead (Egypt, pre-Columbian American and so on), or too exclusively absorbed by the problem of surviving in extreme conditions (primitive cultures), or too close to us (Islamist cultures, India) to present a contrast as total, a revelation as complete, an “otherness” as challenging, an originality as illuminating as China. It is only when we contemplate China that we can become exactly aware of our own identity and that we begin to perceive which part of our heritage truly pertains to universal humanity, and which part merely reflects Indo-European idiosyncrasies.”
China has plainly produced the World’s largest and most enduring, continuous Civilisation. It has also, more recently, constructed the World’s largest and most successful One Party State (OPS). That OPS has experienced dire upheavals and awful devastation, as it has developed, especially over the first 30 years after 1949. But that same OPS has been the architect of a near 20 fold increase in real GDP terms, in the PRC economy, across the three decades to 2011 (according to the US Congressional Research Service). A recent BBC report noted that the PRC has accounted for as much as the rest of the World combined in the striking progress made towards meeting certain Millennium Development Goals set down by the United Nations in 2000.
     There are immense challenges still facing China. But the revitalised China which is emerging is built upon this extraordinary Civilisation. This does not guarantee inevitable success, still less, a rise free of trauma and trouble. It does, however, help explain the immense positive potential – and remarkable achievements to date. Some US economists have argued that China has, since 1978, largely just joined-the-economic dots – no big deal. If this were so, however, why is it, that only China has managed such change on this remarkable scale?

Q. What’s the best advice that you’ve been given?
The fine British Essayist, Theodore Dalrymple (TD) made certain observations in 2011, which have stayed with me (TD is a great admirer of Simon Leys, as it happens).
“The population…has no doubt about the metaphysical origin of human rights: they are inscribed in the constitution of the universe.” … “Any form of correction, however mildly phrased or studiously restrained, is thus an assault on a person’s conception of himself as the Sun King of his own soul.”
The reason I have quoted TD is because the best advice I have had, from childhood onwards, runs almost directly counter to the individual life-imperatives just noted. Above all, I learned that you do have to take clear responsibility for yourself and your own actions.
     You build self-reliance and stabilise your wider perspectives, over time. You build in impulse control – which many studies show to be fundamental to enjoying a life well lived, whatever you do. You also become deeply grateful for the remarkable opportunities life has to offer. 
     The Ancient Greeks used to stress the key concepts of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. To these I would add, Engagement. Learning about deeper (and unselfish) engagement with others underpins all the best sort of relationships – and avoidance of the worst kind.
     Two decades of living in Asia has strengthened these convictions. My Chinese friends know as much about day to day squabbling as anyone. But they also are, typically, better at maintaining ongoing engagement. Chinese Civilisation has long held that “molecular” human engagement is pivotal for a successful Civilisation in a way which did not feature on the contemporaneous Ancient Greek (notably more individualistic) cultural-radar...
    Richard Cullen is Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Law.  This excerpted interview was prepared and published by the law firm Ashurst as part of its December 2015 Ashurst Alumni Newsletter, "Firm friends".  The full interview can be downloaded here.

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