J.D.’16, Harvard Law School; Former Research Fellow, East Asian Legal Studies Program
I am so pleased that the Harvard International Law Journal is celebrating Bill Alford’s career at the conclusion of his 18-year service as Vice Dean.
Bill’s contributions to the international endeavor at Harvard Law School are inestimable. He is a giant in the field of Chinese law, and a pioneering figure in U.S.-China exchange. In my own life, he has been a devoted teacher, a generous mentor, and a model scholar and person.
In relation to Bill, I will always think of myself first as his student. His 1L course, Comparative Law: Why Law? Lessons from China, was an engrossing introduction to comparative law by way of China. More than anything else, it was this course, and Bill’s teaching, that cemented my passion for the subject. The course stressed context over form, history over hysteria, forcing us—Bill’s students—to confront profound and difficult questions around law and legality. Every element of the course—topics, readings, speakers, films, and pedagogy—reflected Bill’s meticulous and erudite approach to the study of China.
In my own career, Bill has supported me in more ways than I can count—writing letters, making introductions, creating research and teaching opportunities, and dispensing encouragement and advice. He has read drafts of everything I have written on Chinese law, with comments that never failed to press on my assumptions or to push my thinking. For as long as I write on this subject, I will always be writing for Professor Alford.
As an aspiring law scholar, what I admire most about Bill’s writing—and what I have (poorly) sought to emulate in my own work—is its conscientiousness. Bill does not overstate. He does not understate. His analyses are scrupulously careful, managing a skepticism of every tradition’s conventional wisdoms while according due respect to setting and difference. The result is scholarship that persuades through rigor rather than ideology, reason rather than volume. His book, To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense, well illustrates this analytic style. He opens with a thoughtful exposition on methodology, stressing problems of language, culture, and “[t]he need to guard against extrapolating normality from the West.” But, as he later shows, one can be mindful of methodological pitfalls while still perceptive of the Chinese leadership’s own failures in “proclaiming rights without being constrained by” them.
Finally, Bill has modeled in his life and in his work a humility and a humanity to which we should all aspire. At a time of global tension, we would all benefit from following Bill’s example, rooted, at bottom, in his fundamental decency.