Mark Wu
Vice Dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies & Henry L. Stimson Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Lessons in Virtue:

Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

“A flower cannot blossom without sunshine nor a garden without love”

Unlike many of the esteemed contributors to this volume, I never had the privilege of learning from Professor William Alford in the classroom formally or having him serve as my dissertation supervisor. But what I have gained from Bill, through a decade as his colleague and mentee at Harvard Law School, are life lessons in how to develop wisdom as a teacher and embody virtue as a person.

The lessons gained from this wise, yet humble, master are hard to reduce to words. When pondering how to do so, I stumbled across a Chinese proverb, which I quote at the beginning of this tribute. One could read this proverb as discussing the necessary ingredients for sustaining natural beauty in an otherwise harsh world. But an equally apt interpretation of the proverb is that it discusses the necessary ingredients for human relationships. Bill’s endless bounty of sunshine and love has sustained so many of us through our years at Harvard Law. It is that radiant energy in its many forms that we honor in this volume and will cherish for many years to come.

Through his rigorous devotion to countless individuals, Bill has cultivated thousands of flowers in the garden that is the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. As several of the other tributes in this volume attest, these individuals have pollinated ideas, often uncovered thanks to Bill, throughout the academy and legal profession worldwide. Bill’s tireless dedication literally has transformed not only how we think, but also how we advocate for others, in dozens of societies worldwide. Meanwhile, each summer, Bill begins the process anew, carefully cultivating yet another crop of new Harvard Law School students to make their mark in the world at-large. Throughout the year, we, his colleagues, enjoy the benefit of his toil, without necessarily appreciating the care and devotion necessary to sustain the annual bounty. Under his leadership, the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies have become unparalleled world-renowned gems, widely recognized as the best in the world.[1]

Bill, and his equally talented wife, Yuanyuan, have always preferred to have the focus shine on others, without regard for the many sacrifices that they have made to allow others to thrive. Like so many others, I consider myself to be one of the lucky beneficiaries. Each of us can recount the precise moments when one of Bill’s actions took on outsize meaning in our lives, at a moment when we needed it most. Certainly, Bill has taught me plenty over the years about what it means to be an academic, a policy advocate, and an administrator. But what he has taught me most, simply through his actions, is what it means to be both a mensch and a hao laoshi (好老師).[2]

Through three snapshots captured from different periods of my past decade spent with Bill at Harvard Law, I hope to capture a bit of how his wisdom and virtue have enriched my life and those of countless others.

Hold Open Doors for Others to Walk Through

My first sustained interaction with Bill took place in June 2010, while I was still an Academic Fellow at Columbia Law and before I joined the Harvard Law faculty. Bill and I had been introduced through Professor Ben Liebman, but at the time, we did not know each other well. Yet, Bill decided to invite me to come up from New York City to attend the 80th birthday festschrift that he was hosting for Professor Jerry Cohen in Cambridge. Needless to say, I was a fish out of water. In a room full of some of the world’s most eminent scholars of Chinese law, I was but a mere post-doctoral fellow and not yet an assistant professor. Yet, Bill took it upon himself to introduce me to many of them individually.

Bill had no reason to invite me to the festschrift; at the time, he had no idea that I had been a devoted attendee of Jerry’s China series at the Council on Foreign Relations.[3] Nor did he have anything to gain from spending time introducing me to so many of his friends. Yet, Bill gladly did so. He derives genuine joy from opening doors for the next generation, affording them the opportunity to develop their own connections in the rich network that he has cultivated over the years. Indeed, I have seen him do so on numerous occasions for others throughout the years.

As is true of the esteemed birthday honoree that weekend, Bill always takes an interest in wanting to understand the interests and motivations of young people. He sees a potential in them that they often have yet to discover for themselves. He makes you believe that you can achieve great things, and he is genuinely committed to assisting you in pursuing your dreams. That weekend was the moment that I knew that I had been embraced into the fold of the community of China law scholars that Jerry and Bill had cultivated at Harvard Law.[4]

Several of the individuals whom I first met that June weekend later became friends and professional collaborators. The event was but the first of many times when introductions from Bill have facilitated my own scholarship. Whether in Beijing, Geneva, Seoul, or Taipei, I am always encountering individuals asking of Bill, and whose own generosity toward me is based on their admiration and respect for Bill. From so many of those individuals and from Bill himself, I have learned much that has shaped my views of contemporary China. But from Bill that weekend, I learned something more—how a small gesture, such as inviting one more young person to a conference, can open large doors that smooth the way for others to pursue their dreams.

Care About the People Who Are Most Important to Those Who Matter to You

We are taught to separate the professional from the personal at the workplace. Bill, however, has always understood that it is impossible to separate someone from those whom they care most about. He has made it his mission to care not only about his students and colleagues, but also about their families and those who matter most to those who matter to him. I am always astonished at how Bill’s razor-sharp memory can recall details of not just those whom he taught more than a decade ago, but also details of their families. Indeed, when overseas, I often find that it is not just his former students who inquire about him, but also their spouses, who share fond memories of their time spent with Bill and Yuanyuan.

I experienced this deep caring myself during a particularly difficult period in my life when I was a junior faculty member at Harvard. The article that I was planning to submit as the final piece for my tenure file had garnered negative reactions from some of my colleagues, yet I was determined to not alter it dramatically even if it meant that my tenure promotion would be delayed.[5] Most weeks, my wife traveled for work, so on several nights, I was left to care for my two young children alone. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She was unwilling to allow others to care for her and having a particularly difficult time acclimating to the assisted living center to which we had moved her.

Years before, during my first year on the Harvard Law faculty, I brought my toddler to the faculty lunch room. Later that day, a friendly colleague approached me to say I should avoid doing so, lest other colleagues develop the wrong impression that my family obligations was detracting from my scholarship. Ever since then, I’ve kept details of my family life fairly guarded from my colleagues. But despite my best efforts to do so, Bill could intuit that something was off.

Sitting alone in his office, I succumbed to confiding to Bill about my mother’s disease and the immense pressure and grief that I felt watching as she helplessly morphed into an entirely different person. Bill took it all in, listened with empathy, and at the end of it, gave me a hug. He then shared his own wise thoughts about how to handle the difficult journey that lay before me. Concerned as he might have been about my professional life at that precarious moment, he was most concerned about me as a person.

It would be that way throughout my remaining years as junior faculty. Almost every encounter, whether in the hallway or discussing one of my drafts, would begin with Bill asking, “How is your mother?” He genuinely wanted to know, and I was more than happy to share. The imprint of Bill’s scholarship on mine is quite evident, across a range of issues from intellectual property[6] to anti-dumping[7] to the Chinese legal profession.[8]  But what is less apparent is the imprint of his humanity on my own. Through his own example, he taught me that to care about others, you need to also care about those who matter the most to them. Only then can you truly learn how to have an impact on the lives of others.

If It Matters to Someone, Give It Your All

In the midst of a global pandemic, I stepped into the large shoes that Bill had left for me to fill as Vice Dean. Each week, I am reminded of how much more there is for me to learn about this job, in order to nurture the garden that Bill has so carefully cultivated throughout his deanship.[9] Together with the outstanding senior administrators in the program, we have sought to tackle the challenges thrown our way—from ever-changing immigration rules to uncertain delays in the administration of the bar exam.

What I have most admired about Bill in this most recent shared experience is his devotion to any matter, no matter how big or small, if it matters to someone else’s well-being. The impact of Bill’s advocacy may be obvious to others, when it comes to an immigration issue or securing additional seats in a classroom for LL.M. students. The same is true of human rights and disability issues—two areas very close to Bill’s heart, which others have highlighted in this volume.

What I have witnessed firsthand over the past few months is how Bill engages with the same relentless, creative energy on issues that, to others, may not seem to be of the magnitude worthy of the sustained attention of a former Vice Dean and one of the most eminent scholars of Chinese and comparative law. For example, several LL.M. students highlighted the difficulties they faced when experiencing temporary connectivity issues from overseas and then asking for notes from classmates for the missed portion of class. Some might react by saying that these students simply need to conjure up the nerve to ask a classmate. But Bill took it upon himself to examine why they faced difficulties and probe for possible solutions. He also decided to highlight to colleagues why small steps to fix a problem that might appear seemingly trivial at first glance nevertheless mattered greatly to particular students.

No matter the issue, if it matters to someone, Bill has taught me the importance of giving it one’s all. Indeed, Bill’s devotion is so relentless that I find myself reminding him of the need to take care of himself as well as others. After all, there is a lot more wisdom to be shared and a lot more virtue to be gained from the infinitely kind, humble, gracious person that is Bill Alford. May he continue to transform the lives of many more, with his sunny disposition and his love, as he embarks on the next chapter of his professional life in the years to come.

[1] See QS World University Rankings, Law,

[2] Please refer to the relevant contributions by Professor Michael Stein and Ambassador and former Justice Chang-fa Lo for further elaboration of these terms, as applied to Professor Alford.

[3] For an overview of Professor Cohen’s tremendous impact on the development of China’s legal system and Western understanding of it, see Pamela Krueger, China’s Legal Lion, NYU Law Mag.,

[4] It is therefore only fitting that Bill is the inaugural holder of the Jerome A. and Joan L. Cohen Professor of Law. Bill’s excellent lecture, “Learning from the Past to Appreciate the Present,” commemorating this occasion is available at

[5] Bill’s guidance was instrumental in my decision to leave much of the article unaltered and to further emphasize the difficulty of resorting to legal solutions. Soon thereafter, the article was published in an earlier volume of this journal. See Mark Wu, The ‘China, Inc.’ Challenge to Global Trade Governance, 57 Harv. Int’l L.J. 261 (2016).

[6] See William P. Alford, To Steal a Book Is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization (1995); William P. Alford, Making the World Safe for What? Intellectual Property Rights, Human Rights and Foreign Economic Policy in the Post-European Cold War World, 29 NYU. J. Int’l L. & Pol’y 135 (1996); William P. Alford, How Theory Does—and Does Not—Matter: American Approaches to Intellectual Property Law in East Asia, 13 UCLA Pac. Basin L.J. 8 (1994).

[7] See William P. Alford, When is China Paraguay? An Examination of the Application of Antidumping and Countervailing Duty Laws of the United States to China and Other “Nonmarket Economy” Nations, 61 S. Cal. L. Rev. 79 (1987).

[8] See William P. Alford, Tasselled Loafers for Barefoot Lawyers: Transformation and Tension in the World of Chinese Legal Workers, 141 China Q. 22 (1995); William P. Alford, “Second Lawyers, First Principles”: Lawyers, Rice-Roots Legal Workers, and the Battle Over Legal Professionalism in China, in Prospects for the Professions in China 43 (William P. Alford, Kenneth Winston & William C. Kirby eds., 2010).

[9] For a fitting tribute to Bill’s achievements as Vice Dean, see After 18 Years, Professor Alford Completes Tenure as Vice Dean for the Graduate Program and ILS, Harv. L. Today, Aug. 17, 2020,