Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

Introductory Remarks from the Editors-in-Chief

As Editors-in-Chief of the Harvard International Law Journal, we are delighted to formally launch our tribute in honor of Professor William Alford after stepping down from his role as Vice Dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School following nearly 20 years in that role.

Because of Professor Alford, HLS has expanded its international and comparative law curriculum, brought leading scholars from across the globe to teach, concluded its first exchange programs with foreign universities, facilitated over a thousand students studying or working abroad, and further advanced its stellar LL.M. and S.J.D. programs while markedly strengthening the nation’s most substantial policy of need-blind admission and need-based financial aid for graduate students in law.  Professor Alford continues to chair the nation’s oldest program concerning law in East Asia and co-founded the HLS Project on Disability (HPOD) which has provided its pro bono services in more than 40 nations.

We have invited scholars, alumni, and friends from around the world to commemorate his legacy and impact.  Our website presentation includes tributes covering Professor Alford’s work with respect to international law, comparative law, advocacy work, East Asian law studies, disability issues, as well as his teaching and leadership more broadly, touching the lives of countless students and colleagues.  We are also previewing here a collection of print tributes that will be published in our winter issue of Volume 62.

We would like to express our thanks all those involved with putting together this tribute, in particular Siqi Zhao, our external outreach chair, who coordinated the tribute submissions and editorial process.  We also thank Mitchell Wellman, who served as primary editor of the print submissions, and the following ILJ editors who helped with the online submissions: Natalie Hills, Celia Reynolds, Carolina Rocha Richart, Lukas Roth, Mason Ji and Trinidad Alonso Quiros. We also could not have done it without support of Beier Lin and Tyler Kohring for their help with website design.

Finally, we would like to the opportunity to thank Professor Alford for his wise advice and patient support as our board advisor over these many years.  It truly has been a privilege to put this tribute together.

We hope you enjoy reading this tribute and if you would like to submit your own, please reach out to


Best wishes,

Roberta Mayerle and Steven Wang

A Note from Professor William P. Alford

Thank you so much Roberta, Steven, Siqi, Mitchell, Natalie, Celia, Carolina, Lukas, Mason, Trinidad, Beier, and Tyler for all the thought, kindness and hard work that went into conceiving of and carrying out this far too generous set of tributes.  I have to admit to feeling somewhat guilty that this undertaking absorbed too much of your time, especially since I already have gained so abundantly over the years from having had many of you and your colleagues as students. Having long ago been an editor of the Harvard International Law Journal and having the privilege of being one of its faculty advisors, I could not think of a more fitting forum in which to be recognized.

I firmly believe that much of whatever any of us achieve is owing in large measure to the support of others – be that intellectual, psychological, material and/or other support. Hence, it is deeply moving to see the tributes submitted for this issue – I feel that I am the one who should be acknowledging all that  the authors of these tributes have done.  As I mentioned to Roberta, Steven and Siqi, I am treating your entries as if they were a box of the most exquisite chocolates – consuming only a few per day so that I can savor them, use them to rekindle fond memories, and begin to compose appropriate thank you notes.

I feel extraordinarily privileged to have had such wonderful mentors, colleagues, classmates and students, and to have made great friendships around the world through my academic life, my pro bono work (most notably with Special Olympics and our Harvard Law School Project on Disability), and my family. What unites all these different people from so many different places is the opportunities they’ve give me to learn from them and about them, their generosity of spirit, and their great patience in the face of my goofy efforts at humor and my, no doubt, idiosyncratic approach to organizational matters.

Thank you so much!!


Print Tributes
Susannah Tobin’s Tribute to Professor William Alford

Susannah Tobin’s Tribute to Professor William Alford

Susannah Barton Tobin
Managing Director of the Climenko Fellowship Program & Assistant Dean for Academic Career Advising, Harvard Law School

Sitting next to someone at sporting events is a good way to get to know their character.  How do they react when their team is winning?  When it’s losing?  When someone gets injured?  How do they think about strategy?  I’ve had the good fortune over the last ten years to attend a number of Harvard basketball and hockey games with Bill Alford—and how he is as a fan is the same way he is as a person: loyal, generous, and incisive.

When I returned to HLS in 2009, one of my first tasks was collaborating with the Graduate Program to talk with the new LLMs during their orientation.  Both Professor Alford and Dean Jeanne Tai were welcoming and supportive.  As a newcomer in my role at the Law School, I felt I was being oriented just as the students were—oriented to a culture of dedication and collegiality.  On the occasion of his stepping down as Vice Dean for the Graduate Program, I’m grateful for the chance to reflect on all Bill has done—and continues to do—for his students and for HLS.  In particular, I’d like to highlight three lessons he’s taught me: first, how to be an advocate.  Second, how to listen generously.  And third, how to find joy especially during hard times.

Like the best fans in the stands, Bill is a relentless advocate for his students.  Anyone who’s been Bill’s student knows how invested he is in their success.  His view of the teaching role is capacious—he shares his expertise, his advice, and his time.  And he helps students access the full range of resources at this University and across his own—vast—personal network of friends and colleagues.  He helps on issues large—recommendations for jobs—and small—loans of books, and everything in between.  Despite his incomprehensibly busy schedule, he goes out of his way for every student.  Watching how he helps students has raised the bar for the rest of us.

Unlike some fans, Bill will consider the ref’s call before assuming it’s wrong.  Among the many jobs Bill has done in his role as Vice Dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies is acting as host for the many dignitaries—lawyers, judges, politicians—visiting HLS from all over the world.  Bill’s hospitality and wide range of reference put his visitors at ease and make everyone feel part of the HLS community.  When someone is challenging in conversation (challenging is my word, not Bill’s), Bill listens and frames his response with relentless grace and generosity.  He models what it means to be a lawyer-statesman—strong in his convictions while open to other viewpoints.

And finally, as a sports fan who has seen his teams at the highest heights and the lowest lows, Bill knows how to find joy even in hard times.  As a member of the board for the Special Olympics, Bill has helped bring the opportunity of sport to athletes of all capabilities.  As a friend, he finds ways to cheer us with an email when our team does well or “there’s always next year” when it doesn’t.  I treasure a signed poster from the Harvard basketball team he collected for me when I was having some health issues.

You’ll notice that in this short piece I’ve referred to several fulltime jobs Bill holds.  He has at least one more I haven’t mentioned—faculty advisor to the Harvard hockey team.  For years, he has guided student athletes through their athletic and academic careers and into their professional lives.  The highest honor a collegiate hockey player can receive is the Hobey Baker award, which goes to the player who “exhibits strength of character both on and off the ice” and “contributes to the integrity of the team and displays outstanding skills in all phases of the game.”  More than just a fan, Bill is deserving of our own Hobey Baker Award for his outstanding service.

Timothy Brown’s Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

Timothy Brown’s Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

Timothy Brown
Managing Director (retired), Asia, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

Beyond their core identity as leading scholars, Harvard Faculty typically wear multiple hats.  The term university citizen aptly describes such individuals who actively pursue broad intellectual interests in service to the University and beyond.  While many colleagues and students have lauded Bill for his contributions as teacher and scholar, as one of Bill’s biggest fans at the University, I offer a somewhat different perspective.  First, Bill’s infectious enthusiasm is hard to miss.  Indeed, albeit serendipitous, it was Bill’s open, generous spirit that led to the first of many chance conversations during intermission at Crimson ice hockey games.  As diehard ice hockey fans, our paths would regularly cross at the Bright-Landry Ice Center, home to Crimson hockey.  When I learned Bill served as “Faculty Fellow” (informal team advisor) to the men’s hockey team, I spoke of my volunteer role as academic advisor to several team members.  Never one to miss an opportunity to collaborate and sensing a kindred spirit, Bill suggested I consider joining him as a Faculty Fellow supporting coach Ted Donato and the team.

I was inspired by Bill’s desire to make sure our student-athletes benefit fully from their Harvard education despite the modern student-athlete’s constrained life.  Equally inspiring is Bill’s ability to leverage his love of college sports with a longstanding commitment to the Special Olympic movement, both driven ultimately by a powerful desire to create opportunity for all.  From  arranging activities that bring hockey team members together with kids from the local chapter of the Special Olympics to organizing groups attending games typically culminating in visits with the team in their locker room, and many similar activities, Bill’s creative energy and generosity of spirit is a joy to watch.  I am deeply grateful to Bill as a mentor, demonstrating exactly what it means to be a great University citizen.

Liu Hongchuan’s Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

Liu Hongchuan’s Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

Liu Hongchuan
LL.M.’99, Harvard Law School

I can’t recall exactly when I first met Professor Alford at HLS.  It must be in one of the many events organized by East Asia Legal Study when I was studying for the LL.M. in the late 1990s.  At that time, I was too timid to talk much with him as he was always surrounded by many students and scholars who loved and admired him deeply.

I had more opportunity to interact with him when I took his International Trade and WTO class. The rules and textbook about the subject are pretty boring. However, with his insightful guidance, tolerance and humor, the class never was boring. Unlike many professors in Chinese universities, he seldom gave long speeches about his own view of the legal issues at hand. Instead, he always encouraged students to give the issues serious thought and express their own points of view without hesitation.  He was extremely tolerant to different views no matter how naïve or absurd they may sound and only politely reminded you that there are other, at least equally convincing, arguments you need to take into consideration. The class took place in the late mornings and we often became quite hungry towards the end of the class. He often brought cookies to the class and we could eat cookies while enjoying his teaching.  It was a wonderful experience I never had before. I do not remember much what I learned, but I will never forget the warm, light and intellectually stimulating atmosphere of our class.

I really came to know him only after I graduated from the law school. Every time I came back to HLS, I always tried to meet him and when he traveled to China, he also found opportunities to meet me. As time went by, we found that we have one more thing in common: we are both fathers of an autistic child and we are constantly facing unique challenges in life that ordinary people will not come across. Again, he became another role model for me within the area of disabilities.  He taught me by his personal example how to turn a personal misfortunate into broader love and compassion for people at large. Last year in the heat of the US-China trade war, I invited him to give a lecture to our law school alumni in Beijing. As the graduates of Harvard Law School, we have all benefited greatly from the four-decade good relationships between China and the United States, but now the good times seem to come to an end. Prof. Alford reminded us that things may get worse before they get better and that we should not have unrealistic expectations that the old good times will come back soon. However, he also reminded us to keep confidence in the relationship in the long run and make our own effort to improve it. All the alumni took much courage, confidence and comfort from his lecture.

It seems to me that though he may not be the most brilliant professor of the law school, he is certainly the most beloved one among international students. Like Confucius and Socrates, he is first and foremost a great teacher who loves teaching and loves students with all his heart. I do wish that his life-long teaching and academic career will continue to flourish.

Yu Xingzhong’s Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

Yu Xingzhong’s Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

Yu Xingzhong 
Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Professor in Chinese Law, Cornell Law School

A Tribute to Professor William P. Alford


Professor William P. Alford, a scholar of Chinese law and legal history, as he modestly styles himself, has served as the vice dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies at Harvard Law School (“HLS”) for eighteen years, leaving behind a remarkable imprint on international legal education and exchange. As his first doctoral student, I have had the great luck to benefit from his eminent guidance and unswerving support in many aspects of my life, both academic and personal, during my student years and thereafter. While his virtues hardly need any personal testimony as affirmation, I feel grateful to have been asked to write about him by the Harvard International Law Journal.

I had the privilege of doing my master’s and doctoral degrees at HLS between 1990 and 1995, under Professor Alford’s guidance. After graduation, I returned to HLS twice in 1998 and 2006, to co-teach with him. I also have made countless short-term visits to the university. Each time, I felt very close and fresh. Because HLS is continuously changing, there is always something new and exciting to see.

In celebrating his legacy, we are celebrating the achievements of a decent human being—as dean John Manning commented, a great teacher, a bridge of cultural exchange, an admirable mentor, and a modest gentleman with the quality of jade, as many Chinese intellectuals fondly say of him.[1] Professor Alford is a renaissance man: erudite and thoughtful, far-sighted, and knowledgeable with a deep academic background. In addition to his command of Chinese culture and law, he is also conversant in other Asian cultures and institutions. Professor Alford is known not only for his research on Chinese law but also for his work regarding intellectual property and human rights. His subtle and comprehensive research focuses on, but is not limited to, Asia. He is an intellectual with great humanistic concern and a strong sense of historical responsibility.

When we celebrate his legacy, there is much to be mentioned. In this Tribute, I humbly offer a few comments related to my experience in learning from him.

I. A China specialist of his own

To begin, I want to salute Professor Alford’s contribution to scholarship on Chinese law and legal history. Those of us in Chinese legal studies are familiar with his excellent work in Chinese law, but let me offer a few thoughts about its long-lasting significance.

He regards law as an essential part of a nation’s culture and people and attaches great importance to understanding its historical and cultural background. He is very well versed in legal thought and legal institutions of major legal families. In his writing, Professor Alford reflects deeply on a typical practice of treating China as a foil more than an object of research to be seriously studied, rejects mechanical understandings of Chinese law, and calls for an understanding of Chinese law on its own terms. His book, To Steal A Book Is An Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization, introduces the history of the development of intellectual property law in China while touching upon legal and cultural transplantation issues, pointing out that the intellectual property system introduced from the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not successful. The main reason is that the transplanters did not consider how different the Chinese environment was. There is no doubt that his insightful research on Chinese and comparative law has made important contributions to the field.

Professor Alford’s approach to Chinese legal tradition contrasts with two other approaches available as conventional wisdom: universalism and cultural relativism. Universalist interpretations of Chinese legal tradition are connected by their reliance on the idea that all nations’ laws and legal experiences follow a general evolutionary pattern. The differences between legal systems in developing and developed societies are matters of the degree of societal development. Exponents usually rely on an analytical model developed by an influential thinker and apply that model to China for comparative purposes. Typical of these interpretations are those employing models developed by sociologists like Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Ferdinand Tönnies. While to some extent these interpretations reveal aspects of the Chinese legal tradition, they also exemplify what the Chinese call cutting the feet to fit the shoes.

For cultural relativists, each legal system is a unique consequence of a given culture. Law is inherently shaped by culture and cannot be adequately understood without referring to the larger cultural context. They tend to spell out a legal picture that stretches the concept of law to include the whole intellectual universe. For instance, some have argued that the Chinese legal tradition fuses heavenly reason, state law, and human sentiments and embodies the great principle of heaven and humanity’s unity. They tend to emphasize the uniqueness of China’s legal tradition and its incompatibility with universal principles and practices.

Dissatisfied with purely universalistic approaches and skeptical of the usefulness of relativism, Professor Alford has taken alternative ways to approach Chinese legal tradition. Instead of relying on any existing legal epistemology or employing the deductive method that usually accompanies universalistic analysis, he resorts to the analogical method and specific legal concepts or legal relations for analytical tools and detailed legal aspects for the subject matter of analysis.

For instance, Professor Alford contributed to the elevation of our understanding of the formal criminal justice process in late imperial China by reconstructing archival materials and analyzing one of the most celebrated criminal cases in Chinese history—that of Yang Naiwu and Xiao Baicai.[2] It is a significant effort because before him, no scholar, Chinese or foreign, had charted in meaningful and explicated detail the full course of any one case that traversed the entire formal criminal justice system from the district magistrate to the highest reaches of imperial government. Through an overall introduction to the Chinese legal context at the time of the case and a detailed reconstruction of the case, he vividly recreates the behavior, thoughts, judgments, reasoning, and psychological states of the people in the courtroom and behind the scenes, as well as the pros and cons of the Qing dynasty legal proceedings.

II. A magnanimous heart

One of the significant achievements whereby Professor Alford has set an example concerns human rights. He has made enormous efforts in promoting human rights in Asian countries, especially in China, where things are complicated due to the cultural tradition and political environment. It is often difficult to get involved from the outside, and even hard to find where to get started. Very often, good efforts encounter unexpected frustrations.

Over the years, whether supervising a student thesis, hosting Chinese scholars, organizing training sessions for grassroots actors or holding conferences in the field of comparative law and human rights, Professor Alford applied his wisdom and negotiated his way to effectively promote human rights in China. A famous Chinese saying succinctly describes his pursuit in that he “corrects his way but does not calculate what benefits will bring him; adheres to principles without hurrying after success.”[3]

The well-known Harvard Law School Project on Disability Rights, which Professor Alford co-founded, has volunteered in several countries, including China, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Vietnam, on disability rights issues. It has been very well received by Asian countries, being not only a socially beneficial program but also one of pedagogical significance.

In dealing with various difficulties the promotion of human rights in China often encounters, he embodies a subtle way of thinking: “When the water is clear enough, I wash my hat; when it is muddy, I wash my feet.”[4] Behind all these tremendous human rights involvements is a great person who has a magnanimous heart—humane, sympathetic, generous, and tolerant.

III. A never-tiring teacher 

Professor Alford has been seen as a generous mentor, never-tiring teacher, and role model; as having achieved high moral and ethical status and commanding heartfelt admiration and respect; and as an ideal teacher in the Confucian tradition, and indeed, other great cultural traditions.[5] Over the years, he helped numerous students from diverse ethnic and geographical origins, academically and otherwise, to complete their education at HLS. Like his scholarship, his way of teaching exemplifies the most refined style of the work: polite but demanding, inspirational but realistic, laying stress on the present but also emphasizing historical background. His students surely remember the meticulous comments Professor Alford left on their papers!

However, what characterizes the true relationship between Professor Alford and his students does not stop here. His practice of Maimonides’ teachings on how to care for others distinguishes his role as a teacher, the highest degree of which is to help the students one supports become independent, from educating them to finding a way of living for those students.[6] In doing that, he is no longer just your teacher, but a close friend or a relative as well. That is true in my case, and that of other students, for which we are eternally grateful.

Professor Alford likes to quote from Xunzi, a Confucian-Legalist-Taoist thinker who thrived around third century B.C.E, to encourage all his students: “Blue dye derives from the indigo plant, and yet it is bluer than the plant; ice comes from water, and yet it is colder than water.”[7] This means that a good student should surpass his teacher. Whenever possible, he made arrangements to help his student. He has a research project on Roscoe Pound and asked me to collect Chinese materials on Pound. Having gone through some papers written by scholars on Mainland China and Taiwan, I wrote a brief introduction for him. He then gracefully suggested that I be his co-author. That was something I never dreamed of. This anecdote also attests to what a decent human being he is. 


Professor Alford has been described as a monumental bridge between cultures in the West and East. His wisdom and generosity have inspired generations of students, academics, and lawyers in many corners of the world. In celebrating him, I see no better way than continuing his effort to build that bridge to effectuate more substantial exchanges between and among scholars. I wish him longevity and blissfulness.


[1] In May 2019, more than fifty Chinese legal scholars gathered at the People’s University of China (“Renda”) to honor Professor Alford for his contributions to China’s legal education and legal reform. Many scholars, including Wang Liming, vice president of Renda, Zhu Jinwen, Han Dayuan and Wang Yi, former and current deans of the Renda Law School, Wu Zhipan, former dean of the School of Law and current vice president of Peking University, Wang Zhenmin, former dean of Tsinghua University Law School, professor Liang Zhiping of the Chinese Academy of Arts, professor He Weifang of Peking University Law School, expressed their appreciation of him and his friendship. See As Elegant as Green Bamboos—A Collection of Papers Commemorating the Exchange Between Professor William Alford and the Chinese Legal World (绿竹猗猗—安守廉教授与中国法学界交流纪念文集) (Guo Rui & Miu Yinzhi eds., 2019).

[2] William P. Alford “Of Arsenic and Old Laws: Looking Anew at Criminal Justice in Late Imperial China” California Law Review, December 1984.

[3] See Dong Zhongshu, “The Great Officers of Yue Cannot be Considered Humane,” in 董仲舒《春秋繁露·对胶西王越大夫不得为仁》, Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn, edited and translated by Sarah A. Queen and John S. Major (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016) P. 328.

[4] Quoted from an old Chinese folk song. “沧浪之水清兮,可以濯吾缨;沧浪之水浊兮,可以濯吾足。”

[5] See supra note 1.

[6] See Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charityin Charity: an Anthology (Yanki Tauber ed.), (last visited Nov. 25, 2020).

[7] An Exhortation to Learningin Xunzi: The Complete Text 1 (Eric Hutton trans. and ed., 2014).

Ruth Okediji’s Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

Ruth Okediji’s Tribute to Professor William P. Alford

Ruth L. Okediji
Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School


I arrived at Harvard Law School (“HLS”) on a cloudy day in September 1991, fresh out of college and reeling from a miraculous journey that had landed me in front of the International Legal Studies (“ILS”) building. Still, I recall the keen sense of disappointment that washed over me as I looked at the industrial architecture of ‘the ILS,’ as I would eventually fondly call it. This imposing granite structure that was my portal to the campus stood cold, unwelcoming, and to my mind, impenetrable.

Within weeks, I settled into classes far removed from my intended course of study in intellectual property. Harvard had no course offerings in the subjects that commanded my most significant interests—innovation, legal regulation of technology transfer, and law and development. Limited courses aside, I had to work three jobs on campus, given the minimal funding for the Graduate Program. Between midnight shifts at Langdell, 6:00 a.m. morning shifts at the Hark Café, and babysitting stints during the weekends, I studied Corporate Law, Economic Analysis of the Law, and Constitutional Law.

Although life was unusually challenging, these subjects of which I was a reluctant student were fascinating. The menu of new ideas and perspectives to which I was exposed, and the opportunity to analyze, contest, and engage them in class was vivifying. In some ways, my irreverence for the then-dominant HLS business law curriculum freed me from constraints imposed by deference or respect; being disinterested but also eager to make good on my time at HLS allowed me to discern my own biases and to revisit my scorn of approaches to law that appeared, on the surface, to avoid tackling troubling issues of global justice. In the end, it was these courses that prepared me far more than I could have foreseen for my encounter with the man whose impact on my education at HLS and on my academic career has been immeasurably significant.

In the spring semester, I enrolled in a course titled “International Law: Legal Aspects of Transnational Economic Activity” taught by “William P. Alford.”  It was a new course by a new professor about whom students lacked information. The course “endeavor[ed] to provide students with an understanding of the fundamental legal questions that arise in transnational economic activity and of the manner in which the different cultural, economic, and political orientations of those involved therein shape the formulation and resolution of such legal questions.”[1] Like most course descriptions at the time, this one had the rhetorical draw of an architectural plan. Nonetheless, its allusions to the role of culturepluralism, and the dynamics of power in shaping law made for a quiet revolution in my time at HLS.

In the classroom, Professor Alford was brilliant, funny, and compelling, true. Nevertheless, these were not what compelled my attention. It was that he saw and heard me. At times, it appeared the entire class would fade away as he and I engaged in extended conversations about the exercise of sovereignty in global markets, the merit and methods of legal transplantation, and the complexity of reforming international organizations to better address challenges in developing countries. Professor Alford had a prescient sense that American assumptions about law did not reflect the international economic system’s future. In urging students to examine American hegemony’s unstable underpinnings, he taught us the importance of intellectual humility. He deftly drew students of different backgrounds and views into a vibrant debate, cultivating a kind of multicultural dialogue that was too rare in the HLS of those days. I sat riveted in his class, my hand rarely down, taking in as much as I could and as much as he was willing to give, which was a lot.

In addition to the challenging coursework, such as concerning the complexities of political power as expressed in the design of tariffs or rules governing custom unions, Professor Alford’s classroom was a laboratory for cultivating new ideas that I could safely test only in the distinctive global space he created during his lectures. My final paper in the course laid the intellectual foundations of my doctoral work on the U.S. copyright system and the unfolding negotiations over trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights,[2] which he supervised.[3] Professor Alford was an outstanding supervisor; his criticism of my work was piercing and always delivered in a way that pushed my thinking and strengthened my voice as a scholar. His nurture of, and trust in, my intellectual instincts fueled my exploration and study of interdisciplinary critiques of colonialism, law, and cultural institutions, the fruits of which continue to inform my scholarship till this day.

One anecdote about Professor Alford’s pedagogical style will have to do. He often came to class with props, of which my favorite was a set of Mickey Mouse ties that he would cycle through wearing, and which he had bought while in China. One reason he wore them was to help students visualize that all-too-abstract force we call “globalization.” He sought to illustrate the permeability of culture, and the overt and less overt ways in which culture manifests itself, is accessed, and is transformed through transnational economic activity. The existence of Mickey Mouse ties made in China put into question the assumption that cultural artifacts could be “just” American, or “just” Chinese, instead of things that are reinterpreted continuously, reframed, and recast to meet the exigencies of different cultural locations. This remains a profound point and represents a subtlety still too often left behind in more recent and polarizing debates about such matters as cultural appropriation or the efficacy of legal transplantation.[4]

I must mention Professor Alford’s research briefly because it so indelibly set the stage for my scholarship. In his first and still best-known book, To Steal a Book Is an Elegant Offense,[5] readers confront a wedding between an argument for more cultural empathy and Alford’s generous spirit. In that work, he argued that Western attempts to impose copyright and patent regimes on China floundered because of a scant understanding of Chinese “political culture,” according to which strict state control over the dissemination of ideas is necessary to protect citizens’ ability to maintain their Confucian heritage.[6] Such a culture, the development of which Professor Alford traces from the Qing dynasty to the People’s Republic of China and past the Cultural Revolution, leaves little room for promoting private property interests in idea or expression. Accordingly, he concluded that the Western endeavor to alter Chinese attitudes toward intellectual property is “incapable of generating the type of domestic rationale and conditions needed to produce enduring change and, moreover, runs a serious risk of discrediting [its] very message.”[7]

Whether this account of Chinese history is too driven by elites operating from the top down, or if it uses terms like “culture,” “society,” and “politics” in a manner looser than what contemporary social scientists would prefer is still open to debate. I would argue that it is rare for works that ask defining questions of a field to be as nuanced in how they address those questions. Professor Alford himself anticipates—and, to his credit, accepts—the criticism that he has interpreted his subject matter according to his own socio-cultural location. He acknowledges that he relies “on definitions of intellectual property derived from Western settings,”[8] even as he warns “against extrapolating normality from the West,”[9] and recognizes that “at no time is any society’s culture monolithic, given class, gender, ethnic, regional, and other differences.”[10]

I want to highlight three ways in which Professor Alford has influenced my work, as an illustration of the remarkable manner in which he has shaped an entire generation of scholars now tasked with building on his foundational insights.

First, and most simply, there has been the pivot to Asia, the sense in which a consideration of the global intellectual property system will necessarily be incomplete without a deep understanding of the workings of China’s contributions to and goals for the system. There is now an elaborate set of specialized intellectual property law tribunals, with their appellate court, namely the Intellectual Property Court of the Supreme Court, and with more than 200,000 cases heard per year.[11] American law firms have found it increasingly necessary to litigate within this system, and, indeed, foreign patent holders are more likely to win infringement cases and receive larger damage awards than Chinese patent holders.[12] China is firmly established as one of the top five patent offices in the world, and with 58,990 Patent Cooperation Treaty (“PCT”) applications, applicants residing in China filed the most applications in 2019. The World Intellectual Property Organization (“WIPO”) reports that “[t]his was the first year since the PCT System began operating in 1978 that applicants from the U.S moved down to second place.”[13]  Professor Alford’s observation that “conditions that breed protection for intellectual property rights are also those that breed competition with regard to [the design of] intellectual property”[14] law is now the central consideration in discussions about the intellectual property system’s future.

Second, Professor Alford articulated the fundamentally value-driven and constructed nature of intellectual property law. Every nation, Professor Alford reminds us, has “enduring values and practices” that are central to its identity, and which “foreigners . . . should not too readily assume they have either the moral authority or capacity meaningfully to influence.”[15]

In the research trajectory that followed my graduate work, I tried to historicize the idea of “innovation” that Anglo-American intellectual property law has traditionally protected.[16] The field had long treated that term interchangeably with “creativity,” even though organizational psychologists distinguish between the two. Building on many conversations with Professor Alford, my early work sought to establish that “innovation” is just one way of thinking about creativity and, indeed, a deeply culturally inflected one. I argued that varieties of creativity exist, each closely linked with the social structures, institutions, and cultural practices that make up a particular form of the good life.[17]

Moreover, the insistence on the inevitability of values foregrounds the question of justice in intellectual property law. Professor Alford is not a theoretician concerned with defining the nature of law or justice per se, and he has expressed doubts about the feasibility of any “grand theory” in comparative legal work.[18] However, he does ask us to consider the real effect that intellectual property rules have on people, not least those living outside of a narrow set of privileged economies. Such intellectual property rules are useful when they prevent “lives lost, gruesome injuries sustained, and medical procedures altered due to adulterated pharmaceuticals and other counterfeited products,”[19] but oppressive when they legitimate state crackdowns of human rights.[20] And the latter phenomenon is not peripheral to the field of intellectual property but, instead, something that lies at its center.

In my work, I have tried to show how intellectual property rules can generate new forms of marginalization in the Global South even as they encourage innovation there. Thus, the story of intellectual property law is incomplete without considering how it has been used to, say, privatize tools essential for addressing pollution and climate change, limit access to antiretroviral medications for HIV/AIDS, and restrict access to educational materials.[21] In this way, far from a technocratic discipline, intellectual property is central to some of the most pressing issues of justice facing a globalized world today.

A third lesson I have taken from Professor Alford is deeply personal, but perhaps the most important one of all. It is that empathy in scholarly work is legitimate, and it multiplies. If I come to empathize with someone very different from myself, that may well enable me to engage with a much greater universe of people, who may be affected in very different ways by a variety of structural forces. Conversely, those who start down some path of prejudice too often end up alienating themselves from the very people who might have helped them to turn back. Both empathy and bias end up being force multipliers.

Not too long ago, Professor Alford began co-editing a multi-volume collection of oral histories of individuals with intellectual disabilities in China.[22] This perhaps surprising development in his scholarly trajectory clicks perfectly into place when one reads the observation of a co-editor, Mei Liao, that oral history has mostly remained an American and British affair, despite its potency in letting disadvantaged groups speak to the world in their own voices.[23] Therefore, the project represents processes of cultural transformations at their best and is an extension of Professor Alford’s longstanding empathy for developing countries to a specific community of disadvantaged inhabitants in those countries. That empathy is something I have woven more boldly into my work, such as on how persons with print disabilities encounter the copyright system.[24]

If shifts in the global economy have forced us to rethink our most foundational assumptions about the nature and role of law in society, then intellectual humility is sorely needed: we must attend to the possible narrowness of our views and be empathetic to those offering alternate perspectives. Throughout his career, Professor Alford has embodied this ethos, and his consideration of culture as integral to the academic enterprise has had indisputable consequences for Harvard Law School. As head of the Graduate Program for eighteen years, he has shaped an unparalleled program attracting diverse minds from every region worldwide. Significantly, he extended dignity and hospitality to those minds. Under his leadership, LLM students would no longer arrive already informally ranked according to their country of origin’s global prestige. The Program became more egalitarian, more humane, and more intentional in guiding students’ intellectual growth, especially those from less well-resourced legal systems, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Those students can access the breadth of the theoretical and doctrinal cutting-edge curriculum that Harvard offers. Significantly, today, they can do so without the crushing weight of financial burdens. No one in today’s Graduate Program has to juggle three jobs alongside a rigorous academic schedule.

A final word: If to steal a book is an elegant offense, we should also remember another Chinese proverb, often translated as “what you cannot avoid, welcome.” The world we live in is full of turbulence and promise, but there are opportunities to steer it toward the good for others at every step. After defending my doctoral dissertation, Professor Alford took me to lunch at Changsho, a veritable institution among Harvard Law students. When the conversation turned to my future plans, he said, “Who knows? You might be back here as a faculty member one day.” I remember reacting in the same way I had done earlier to the business law curriculum—with dismissive skepticism. Professor Alford proved me wrong again. I will be forever grateful that he welcomed all of me not only those many years ago in his class, but always since then.


[1] International Law: Legal Aspects of Transnational Economic Activity, Harv. L. Sch. Catalog 128 (1992),

[2] See Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, Apr. 15, 1994, 1869 UNTS 299, 33 ILM 1197.

[3] Along with Professor Arthur Miller and Professor Leroy Vail of the History Department.

[4] See Toby S. Goldbach, Why Legal Transplants?, 15 Ann. Rev. L. Soc. Sci. 583, 597 (2019) (lamenting the lack of use of social science methods, or consideration of “power dynamics, competition, and contingency,” in the transplants literature).

[5] William P. Alford, To Steal a Book Is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization (1995).

[6] See id. at 28.

[7] Id. at 118.

[8] Alford, supra note 6 at 4.

[9] Id. at 5.

[10] Id. at 6.

[11] See generally William Weightman, Is the Emperor Still Far Away? Centralization, Professionalization, and Uniformity in China’s Intellectual Property Reforms, 19 UIC Rev. Intell. Prop. L. 145 (2020).

[12] See Renjun Bian, Patent Litigation in China: Challenging Convention Wisdom, 33 Berkeley Tech. L.J. 413, 460.

[13] WIPO, Patent Cooperation Treaty Yearly Review 19–20 (2020).

[14] Alford, supra note 6 at 123.

[15] Id. at 120.

[16] See Ruth L. Gana, Has Creativity Died in the Third World? Some Implications of the Internationalization of Intellectual Property, 24 Denv. J. Int’l L. & Pol’y 109, 116–17 n.25 (1995).

[17] See id. at 133 (“Whereas the stated underlying purpose of Anglo-American intellectual property law is to encourage creative endeavor, protection of creative endeavor in Third World societies is purposely used to achieve a myriad of social, political, and economic goals.”).

[18] See William P. Alford, On the Limits of “Grand Theory” in Comparative Law, 61 Wash. L. Rev. 945 (1986).

[19] 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 N.Y.U. J. Int’l L. & Pol. 135, 136 (1996).

[20] Id. at 144–45.

[21] See Ruth L. Okediji, Does Intellectual Property Need Human Rights?, 51 N.Y.U. J. Int’l L. & Pol. 1, 32–54 (2018).

[22] See 1–3 An Oral History of the Special Olympics in China (William P. Alford, Mei Liao & Fengming Cui eds., 2020).

[23] See 1 An Oral History of the Special Olympics in China, supra note 22, at xviii.

[24] See, e.g., Laurence R. Helfer, Molly K. Land, Ruth L. Okediji & Jerome H. Reichman, The World Blind Union Guide to the Marrakesh Treaty: Facilitating Access to Books for Print-Disabled Individuals (2017); Laurence R. Helfer, Molly K. Land & Ruth Okediji, Copyright Exceptions Across Borders: Implementing the Marrakesh Treaty, 42 Eur. Intell. Prop. Rev. 332 (2020).