China. It’s not the first place you think of when asked “Where would you like to go for an internship about human rights protection?”
Although the Chinese government does not have an outstanding reputation when it comes to protecting its citizens human rights, Chinese lawyers are the exact opposite. Working within the system to enforce the rule of law, often at the risk of their own liberty, made me decide that a 4 week internship in Beijing would be an unmissable opportunity to learn about human rights protection in a foreign context. And I was right!
I had the great privilege of interning at Zhicheng Public Interest Law, the largest non-government provider of legal aid in China. Established in 1999 by Tong Lihua, a lawyer and alumni of UTS, it is also the oldest local, Chinese NGO that focuses on children’s rights protection.
Working in the Zhicheng office somewhat mirrored the experiences I have on Beijing’s streets. It’s slightly chaotic and everyone is doing something, but you can also somehow weave through it all. Working with interns from across Australia, USA, France and China added to the fun and the different things you’d learn while working. In between researching child protection measures in different jurisdictions, conversations would veer into discussions of the intricacies of US laws on gun ownership and abortion like a modified Chinese scooter – risky to an outsider, but all part of the experience.
At the office, we overcame language barriers over shared meals and office spaces, making after work plans to get delicious dumplings and snag bargains at the markets.
The internship held an additional meaning for me, as an international studies student currently completing my in-country study in China. While I’m already accustomed to the language and culture here, the internship provided me with an opportunity to get to know another side of China – the professional, legal side. Not only did it help me get back in touch with my other – law student – side, but I also had the chance to practice my language skills in a range of contexts, from translating case notes for my fellow interns, to chairing our presentation forum in Mandarin!
Completing the internship not only helped me improve my legal research, writing and presentation skills, but it also helped me understand the challenges of running a non-governmental organisation. Zhicheng relies mostly on grants and sponsorship to operate, and like most legal aid centres around the world, is underfunded and understaffed for the work it does. Most of the lawyers do not speak English, and the poor internet service becomes the least of your worries when trying to overcome communication barriers. It’s crazy to imagine these problems on a daily basis, while making sure that you’re still abiding by Party policy!
I am incredibly grateful for my time in Zhicheng, for both the fantastic colleagues and friends I’ve met, and the skills I’ve learned. I feel very privileged to also be able to share these experiences, and be able to criticise the problems and challenges I’ve found the legal profession faces in China – something that I’ve taken for granted in Australia. I encourage other students considering a trip overseas to chose an unconventional and challenging site like Zhicheng in China – where just because the country doesn’t have a reputation for friendliness or a great human rights record, doesn’t mean that there aren’t dedicated people working to improve it!