Asia through a Legal Lens


This article appears in the 2019 edition of the Allard School of Law alumni magazine. The full issue is available online. If you would like to receive a printed copy, please send an email to

Wei Cui is a Professor and Director for the Centre for
Asian Legal Studies at the Allard School of Law. 

The recent assertion by pundits that the 21st century belongs to China is not uncontested, but at the very least the growing political and economic influence China and other Asian countries have on the global stage isn’t up for debate. A quick glance at the major newsprint headlines quickly confirms the view that understanding what happens in Asia is firmly within the Canadian national interest. Yet how much is known in North America about the legal systems within Asian countries?

A deeper understanding of law and the legal culture of countries in Asia could aid immeasurably in more effective and substantial engagement with these countries.

It is this critical dimension that the Centre for Asian Legal Studies (CALS) at the Allard School of Law has sought to address, a point Professor Wei Cui, the current CALS director, is eager to drive home.

“Law is an indispensable instrument by which societies govern themselves,” Cui notes. “In a country like China, the legal system is extremely sophisticated. Not having the legal lens is a big disadvantage. It’s true for other Asian countries too.”

One of Cui’s most recent projects expands the theme in innovative and far-reaching ways. Over the past two years, he has been collaborating with tax administrators in China, using taxpayer data to do economic research on how 2.4 million Chinese firms comply with the tax law and how they react to changes in tax policy. Not only does this mark an unprecedented research collaboration; it tackles some big social science questions about taxpayer compliance.

And it does so aided by Cui’s insight into taxpayer law and administration. Cui has three PhD students from UBC’s Vancouver School of Economics working with him on the project, who are keenly appreciative of how knowledge about the local legal context provides a critical tool for shaping a productive research agenda.

“An economist will write down some mathematical model and think about tax rates, but they are not thinking about how the laws will eventually be written and enforced,” explains one of the PhD student researchers, Jeff Hicks. “Wei knows what’s going on on the ground, so that helps inform which questions are useful,” says Hicks.

Cui thinks that the findings of the research will strengthen understanding of tax administration both in China and beyond. The benefits are significant.

Already, Cui’s research is being used by international organizations to generate ideas for strengthening revenue-raising capacity in developing countries, which in turn enables greater public spending and the reduction of wealth inequality.

This type of ambitious research agenda, which connects substantially to legal realities in Asian countries, is what Cui seeks to foster as the Director of CALS. “We want to be representing the most advanced type of research in Asian law. That means interdisciplinary research that draws on the social sciences,” he explains. “We can’t just be talking about what judges have said, what laws have been made. We can’t just be reading statutes and regulations. We need to look at how law is actually practiced and affects people’s lives.” CALS boasts the largest number of scholars studying Asian law in North America, and the research output and policy involvement of its associated faculty is impressive.

The success of CALS as a research centre is due in no small part to the strong networks CALS scholars maintain within Asian countries. Cui believes that this is an important resource for the community.

“We stand ready to help the community with all questions relating to Asian legal systems – especially laws in China and Japan – because we have deep connections with the legal professions there,” he says. It’s a lesson he thinks has other applications as well, suggesting that law students who are familiar with Asian legal systems and have professional experience in this area can be a valuable asset to Canadian firms, because of their knowledge about Asia and Asian business.

Cui’s own trajectory is an example of this. Born and raised in China, he completed an undergraduate degree at Harvard and, after post-graduate studies in both law and philosophy, began working in legal practice as a tax associate at a Wall Street firm. Driven by a desire to engage again with the complex social system and politics in China, he moved to the firm’s Beijing office before joining the China Investment Corporation as senior tax counsel and eventually starting a China tax practice at Clifford Chance. During this period, he also worked closely with Chinese government agencies on a range of projects, including drafting a bill for the Value-Added Tax and advising the third round of the China- U.S. Economic and Strategic Dialogue.

Cui continued to maintain a scholarly research and publication agenda throughout this period, and eventually moved back into academic life. The position at the Allard School of Law, advertised for a tax scholar with an interest in Asian legal systems, was an ideal opportunity to focus on both of his passions: China and taxation.

Cui credits his experience at UBC for developing and expanding his research ideas in new and creative directions. It’s what CALS does – providing opportunities for legal researchers to use their experience and expertise in Asian law to launch cutting-edge research. And there’s no question that CALS, the law school and UBC all benefit from Cui’s energy and vision around deepening engagement with Asia.