Jonathan Ocko


William P. Alford, To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995. Pp. ix, 222. $39.50.

Few people are as well-suited as William Alford to provide this understanding. Now Henry L. Stimson Professor of Law and Director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard, Alford studied Chinese history at Yale Graduate School and law at Harvard, then practiced international law before returning to academia. Like his mentors, Jonathan Spence at Yale and Jerome Cohen at Harvard, Afford is adept at producing work that engages and stimulates both China scholars and non-specialists. The book at hand is no exception. Though relatively short in length, it is a rich, pioneering study that sets forth two distinct but closely related arguments. The first, which makes up the core of the book, explains by reference to China's political culture why "intellectual property law, and in particular copyright, has never taken hold in China." The second, which builds on the first and constitutes the conclusion, seeks to convince American policy makers and diplomats that without "further political liberalization and a greater concomitant commitment [by the Chinese] to the institutions, personnel, interests and values needed to undergird a rights-based legality, detailed refinements in intellectual property doctrine itself will be of limited value." Thus, Alford argues, as difficult as it is for one nation to influence "the enduring values and practices central to [another] nation's identity," the United States ought nonetheless to attempt to nurture a new, more rights-oriented political culture in China.

Afford's persuasive plea for a values-driven China policy may strike some readers as ironic in light of Alford's reminder at the outset of this study that, in studying legal developments in China, we should not assume that our own course of history is necessarily "normal" or inevitable. However, his teleological argument is devoid of the tendentiousness that might weaken its cogency. Alford's work traces the story of how an enduring, paternalistic, authoritarian Chinese political culture, embodied successively by the commitments of imperial, republican, and socialist states to controlling both the flow and content of information for the purpose of sustaining state power, has impeded the development of intellectual property rights.