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Ex-intern of WTO, now professor, takes stock of China's evolving role

By ZHANG YUE | China Daily | Updated: 2021-12-09 09:26

The thematic exhibition commemorating the 20th anniversary of China's accession to WTO during the fourth CIIE in Shanghai on Nov 7, 2021. [Photo by Zhu Xingxin/China Daily]

Henry Gao, the first Chinese lawyer in the World Trade Organization that China joined in 2001, said the world's second-largest economy has not only implemented its accession commitment well but made a notable contribution to helping improve the multilateral trading system.

Gao, now a law professor at Singapore Management University, said China has metamorphosed from a "rule-taker" to a responsible contributor to the multilateral trade system.

In 2002, Gao became the first Chinese lawyer ever to work at the WTO's headquarters in Geneva, when he joined the organization as an intern. Over the past two decades, Gao went on to switch careers, holding a variety of roles from lawyer to law professor.

En route, he sustained his abiding interest in, and research into, China's interactions with the WTO-something that has produced fascinating insights.

Since 2009, Gao has been serving as a member of the Advisory Board of the WTO Chairs Program at the organization's Secretariat.

He said: "China has been doing notably well in fulfilling its WTO commitment, particularly regarding tariff reductions and lowering non-tariff barriers.

"To illustrate, upon joining the WTO, China promised to lower import tariffs on automobiles to 25 percent, but now the automobile tariff level is about 15 percent.

"The non-tariff barriers are more about improvement in its business environment. For example, China has been reducing the negative list for foreign investment, particularly in free trade zones, and increasing the transparency for good governance."

Back in 2001, Gao was a law student at Vanderbilt University in the United States. It was at that time that he applied for a WTO internship as China officially joined the organization.

WTO jobs were only open to nationals from member economies. So, until 2001, there were no Chinese nationals among WTO staff members.

Gao's job application was successful, earning him a place on the Appellate Body, known as "the Supreme Court" of the WTO.

"I was the first Chinese intern in the organization, and people were very friendly and wanted to find out more about China from me."

For the first three months, Gao was responsible for establishing links between the Beijing WTO Center and the WTO's headquarters. He recalled that during a conversation with Supachai Panitchpakdi, the then WTO director general, the latter evinced deep interest in China's experiences and views on joining the WTO.

Gao's stint at the WTO headquarters lasted one year. But his participation in WTO-related affairs continued. From the perspective of a lawyer, Gao said he thinks China's understanding and interpretations of WTO regulations have improved tremendously since 2001. "China has learned how to use the legal terms in practical negotiations and communications."

Asked if increasing regional trade agreements might weaken the WTO's negotiating power, Gao said any regional trade agreement, even a very broad one, cannot replace the WTO as "the latter is currently the only trade agreement that covers all the big players-China, the United States, the European Union, and Japan".

On global efforts in advancing WTO reform, Gao said he believes China's active participation will help stabilize global expectations. "Any new reform steps will be much more feasible with active participation from China", given that it is the world's second-largest economy, he said.

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