An unlikely legal eagle

Updated: 2011-10-21 13:51

By Fu Jing (China Daily European Weekly)

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An unlikely legal eagle
Bernard Dewit exchanging ideas with Chinese Ambassador to Belgium Liao Liqiang. [Yan Min / for China Daily]

Lawyer plays key role in fostering trade ties between China, Belgium

Sitting in his modest law office in downtown Brussels, Bernard Dewit hardly appears to be someone who has played a key role in fostering bilateral ties between China and Belgium.

Dewit admits he had no inkling of his long to association to come with China when after a visit to Hong Kong in the 1980s, he and his friend decided to publish China Trade Law. The book on Chinese commercial law is still considered by many as one of the earliest books on Chinese law published in Europe.

"The book is totally out of date. The only interesting thing about it now is the cover," he says with a chuckle.

Dewit, however admits that it was the book that triggered in him an interest about China and its people and the keenness to know and understand more about them.

His knowledge of China came in handy when he was appointed chairman of the Belgian-Chinese Economic and Commercial Council (BCECC) in 1996, Dewit says. The BCECC is an organization that provides a host of business-related advisory services for more than 500-odd members.

"Belgium and Brussels are ideal investment gateways and in spite of the current harsh economic climate in Europe, I am determined to create more opportunities for Chinese investors," Dewit says.

Much of the current activities of the BCECC are trained toward the forthcoming visit of a high-level Belgian delegation to China. The 400-member team, led by Prince Philippe of Belgium, will participate in the Sino-EU summit at Tianjin and also scout for business opportunities in Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing during their 10-day visit.

"I am happy to be part of the rapid progress in China and also for the contributions that I have made toward better understanding and relations between the two nations," Dewit says.

Expressing optimism that more Chinese companies will set up shop in Belgium, he says that such actions will not only improve trade ties but also create employment opportunities in Europe.

Born in 1956 in Ixelles, one of the 19 municipalities of Brussels, Dewit says his hometown was a lively place filled with locals, migrants, diplomats and businessmen. His father Henri Dewit opened a law firm in Ixelles in 1945 and since then it has remained an integral part of the local landscape.

Unlike his father, who specialized in insurance and liability laws, Dewit realized very early in his legal career that he had to have a much broader horizon.

"My father taught me to be open to the outside world, not to judge immediately, to be honest and to respect what others think. Much of what I am today is what I learnt from his style of working," he says.

After finishing college in the United States, Dewit realized that China was in the process of opening up and had reenacted most of the laws and regulations after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). "I realized then that China should be the main focus of my future career," Dewit says.

His first visit to the mainland happened in 1985 when he spent a week in Shanghai. "There were not too many lights on the streets then. But what was really impressive is that you had a nation that was willing to change and start from scratch."

In 1987, he spent two months in the eastern parts of China under invitation of the People's Supreme Court. "I realized that China was serious about changing its legal framework and needed professional guidance in its efforts. Since then I have always been involved in some way or the other to help foster better legal ties between Belgium and China."

In 1988, the Belgium Bar Association set up the Belgium-Chinese Lawyer Association and made Dewit its first secretary general. Since then the association has developed extremely cordial relations with the China Law Society.

Two years later, Dewit became the vice-president of the Belgium-Chinese Culture Center and as fate would have it had an important meeting with Deng Xiaoping's daughter Deng Lin, an accomplished artist, during a visit to China.

Dewit says Deng Lin worked for the Chinese Academy for Traditional Art. In her office, she had a picture of her father at the seaside. "It was quite an impressive occasion for me to meet the family of one of the world's most powerful leaders," he says.

Buoyed by the meetings and his visits to China, Dewit decided to extend his legal services for Chinese people in Belgium. His first Chinese client was a restaurant owner from Brussels and later he helped Hainan Airline Co Ltd buy three hotels in Brussels.

Dewit currently works as the legal advisor for a host of companies like China Eastern Airline Corp Ltd and telecommunication giant Huawei Technologies Ltd.

Dewit always believes in maintaining a personal rapport with his clients. His legal team comprises of 20 lawyers and several support staff and between them process several cases across Belgian judicial districts. They also work with permanent correspondents in Asia and a network of correspondents in most countries of the European Union.

Being a China specialist, Dewit's firm was the first Belgian law firm to open a representative office in Beijing. The office deals mainly with cases relating to Chinese investments in Europe as well as European investments in China.

After forging solid relations with Chinese law firms in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Hong Kong, he was also able to establish a representative office of Belgian lawyers in Beijing with the main aim of servicing customers requiring legal assistance in China or Europe.

"Our firm is able to provide a wide range of services to both private individuals and organizations, including businesses, insurance companies and public institutions," Dewit says.

He admits that European investors are complaining about the investment environment in China worsening due to the stringent laws. "They are complaining, because they still believe in the system. On the contrary, if they do not trust it, they will not complain. Essentially it is a sign of confidence in the system," Dewit says.

Global leaders should look at China with a more open mind and not just think of the disputes and hurdles, he says. "Chinese leaders are now equipped with a more profound education in law. The younger generation of lawyers, judges and law professors are very active in China and there is more awareness about European system and companies."

The changing world order has ensured that European companies need to be more aware of the latest developments in China-related trade and investment issues and also to meet with people who are China experts.

To help its members, Dewit's chamber has organized several China-related events, meetings and seminars. "Our events are extremely popular with members and there has been a steady increase in membership." Dewit says that the number of members has risen to 560 from 80 a few years back.

"We are helping Chinese investors looking for investment opportunities in Belgium by providing connectivity to local lawyers and other trade organizations.

Dewit feels that the chamber should continue to play a pivotal role between China and Europe, especially during crises.

"We are inter-dependent and interconnected in crisis time and China should not ignore Europe. I am optimistic for the future," says Dewit.