Game Theory is a regular series where we speak with a professional with insight into China’s business and tech scene.
As a counsel specializing in employment law in China, Jeffrey Wilson has unique insight into how the law works here. Below, he shares with That’s his experience working in a large PRC law firm and common misconceptions that foreigners may have regarding their employment in the Middle Kingdom.
How did you get started in law in China?
After college, I worked at an import company in Portland. Many of my friends were going to Japan, so I did something different and went to work for a year in China before law school. I went to the University of Washington, so I was able to take a couple of introductory classes in Chinese law as well as get a MA in Chinese studies.
I was originally supposed to return to the Chinese mainland for study in 1989 but ended up going to Taipei for about 10 years, where I worked for a couple of law firms, as a translator, placing athletes, and as a writer and newspaper editor. I like to think that last experience was quite helpful to prevent me from writing like a stereotypical lawyer.
With kids and tuition to pay, I finally decided to leave Taipei and join a large international firm. That took me to Hong Kong, and then onto Shanghai in 2002, where I was trained as a general commercial lawyer doing all kinds of China work. I started to specialize in employment law about 15 years ago.
Jeffrey Wilson, Counsel, JunHe LLP
What are some common misconceptions that foreign nationals may have regarding their employment at a Chinese entity?
One is that foreigners enjoy all the rights that their PRC national colleagues and friends enjoy. Another misconception is that simply having a contract protects the foreigner. The contract isn’t worth much if the foreigner doesn’t have a work permit. Finally, some foreigners think they can change jobs and continue to work on a work permit. In reality, the foreigner will need to amend the work permit with the new employer.
How important is Chinese language proficiency to working here as a lawyer?
Depends on what type of firm and the area of practice. If a lawyer is working in an international firm and only doing international deals in English, then maybe minimal Chinese skills are needed.
In contrast, labor law is quite a local practice, and I’m with a PRC firm. It would be hard to get by without reasonable proficiency in written and spoken Chinese. For example, we have a new IT and document management system. Almost all the interface is in Chinese, as is much of the written communication in the office.
Having some Chinese abilities hopefully means I’m less of a burden to the office staff and can live and work somewhat independently. I also realize that the days of foreigners coming to work in local or international firms might be quite limited because of the large pool of local lawyers who have great language and legal skills.
“Employment law gives a window into how society is changing as well as how the law impacts people on an individual level”
What is your experience working in a large PRC law firm?
I’m one of the few foreigners in a large, established PRC firm, so I probably have a rather unique perspective on how a local firm operates. Our group has a large client base of mostly foreign companies, so I can get a fairly good sense of how the law is applied in practice and what employers do.
Because JunHe is a local firm, I also get the chance to see how my colleagues navigate the courts in litigation. Our team of about 35 labor lawyers has decades of experience in offices across China, so there are a lot of resources I can pull from if necessary.
Why are you interested in Chinese employment law?
Employment law gives a window into how society is changing as well as how the law impacts people on an individual level.
There are also so many interesting issues that come up and to explore, such as how older workers are treated, employee investigations, data privacy, litigation and discrimination. For many employees, the law is quite protective, and those employees are often quite aware of how to use the law to their advantage.
There is also the difference between Chinese and Western approaches. Take the reactions to COVID-19 when the government here discouraged layoffs and made a few substantial changes in the law. It was much different than what happened in some Western countries with layoffs, changes to the law, government intervention and financial supports.
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[Cover image via Unsplash]