YEARS of lobbying the Chinese Government to open its domestic market to foreign lawyers received a welcome breakthrough last month when Shanghai-based officials publicly supported liberalisation for the first time.
The City’s vice mayor, Zhou Yupeng, emerged from a meeting with 30 foreign law firm representatives with positive news for those seeking to practice domestic law on the Mainland of the world’s most populous nation.
“A developed legal service is essential for Shanghai to attract foreign investment and help domestic companies expand abroad,” he told the Shanghai Daily.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly from China after the meeting, Allens Arthur Robinson delegate Seamus Cornelius confirmed that Zhou’s comments were an accurate reflection of what was said behind closed doors.
“Most people who attended were a little surprised at the frankness of the response, which was very positive,” he said. “The impression we got from the Shanghai authorities was that they are very keen for [an open market] to happen.”
Despite there being no announced timeframe as to when liberalisation will take place, Cornelius was confident the promises would transform into reality sooner rather than later.
“You wouldn’t want to bet against what the Shanghai government says it is going to do. They have a very strong track record of following through,” he said. “History has shown that if you bet against them you will end up very poor indeed.”
Cornelius felt the persistent lobbying of foreign lawyers only helped to keep the issue on the agenda, rather than get it over the line. “In the end, and after careful analysis, China is only going to do what is good for China. And Shanghai is only going to do what is good for Shanghai,” he said.
Zhou told reporters that restrictions would be “relaxed” ahead of other Chinese cities. Asked if a piecemeal approach to liberalisation was ideal, Cornelius argued that tradition dictated that a staggered strategy be taken.
“When foreign firms were first allowed to set up offices in China in 1982, it was done in different cities at different rates,” he said.
However, it would be difficult to provide the entire mainland with legal services from a single city, Cornelius continued, because of its enormous expanse and “regional differences”.
Director of Shanghai’s justice bureau, Miao Xiaobao, said a lifting of restrictions — “when conditions mature” — would allow foreign lawyers to hire domestic counterparts, work in-house with mainland companies, and recruit Chinese firms as member offices of international networks.