If you are a foreign (i.e., non-Chinese) entity with no legal presence in China, you cannot directly hire any employees in China. The basic rule is that you cannot hire a Chinese individual until after you have formed an entity (e.g., a WFOE) there and violating this rule can (and nearly always does) bring all sorts of bad things down on everyone involved. See Doing Business in China with Deportation or Worse Hanging Over Your Head.
What though do you do if you are in the process of forming your WFOE in China? Can you bring on employees during that time to assist with setup and other such things? Surely during this usually three to five month period, it is okay to bring on people and pay them as “employees” and then “convert” them over to legal status employees as soon as the WFOE is formed. Unfortunately, this is technically not allowed; there is no way for a foreign entity to hire a Chinese national “directly” unless and until it has an entity (a WFOE or a Joint Venture) in China. Sending illegal payments to your Chinese “employees” is not “hiring directly;” that is engaging in illegal activity before the WFOE is formed, and it is generally not a good way to start.
Though there is absolutely nothing in Chinese law that allows for “hiring” an “employee” before a WFOE is formed, the truth is that none of our Chinese lawyers have heard of anyone getting in trouble for this. This is not to say though that bringing on workers during the formation phase of your WFOE is not without risks. First off, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Second, everything in China is somewhat local and that is particularly true of anything related to employment. See China Employment Law: Local and Not So Simple. In other words, what works in Shenzhen may not work in Shanghai, and vice-versa. And you must realize that for tax collection reasons the Chinese government is on a constant lookout for foreigners doing business in China without a WFOE and they have become exceedingly good at finding them.
The biggest risk of bringing on workers during the formation phase of your WFOE probably comes from the workers themselves. If things go well with them, no problem. But things very often do not go well with Chinese “employees.” Here is an all too common situation: a foreign company hires a Chinese person to work on the ground before the WFOE comes into existence. This Chinese person does something illegal in China and the foreign company informs the Chinese person that he is fired. The Chinese person then says: “you cannot fire me because my engagement was illegal and that means you are operating illegally in China and everything I did that you say was illegal was done for the company and so you (the company) were doing illegal things too. I know more about these things because I am the one who was doing them but if I report them I won’t get in trouble for them, you will.”
If the foreign company terminates the employee that individual will no doubt files a lawsuit for unlawful termination AND report the foreign company to the Chinese government and then the WFOE and its management get in trouble, in addition to having to take the employee back because the termination was unlawful. The best resolution at this point is virtually always to reach a settlement with the “employee,” but because the “employee” has so much leverage in this sort of situation, the company usually has to pay quite a lot of money to extricate itself from the rogue “employee.”
Even after the WFOE is formed the new WFOE is at some risk of one of its pre-WFOE “employees” ratting it out for the pre-WFOE hiring, but that is much rarer. To ameliorate this risk, we always advise that you give your employees seniority and full other credit for any time spent working for your company during its pre-WFOE days.
Bottom line: Not bringing on Chinese employees directly while in the process of forming your China WFOE can be inconvenient, but it is always the safest route.