China criminal law

Yesterday we wrote on how our China attorneys were hearing (mostly by email) of increasing arrests of foreigners in China and of how clients and readers were writing asking if they should go to China or not. Yesterday’s post, Five Things to do to Avoid Getting Arrested in China, was an effort to address those issues. At the end of that post, we pointedly solicited reader help on what more people can do to avoid arrest in China. We have received a number of emails from people, most of which said little more than “just don’t go.”

But we also received a very thoughtful comment here, expertly detailing the risks of working in China without dotting all of the i’s and crossing all of the t’s.

As someone who has lived and worked in China for a number of years, I do not think that being American or Canadian escalates the situation. We have seen recently a number of South Africans and people of other nationalities get caught too.

It is important to remind people that they are subject to Chinese law while in China and that the authorities can impose consequences including that of having issues for one to leave the country if the consequences are not served. The officer usually has control as to the consequences given. The embassy or consulate can just make sure that you have not been harmed physically but do not have any other power to remove you from the situation.

While the working illegally issue commonly happens to teachers, it is not limited to them, but also people in other professions. This comes in the form that you mentioned regarding not holding a work permit and residence permit, but also in the form of working for a company that is not the one tied with such documents (such as an agent puts you under their books).

I would add the caution regarding contracts that mention that the individual can come on any visa and that it can be converted to be allowed to work because that is a huge red flag. These days most non-“Z visa”s cannot be converted within China to a work permit and residence permit type of visa, the only one that allows working legally.

In addition, the job title is important as it regards to teachers. Many people have started English language companies which is basically a consulting or a culture company and will hire a teacher in another position because of not being able to legally employ them as a teacher and if the company is inspected, then this can create an issue for them.

There is also some basic information I would recommend that people keep in mind, besides those that you mentioned –

(a) Binding language is Chinese. English is a convenience.
(b) Only their employer can assist with cancellation of work permit receipt and release documents for the employee to move on to another job in the future. Leaving the country and starting again isn’t necessarily an option anymore because often times these release documents are still required.
(c) Implementation of many laws differs down to the city and/or district level.
(d) In your text when you say “the wrong visa” this is supposed to mean a visa that is different from the purpose of your visit

If one has set up a company and has a company to company agreement with another firm and they are the subject of providing the service to the client, I would say that this is usually a suitable method of working with multiple companies, BUT if there are special provisions for the industry then it is VERY risky (e.g. teaching related). It’s important to note here that freelancing is not allowed in China.

To summarize this comment from a China lawyer’s perspective: your China employment relationship is very complicated and done wrong you can end up in jail. The only relevant portion of your employment contract is the Chinese portion and if you do not speak Chinese you have no clue what it says and, most importantly, you have no clue whether the English language portion accurately translates the Chinese portion (I can tell you right now that the odds are about 100 to 1 that it doesn’t). And even if you are able to read the Chinese portion, unless you have a comprehensive knowledge of China’s employment laws and the employment and employment related laws that relate specifically to your potential new employer and to the specific locale in which you are working, you really do not know what you are doing and you should seek out qualified assistance in the form of a China employment lawyer fluent in both Chinese and in whatever language in which you are comfortable communicating.

I will now respond below to specific portions of this comment, all of which I have italicized.

“As someone who has lived and worked in China for a number of years, I do not think that being American or Canadian escalates the situation. We have seen recently a number of South Africans and people of other nationalities get caught too.” I 100% agree that the risks apply to foreigners of all nationalities in China. I only highlighted Canadians and Americans because of the recent spat of people from these countries being arrested for what many view as retaliation for the US-China Trade War and for the Huawei arrests. If your country is in China’s disfavor, you are at increased risk.

“It is important to remind people that they are subject to Chinese law while in China and that the authorities can impose consequences including that of having issues for one to leave the country if the consequences are not served. It is very important to remind people that they are subject to Chinese law while in China and I would also mention that Chinese criminal law is very different from US or EU or Canada or Australia criminal law. Last month I guest lectured for two days (and had a blast) at Warsaw University Law School. My second day lecture (4.0 hours!) was on Chinese laws that differ Western laws and how those differences impact foreign companies doing business in China. One of the things I briefly discussed was how China criminalizes certain things that are not crimes in the West. The following slides provide three examples of this.

 

If you are going to be living and working and doing business in China, you must know the laws and you must not violate the laws. I would also add that it can be relatively easy to face criminal charges as an individual for the wrongdoing of your company. We most often see foreign businesses get into criminal trouble in China is for violating China’s customs laws (See China’s Detention Of Foreigner For Alleged Customs Violation Should Be A Strong Warning), doing business in China without a legal entity (See Doing Business in China Without a WFOE: Will the Defendant Please Rise). For foreign individuals, it is undoubtedly for not having a proper employment visa.

“While the working illegally issue commonly happens to teachers, it is not limited to them, but also people in other professions. This comes in the form that you mentioned regarding not holding a work permit and residence permit, but also in the form of working for a company that is not the one tied with such documents (such as an agent puts you under their books).” I 100% agree. The only reason I highlighted foreign English language teachers is because they are so susceptible to being duped into working illegally in China, either because they do not even realize they are doing so or because they buy into the idea that they are somehow safe because “everyone else is doing it.”

“I would add the caution regarding contracts that mention that the individual can come on any visa and that it can be converted to be allowed to work because that is a huge red flag. These days most non-Z visas cannot be converted within China to a work permit and residence permit type of visa, the only one that allows working legally.” Very true. Our China employment lawyers constantly receive emails from foreigners planning to go to China to work and then, if it works out, their employer will help them get a Z visa. Our advice is that you should generally not go to China as an employee unless and until you are certain that you will be working there legally from day one. Many Chinese companies LOVE bringing on illegal employees because this gives them tremendous power over these employees. I explained how this can play out in Trust Your China Employer. Just Kidding:

Our China employment lawyers often get requests from individuals looking for help negotiating an employment contract with a Chinese domestic company. The first thing we like to do in this sort of situation is to make sure hiring our client by the Chinese company can and will be done legally. But when we suggest the necessity of our making sure of this, the response is often that we have nothing to worry about because the Chinese company would not be doing this illegally.

WRONG.

Truth is many Chinese companies prefer to hire foreigners illegally to legally because doing so can save them a ton of money and is usually pretty low risk — at least for them.

I thought of this when I read a very thoughtful and well-written article today, entitled, The detention of two Irish women who were working side jobs at an unlicensed school in Beijing shines a spotlight on the illegal English education market in China. The article (as you probably have guessed from its very long and descriptive title, is about two teachers from Ireland who were detained in prison for more than a week for working illegally in China. Both these teachers had visas that allowed them to work full-time in China, but only with their one employer who secured these visas for them. These two teachers had taken lucrative part-time teaching jobs on the side and it was those jobs that got them arrested.

The big takeaway for anyone looking to take a job in China though should be the sections entitled, “Illegal employers have no qualms about hiring foreigners illegally” and “when the illegality is discovered, it is the foreign worker who gets the blame.”

The article talks about someone who “ran an experiment” by applying for every English language teaching job listed in Beijinger Magazine and clearly stating he could not qualify for a work visa. Only one out of the twenty potential employers declined his application! In other words, 19 out of 20 were happy to have this foreigner work for them illegally. The article notes that under  China’s immigration law, foreigners who work illegally in China can be fined 5,000 to 20,000 yuan and detained for between 5-15 days and then deported. “A lot of the burden and blame falls” on the employee who works illegally in China and therefore, as the US Embassy website makes clear, “it is up to each individual to evaluate potential employers before signing a contract.”

Binding language is Chinese. English is a convenience. Correct. The binding/official language of a dual language contract will almost always be the Chinese portion, no matter what the English language portion of your contract might say. We discussed this in Dual Language China Contracts: Don’t Get Fooled!

Can’t believe this is still happening, but it does, and in numbers that would likely surprise many people. The “this” to which I am referring is foreign companies signing dual language contracts without knowing exactly what the Chinese language portion of their contract says. This is really risky dangerous and below I explain why.

Many dual language Chinese-English contracts are silent on which language controls. For some unknown reason, foreign companies far too often just assume that the English language portion controls or they just assume that it does not matter because the meaning of both the English and the Chinese portions is exactly the same. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

What language controls when you have a dual-language contract?  If both languages say the same one language controls, that one language will control. If both the English language and the Chinese language portions say the Chinese language portion controls, the Chinese language portion will control. Similarly, if both the Chinese language and the English language portions say the English language portion controls, the English language portion will control. These are the easy and safe examples.

It is everything else that so often cause problems for American and European and Australian companies in  trouble.

If both your English language and your Chinese language portions are silent as to which portion controls, the Chinese language portion will control in Chinese courts and in China arbitrations. In real life this means that if the English language portion of your joint venture contract says that you get 10 percent of the joint venture’s revenue  but the Chinese portion says you get 10 percent of the profits (which will of course be way less than revenues) you will have no legal basis for claiming anything more than 10 percent of the profits. Not surprisingly it is joint venture contracts and licensing agreements where our China lawyers most often see this sort of meaningful dichotomy between the English and the Chinese portions of the contract.

Of the hundreds of dual language contracts proposed by Chinese companies and reviewed by one of my firm’s China attorneys, we’ve never seen a single one where the Chinese portion was less favorable to the Chinese company than the English portion. But we’ve seen plenty where the Chinese portion is better or much better for the Chinese company than the English portion. Chinese companies love using a contract with an English portion that is more favorable to the foreign company than the Chinese portion and then relying on the English speaking company to assume that the English language portion will control.

But what if the English language portion explicitly states that it will control? This works right? Not necessarily. If the Chinese language portion also explicitly states that it will control, the Chinese language portion will control under Chinese law. If the Chinese language portion is silent or says that the English language portion controls, the English language portion will control.

As we noted in China Contracts: Make Them Enforceable Or Don’t Bother, it usually makes sense to draft contracts with Chinese companies in Chinese with an English language translation. But this also requires that if that contract is going to be enforced in China (as should usually be the case), you absolutely positively need to be certain that you know exactly what the Chinese language portion of that contract actually says. No matter what the English language portion of your contract says, it behooves you to know exactly what the Chinese language portion says as well.

In other words, if you are not truly able to read and understand Chinese, you probably do not know what your contact says. And if it is an employment contract that you do not fully understand, you could be putting yourself at serious risk.

“Implementation of many laws differs down to the city and/or district level.” Again, correct. And this is particularly true of China’s employment laws. See China Employment Law: Local and Not So Simple.

Bottom Line: Living and working and doing business in China is way more legally complicated than ten years ago. This means that the likelihood of you going astray of Chinese law is considerably higher as well. When you then add in that China’s ability and desire to catch foreign companies and foreigners operating illegally in China is higher now than it has ever been, you can see why it is so critical that you make sure that both your company and you are operating in China within the law. If you are not already operating legally, you need to start doing so now and if you cannot, you probably should leave China or not go there at all.

What are you seeing out there?

 

 

 

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Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.