A Moving and Powerful Interview on the Coronavirus Outbreak: Please, Please, Please Give it a Listen

The below is a transcription of an interview of Grace Yang on Legal Talk Radio. Grace heads up our China employment law team and the interview deals with the coronavirus’s impact on China employers and employees.

But more than that, it movingly and powerfully deals with the big picture issues arising from the virus. I listened to this interview twice and was so touched by it that I posted on my law firm’s Slack message how proud it made me to have Grace as a lawyer in our firm. I know I am gushing here (which is not something I ordinarily do), but really love this interview and I cannot urge you strongly enough to LISTEN to it as listening will convey so much more than just reading the automated transcription below. There is just so much to be gained by listening to someone like Grace — who loves China and cares deeply about the people there — speaking from the heart about what is happening there.

So please, please, please go here and give it a listen.

Craig Williams (Host): 

Welcome to the lawyer to lawyer on the legal talk network. I’m Craig Williams.

It was first identified in early December, 2019, a novel strain of coronavirus now renamed by the world health organization as COVID-19 and it comes from Wuhan where it was first found and it’s attracted the attention of the world and as of February 10th, 2020, more than a thousand people have died. Tens of thousands of others have been infected, fears, continue to mount, disruptions to trade and travel are being felt around the world, and there’s a rising volume of misinformation about the outbreak.

Well today on Lawyer to Lawyer, we’re going to discuss this new coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak. We’re going to take a look at the real picture of what’s happening, the overall impact on travel and business and China’s new rules for dealing with that virus. To help us explore this topic, we have attorney Grace Yang who works out of Harris Bricken’s, Seattle and Beijing offices. Grace is Harris Bricken’s lead attorney on China labor and employment law matters and she’s the author the book, The China Employment Law Guide. Her international background gives her a deep understanding of both American and Chinese cultures as well as their legal systems. She also writes for the China Law Blog, which can be at www.chinalawblog.com. Welcome to the show Grace.

Grace Yang (Guest): Thank you, Craig. Thank you for having me here.

Craig Williams: We’re very glad to have you. Can you give us a little bit of the background behind the COVID-19 outbreak — where it started, how it started? There has been a lot of misinformation about this virus and I’m hoping you can help clear some of that up for us.

Grace Yang :  The outbreak started from Wuhan at a seafood and meat market there that has since been closed down. This is where the first cases were discovered, and like you said, there has been a lot of misinformation and this is because the Chinese government’s initial reaction was to cover up the whole picture. And then the virus spread really fast and the Chinese government has since then been doing its best to try to control the situation and prevent the epidemic from getting even worse. But it’s been really tough.

Craig Williams: From seeing the construction of a hospital in 10 days, it seems China is throwing all its resources against this.

Grace Yang: Yes, it has. China is a complex country. It’s incredible that it can build a hospital in 10 days, but it’s also the control Beijing is trying to assert; it’s trying to basically control how the information flows and what people see and this is also incredible and I mean this not in a good way. I personally think it could put even more efforts into caring about its people rather than just focusing on enhancing its control.

Craig Williams: Well, there have also been some videos where we’ve seen some pretty rough handling of Chinese citizens where they’ve been forcibly taken from their homes and quarantined. There have been stories about caregivers being quarantined and then the person receiving the care died. That’s so different than what we would see. At least we would like to think we would see, between the cultures. Can you help us understand the difference in the cultures to explain that? It’s hard, I think, for Americans to understand the kind of forcible behavior we’re seeing on television.

Grace Yang: I think it has less to do with cultural differences and more to do with how the Chinese government is, in trying to control its people and control how how others view it. It is heartbreaking to see that Chinese people — ordinary people — are not being treated as, as people! So it’s shocking too. I’m from China originally, but when I hear stories like the one you were just saying , that pains me to. I can’t even imagine the pain . . . . and you know how scared and frustrated and angry the Chinese people have been. Especially those who a forced — especially where they have been hit the hardest within China.

Craig Williams: What kind of information are the people getting about this outbreak?

Grace Yang: There is a lack of accurate information. There is no free press. There’s no free flow of accurate information. They are getting the pictures that are  painted by Beijing, the central government there. And they know that because in today’s world it’s different than before. People now have access to the Internet, especially people with VPNs, they can sort of see what’s out there, what’s beyond the Great Wall. And that changes things.

Craig Williams: Is China losing its control because of its citizens’ access to the internet?

Grace Yang: Yes. And that is why they have been focusing their efforts and resources on strengthening their control. So the CCP is not going to back down just because people can see what is going on outside China.

Craig Williams: What’s the danger to the rest of the world given that there’s official misinformation coming from China? I mean, do we really know what’s happening in China or is it being kept from us?

Grace Yang: I think we sort of know what’s happening there. There’s a free press outside of China. I mean, granted it’s hard to get truthful and accurate information from China. But, there are  honest reporters that are writing stories about what’s going on in China and some of them are in China telling the rest of the world exactly what is going on and that is really helpful.

Craig Williams: There have been articles that say that certain bloggers have put out videos and then their family members say they went gone missing and they haven’t been heard from. Is that actually what’s going on? Is there an independent blogger putting out presumably accurate information —  is the Chinese government then seizing that journalist or citizen journalist and taking that information away from us?

Grace Yang: Yes. Unfortunately that has been the case. I mean, not just independent bloggers. I mean even lawyers who are fighting for human rights in China have gone missing or are being threatened and their family members are threatened. That’s been going on.

Craig Williams: You spend part of your time in Beijing. Is this a danger to you to even be on this planet?

Grace Yang: Mmm, I get concerned sometimes. Thankfully I’ve been spending the majority of my time in Seattle, but I’ve got extended family in China and I’m scared for them and my family tells me to be careful about what I say on a platform like this because you know, we get monitored for everything.

Craig Williams: Well, we certainly don’t want to put you in any danger or in any position where you’re saying something that’s inappropriate. So please, you know, take care and if I’m asking a question, feel free not to answer it if it would impact your safety. So give us a little bit of perspective on the labor market — your specialty — and how this Coronavirus, COVID-19, has been impacting businesses and the travel industry.

Grace Yang: It has had a huge impact on businesses, both on companies doing business in China and with China as well. The travel industry has also been hit very hard due to the restrictions on traveling to China and within China. And there are so many migrant workers working in China that are not getting to where they should be working now, assuming that it’s okay for them to go back to where they work — their locales in China.

Craig Williams: We’ve even heard of a situation where there’s a cruise ship that can’t find a place to dock because countries are concerned there is coronavirus on board and then there’s another cruise ship that’s been forcibly detained and quarantined in a port in Japan. This has impacted every aspect of the travel industry, hasn’t it?

Grace Yang: Yes. I can imagine what the people on the ships are going through and their family members. Yeah, it’s really rough.

Craig Williams: What advice would you give travelers to China or people that are supposed to travel — just to stay away for the time being?

Grace Yang: I would say yes. Many companies have adopted policies that do not necessarily ban travel to China, but really require that employees clear with the managers of the companies prior permission to travel to China to or that will limit the amount of travel unless it’s truly necessary. Um, do not go to China.

Craig Williams: What impact is it having on the products being made in China and the goods and materials that are shipped to and from China to make those products? Are those at a standstill as well?

Grace Yang: Eerything is delayed. If an order is placed even before the Chinese New Year, I don’t think the chances are good that the buyers, the foreign buyers will be getting them, even with the factories sort of starting to open after the government mandated time off period. I mean the workers, most of the workers are not at the factories. And so I’d say the factories are not fulfilling their orders and the buyers are not getting their products. Not anytime soon.

Craig Williams: Thank you Grace. You have talked about some severe impacts with the people not working, the docks not being utilized, the products not getting shipped, materials not coming into the country, and it sounds like this is been going on for a period of time. What can we expect economically to be the effect of this as it has its ripple effect across the world?

Grace Yang:
Well, it has had a huge effect on economic activities, especially those really related to China, even in the smallest way. And The thing is, it’s not going to change anytime soon.

Craig Williams: How long can we expect this to last?

Grace Yang: We don’t know when this will end.

Craig Williams: We’ve heard estimates from president Trump that China thinks it may be finished as of April. Is that a realistic timeframe or can we expect this to last much longer than that?

Grace Yang: As much as I would like to say it will end in March or maybe April, we don’t know. No, we just don’t know.

Craig Williams: There have been some reports that the number of reported cases lessened yesterday in China by some 20%. Is that a valid assessment or do you think that we’re not really getting the true story from China in terms of the number of reported cases, or is this the type of thing that the World Health Organization and other governments just simply mandate the truth?

Grace Yang: I would not necessarily trust the information that comes from the Chinese government.

Craig Williams: How do we go about protecting ourselves from this? I mean I don’t want to be a fear-monger in the sense that we all understand what an outbreak and the possible effects of it. What should we really expect? What’s the current estimate about the effect of the virus itself on people? Are there, have there been estimates of the expected number of deaths and infections?

Grace Yang: Well, some, some measures such as having employees work from home and just trying to avoid human — any sort of close contact — as much as possible. That would help. I’m not aware of any estimates.

Craig Williams: Right. So it’s all up in the air at this point. Well, we have something to compare it to. We have the 2003 SARS where some 774 people died, but so far this looks like it’s going to be a little bit worse. Do you have an insight on that?

Grace Yang: It seems to me this is worse than the 2003 SARS outbreak. I mean like we talked about, there is just no end in sight.

Craig Williams: How long were businesses closed from the SARS outbreak?

Grace Yang: It was a long time ago, but I remember staying at home and doing nothing and not going to school for very long time back then.

Craig Williams: And that was because of the clampdown put in place in China by the government?

Grace Yang: Yes.

Craig Williams: How does this affect employees in China in terms of their pay? If they’re not working, are they getting paid?

Grace Yang: It depends on where the employees are and what the local employment laws say. Generally speaking, they should be paid at least as well, even with the business closure —  the employee should be provided with their standard wage rate in their employment contract. Iv’e heard stories and cases about employers not providing any pay to their employees and that is in most cases not legal.

Craig Williams: So for employees that are working at home, they can expect to be paid? Is that right?

Grace Yang:  Well, yes. The short answer is, is yes. If they are basically doing their normal work and the only difference is that they’re doing it at home then they should be provided with their mobile pay. The reason why I was a little hesitant was because for example, in Shanghai before the work resumption t his past Monday, February 10th, if the employee had worked back then they would get not just their normal pay but overtime pay.

Craig Williams: Right. That makes sense. What about for other countries that rely on goods being shipped from China? You know, obviously they’re are being delayed. What kind of remedies exist for that situation?

Grace Yang: I’m afraid the Chinese manufacturers have started arguing for force majeure, and the remedies available to the foreign buyers that rely on Chinese goods are kind of limited. They could try to negotiate with their suppliers to amend their agreements with the Chinese suppliers, and our international manufacturing lawyers have been doing some of this. They is so much uncertainty. The Chinese factories themselves don’t know when they will be up and running.

Craig Williams: So has China adopted new employment rules for dealing with this?

Grace Yang:  Since the outbreak China has been pretty much, coming out with new employment rules every day and many of the locales are rushing out new rules to deal with the epidemic as well. This has made things difficult on employers, given the local differences and how many rules that have come out. It’s hard to even give a summary. But the focus is on protecting employees and this is being done by putting the burden on the employers as mucha as possible to not put their employees’ health and lives in danger by having them resume work.

Craig Williams: In some situations it’s not even possible for some employees to work because there aren’t any supplies. What happens in those situations?

Grace Yang: Generally speaking, the employers are encouraged to negotiate with their employees —  to come to an understanding about possibly reducing work hours or to be put on standby for a period of time and to mandate salary payments to deal with this situation. But it’s difficult for everyone. I mean the employees don’t want to be punished for the outbreak and neither do the employers and the government position is that the parties should negotiate and come to a mutual understanding on these issues, to the extent possible

Craig Williams: Sounds to me like everybody suffers and what happens to the workers without any pay.

Grace Yang: If they’re laid off they may be able to collect unemployment, benefits and some locales have announced they will try to make this application process as easy as possible and the employee supposedly can do everything online without having to go actually go to the local labor Bureau to get this taken care of.

Craig Williams: Is this occurring throughout the entire country?

Grace Yang: It is occurring all over the country.

Craig Williams: How will the government be able to financially handle what it’s going to take to keep its workers with money to pay for food and shelter and basic necessities and yet continue to run? It seems like an impossible task.

Grace Yang: I guess we’ll see. My guess is that they will try to finance it and I’ve heard that the prices for goods have have now gone up significantly because of the outbreak, but the problem is that there is just not enough medical supplies, nor enough medical personnel and facilities.

Craig Williams: There is certainly a lot up in the air and a lot remains to be seen about what’s going to be happening,. We’ve just about reached the end of our program so I’d like to take the opportunity to invite you to share your final thoughts and your contact information for our listeners to reach out to you.

Grace Yang; Sure. If you are an employer in China, be super careful about any potentially adverse employer decision you might because everything is trickier in China right now because of the current situation. So think twice before you act. And if you have any questions, check out our blog, China Law Blog and you can also send me an email grace@harrisbricken.com.

Craig Williams: Great. Thank you very much. We’d to thank our guest attorney Grace Yang of Harris Bricken for joining us today.

Again, please, please, please go here and give it a listen.

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