China: Change is a Constant

China law changes

Just read a great post over at Seth Godin’s blog. The fact it was a great post is not the least bit unusual for that blog, but that I can relate it to legal work in China (well sorta, anyway) is. The post is entitled The problem with doing it by heart and its gist is that people sometimes become such creatures of habit that they fail to question and analyze and maybe even modify the way they do things. It concludes with the following lesson:

The next time you or one of your people starts rattling off the obvious truth by heart, wonder about whether it’s obvious because it’s true, or true because it’s obvious.

So true.

Many years ago at my old law firm, a young immigration lawyer (who was always too angry about something) complained how a litigation lawyer in the firm had been “dissing” him. The immigration lawyer had gone to the litigation lawyer with a question on court procedure and the litigation lawyer told the immigration lawyer he did not know the answer and that the immigration lawyer should look it up and return if he had any problems. The immigration lawyer found it impossible to believe that the litigation lawyer did not know the answer off the top of his head and he thought the litigator was intentionally stonewalling.

I chewed out the immigration lawyer. I pointed out that well over half this litigator’s cases were taking place outside the state of Washington and how Washington itself has essentially two courts, the State and the Federal. I also told him that among all those courts, it is a near certainty that some of them changed a rule within the last year or so. There is no way this litigator could know the court procedures of all of these courts by heart and, in fact, it would be extremely dangerous if he were to think he did. It would be dangerous because it would mean he had stopped checking to make sure.

Many years ago, in maybe the first legal article I ever published, I said something somewhat similar to Godin in my article setting forth the Four Essential Principles of Emerging Market Success:

PRINCIPLE TWO: Keep an Open Mind. Assume Nothing.

Doing business in an emerging market means taking nothing for granted. I have a mantra for my own legal work in these countries that translates well to the business world: “Assume nothing, but assume that you are assuming things without even realizing you are doing so.”

Things will be different. Very different. Things you take for granted in your home country might not exist in the emerging market country. Things you take for granted in your home country might be the exact opposite in the emerging market country. Things you think will be totally different in the emerging market country may be exactly the same. Things you thought you knew about emerging market countries based on what you know from another emerging market country may be completely different in a neighboring country, or even in another region within the same country.

The principle, one more time: Keep an open mind, and assume nothing.

As everyone who has done even just a little business with China knows, this is particularly true of China, where one can eat at their favorite restaurant one day and then go back a few days later and find the restaurant and the building and the block, and maybe even the entire neighborhood, gone.

As far as I know, there is no country in the world where laws and regulations change so frequently. I remember discussing a Chinese law or regulation with another China lawyer and we soon realized we were discussing different versions. We both claimed the other was using an outdated version. I proudly told him it could not be me because mine was the one that had just come out three weeks earlier. He put me in my place by letting me know his had just come out the day before!

China will enact a law or regulation, see how it works for a few months, and then revoke or change it. China will talk about enacting a law or regulation and then when it becomes clear public opinion is strongly against it, it will back down. For a very recent example of this, check out my post, China’s Internet Censoring. Hate To Say I Told You So, But I Told You So. . . . China also has a real habit of enacting new laws and regulations and then never enforcing them. This often happens when the new law or regulation is negatively received.

The bottom line on China is that what made sense to do yesterday may not make sense to do today and you should never get too comfortable.

What do you think?