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Thursday, 28 November, 2002, 09:44 GMT
Pioneering lawyer champions China
Sherry Liu, Motorola Director of Law for Greater China
Sherry Liu: Hot shot lawyer, painter and poet

As part of a weekly series on women in business, BBC News Online talks to Sherry Liu, Motorola's top lawyer in China, about the changing legal system.
"It's difficult, but when you're really interested in something new it can be done," says Sherry Liu.

I wanted to go somewhere different and see a different world

Sherry Liu

Sure. Like persuading a foreign university to set up a post-graduate law course especially for you and qualifying in one year instead of two to avoid losing your visa.

Or taking up public speaking as a way to learn English.

Determination and good luck seem to be themes in Ms Liu's life, the kind of luck that arrives when other people are inspired by talent.

Accident?

She has had too many lucky breaks for them all to be coincidence.

Motorola inflatable phone advert
Motorola is highly visible in China

The 39-year old Beijinger insists there was also much that was accidental about how she became Motorola's top lawyer in China and a Vice-President of Motorola Inc.

When she left for the United States in 1986, she dreamt of becoming a painter, not a barrister in a technology practice.

Hi-tech engineering giant Motorola is one of the most successful foreign firms in China.

In 2001 its sales of mobile phones, semiconductors and wireless technology in China hit $4.9bn (3.1bn).

It has cornered 26% of the world's biggest mobile phone market, built huge factories, signed seven joint ventures, won supply deals with state firms and hired 13,000 staff.

Ms Liu's team negotiates and checks the contracts that codify all this. "Sometimes you work all night, other times it's reasonable," she says.

A reborn profession

Every Chinese city and province has different rules on such crucial issues as tax and investment incentives.

When I was in law school, everybody wore the same suits, spoke the same lines... now you can speak your mind

Sherry Liu

To complicate matters, China's existing legal framework is only about 25 years old and evolving fast as international trade and investment grow.

The legal profession was outlawed during the 1960s and 1970s, while lawyers were sent to do manual labour.

By the mid-1990s, China still had only 20,000 lawyers among 1.2 billion people.

When Ms Liu graduated in law in Beijing in 1984, she was among a handful of lawyers and it was not a status job.

New world

After a couple of years writing for a legal journal, she won a scholarship to the United States.

She flew off to Arizona to marry her Chinese law student boyfriend, hoping to study art though her career plans were vague.

Film poster in Shanghai
Party officials, not lawyers, used to decide cases

"I had this interest to want to learn something different," she says.

"I didn't speak English, so it wasn't a planned ambition, but I wanted to go somewhere different and see a different world."

She spent the first year sitting in on law classes to learn English, because only law classes were free.

"The first year I was just hanging out, making friends. I asked people to take me to see the hospital, legislators, jail, whatever, as the best way to learn about the society," she says.

A Christian couple gave her a free accommodation and daily English lessons ("I still call them Mom and Dad").

Her next lucky break came when she was offered a temporary job at law firm Brown & Bain. It turned into a six-year stay.

Top ranked law firms are rare in smaller cities like Phoenix, Arizona, but Brown & Bain was a leading specialist in the new field of information technology.

A better life

In 1995, she returned to China to work for Motorola.

Ms Liu is diplomatically discreet about the pitfalls for foreign firms in China. "The way we handle things is that you solve the problem and you move on."

Couple walk past Motorola billboard in Beijing
New products and lifestyles in a generation

Her gung-ho approach may be partly because she believes everyday life has got dramatically better.

"When I was in law school, everybody wore the same suits, spoke the same lines... now you can speak your mind."

The government is working hard to make the law more transparent, she says.

Western business people in China often complain that contracts are ignored and that the blurred line between state enterprises and government officials can produce situations little short of extortion.

But the way she tells it, Western capitalists may not be as good at entrepreneurial risk-taking as they like to think.

Negotiation is key

In Western legal systems, "every thing has a rule so you have a pretty clear map... everything is pretty much predictable," she says.

Beijing construction site
China's growth outstrips the world

"But when the country is trying hard to build a system and meet with different parts of the world, you have to make a risk assessment... a judgement call."

A major source of confusion is that there are two parallel sets of rules - laws and state regulations. It is often unclear which takes priority. "It's a challenge," Ms Liu admits.

Motorola has a long-term approach to cultural differences, she says.

It runs management training programmes for officials from state enterprises which are endorsed by the central government.

It also trains its own staff in English and business studies, and wants women to make up 40% of its managers in five years, up from 26% at present.

The firm's strategy works, she says.

"They genuinely believe in doing good things for Chinese, so a lot of Chinese will feel quite proud about working for Motorola."


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13 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
06 Nov 02 | Business
09 Nov 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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