China opens doors so far and no further

The Chinese government has confirmed that it is ready to improve access for foreign law firms to the Chinese market, but has insisted that the ban on practices employing Chinese lawyers should stay.

The proposals are contained in a revised services offer China presented to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva last week as part of its bid to join the global trade body.

Beijing has agreed to get rid of the current ceiling of 80 foreign law firms permitted to open in the country. Under the proposals, foreign firms would also be allowed to set up in more than one city.

Both measures would be introduced within a year of the country joining the WTO.

However, the ban on the employment of local lawyers by foreign firms remains and is likely to be a major stumbling block in negotiations on the services package.

Foreign lawyers in China are treating the government's pronouncements cautiously. One UK lawyer said: “Until I see it in black and white, I will not believe it.”

A US lawyer added: “There have been some rumours, but they differ so much that there is no way of predicting with any certainty what will happen.”