Authority Magazine
Published in

Authority Magazine

“The Top Challenges and Opportunities of Doing Business In China Today”, with Debbie Leilani Shon

There are always challenges in doing business in emerging economies. China’s sheer size and ability to pivot with new technologies allowed nearly a billion people to move within a few years from nothing to wireless phones, skipping the landline generation. However, its nascent legal system and opaque government regulations and practices, tacit government support of domestic industries, and the various restrictions placed on foreign investments in certain industries and services, remain the most challenging roadblocks. Indeed, when the World Trade Organization was created, the drafters built the system of rules that did not envision the rapid rise of a socialist/capitalist China.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Debbie Leilani Shon. Debbie is a partner and chair of the International Trade group at litigation powerhouse Quinn Emanuel, voted The Most Feared Law Firm in the World. Debbie has many “firsts” in her career: the first Asian American partner of a national law firm, first Asian American in the c-suite of US Steel Corporation, and the first female NBA certified agent. She also served as the CEO of Ticketmaster China, and advised regional trade groups and governments throughout Africa and Asia on international trade and commerce issues. Debbie just picked up two honors from the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association: the group’s highest honor, Daniel Inouye Trailblazer Award, and the 2019 Women’s Leadership Award.

Thank you so much for doing this with us, Debbie! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have not had a traditional legal career path, but it’s been an interesting adventure thus far. I have been privileged to pursue my passions, which has led to unusual opportunities. While working my way through law school, I served as the Legislative Director for the Dean and Founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, as politics have always been my passion. I learned about policy and laws from the best during a time when there were few people of color elected to the US Congress. After making partner and representing the interests of blue-chip companies and amazing athletes and entertainers, my then law partner Mickey Kantor invited me to serve in the Clinton administration. I was a third-generation Korean American woman in a senior political post in the most anticipated new Democratic administration in decades. It doesn’t get any better, and for this my mother was most proud. I shall always be indebted to Mickey — and President Clinton — for the opportunity to serve. There is no greater honor than public service.

I continued to practice law, and advise countries, regional trade organizations and companies on trade policies and international politics. My work took me to Abuja to Hanoi to Sydney to Beijing to Asmara to Dublin. I was content working with companies, designing strategies to enter new markets, scaling new businesses in emerging economies, and navigating nontransparent legal and political systems.

But the enticement to work with the world’s finest litigators and legal strategists was too great of an opportunity to pass. A desire to work at the intersection of the law, politics and policy with the dominant legal force brought me to Quinn Emanuel. It has been invigorating, and heartening, to work alongside simply the best litigators. Quinn lawyers “control the table” in white collar and government investigations, bankruptcy, international arbitration, complex litigation and antitrust, among others, and take leadership in emerging practice areas like artificial intelligence, cannabis, and #metoo.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Yes, of course! We are always working on innovative ways to leverage laws to protect or advance legal rights, new technologies and emerging business landscapes. The rock stars of our intellectual property litigation group are front and center on artificial intelligence innovations and the concomitant legal challenges. We have a strong practice in the evolving cannabis market space, and cryptocurrency market. I am working on using the new trade laws to provide faster, more efficient ways to litigate claims and unfair trade practices. Quinn Emanuel is always at the cutting edge.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am the beneficiary of the generosity of spirit and support of many people, but my path was paved by the generations before me. Beginning with my mother, a widow who raised four children on her own and cared for her own mother and in-laws, she demonstrated every day strength, resolve, humanity and unqualified love for her children and the world around us. She assured each of us that nothing is impossible in life if you work hard and focus your energies. If a door is closed, find a way to open it or kick it open. If the wall is too high to climb, find another way around it. It is in our family DNA.

My mother’s brother was a famous athlete, Dr. Sammy Lee. Uncle Sam was the first to win back-to-back Olympic Gold Medals in diving. Truly a legend. I grew up around swimmers and divers from all over the world, as well as collegiate and professional athletes who gravitated to my uncle. What is more amazing is the fact that he accomplished all this as a captain in the US Army, and a medical doctor. As a person of color, he could only train at a public swimming pool on the day before the pool was drained each month. Undaunted, my uncle perfected his skills by diving into sand pits instead. Even more interesting, after winning the Olympic Gold Medals at the 1952 Games held in Helsinki, he returned to Southern California where he sought but was denied the right to purchase a home in Orange County.

The struggles and indignities suffered by past generations and the manner in which they comported themselves, how they fought back or found another way around a roadblock to accomplish their goals — I stand on the shoulders of giants. To them I am most grateful.

What do you think are the new untapped markets in China that may become the next “big thing”?

For years, I have been of the belief that we need a US President with a John F. Kennedy “landing a man on the moon” moment, declaring that the US will be an all new energy vehicle nation in a decade. Set a date. Draw the line. Our children and our planet are at risk, so a bold vision and clear action is needed.

China, a command economy, could make the leap and become an all new energy vehicle country, cutting greenhouse emissions, improving the health of its people, and creating new jobs. The Chinese Government has already taken steps to provide incentives to consumers to purchase these vehicles and has set goals to sell a certain number of new energy vehicles in the coming years. This could evolve into China’s move away from reliance on coal generated electricity.

What challenges does that new market face? How would you address it?

Aside from the technology challenges in the domestic China industry and market, there are also “social harmony” sensitivities in China that need to be addressed, including the potential displacement of workers, and the price point of these products. Market economies struggle with similar issues, and thus far have been unprepared to make hard decisions relating to the closure of certain industries. The answer needs to be one that is embraced by the people and led by the government.

Can you share the top challenges of doing business in China and how you overcame them?

There are always challenges in doing business in emerging economies. China’s sheer size and ability to pivot with new technologies allowed nearly a billion people to move within a few years from nothing to wireless phones, skipping the landline generation. However, its nascent legal system and opaque government regulations and practices, tacit government support of domestic industries, and the various restrictions placed on foreign investments in certain industries and services, remain the most challenging roadblocks. Indeed, when the World Trade Organization was created, the drafters built the system of rules that did not envision the rapid rise of a socialist/capitalist China.

Therefore, it is imperative to triangulate facts, information and data when working with or in China. No one source can provide a definitive answer to a legal or commercial question. There is always another ministry with an interest, or another person with a “connection” who can derail an initiative. There is always a political layer to assess.

In any business, holding true to a set of core values is winning half the battle in any country, and include: Respect for the laws of the host country and its people. Professional and personal responsibility for the safety and welfare of your own employees. The clear and open responsibility for the protection and advancement of the company brand. And, of course, fidelity to our own laws and regulations. Making these pronouncements early in the development of commercial relationships, negotiations and daily communications helped me in China. There was no ambiguity with the Government, with our team, our partners, our vendors or our customers.

We keep hearing about the “Trade War”. What are your thoughts about it? Given the unknowns, how do you plan to pivot?

It was crystal clear that Mr. Trump would deliver on his campaign promises. The “unknowns” were the mechanisms, the tools and the agencies that would be cannibalized or weaponized to accomplish the end goals. It has been an interesting time in international trade law and in international politics.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Not a life lesson quote, but more life purpose quotes I hear every day in my head.

The first is from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

And when I start to fear failure, or being embarrassed, the second quote is from Wayne Gretsky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”

I have a few more chapters to complete in my life. Inspirational, challenging and fun.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Ban the manufacture and sale of all guns. Worldwide.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Authority Magazine

Authority Magazine

1.3K Followers

Good stories should feel beautiful to the mind, heart, and eyes