China VAT TaxesConsider the following situation. Your company is a service provider. Let’s say your business assists domestic and foreign entities register drugs with the FDA. You are contacted by a Chinese entity to do a registration. Having read China Law Blog (See Getting Money out of China: It’s Complicated), you submit a written, signed invoice to the Chinese entity and you require payment in advance. Within five days, you receive payment.

But, you are surprised to see your payment amount has been reduced by 6 percent. You complain to your Chinese client, and your Chinese client explains that the 6% was deducted as VAT tax on the payment, upon the demand of the local tax authority. You explain that all services were performed in the United States. No services were performed in China. For this reason, there is no basis for the Chinese tax authorities to impose any tax of any kind. The Chinese side explains: we agree, but if we had complained, our payment to you would have been denied and you would not have received any payment at all.

This has become a standard scenario for service providers that provide services to Chinese entities. It applies to all types of services:

  • Legal services
  • IP registration services
  • Product and advertising design services
  • Software development services
  • Environmental consulting services
  • Architectural services, both structural and landscape.

In all these areas, the Chinese foreign exchange banks will refuse to make any payment without documentation. Often the request for documentation is onerous and can cause considerable delay. Finally, when approval for payment is received, the foreign exchange bank then requires a deduction from the payment be made.

Now get this: the amount of the deduction varies from bank to bank and from region to region. We have seen deductions range from 5% to 40%. What is the reason for this wide variation? Since there is no legal basis for the deduction, its amount and its supposed basis vary. This variation means there is no way to predict in advance the amount of the deduction. Even within the same bank for the same services we have seen the amount of the deduction vary from payment to payment, depending on the attitude of the bank at the time and the identity of the bank officer and the local tax office personnel involved in the transaction. Of course, the status of the payer in the local economy is a factor. An SOE that is the sole employer in a small town is treated differently than a small privately owned business in Shanghai.

Our China lawyers constantly get calls seeking help from American and European service providers whose payments have been held up by China’s banks. We tell them the following: “we can help you get the money out, but it will be net of taxes and we do not know what that amount will be.” A classic good news/bad news scenario.

What though can you as the foreign service provider do to eliminate this tax deduction risk? The only solution is to put all of the payment risks onto your Chinese customer by providing in your service contract that all payments must be made net of taxes and fees. If the amount of the invoice is $60,000, the service provider must receive $60,000. All taxes and fees are paid by the Chinese customer on behalf of the foreign service provider. This approach places the risk where it belongs: on the Chinese side. The Chinese government/foreign exchange bank is imposing the fee. The Chinese payer is the only party that can object to the fee and argue it should not be imposed or should be reduced. You as a foreign entity receiving payment have no standing and no power to impact the decision of the Chinese authorities, but your Chinese customer does. Placing the risk on the Chinese payer is, therefore, the only practical way to deal with this issue.

It is essential to deal with this issue in advance in the written service contract and in the written invoice for services. If the written documents are silent, the Chinese side will fall back to the basic rule that VAT and income tax is the liability of the foreign party and make little to no effort to prevent or reduce it. Though this rule has no application to arbitrary and illegal exactions imposed by foreign governments, the foreign service provider will always lose on this kind of claim.

So this then leads to the following rules for performing services for Chinese entities:

1. Execute a written service agreement.

2. Provide a written, signed invoice for every payment.

3. Provide in the agreement and invoice that payments are net of taxes and fees.

4. Do no work until after full payment is received.

Service providers outside China normally operate with a relaxed contracting and billing system. The rules for China are very different and contrary to service provider culture. Moreover, many Chinese entities will resist following the rules. My response to all this is: So what? As my first law firm boss explained to me: there is only one thing worse than working. That is working and not getting paid. If you want to get paid by a Chinese customer, you need to follow the rules.

China employee terminationsTerminating a China-based employee without severance is generally a difficult thing to do. Even terminating a probationary employee can be tricky. See China Employee Probation: All is NOT What it Seems. Mutual terminations with settlement agreements and claim releases are usually the safest route for employers to take.

For a mutual termination to work well you should put the terms and conditions surrounding such termination to writing even if both parties (employer and employee) have reached a mutual understanding through friendly consultation. Without a written agreement, the employer is at great risk of later legal action by the employee for the exact same issues you settled verbally.

How should you as the employer proceed to effectuate a mutual termination? You initiate the process by coming up with an initial severance amount and a list of any additional matters that need to be resolved with the employee. You then approach the employee and ask him or her if she would be agreeable to a mutual termination with your proposed terms, which will include among other things, a fair amount of severance. In our experience, Chinese employees usually will agree to a mutual termination as they prefer receiving a quick payout to many months of contentious litigation. We normally suggest our clients talk to the employee themselves during the initial stages (with our employment lawyers coaching them in the background). It can often be a mistake for an employer to bring its lawyers into employee termination negotiations too early as doing so can make things more confrontational and indicate to the employee that the amounts at stake may be higher than he or she initially realized.

As you are nearing the end of your negotiations with your employee, you should inform the employee that you will be providing a written agreement that contains all agreed-upon terms for the employee to review and sign.

You will next want to provide the employee with a hard copy of the mutual termination agreement and give him or her time to review it and ask any questions. We make our employee termination agreements clear, reasonable and concise, and China employees usually sign them with little to no fuss. Make sure your agreement covers all relevant issues regarding your specific employee. Sometimes, your employee may want you to leave out certain things for various reasons or put in something that is not true. For example, your employee may want to make it ambiguous about the mutual nature of the termination. You need to say no and inform him or her that the agreement must be clear about the termination being mutual. You need to proceed with extreme care. It is not uncommon for foreign companies to call our law firm after they have been sued by an employee a month or two after believing they just settled with that very same employee.

Do not issue the mutual termination agreement to your employee before you have communicated with the employee regarding the termination and have agreed on the issues. Nor should you make the employee sign an agreement on the spot that he or she has not previously reviewed; the mutual termination agreement should not come to the employee as a total surprise.

Finally, make sure both parties fully execute the agreement and then you should be sure to fulfill your obligations under the agreement, such as wiring the employee his or her full severance payment. Retain one original copy of the fully executed agreement for your records. You must also meet all your other obligations with respect to the employee departure, such as transferring the employee’s social insurance.

Do not treat the mutual termination agreement as a “mere formality” as this document is key to your protection. It should be in Chinese as the official language (preferably with English as well for you) and you as the employer need to know exactly what it says and agree with all of its terms. It is common for Chinese employees to draft Chinese-only agreements “merely as a formality” and try to get you to sign off on that. These employee-drafted termination agreements virtually never protect the employer and they often lead result in the employee coming back to the employer for more money a few weeks later.

Don’t skip the formal mutual termination agreement just because the employee you are terminating is in a “special” status. For example, even if the employee is on probation, so long as it’s a mutual termination, you should enter into a written mutual termination agreement with that employee. Just because the probation/employment period is short does not mean you should not handle the termination properly. You should document ALL employee terminations in writing

Did you handle your employee terminations properly? Now is the time to check to make sure.

 

China Law: Don't fight the trend
China Law: Don’t fight the trend

China Bystander (a very thoughtful deep-dive type China blog that has been churning out truly excellent posts since 2007) just did a story, entitled, China Cracks Down On Cryptocurrencies. The story begins with what I see as its money quote:

The default position of Chinese authorities is that if it exists, it should be regulated. Cryptocurrencies are a prime example.

Exactly.

I was a big fan of uber-investor Martin Zweig who would often talk about how the “trend is your friend” and how “you don’t fight against the trend.” That advice applies to Chinese law and business. A CEO I know will every five years put the basics of China’s Five Year Plans on a small card, get the card laminated and then keep that card in his wallet at all times. He does this so that he can easily check all of his iany’s proposed actions against the Five-Year plan to make sure it coincides with it or at least does not contradict it. In other words, he makes sure his company acts in harmony with China’s plans, not against them. Smart. Very Smart.

Our China lawyers constantly get phone calls/emails from potential clients (it is almost always potential clients and not actual clients) convinced they have found a “workaround” for some Chinese law and they want us to confirm their workaround will work. When we immediately express our serious doubts, they express their serious doubts about hiring us. This indicates to us they do not really want an objective answer to their question regarding the viability of their workaround, they just want confirmation of it, preferably in writing and they move on.

Anyway, this sort of interaction happens quite often and the following are the most common instances:

1. Getting more than $50,000 out of China. We get at least 2-3 emails every week from someone wanting to know if we can help their Chinese counter-party get x millions of dollars out of China, usually to buy real property or to invest in an American or European business. See Getting Money out of China: It’s Complicated and while you are at it, you might as well check out parts 2, 34, 5 and  6 of that series.

About half of those emails include some “new” idea for getting the money out and about half of those involve a long explanation as to why that idea is legal under Chinese law. Our response is essentially to point out that if it were easy to get money out of China legally, people would be doing it AND their Chinese counter-party would be contacting a Chinese lawyer to do it, not having the American/European side do the contacting. About half the new ideas involved cryptocurrencies, usually Bitcoin. Our position on all of these ideas, especially the Bitcoin ones, has always been that if China is not now blocking them, it will soon and those who facilitated such transfers when the facilitating was perceived as relatively good could face serious consequences.

Starting a few months ago we started getting communications from frantic foreigners whose bitcoin accounts had been frozen in China asking our help to unfreeze them. Starting about a month ago, we started getting communications from people who were having their associates arrested for actions tied in with Bitcoin (but not for using Bitcoin directly). Things like conducting business in China without an entity and without paying taxes. More than one caller who had millions of dollars in Bitcoin frozen AND one or more associates on the ground in China would insist that they were not conducting business in China because all they were doing was sending money out of China and that is not conducting business.

What people need to realize about China law is that when it comes to something like this, China is just not a particularly big fan of these sorts of arguments. In other words, don’t fight the trend.

2. Using Third-Party Hiring Agencies to Avoid Having to Form a China WFOE. Nope, not going to recommend this. No way, no how. Way back in 2015, I wrote an article for Forbes Magazine, entitled, China’s Tax Authorities Want You. In this article, I talked about the illegality of foreign companies hiring Chinese “independent contractors” directly, rather than by forming a WFOE and having their WFOE do the hiring. This is illegal 999 times out of 1000 and China hates hates hates companies that do this. China hates this because it means it does not collect the approximately 40% of salaries employers are supposed to pay in taxes and social benefits nor does it collect the approximately 25% of salaries that is to be paid by China employees.

Couple the hate with the opportunity to collect large amounts of money and you can see why China is hyper-zealous about hunting down companies engaged in these arrangements. Far be it though for foreign companies to simply comply by forming a China WFOE and using their WFOE to hire employees in China legally. No, they want us to tell them whether it is legal for such and such third-party hiring agency to hire employees for them in China.

The answer is really complicated because it depends on so many factors, including the third party hiring agency (a whole boatload of companies (mostly foreign companies operating outside China) have jumped into this business without being licensed to engage in it and much depends on who you which to see hired, their position, the number of people you wish to see hired, the length of time you intend for your third-party hiring agency to employ someone and then on top of all this, the city and perhaps even the district. In the end, it would almost certainly cost more to 1) conduct due diligence on the hiring agency 2) figure out the legality of the specific situation, 3) pay the 10 to 15% premium/commission these third-party hiring agencies typically require, and 4) deal with the contracts between you and the third-party hiring agency and the contracts between the third-party hiring agencies and the employees you want to be hired (because the third-party hiring agency drafts these contracts to protect itself, not your company).

Most importantly, the odds are overwhelming that what is being proposed is illegal in any event and if it isn’t clearly illegal, it will be so disfavored that you could end up getting in trouble anyway. And again, that’s the point. Don’t fight the trend.

3. China Representative Offices. China does not like them and way back in 2010, I wrote a post, entitled, The Slow Death Of The China Rep Office. They are still alive and China still does not like them and they almost never make sense for a foreign company looking to go into China. China does not like them and our China lawyers do not like them because they are legal only under very limited circumstances. Since the Chinese government does not like them, you are at some risk even if you are just on the legal side of the legality/illegality line and you are also always at risk of China’s tightening its Rep Office laws and shutting you down. The trend says don’t do it.

4. Variable Interest Entities/VIEs. Way back in 2011, in VIEs In China. The End Of A Flawed Strategy, we made clear our distaste for VIEs and why our law firm refused to handle that sort of work. This position angered many (especially those who were profiting off VIEs) but our position was based on the strong belief that China would eventually make clear its prohibition against them and at that time those who had gone into China as VIEs would suffer. It took longer than we expected, but it did happen in 2015 and we wrote about that in China VIEs Are Dead. Done. Over. Stick A Fork In Them and as we had predicted, the consequences were dire for many companies. Again, the trend.

As China attorneys, we see our job as more than just knowing what the law says now. Our job also encompasses our knowing how the Chinese government is likely to view what our clients are proposing to do (both now and in the future) and counseling our clients on that as well.

Our job is to help our clients stay on trend.

Your thoughts?

China AttorneysBecause of this blog, our China lawyers get a fairly steady stream of China law questions from readers, mostly via emails but occasionally via blog comments as well. If we were to conduct research on all the questions we get asked and then comprehensively answer them, we would become overwhelmed. So what we usually do is provide a super fast general answer and, when it is easy to do so, a link or two to a blog post that may provide some additional guidance. We figure we might as well post some of these on here as well. On Fridays, like today.

One of the questions our China attorneys pretty much never get is the following: I have been using factory X in China for the last seven years to make our widgets and though it was rocky at the start, we eventually built up a great relationship and they have been doing a great job for us for the last five or so years. But the reason I am calling you is because they have asked us about becoming the exclusive China distributer for our widgets and I was wondering whether you think that is a good idea.

Everything but the final question about whether we think it a good idea happens often; the asking us whether it is a good idea is the part that never happens, but maybe it should.

Let me explain.

We are China lawyers, not China business consultants and for that reason we are not the logical people to ask about something like how to choose a distributer in China. But we have been in the China law business for so long that certain things have become obvious to us even though we lack an MBA. And the issues involved in granting an exclusive distributorship to your Chinese manufacturer is just one of those things that is almost always not the best way to go.

But what I usually am thinking (and often say) is something like the following:

I understand that you have a really good relationship with your widget manufacturer and I am not in any way downgrading the value of that, because that is of huge value. But if you are truly serious about maximizing your widget sales in China you maybe should consider whether using your manufacturer as your exclusive distributer is the best way to do that. I say that for two reasons. One, the typical Chinese manufacturer knows zero about consumer marketing, distribution or sales. They know only how to manufacture which is not the same thing. They are usually engineers, not businesspeople or salespeople or logistics people. Two, it is rarely a good idea to grant anyone an exclusive distributorship in China for the simple reason that China is a big country and the odds are slim that the company best at marketing and selling your widgets in Shanghai will be the same company as the company that would be best at doing those things in Chengdu. See China Distribution Agreements: Exclusivity Is NOT Required.

But if you do not want to spend the time and money to find another possible China distributor because all you want is either to keep your manufacturer happy or just make a few extra dollars, then what you are proposing should be fine.

Your thoughts?

China employment lawyer
Buy the paperback version. NOW.

China employment law is technical and getting technicaler (yes, I made up that last word but you know what I mean). See China Employment Law: Local and Not So Simple. It is one of the most consistent problem areas for foreign companies doing business in China and it has become a massive growth area for our law firm.

Our typical attorney-client interaction usually goes something like this:

  1. Foreign employer company contacts my law firm because it has terminated an employee and that employee has either sued or threatened to sue, oftentimes over a technical violation by the foreign employer.
  2. One of our China employment lawyers looks at the case and determines that the foreign company employer did in fact violate Chinese law in the termination and in that investigation learns that the foreign company employer committed multiple violations and if the employee were to pursue litigation or his or her administrative remedies, he or she would no doubt prevail.
  3. We explain the above to the foreign company employer and learn that the problems we enumerated hold true for all employees.
  4. The foreign company employer asks our law firm to remedy its problems and we explain that before we start remedying just the problems that came to the forefront from this one termination, we should conduct an employer audit to determine what other employment problems need fixing. See China Employment Compliance and Audits: THE New Big Thing.
  5. We conduct an employer audit and that invariably (like every single time) generates a laundry list of problems and then we fix them, one by one.

Why do foreign company employers have so many employment problems in China? Think about how the typical small to mid-sized companies starts in China. They go into China with maybe one or two foreign employees and one or two Chinese employees, none of whom is remotely knowledgeable about Chinese employment laws (on the local, regional or national level) and all of whom are — naturally — more focused on getting the business off the ground than on complying to the letter of the multiple sets of employment laws. And anyway, at this point they are usually a tight-knit group of founding employees who view themselves as much as founders as they do employees. But when the company grows, little changes on the China employment compliance front, mostly because nobody realizes how important it is to make the changes and because even if they did, there is nobody in-house who knows how to do it. So it gets kicked down the road until there is an expensive and embarrassing employment problem.

Our firm is then called more often by someone high up in the U.S. or the Europe or the Australia office than by someone on the ground in China. The person who calls us (might be the head of HR, the CFO or the CEO) has started to look at what is going on in China and sought answers from China and received inadequate responses and has now started to worry, rightfully so.

All of the above is my incredibly long-winded way of saying that foreign companies need to get on top of their China employment situations and stay there. Employer audits are the way to go in most situations, but in the meantime and as a supplement, it is critical that someone at your company understand China employment law basics. Someone at your company needs to know enough not to be able to solve every issue, but to spot the issues before they blow sky-high.

And we have just the book for that and I am writing about it today because it just came out in paperback (the Kindle version came out a few weeks ago).

Our lead China employment lawyer, Grace Yang recently had published The China Employment Law Guide and you really really really should buy it and put it on your shelf. And when I say put it on your shelf, I mean you should buy the softcover version (not the Kindle version) so you can literally put it on your shelf. Heck, get more than one copy and give it to everyone in your company who manages your employees or plays any role in their hiring or their firing. This is a book that is meant to be used for background and for reference and as a decision-making guide. Get it now!

Just a little bit about Grace Yang, its author. Grace grew up in Beijing and excelled at and graduated from China’s best law school there — Beijing University. She then came to the United States to attend the University of Washington law school where she again excelled and graduated. Grace is my firm’s lead China employment and labor lawyer and she is the lawyer at our firm to whom everyone else goes for China employment and labor law questions. Grace is a licensed U.S. lawyer (she is licensed in both Washington and New York) and she splits her time between Seattle and Beijing.

Anyway, did I tell you that you should buy the book? Of course I did and you should.

 

China arbitration clause
Oh no, yet another bad jurisdiction clause

Our China lawyers see a lot of contracts with China companies written by lawyers outside our law firm and by one of the parties themselves. We mostly see these contracts when someone writes us to see if they have a viable lawsuit against their Chinese counter-party. Unfortunately, it is the rare instance where their contract has set up the foreign company (usually an American or European company) for a good lawsuit. Truth be told, very few law firms know how to write good contracts for China and pretty much no non-lawyers do.

Typically, the most obvious and easily spotted flaw is in the jurisdiction clause and boy have we seen some doozies on that front, especially lately. Over the years, our China attorneys have dealt with the following, the facts of which have been modified so as to negate any possibility of anyone recognizing the specific matter:

1. Tokyo Jurisdiction. A company comes to us after learning its Chinese manufacturer has started producing for itself and selling (very successfully) the company’s newest version of its core product. I read the contract and one provision in particular to expressly state that any future iterations of the core product would belong to the Chinese company and I mentioned this to the potential client. The potential client then told me that when it had complained to its Chinese manufacturer about IP theft, the Chinese manufacturer cited to the same provision and said the product now belonged to them. Ugh.

To make matters worse, the contract called for all disputes to be resolved in “Tokyo Superior Court.” I asked the potential client how the heck it was decided Tokyo Superior Court would be the venue for any disputes and the potential client explained it as follows:

The Chinese company asked for disputes to be resolved by arbitration in Beijing and my lawyer said that we wouldn’t stand a chance there and so we refused. The Chinese company then proposed Singapore or Hong Kong arbitration and my lawyer countered with Tokyo Superior Court because it was the opposite [both with respect to the type of forum — arbitration versus court — and the location] as what the other side wanted.

Ugh. I then explained how no country other than China will allow for a lawsuit in its courts that has zero to do with its country and because this case would involve a US-based company going up against a China-based company on an issue with zero relevance to Japan, there is just no way a Japanese court will allow itself to be a free (or nearly free) public forum for this dispute. I did not even bother to mention that there is no such thing as the Tokyo Superior Court or that even if the US company sued in Tokyo, got its case heard in Tokyo (which will never ever happen) and then won in Tokyo, no court in China would ever enforce the judgment because the Tokyo court had no and should never have asserted jurisdiction. Ugh. The US company might be able to convince a Chinese court to take the case, but I doubt it, simply because China very much tends to enforce contracts no matter how silly they may be and I would guess most Chinese courts would toss the case for not having been filed in Tokyo as per the contract.

2. Toronto Jurisdiction. This is one of my favorites. I get an angry email from someone that essentially said as follows:

I read your blog regularly and carefully and you were wrong about Canada and that makes me wonder what else you have been wrong about. I read one of your posts where you talked about how you like to propose Canada for disputes because Chinese companies often will agree to that. Well the Chinese company we work with did agree to that but when it came time for us to actually sue them there, all of the Canadian lawyers told us that we couldn’t.

Future communications revealed that this company had — based on my having extolled the virtues of proposing Canada for arbitrations — believed it could list the Toronto courts as the jurisdiction for disputes between its US-based company and its Chinese counterpart. Just as would have been true in the Tokyo instance above, there is no way a Toronto court will hear a dispute between two foreign companies on a matter that has no relevance to Canada. Fortunately, the Canadian lawyers to whom this company went realized that and chose not to waste the US company’s time and money pursuing litigation there. I had to point out that we constantly emphasize that dispute resolution provisions must be fact and situation specific and that there is a big difference between what can be done in arbitration and what can be done in a foreign country’s courts. I didn’t — but I should have — point out the disclaimer here on our website:

The China Law Blog is for educational purposes and to give a general information and a general understanding of Chinese law. It is not intended to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and our law firm. You should not use the China Law Blog as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney.

Ugh.

3. Split Jurisdiction.  We get this one fairly often. The contract provides that the Chinese company must sue the United States company in a U.S. court and the U.S. company must sue the Chinese company in a Chinese court. The thinking behind this is logical but its execution is so flawed that we avoid these provisions like the plague.

These provisions initially seem to make sense because this sort of split jurisdiction appears to greatly favor the U.S. company. If the Chinese company seeks monetary damages from the American company, it must go through the trouble of suing the American company in a U.S. court and, presumably, the U.S. company will get a fair trial there. And on the flip side, the American company can sue the Chinese company in a Chinese court, which is (90 percent of the time, anyway) exactly where the U.S. company should want to be. For why this is the case, check out China Enforces United States Judgment: This Changes Pretty Much Nothing.

But there is a giant flaw to the above analysis. Chinese courts typically hold that this kind of split jurisdiction means there is in fact no jurisdiction in China, so you really want jurisdiction in China, your agreement should  be 1) be governed by Chinese law, 2) be written in Chinese and 3) provide for exclusive jurisdiction in China. This is not black letter law. This is just what actually happens on the ground in China and this is why our firm’s China attorneys provide for all three of these in all contracts where it is critical our client have the right to sue in China.

But once again there is no clear answer as to what might be best for any given company’s specific situation. To properly evaluate whether you go with Chinese law in a Chinese Court (which is what we nearly always end up choosing to do), you need to consider your most important concerns. Is it more important you have an effective remedy against the Chinese company with which you are contracting or is it more important you make it as difficult as possible for the Chinese side to sue you? If your primary goal is to be able to enforce this contract against a Chinese company, you should provide for exclusive jurisdiction in China and Chinese law should apply and the contract should be in Chinese. But if your primary goal is to prevent the Chinese side from suing, you should provide for exclusive jurisdiction in the United States. But if you do this, you must realize that because China does not enforce U.S. judgments, the U.S. agreement will  be useless as a means of enforcement against the Chinese party. It is these preferences that should help decide the best jurisdiction provision for your contract. In any event, the split jurisdiction approach generally does not work.

This is all a very difficult and must be considered carefully. There is no simple answer. A hard choice has to be made. The first thing I look at when someone shows me an agreement is its jurisdiction provision. In most cases, the US lawyer has screwed up and made it impossible for the US company to enforce the contract and that stops things right there. We must avoid that result if the client in fact wants to enforce in China. If, however, this is that rare instance where the client is only concerned about preventing a lawsuit, a US jurisdiction clause with a US choice of law provision would be fine. In that case, a Chinese version is not required, but I still recommend it because at least then the Chinese counter-party will be able to understand it fully and that alone is important for making sure that it and our client are on the same page before they start doing business with each other.

4. Geneva Chamber of Commerce Arbitration. A very good existing client of ours came to us with a contract calling for arbitration before the “Arbitration Institute of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce.” Problem was that the Geneva Chamber of Commerce neither had an Arbitration Institute nor did the Chamber handle international arbitration. In this case, our client had taken a contract my law firm had written for them and made a few changes and simply re-used it on another deal. The contract my firm had written had called for disputes to be resolved before the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce (at least I think that was what it said), which at that time (and today) was a very common forum for resolving disputes between Russian and American companies. So when my client went off and did an agreement with a Spanish company and the Spanish company refused to have the disputes handled in Stockholm, my client just switched “Geneva” for “Stockholm” and called it a day. Back then, the Geneva Chamber of Commerce did no arbitration. Zero. So when it came time for my client to pursue arbitration my firm’s arbitration lawyers had to conduct massive research to determine how even to commence arbitration before an arbitral body that did not exist. We ended up deciding to file with the Swiss Arbitration Association in Geneva, figuring we could argue that is what the parties meant and that arbitral body would want to keep the case. The opposing side vigorously contested our choice of forum and only many briefs and many dollars later did we prevail.

5. South Carolina Arbitration in Chinese Under British Law. Yes you read it right and if you are not stunned by this, you should read it again. This is my all time favorite. U.S. company comes to us with an arbitration clause mandating arbitration in South Carolina, in Chinese, under British law. When I talked about how much it would cost to get three Mandarin-speaking arbitrators to South Carolina (assuming the other side doesn’t argue for some other Chinese language) and the need to use two lawyers (one who is experienced with arbitration and another who is fluent in Chinese) and the added costs of researching and arguing British law, the U.S. company — wisely — chose not to pursue the case. When I asked the company how they came up with such a provision they explained that they had taken it from one of their previous agreements. I didn’t say a word, but what I will say now is that a provision like this is a great way to discourage arbitration and sometimes that  can make sense, but such a provision is a disaster if you are the one that ends up needing to sue.

Bottom Line: Jurisdiction clauses in international contracts are complicated and important and there is no one size fits all.

China employment lawyerOne of the more important things you should know about China employment law is that employees have many rights they CANNOT contract away. An employment contract in China (and pretty much every other country as well) is not a regular commercial contract where the parties have significant freedom to agree on anything. In China employment contracts are not governed by China’s Contract Law; rather, they are governed by the Labor Contract Law (among other numerous employee-friendly labor and employment laws, regulations, rules, directives, etc.). This is a critical distinction often missed to the peril of foreign employers in China.

Because Chinese employees are rarely free to contract away the vast majority of their rights, you as an employer need to think long and hard before trying to contractually (or otherwise) impose an extra burden or penalty on your employee. Generally, employees in China may bear no more obligations beyond those stipulated by law. For example, consider this somewhat classic example: can you have an employment contract that mandates your employees will automatically pay you a certain amount of salary if they fail to give at least 30 days written notice before resigning? Say, you try to be fair by asking each employee to pay you one day’s salary for each day he or she fails to give notice up to 30 days. Will such an employment contract provision be enforceable under Chinese law?

It depends on your locale, but generally speaking, in most locales, unless an exception applies (which I will explain below), this sort of arrangement constitutes a penalty against the employee and is therefore unenforceable under Chinese law. China’s Labor Contract Law says that so long as an employee provides 30 days written notice, he or she can terminate their employment relationship, with or without cause. This is generally interpreted as meaning that an employer cannot legally make it more difficult by essentially imposing a penalty for an employee terminating the employment contract early.

In this situation employers commonly argue that since the law is silent on what happens when an employee fails to provide 30 days written notice the parties should be free to enter into their own agreement on this issue. In most locales, this argument has been stricken down for two reasons: (1) the law does NOT give an employer the right to penalize an employee for failing to give 30 days written notice; and (2) the employer already has the right to pursue the employee if the employer suffers actual damages as a result of the employee’s failure to give adequate notice. The burden is on the employer to show the damages and the causal connection between the employee’s behavior and such damages. So what if the employee gave only 20 days notice? If the employer suffers no harm, it would not be fair to penalize the employee for being 10 days short on giving resignation notice. Such an arrangement, without more, constitutes a penalty under Chinese laws and will not be deemed enforceable.

What are the exceptions? A penalty payable by the employee may be upheld under one of the following two circumstances:

  • Pursuant to an education reimbursement agreement (sometimes called a service period agreement), an employer can require its employees reimburse the company for the education expenses if the employer pays major expenses for an employee’s employment-related education or training, but soon after the training is complete, the employee quits.
  • Pursuant to a non-compete agreement, an employer can require an employee pay a penalty to the employer for violating non-compete terms by joining a competitor after leaving employment.

In jurisdictions that prohibit penalizing employees for shortened termination notice, it does not matter if the employer can prove it was the employee who insisted on this penalty arrangement. It also does not matter if the clause is in bold and in perfect Chinese.

If you have already invested a lot of time and money on one or more of your employees or you are planning to do so, you should consider adding a provision to your employment contract on education reimbursement. If your employee assures you not to worry because he or she will not leave you hanging and as proof of this offers to pay you for leaving without 30 days notice, you should know that what the employee is proposing will almost certainly not be enforceable. It’s just like when you present an unenforceable NDA (as opposed to a China-centric NNN) to your Chinese counterpart, and they are of course happy to sign it, knowing it will carry no legal force in China.

Trust me when I tell you our Chinese lawyers constantly see Chinese individuals and companies willingly and knowing propose and then sign agreements knowing full well they are not enforceable!

Do your China employment contracts pass legal muster? Now is the time to check to make sure.

By the way, my book on China employment law, The China Employment Law Guide: What You Need to Know to Protect Your Company, just came out in paperback and you can buy it for the low low price of only $19.95 on Amazon. I realize this is considerably more than the Kindle price, but my intention with the book is for foreign employers and for expat employees to have this book available to them as a ready reference and that will be much better accomplished on a bookshelf in paperback form than on a Kindle or your computer. 

 

China tradmark squatter
China trademarks. Very crowded.

The United States and China are the two busiest jurisdictions in the world for trademarks, with radically different approaches. The USPTO requires applications to be narrow in scope: the identification of goods/services can only include goods/services the applicant is actually using or has a bona fide intent to use, and before the application can proceed to registration the applicant must provide proof of such use. Subsequently, in order to maintain a valid registration, trademark owners must provide proof of continued use.

China, meanwhile, strongly prefers goods/services be identified according to the Nice Classification system, and it has no requirement that an applicant prove use at any time. The one exception is the non-use cancellation proceeding, by which a third party can challenge a trademark registration. Following such a challenge, if the trademark owner cannot provide proof of use within the three prior years, the trademark registration will be cancelled. But absent a third party challenge, the trademark will remain valid. The Chinese Trademark Office (CTMO) does not conduct sua sponte investigations.

Over the past 10-15 years, China has encouraged trademark applications in both explicit and implicit ways. In an interview last year with WIPO, Zhang Rao, the Commissioner of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), which oversees the CTMO, identified five factors driving the large numbers of trademark applications:

  1. The Chinese government’s goal of boosting “mass entrepreneurship and innovation.”
  2. The implementation of the 2014 Trademark Law, which was an improvement on the previous trademark law.
  3. SAIC authorities’ and market regulators’ work to create a level playing field for all regarding trademark rights.
  4. SAIC’s efforts to improve the efficiency and accessibility of trademark applications, with a particular focus on online applications.
  5. Extensive outreach efforts to increase public awareness of the value of registered IP.

To Zhang’s comments I would add:

  1. Because it is difficult to invalidate a trademark registration in China because of bad faith, it incentivizes trademark squatters to file trademark applications “on spec,” and similarly incentivizes legitimate brand owners to file far more trademark applications in far more classes than they would (or could) file in other jurisdictions.
  2. The Chinese government has operationalized its goal of boosting innovation (Zhang’s first point above) with a numerical pay-for-play scheme: more filings = more money. Mark Cohen’s China IPR Blog has commented on this strategy numerous times with respect to patents; I don’t know for certain if trademarks have been promoted the same way but wouldn’t be surprised.

For all of these reasons and more, China has seen a staggering increase in the number of trademark applications: more than 760,000 trademark applications were filed in 2006, and that number increased to 2.8 million in 2015. In the US, the second busiest trademark jurisdiction, fewer than 400,000 trademark applications were filed in 2006, and slightly more than 500,000 in 2015. (The statistics are from WIPO using class count data: an application in two classes counts as two applications, an application in three classes counts as three applications, etc.) And China continues to widen the gap; in 2016, more than 3.6 million applications were filed.

Meanwhile, the CTMO has been hiring a number of young, inexperienced trademark examiners whose default position is to reject any application that seems like it might conflict with a previously filed trademark.

This all adds up to an increasingly inhospitable environment for filing trademark applications in China. Every new trademark application is another potential conflict for subsequently filed applications. Our China trademark team has seen an uptick in rejections in our day-to-day work, and though it’s hard to prove causation it sure doesn’t feel like a coincidence.

To make things even more complicated, there’s a disjunction between the standard for trademark infringement and the standard for trademark registration, with the latter being considerably more strict. That has led to a number of trademarks that are in a strange sort of limbo: too similar to existing marks to be registered, but not so similar as to constitute infringement were they to be used. This effectively places such trademarks in the public domain. If a company’s goal is simply to manufacture products in China without fear of someone else interfering with production or exports, all is well. But if the goal is establish a brand name in China, the only answer is to find a new brand name.

The moral of the story is that to succeed with trademarks in China you must register your trademarks both early and often, and conduct meaningful searches before filing each and every application. Even if a trademark squatter doesn’t take your exact mark, one of the millions of new trademark applications each year might block your application on other grounds.

Forming offshore entities for ChinaMany years ago, a client came to us with what it claimed to be and initially looked to be a relatively uncomplicated international dispute. But the more we dug into this company’s “relatively uncomplicated international’ dispute, the more compicated it became. But what was interesting was that the complications were not so much stemming from the dispute itself, but from the myriad and confusing and diverse and related and somewhat related chain of offshore holding companies this client had.

It had nearly fifty (yes, 50) such companies and when we asked why, they mumbled something about prior lawyers and accountants. When we asked how their having so many companies was working for them, their answer was anything but positive. It was costing them a fortune to keep these companies alive and to figure out their taxes and to pay people to do these sorts of things. It should not take a genius to figure out why international lawyers and international accountants like offshore entities so much. I can only imagine how much the international lawyers and accountants made from forming and then providing legal and accounting services to 50 companies.

To make a long story short, the international lawyers at my firm were able to quickly reduce the number of these companies down to five (one holding company and one for each country in which it was operating), saving our client a veritable lifetime of hassle and expense.

Now obviously the above is an extreme example, but for every five or so companies that come to us every year with a stray and unwanted offshore entity, there have been zero (ever) that have said, “gee I wish I had formed an offshore entity” years ago. Not one. Ever.

We are often asked about the benefits of forming an offshore entity for doing business with China or for acting as a holding company for forming a China WFOE. Our typical response is to determine whether the company has or is likely to have the sort of profits that will make forming such a company worthwhile and whether forming such a company will provide real monetary benefits. We are not big believers in spending money to form and maintain a company to delay taxes on profits that may never be realized. And then, if there is enough there, we turn them over to our tax lawyer, but most of the time no such entity is formed. If the company is in a high liability industry it sometimes makes sense then as well to set up and operate an offshore entity, but again this too is rare.

Bottom Line: Offshore entities rarely make sense for SMEs and when they do, keep it simple. These entities are a cost that keeps on taking, so be wary and go easy.

 

China WFOE
Photos from Hong Kong Free Press

According to the Hong Kong Free Press (and a number of other newspapers) The Shanghai government this week “ordered the closure of one of the city’s top maternity hospitals saying that it was illegally built on land owned by the armed forces, according to an official notice.”

According to the article, the hospital, Shanghai Redleaf International Women’s and Children’s Hospital, was “founded by Canadian investors” and it had “signed a 20-year lease for prime real estate owned by the military on central Shanghai’s Huaihai Road and started catering to foreigners and wealthy Chinese more than four years ago.” But because “The People’s Liberation Army has been banned from commercial activities since 1998” the hospital was being forced to close. The HK Free Press says this “hospital is one of the largest private business affected by the so-called de-commercialisation of the military to date.” The article then quotes the district government as saying “There exists a matter of illegal construction of building at the Redleaf Hospital. It must be rectified duly in accordance with relevant laws.”

Not surprisingly many patients and hospital employees were not happy with the closure:

A gynecologist who was vacating her workplace Sunday afternoon said that the owners, a Canadian couple, had invested billions [of RMB, presumably] into the clinic. “They had all the right documents and invested so much money… it just doesn’t seem fair,” she said.

Christine Cheng had been working as a nurse at Redleaf’s gynecology department for almost two years. “We spent a lot of money and work building this, and now the government wants us to move… We didn’t do anything bad,” she said.

When news transpired last Thursday that the upscale facility would be forced to close, some of the about 300 staff affected hung banners outside the main building criticizing the facility’s imminent closure.

The banners said that while the hospital supported the government, it shouldn’t be forced to move, adding that it wasn’t a “soft tomato” — a Chinese expression for a pushover. Police arrived on the scene shortly afterward and ordered that the banners be removed.

Louise Roy, director of patient support services at Ferguson Women’s Health, a clinic that rents facilities inside the Redleaf complex, said that staff first heard about the possibility of a closure several months ago, although they were never given confirmation or a specific date. “They’ve told us nothing — absolutely nothing,” Roy said. “We came in this morning, like [we do] every day. Then we saw staff gathered outside where the banners were hung, and then the police came.”

Several women who were being treated at the hospital were clearly upset as they collected their medical records before closure.

“I found out from a friend,” said a 32-year-old patient named Jennifer who would not give her last name because of privacy concerns. She said that she had moved to Shanghai from the U.S. recently and was planning to deliver her child at Redleaf in three months. “I have friends who are due in two weeks or a month — I don’t know what they are going to do,” she said.

Wang Jue, PR supervisor, said that one patient in labor arrived at Redleaf over the weekend and was turned away by government officials. She arrived at another clinic just 10 minutes before giving birth.

Redleaf’s services have been highly sought-after by those who can afford them. A standard cesarean section delivery at the hospital costs 120,000 yuan, and a prenatal package is priced at 24,000 yuan.

Patients have been referred to a temporary clinic while Redleaf is working on a more permanent solution.

I do not know what happened with this hospital beyond what I read in the newspapers. I can though discuss some of what my firm’s China lawyers have seen in possibly similar situations over the years and I do so below.

Maybe fifteen years, a very savvy foreign businessperson came to my law firm with a proposed deal that involved our client building a hotel. Just about everything about the deal was perfect. The location was perfect. The cost was perfect. The deal with the landlord was perfect. There was just one flaw: the land on which the hotel was to be built was owned by the military and that made the entire deal 100% illegal.

We explained the clear illegality of the deal (in writing of course) to our client, who already knew it. But like I said, this was a long time ago and our client was very savvy. His response was something like the following:

Yes, I know this deal is illegal and I know that means I am at risk of the government coming in and shutting us down the day after (or even before) we build the hotel. But we’ve run all the numbers on this and the numbers tell us that all we need to do for this deal to be an economic positive is last three years and every year after that the hotel will be a cash cow. So even though I know full well all the risks, I am willing to take them because I am willing to bet we can last at least three years.

The client did the deal and ended lasting for around eight years before shutdown and ended up making a lot of money. The client’s eight year tenure ended around 7-8 years ago and for probably the last ten years our China lawyers have simply said “no” to such deals, as they have simply become too risky. This does not mean our firm has not continued to see a slew of deals and WFOE formations we know violate China law. I can hear myself saying the following to the companies that bring us such deals and WFOE formations simply because I have said it so many times in my China law career:

What you are doing is illegal and you will get caught. When will you get caught? I don’t know that. It could be tomorrow or it could be a year from now. It probably will be in less than two years from now. Maybe if you had come to me ten years ago with this deal (or WFOE formation) I would not have been so unrelentingly negative about it, but China has changed. China has become incredibly serious about enforcing its laws (at least as against foreign companies, which are the only clients we have in China) and so we see every day what happens to foreign companies that are doing business in China or with China. Not only has China gotten more serious about enforcing its laws, it has gotten way better at enforcement. China is highly computerized and its various agencies and governmental bodies are quite sophisticated at communicating with each other.

We need to change your deal (or your WFOE formation). We are not going to put our reputation on the line for this sort of deal.

Oh, and one more thing. When you go back to your Chinese counterpart or to your own China employees/people on this, they will tell you I am exaggerating or I am naive or I just flat out “don’t know China.” I would never claim “to know China” because I don’t, but I do know is what happens to foreign companies that violate China law and I also know that at least once a month one of our China attorneys gets a call from a foreign company in trouble for having violated some law in China. And when I say trouble I mean they are facing millions of dollars in fines or closure of their operations or in some cases arrest and criminal charges.

Most of the time, the client then explains that they didn’t know that their deal (or WFOE) would be illegal (or as they often put it, “so illegal”). Some of the time though they do view us as naive or as overcautious and they move on.

In 2010, in Cracking Down On Illegal Land Use In China. Do You Really Still Feel Lucky, Foreign Punk? I wrote about foreign companies

The following is an amalgamation of a number (maybe 5 or 6) of conversations I have had over the years with people wanting to register a WFOE (Wholly Foreign Owned Entity) in China fast:

Potential Client: Can you help me register a WFOE in China.

Me: Yes. Not a problem. Do you have a lease yet? Do you know that a legitimate lease is required for the approval of a WFOE?

Potential Client: I know that but we are in a real hurry here.

Me:  Okay. But do you have a lease.

Potential Client: We have a lease but I don’t think it technically will qualify.

Me: What do you mean?

Potential Client: The land is zoned agricultural but my Chinese partner has secured all the okays to allow us to use it for our factory.

Me: Not a good idea. Trust me on that.

Potential Client: The factory has been there for two years without a problem and my Chinese partner assures me that the local government is fine with it.

Me: Don’t do it. Right now, the local government is okay with it. But what if the current mayor is pushed out next week on corruption grounds. Do you really want to be in a situation where you have spent a large amount of money on a space that gets shut down?

Potential Client: I am in a hurry and this is the only space that works.

Me: Are you sure? You are in a hurry, but is it really going to be worth the few months if you get shut down?

Potential Client: I am not going to get shut down. My Chinese partner is incredibly connected.

Me: Incredibly connected to the current local administration, MAYBE, but as I said, that administration could be out the door next week. Beijing checks on these things too and if they see that your facility is illegal, Beijing could see to its shut-down. I just don’t think it a good idea to go into a WFOE illegally and my firm cannot be a part of that.

Potential Client: That’s ridiculous. This is how business is done in China. Are you really saying you won’t take us.

Me: Yes. We won’t take you because we do not want our reputation damaged when you get shut down and we won’t take you because we do not want to be blamed when you get shut down.

Potential Client: Well I am sure I will have no trouble finding someone to help me on this. Good-bye.

I know that at least one of these companies did end up getting shut down (within about a year) because someone at the company who had sided with me on the company not going forward emailed me to tell me of this.

Now might be a good time for you to read the following:

Just yesterday, in China Law as California Law: There be Wolves out There, I wrote of how common it is for Chinese consumers and employees to sue foreign companies and I concluded that post with the following admonition on the importance of knowing and abiding by China law:

Yes, doing business in China is difficult and its laws are complicated, but that is true of pretty much every country I know. Be it California or China, it’s on you. People the world over — and that most certainly includes China — are ultra-litigious and that is not going to change soon if ever. Your defense to this is to know the laws and abide by them, to the letter. Saying that the laws are difficult or that there are bad people out there does not cut it and you ought to know that. Oral agreements in China are not worth the paper on which they are not printed and written agreements drafted by anyone not experienced with Chinese language contracts have no greater value.

You have been warned (yet again).

Today’s post is another warning.