This post focuses on how to form a Wholly Foreign Owned Entity (WFOE) in China. I am starting with this type of entity because it is the one we do most often. Subsequent posts will detail the steps required to register other forms of entities in China, such as a representative office (RO) or a contractual or equity joint venture (JV). Each of these forms of foreign invested enterprise (FIE) is subject to its own specific laws and to numerous regulations that apply to all FIEs. Every FIE is formed as a Chinese limited liability company (LLC).
Where the special laws and regulations of an FIE do not apply, the provisions of the Chinese Company Law control. The Company Law was recently completely rewritten to conform more closely to international standards for company formation and management.
The steps for forming a WFOE in China typically consist of the following:
1. Determine if the proposed WFOE will conduct a business approved for foreign investment by the Chinese government. For example, until recently, China prohibited private entities from engaging in export trade. All export trade was handled through certain large, state owned trading companies.
China recently abandoned this system, and now both foreign and domestic companies can set up trading companies. Restrictions on export oriented trading companies have essentially been eliminated, but there are still controls on import oriented trading companies that can increase expense and raise costs. Because these rules were only recently changed, the local regulators who must approve these projects do not have a great deal of experience with the attendant issues. This sometimes delays the approval process. It also results in an extremely cautious approach towards adequate capitalization even for export oriented trading companies. I discuss capitalization requirements in greater detail below.
2. Determine if the foreign investor is an approved investor. Basically, any legally formed foreign business entity is authorized to invest in a WFOE in China. China especially welcomes investment that promotes export of Chinese manufactured products. The investor must provide documentation from its home country proving it is a duly formed and validly existing corporation, along with evidence showing the person from the investor authorized to execute documents on behalf of the investor. The investor also must provide documentation demonstrating its capital adequacy in its country of incorporation.
To meet these requirements, the following documents are normally needed from the investing business entity:
a. Articles of Incorporation or equivalent (copy);
b. Business license, both national and local (if any) (copies);
c. Certificate of Status (Original)(U.S. and Canada) or a notarized copy of the Corporate Register for the investor or similar document (original)(Civil Law jurisdictions);
d. Bank Letter attesting to sound banking relationship and account status of the company (original);
e. Description of the investor’s business activities, together with added materials such as an annual report, brochures, website, etc.;
a-d are translated into Chinese. e is either translated into Chinese or summarized in Chinese.
Many investors create special purpose companies to serve as the investor in China. The Chinese regulators have become accustomed to this process. However, the Chinese regulators will still seek to trace the ownership of the foreign investor back to a viable, operating business enterprise. Investor secrecy is not an option in China. However, the corporate register for the Chinese company will merely state the name of the foreign, special entity investing company as the owner. In that sense, as far as public disclosure is concerned, the investor privacy can be maintained. The foreign investor should also understand that this tracing process will add some time and cost to the Chinese company formation process.
3. Chinese government approval for the project. In China, unlike in most countries with which Western companies tend to be familiar, approval of the project by the relevant governmental authority is an integral part of the incorporation process. If the project is not approved, no incorporation is permitted. The two are inextricably linked.
The following documents must be prepared for incorporation/project approval:
a. Articles of Association. This document will set out all of the details of management and capitalization of the company. Nothing can be left for future determination; all basic company and project issues must be determined in advance and incorporated in the Articles. This includes directors, local management, local address, special rules on scope of authority of local managers, company address, and registered capital.
b. Feasibility Study. The project will not be approved unless the local authorities are convinced it is feasible. This usually requires a basic first year business plan and budget. We typically use the client produced business plan and budget to draft up a feasibility study (in Chinese) that will satisfy the requirements of the Chinese approval authority.
c. Leases: An agreement for all required leases must be provided. This includes office space lease and warehouse/factory space lease. It is customary in China to pay rent one year in advance and this must be taken into account in planning a budget because the governmental authorities will be expecting this.
d. Proposed personnel salary and benefit budget. If the specific people who will work for the company have not yet been identified, one must specify the positions and proposed salaries/benefit package. Benefits for employees in China typically range from 32% to 42% of the employee base salary, depending on the location of the business. Foreign employers are held to a strict standard in paying these benefit amounts. The required initial investment includes an amount sufficient to pay salaries and benefits for a reasonable period of time during the start up phase of the Chinese company.
e. Any other documentation required for the specific business proposed. The more complex the project, the more documentation required.
All of the above documents must be prepared in Chinese.
4. It usually takes three to six months for governmental approval, depending on the location of the project and its size and scope. Large cities like Shanghai tend to be slower than smaller cities. The investor must pay various incorporation fees, which fees vary depending on the location, the amount of registered capital and any special licenses required for the specific project. Typically, these fees equal a little over 1% of the initial capital.
On large and/or complex projects, the approval process often involves extensive negotiations with various regulatory authorities whose approval is required. For example, a large factory may have serious land use or environmental issues. Thus, the time frame for approval of incorporation is never certain. It depends on the type of project and the location. Foreign investors must be prepared for this uncertainty from the outset.
Tomorrow’s post will discuss a WFOE’s minimum capital requirements.