Yesterday, in a post entitled, “How to Start a Business in China — WFOE,” we discussed the basic requirements for forming a wholly foreign owned entity (WFOE or WOFE) in China. One of the questions we are most frequently asked about how to form a WFOE in China is is how much the Chinese government requires in minimum capital.  This post follows up on yesterday’s post by addressing the minimum capital requirements issue.

Every company in China must have a stated registered capital. This amount is provided in the Articles of Association of the company and is also noted on the company register. Beginning in 2006, this company register is available to the general public. The registered capital includes all of the components of the initial investment in the company, including its start up cash, contributed property, and transferred intellectual property. Where the registered capital is small, the entire amount must be contributed immediately upon formation of the company. If the amount is large, it may be contributed in installments. There are a number of schedules for the percentage and timing of large amounts of registered capital. It is a crime to state a registered capital amount and then fail to contribute. The purpose of registered capital is to provide some notice to creditors of the capital adequacy of the company. Because of this, Chinese regulators take very seriously the rules regarding registered capital.

Registered capital is an initial investment that is intended to be immediately used in operating the company. It need not just sit in a bank and never be touched. It can be used to pay salaries and rent, to purchase product, or for any other normal start up operating expense. Registered capital may include contributed real and personal property used in operating the business. Many foreign investors think registered capital is some sort of security deposit that they can never utilize. This is not true. On the other hand, some foreign enterprises believe they can simply withdraw their registered capital after the Chinese company begins normal business operations. This also is not true. Once the capital is contributed to the Chinese company, it can never be withdrawn for anything other than paying company expenses.

The only way to get funds from the Chinese company out of China is by repatriating profits or by liquidating the Chinese company. Both of these methods will work, but they both require paying Chinese taxes and meeting other requirements under Chinese law. Investors should also note that the RMB is not a freely convertible currency. For companies that will earn RMB income, the issue of conversion to U.S. dollars or other foreign currency should be carefully considered and a failure to abide by Chinese law all the way along the process will likely lead to an inability to get money out of China at some point down the road.

Under the new Chinese Company Law, the minimum capital requirement for multiple shareholder companies has been reduced to 30,000 RMB (less than $5,000 USD). For single shareholder companies, the amount is 100,000 RMB (around $13,000 USD). However, these numbers have no real meaning for the formation of a WFOE in China.

The real question is what the Chinese authorities will consider as adequate capitalization for the specific project. Of course, that answer varies by type of business and location. For example, it is very expensive to operate a business in Shanghai. On the other hand, it can be very inexpensive to operate the same business in a rural area of China. It is expensive to operate a capital intensive business like manufacturing, but relatively inexpensive to operate a knowledge based consulting business.

The Chinese regulators usually consider all of these issues. To complicate matters, each local regulator has its own basic standards on what constitutes adequate capital for certain types of business activities. These numbers are not published, but when asked they will almost always be provided. They can only be determined through direct contact with the regulator and only after providing a clear explanation of the project. The local regulator virtually never considers the statutory minimum in making a determination regarding adequacy of capital. Rather, the local regulator will determine what it believes is an adequate amount of capital based on all the circumstances. Once the investor has a clear idea of the outlines of a project, it is usually a good idea to engage an attorney to contact the local regulator to see what their response will be to the proposed amount of investment. This initial screening can save a lot of time if the investor’s idea of the proper amount of capitalization is dramatically different from that of the local regulator.

In determining what constitutes adequate capital, one needs to consider the peculiar situation in China that building rents are virtually always paid in advance, that payment for products for sale are virtually always paid in advance, and that a reasonable advance reserve for salaries is also required. Thus, the initial start up costs are much higher than in a location like the United States, where credit and time payments are more common. In addition, the foreign investor needs to take into account the risk aversion of the Chinese regulator. The Chinese regulator will not approve a project that looks risky or under-funded. The regulator has no incentive to do this, especially for a 100% foreign owned entity.

The government sometimes permits the minimum capital to be paid in installments over up to two years, though the first installment must be at least 15% of the total amount required and it also must be at least the statutory minimum for total capital. The capital contribution can be made in money, equipment, intellectual property, or other transferable property, but the monetary contribution must be at least 30% of the total capital amount. The government will appraise the value of any non-monetary contribution and our experience has been that it will come in fairly low in its valuation.

We frequently see two big mistakes being made by foreign investors when it comes to their putting in the required minimum capital. Foreign investors hear that assets can be used as a contribution towards the minimum capital requirement, so they go ahead and ship certain assets over to China, with the expectation of then using those assets towards minimum capital. The problem with this approach is that unless the proper authorities have been notified and granted their approval in advance of the shipping, the assets you just shipped to China will not be applied towards minimum capital, and you will have a huge problem on your hands.

The other common mistake we see is the foreign investor putting a value on its assets (including its intellectual property) and assuming the Chinese regulators will put the same value on those assets in determining the contribution towards minimum capital. The Chinese regulators will require their own appraisal (at your expense) l of anything other than monetary contributions towards the minimum capital requirement, and those appraisals tend to come in low, particularly for IP.