Pretty much every week my law firm gets contacted by an American or European company with big plans for China. Almost invariably (and this is a good thing), this company has spent tens of thousands of dollars in researching China for their business and in travelling back and forth to China to scope things out. Their calls to me usually begin with them telling me that they have done their research and they want to form their own China company to conduct business in China.

I then explain the various options foreign companies have for going into China — still essentially confined to going it alone as a Wholly Foreign Owned Entity (WFOE, a/k/a Wholly Owned Foreign Entity or Enterprise or WOFE), Representative Office (Rep Office) or partnering with a Chinese company in the form of a Joint Venture (JV).  

Then we start talking about what sort of entity makes sense for this particular company. Nine out of ten times, the company wants to go into China on its own as a WFOE and that is where the problem sometimes starts. The company has heard that China is very capitalistic and “wide open” and did not know that is not really the case, particularly as it relates to foreign companies. 

China has what it calls its “Catalog for the Guidance of Foreign Invested Enterprises.” This catalog divides foreign investment into “encouraged,” “restricted” and “prohibited” investments. Foreign companies cannot invest in prohibited industries and foreign investment in restricted industries typically requires the foreign company joint venture with a Chinese company. Industries that are not classified into any of the three categories are generally assumed to be permitted.

So every once in a while, I have to inform the American or European company that it simply cannot go into China at all or that it can only do so if and when it has found a Chinese company with which it can joint venture. The moral of the story is that it makes sense to find out whether your proposed company can work in China at all, and to do so before funding market and operations research or China trips.

But this research is oftentimes not so simple and that is because a lot depends on how the business is defined when the application is made. The business scope is relevant to the catalog on foreign investment because a business sometimes can fit within one or more categories of the catalog and how you describe your business scope on your WFOE application can make the difference between approval and rejection. You sometimes can massage the description of your business scope to obtain more favorable classification.

BUT — and this is why I am writing this post now — if you under or overreach on the description of your business scope, you might find yourselves in big trouble.  We are getting an increasing number of calls from American companies in trouble with the Chinese government for doing things in their business that were not mentioned in the business scope section of their initial WFOE.

In some cases, the companies have admitted to us that they were never “really comfortable” with the business scope mentioned in their applications, but that the company they had used to form their WFOE had “pushed” them into it as it would “make things much easier.” In some cases, the scope of the business changed after the application was submitted and the company had failed to secure approval in advance for the change. And in some cases, the company probably would never have been approved at all had it been upfront and honest in its application. In nearly all instances, the companies had managed to secure local approval but were now in trouble with Beijing, which constantly is auditing these applications. In one instance, the local government went back and changed its mind, probably after conducting an audit of its own.

I cannot go into any more detail on these matters, but I can give this advice: applying for a WFOE in China involves a heck of a lot more than just filling out a form and getting approval. It does matter for what you get approved and you (or whomever you are using for your WFOE application) need to know China’s foreign investment catalog inside and out before applying. You then must tailor your application to meet both the requirements of the foreign investment catalog AND the reality of what you will be doing in China. A failure to comply on both fronts will lead to, at best, a rejection of your application and, at worst, being shut down months or years later.

If you take away nothing from this post, please at least understand that your getting local government approval for your WFOE does not mean you are out of the woods. There is little to no benefit in getting approval for a non-conforming WFOE.