One of our recurring themes is the need for due diligence when working on any business matters in China. Most foreign companies think of due diligence only when they are planning to make an investment. Most companies are not aware that due diligence is required whenever you do any kind of business with a Chinese company. If you do not already know the Chinese company with which you will be conducting business, you must confirm that the company really does exit and that you are dealing with the actual  company and not an impostor.

I want to share a conversation I had yesterday with some young lawyers who work for the one of the largest and best law firms in Shandong province. I was discussing with them the question of whether or not the company seal on a particular document was valid or not. It seemed like a simple matter. The resulting conversation was not so simple.

When asked how they go about confirming the validity of a seal, the lawyers told me that “you have to go the town where the company is located.” Once there, you then have to determine if the seal is registered. Often the seal is not registered as registration of seals is not mandatory in China. Then you inspect various documents filed with the local authorities to determine if the same seal was used on those documents. If the seal is registered, or if the same seal was used on all company documents filed with the local authorities, you know that the seal is valid.

Even this is not enough. Even though the seal is valid, you still have to determine if the seal is being used in an authorized manner. Just on the surface, there are two possible issues. First, an impostor may have created a fake company seal. Second, someone within the company may be using the seal in an unauthorized manner. The only way to resolve these issues is to actually visit the company at its headquarters and to ask: is the person who stamped this document employed at your company? If the answer to this is yes, you then must ask whether the person is authorized to do this particular business.

An affirmative answer to both these questions is the only way you can be assured that the signature and the seal on your document are valid and will effectively bind the company. There is no other way to do it: a visit to the relevant  government office and to the company office is required. There is no service available to do the work. You have to hire a Chinese licensed attorney to do it. A Chinese attorney is normally required because local governments rarely open their files to a private person and they certainly will not open their files to a foreigner.

My first response to all of this was to say that this is far too expensive a procedure for normal commercial transactions. The Chinese lawyers looked at me with a mixture of amusement and contempt. They said that they understand my response since it is typical of their North American and European clients. They further stated that they are amazed at the naïveté of their foreign clients on the need for basic due diligence in commercial transactions. One lawyer looked at me and said: “What do you think we do all day at this law firm. Most of our young lawyers and legal assistants are primarily engaged in basic due diligence about potential business partners of our Chinese clients. We travel to the local offices and we charge for the expense. Our Chinese clients willingly pay the fee because they know the risk is too great to act in any other way. We constantly see foreign companies enter into contracts without doing any such investigation and it continues to surprise us. You say that our form of due diligence is too expensive. We say that being cheated is far more expensive. Given that the chance of being cheated in China is extremely high, it makes no sense to us to take the risk. Our Chinese clients would never enter into an important contract without a personal investigation of the other side and we find it very strange that these foreign clients who know even less about China will willingly take a risk that virtually no Chinese company would take.”

It makes sense to take seriously what these young Chinese lawyers are saying. Let me give you just one example of what can go wrong in China. Say you are dealing with a large and well established Chinese company. There is no question that this company exists and that it makes the product that you wish to purchase. Now ask yourself this: are you really dealing with that big company? Or are you dealing with an impostor? How do you know?

It is easy in China to fake company seals, business cards, bank accounts and even a website. The unsuspecting foreigner makes a deal with the impostor and sends funds to the bank account. Product never arrives. The foreigner contacts the well established Chinese company and that company truthfully responds by saying “we have never heard of you.” It turns out the foreigner had been dealing with a fake, virtual company the entire time. This happens all the the time in China. Trust me when I tell you we see instances of this at least once a month.

Other standard scams are well known and I will not repeat them here. The point is this. In China, you never know if you are dealing with a legitimate company and a legitimate representative of that company unless and until you investigate on the ground in China. Any foreign company that enters into a contract in China without this knowledge in hand is taking a risk that the Chinese companies themselves will not take. Does that make sense to you?

For more on China due diligence, check out the following:

What do you think?