I am often asked (usually right after I quote our fee) whether a China contract I am proposing to write “is even enforceable in China.” I always give the same answer, which is more or less the following.
There are three reasons why it makes sense to have a contract with your Chinese counter-party, and only one of those reasons is enforceability in court.
1. Clarity. The first is to achieve clarity. To make sure you and the Chinese company are on the same page. For example, if you ask your Chinese supplier if it can get you your product in 20 days, it will say “yes” pretty much every time. But if you put in your contract that the product needs to ship in 20 days AND for every day it is late, the Chinese company must pay you 10% of the value of the order, there is a great chance the Chinese company will get honest with you and tell you that 20 days is impossible. At that point, you and the Chinese company can figure out what is realistic and then you know what to expect, realistically, going forward. Needless to say, I can give countless examples of this sort of thing, but this is yet another reason why we advocate putting your contract in Chinese. Clarity before you start the relationship. It is more important than you think.
2. Stricture. The second benefit of having a contract with your Chinese counter-party is that it will likely bring that company to heel. By this I mean that just having a well written contract that is at least potentially enforceable means that the Chinese company knows exactly what it must do to comply. And, in most cases, it might as well. Let’s use the 20 day example as the example here as well. If your Chinese manufacturer makes widgets for 25 foreign companies and 5 of those have very clear time deadlines with a very clear liquidated damages provision, and the Chinese company starts falling behind on production, to which companies will the Chinese manufacturer give production priority? Of course it will put the five companies with a good contract at the front of the line.
3. Enforceability. Here’s the funny thing. My firm has written hundreds and hundreds of China contracts and we have never once been called on to litigate any of them nor am I aware of any of them having been litigated. I attribute this to reasons #1 and #2 above, but I have to admit that this also means I cannot stand up and scream that Chinese courts enforce well written contracts. Even better though, I can stand up and scream that they do certainly seem to prevent problems. Even though I cannot speak regarding the enforcement of my firm’s contracts, I can say that where my firm has sued or threatened to sue or arbitrated or threatened to arbitrate on contracts written by others, we have felt that China does enforce contracts. More importantly, however, the World Bank feels the same way, ranking China 16th among 183 countries in terms of enforcing contracts.
And that is a lot of the point. If your Chinese counter-party believes your contract will be enforced or even if it just believes it may be enforced, it is likely to act accordingly.
China contracts worth doing? If done right, you’d better believe it.
What do you think?