This is part 4 in our series on what we have dubbed “China free look schemes.” Essentially, China free look schemes are methods employed by Chinese companies to get a “free look” at the intellectual property and trade secrets of foreign companies. In part 1 of this series, we looked at how Chinese companies use their purported interest in investing in a foreign company to convince the foreign company to give the Chinese company access to the foreign company’s IP. In part 2, we explained how Chinese companies use Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) to get free looks at foreign technology. In part 3, we explained how Chinese companies use Joint Ventures (real, fake and non-existent) to get at foreign technology without paying for it.
In this, part 4, we note how there are plenty of legitimate Chinese companies seeking legitimate deals with foreign companies and explain how to determine whether the Chinese company with which you are dealing is serious about doing a real deal with you or just trying to get a free look at your IP. There is no doubt that there are a large number of Chinese companies, fund managers and investors who see the potential in bringing Western technology and know-how to China and are willing to pay Western companies for that and/or share the profits from that with Western companies.
The core of the free look scheme is the proposal of a Chinese company to make an investment in a foreign technology focused entity. To prevent the Chinese side from playing out a free look scheme, it is essential to work out a “clean” investment agreement. The basic features of a clean agreement are as follows:
1. U.S. and European style investment agreements are normally too vague to be effective in working with Chinese investors. For Chinese investors the investment agreement should include at least the following:
a. An exact date when funds must be paid.
b. Funds must be paid free and clear, in cash, to the company bank account on the closing date. Any claim that funds have been or will be wired from China or Hong Kong or wherever should be ignored. Only cash actually in your bank account, free and clear, counts as an investment.
c. Require the Chinese side to agree that no approval from the Chinese government or any other foreign government is required to make the investment and that no decision of a foreign government or foreign bank will excuse the Chinese side’s obligation to make the payment by the closing date.
d. To give teeth to these provisions, you should require your Chinese counter-party to make a substantial good faith escrow deposit on the date the investment agreement is executed. Provide that the escrow deposit will be forfeited if the investor does not make payment on the closing date. Absent this hard deadline with a substantial penalty, the Chinese investor is almost always late in paying, even when payment is made from a Hong Kong or a U.S. or a Canadian account.
Using the above approach will usually prevent the Chinese side from making use of the free look approach and tell you whether they are free real or not. This is because no Chinese company planning to use the free look approach will agree to the above terms. In refusing to agree, the free look schemer will argue that you need have to prove the viability of your technology before it (or its so-called outside investors) can make any payment or investment. At this point, the best thing to do is usually to walk away.
But most U.S. and European companies choose to continue working with the Chinese side, attracted by the potential of substantial investment and developing the massive PRC/Asia market for their product. The U.S. or European side will at this point agree to a due diligence period before the final investment is made. This due diligence period is where the free look scheme is executed. The U.S. or European side should enter into an agreement with its Chinese counter-party that is specifically designed to prevent the free look scheme from succeeding.
Some of the following issues arise from this:
1. Who will be the actual investor in your company or your technology? Many Chinese companies find it difficult to transmit funds from China for making an investment. Even for good faith investors, it is often impossible to to make the investment directly from the PRC. To get around this problem, Chinese investors often provide that “their” funds will be paid by some other entity located outside China. This raises a number of issues. First, under U.S. and European know your investor and anti-money laundering rules, it is critical you know from exactly where this funding is coming. Second, payment from a different party is a common source of delay and delay must be avoided in this kind of transaction.
2. Most investment agreements prohibit ownership of stock by nominees. This follows on the know your investor and anti-money laundering rules discussed above. But when the actual PRC investor proposes to use funds provided from another entity, they often then request that this other funding entity own the stock in your company on behalf of the PRC entity as some sort of nominee. This kind of nominee ownership is common in the PRC, but the practice should generally be avoided in the West.
3. If the Western company is working with other potential investors, it is usually important it make sure any special terms provided to the Chinese side do not conflict with agreements with other investors. For example, it is often provided that for a single round of investment, the round will not close until after all investments have been made. If the Chinese side is given a substantial due diligence period prior to being required to invest, this may conflict with the basic requirement imposed on other investors.
5. In this setting, the standard Western style investment agreement is not adequate. You need a separate and specialized escrow/due diligence agreement with the proposed PRC investor.
The following are some of the key points for these due diligence agreements:
a. Who will be the final owner of your company’s stock? Will it be the PRC entity with which you are negotiating or will it be some Hong Kong or Canadian or Cayman Island or Isle of Man or Luxembourg company you have never heard of nor ever dealt with? Even if your due diligence agreement is with a PRC entity, it is not unusual for that PRC entity to demand provisions giving rights to some third party you do not know. Are you willing to issue stock in your company to an entity of which you know nothing?
b. Even riskier is the situation where the PRC entity requires the investment/due diligence agreement be done directly with their non-PRC nominee. Since these nominees are usually mere shells with no assets it is judgment proof. This renders meaningless the entire due diligence agreement.
c. The U.S. side must describe with reasonable clarity what access and information will be provided to the putative investor during the due diligence period. First, the information disclosed should be strictly limited. The Chinese side will nearly always demand more and it is important you set and maintain your disclosure limits. Second, the participants in the due diligence process must be carefully controlled. The Chinese side usually works with a group of related companies. A standard technique is for the Chinese side to negotiate a provision that allows them to disclose your information to one of its related companies. When an infringement of your IP later occurs, it is done by that related but independent company with which you have no contractual relationship. This means you have no contractual basis for making a claim against the actual infringer and your Chinese counter-party thus can walk away with a free look.
d. If you are going to require other investment conditions you must list those with hard deadlines. For example, if PRC government approval of the deal is going to be required, you should put in your contract that such approval must be received by the end of the due diligence period. If a license is required, drafting must be complete at least one month before the end of the due diligence period. If a JV company will be formed, the Joint Venture’s registration must be complete by the end of the due diligence period, with only capitalization remaining — this means the JV registration process must start immediately after execution of the due diligence agreement.
e. At the end of the due diligence period, the Chinese side must be required to “go hard,” meaning all of the conditions to closing the investment must be met or waived by the end of the due diligence period. That is, the Chinese company either walks away or enters into a formal investment agreement that provides for either payment in full in five days or payment of a non-refundable escrow deposit with closing to occur within thirty days. Chinese companies that are working the free look scheme will usually not agree to this quick close. They will instead seek a process where negotiating and drafting the investment agreement and other collateral agreements begins only after due diligence is completed. To avoid the free look scheme, you should insist the investment be made immediately after completion of due diligence. It is not uncommon for Chinese companies to stretch the approvals/documentation period out for several years with no investment in the end.
f. As noted above, the investment and due diligence agreements should provide that no action of the Chinese government or of any Chinese bank or any other Chinese agency will be a defense to the requirement that the Chinese investor perform and if the investor does not perform, its escrow deposit or advance payment will be forfeited. Chinese companies often will insist on including a long force majeure provision in an otherwise simple investment agreement. If you allow for this sort of provision, you are all but guaranteeing there will never be any Chinese government approval. It is actually a good idea to include the exact opposite provision whereby the Chinese side warrants that its investment has already been or will be approved by the Chinese government and that no action of the Chinese government can used by them as a defense.
There are a number of ways to neutralize the free look scheme, even in cases where you agree to prove your technology to the Chinese side. Legitimate Chinese companies will work with you to resolve the issues, but Chinese companies that are in it for the free look will not. It is important you determine where they stand as soon as possible. You do that by providing clear and reasonable terms to the Chinese side along the lines discussed above.
If the Chinese side has problems with the straightforward terms outlined above, you should ask them to outline their specific concerns in writing. If their concerns are legitimate, you probably can deal with them. If the Chinese side does not respond or if its concerns are not legitimate you know where you stand. Chinese companies can run you around for a very long time — years in some cases. You cannot afford that. You need to quickly get to a reasonable arrangement with the Chinese side or move on.