China lawyers IP
Don’t gift your IP to China

When working on complex contract manufacturing agreements, most of our clients tell us their main goal is to protect their intellectual property. This is particularly true for designers of start-up products where much of of their IP consists of trade secrets and know-how that require a formal agreement with the manufacturer. However, as we work with the client, we frequently learn that the client has already gifted their IP to the Chinese manufacturer. Making a gift to your family and friend is a nice gesture. But no foreign designer of a product intends to make a gift to a Chinese factory owner. The gift is unintended, and the consequences are virtually never good.

Here is what usually happens. We begin drafting the contract manufacturing agreement. In our standard set of questions, we ask about the status of molds. The client then reports something like the following: “We have already provided the designs for our molds to our  Chinese manufacturer and the manufacturer has already fabricated the molds. The current issue is focused on payment for the molds.”

We then ask our client about its plans for commercializing their product idea and fabricating production prototypes. The client then reports: “We have been working with the manufacturer for months to fabricate a production prototype. The manufacturer agreed to engage its own engineers and designers for this process. We now have two prototypes and we are ready to begin production. The only issue now is how to pay for the work on the prototypes.”

In both cases, we ask the following sorts of questions:

  • What form of documentation did you use in connection with providing your confidential design information to the manufacturer?
  • What did you do to formally protect your IP?
  • What did you do to make clear you own the entire design in the molds?
  • What did you do to make sure you own all of the design work that went into the design and manufacture of the prototype?

Far too often, our client answers with something like this: “The only documentation we have in place is a simple purchase order  for the molds. There is no documentation at all relating to the prototype. We were told that using purchase orders at this stage is standard so we did not think about it.”

The above scenario with slight variations is almost standard for start-up companies making their first foray into China’s manufacturing market. We then have to tell our client something like the following: “You indicated your primary goal is to protect your intellectual property. But, by providing your design data to your Chinese manufacturer with no documentation and by allowing the Chinese side to design and fabricate molds and prototypes, you have effectively given your IP to the Chinese manufacturer. The issue for us now is to determine whether or not the manufacturer will agree to return this gift. Sometimes they will, usually they will not.

In this setting, it is possible for the Chinese manufacturer to appropriate the product and to begin producing the product in its own name. When the foreign designer protests, the Chinese manufacturer points out that it did the actual design and fabrication work for the molds and it also did all the design and fabrication work for the product prototype. And since it did all of this work, it owns the design. And here’s the thing: legally, so long as the Chinese manufacturer does not infringe on the registered trademark of the foreign party, it is generally free to manufacture the product and sell it wherever it wants.

Absent formal written agreements, litigation in most countries to determine who owns what in terms of the product is fact intensive with the eventual outcome usually unclear. The lack of clarity simple kills off the chances for most start ups to market its product effectively. So when this situation happens to a foreign start-up, it can mean commercial death. The Chinese side is counting on this. A dead company cannot support litigation required to resolve the issue. Even for well established companies, this situation can cause substantial economic damage, since the effective marketing of a new product is made so difficult.

In most cases, however, the Chinese manufacturer is not interested in selling the product under its own name; what it usually wants is to create a situation where the foreign buyer does not have the option to have its product manufactured by any other manufacturer. The Chinese manufacturer wants to ensure it is the sole entity with the right to manufacture the product. By getting this it essentially has the pricing power of a monopoly on manufacturing the product.

Here is how it works out on the ground. At some point, the foreign buyer decides it wants to change to another manufacturer because a) the manufacturer substantially raises its price, b) the product is consistently defective, or c) the manufacturer cannot keep up with the required production volume. The foreign company wanting to go to a new manufacturer requests its existing manufacturer transfer its molds and the product prototype to the new factory.

The manufacturer refuses to comply with this request. The manufacturer says: “we own the design of the molds and we own the design of the product prototype. We will agree not to manufacture the product for ourselves or for any third party. On the other hand, you are not free to take the molds and prototypes to any other factory. You can only manufacture the product if you use our manufacturing services to do so. In legal terms, the Chinese manufacturer is saying it will provide an exclusive license to the foreign company to manufacture a product for which the design is owned by the Chinese side.

If the foreign buyer insists that it wants to move its manufacturing elsewhere, some Chinese manufacturers will say that the foreign buyer is free to start from scratch with a new factory. Other Chinese manufacturers will take a harder line and state that manufacturing the product in any other facility is an infringement on its IP and it will take action to prevent that infringement. In the last couple of years, more and more Chinese manufacturers are doing whatever they can (usually via cease and desist letters and litigation) to make manufacturing by others impossible. Either way, if the product is complex in any way, the foreign buyer is in a situation where it is required to work with the original Chinese manufacturer. This then means the foreign buyer can take no practical action to deal with the various issues that caused them to want to move to a new manufacturer. In particular, the foreign buyer is helpless in dealing with a price increase.

Many clients are skeptical when we explain this situation to them. They simply cannot believe they gifted their most valuable asset to another company. Some tell us that their Chinese manufacturer is an honest and upright company that would never act in the ways set out above. Others say that since they paid for the work, it must be the case that the Chinese factory will recognize that the foreign side owns the design and is free to take the molds and prototypes to any other factory for manufacturing.

In our experience, the situation is quite different. In the past decade, in every case on which any of our China lawyers have worked, the Chinese factory took one of the positions outlined above and refused to back down. In other words, once you have gifted your IP, you should not expect the Chinese side will graciously return the gift. Once the gift has been made, the Chinese side will keep the gift and make use of the gift to its advantage.

What does the manager of the start-up tell its investors after having given away the IP at the core of its product and its business? Our China attorneys have had to help with these sort of conversations and we probably hate these conversations almost as much as the managers themselves.

So in an effort to make life easier for product manufacturing start-ups we fervently propose you EARLY ON make use of the following agreements when working with Chinese manufacturers:

These agreements should be executed in advance of any transfer of design information to the Chinese manufacturer. Purchase orders come at the end of the process, not at the beginning. Unless you want to gift your IP to your Chinese manufacturer without realizing it. Oh, and while you are at it, you should seek to register your trademarks in China and look into registering your design patents (and maybe other patents) in China as well.

China product defect lawyersAs most of you already know, getting defective products from China manufacturers is almost always a possibility. In many cases, foreign buyers frustrated by bad product simply refuse to pay their Chinese factory. Often the unpaid amount is substantial. The foreign buyer then moves on to a new factory. This new factory is often located in the same general region as the former factory. The Chinese factory virtually never files a lawsuit in this situation. So the foreign buyer then starts believing it is off the hook. But in China, matters like this are almost never that simple.

Most factories in China work with a network of subcontractors. So an unpaid invoice to a single factory usually will impact a large number of smaller businesses. Sometimes even an entire village will be impacted by one failure to pay. When the nonpayment is in a significant amount, the failure to pay can mean the salaries of many (sometimes most) of the local residents do not get paid. This leads to social unrest, which is a major concern of the local authorities, who then seek to work with the factory to try to secure payment. The legal issues (like the defective product) are not of concern. The factory and the local authorities will simply seek funds required to calm down the local unrest. These matters are not usually viewed as a business dispute and the court system is seldom used to try to resolve it. The factory never tells anyone the reason for non-payment was defective product; it instead almost always blames nonpayment on an unjustified default by the foreign buyer.

So long as the foreign buyer remains outside of China, there is little the factory and the local authorities can or will do. However, if the foreign buyer or an employee of a foreign buyer travels in China, the risk of some form of non-court or openly illegal action being taken against the foreign buyer is high. For this reason, we advise our clients to take great care when traveling in China if there is any dispute about their having failed to make a payment of a substantial claim to a Chinese factory. This is particularly important when the factory is a major employer in a specific district. The risk level rises exponentially if the foreign buyer travels in any area close to the district where the factory is located.

So what can happen?

a. Hostage taking. The Chinese side will arrange a meeting to take place at the factory or in a hotel that cooperates with the factory. The factory staff will obtain the passport of the foreign buyer. After the passport is obtained (stolen or taken by force), the factory holds the buyer captive either in a factory dormitory or in the cooperating hotel. The Chinese call this a “soft kidnapping” because no physical threats are made. The factory simply states: we won’t let you leave until after you pay the bill. If the police are contacted, the police will usually say: “It’s none of our business. You should pay the bill.” If the local authorities are contacted, they will usually say “It’s none of our business. You should pay the bill.” Resolving the matter without making payment is nearly impossible.

b. Exit ban. Because of the potential for social unrest, the Chinese authorities usually will work to assist the Chinese factory in getting paid. One way they do this is through an exit ban. The foreign buyer is permitted to enter China, but when the buyer seeks to exit China, permission will be refused. The foreign buyer is told: “You will not be permitted to leave until after you have resolved your payment dispute with the factory.” Exit bans are only approved at the national level and a factory that makes a false claim will be penalized. This is why hostage taking is more common.

So what is to be done?

The easy way to resolve the matter is to pay the entire claim in full. In the alternative, the foreign buyer can avoid being taken hostage or an exit ban by staying out of China. Often neither of these solutions is practical.

So what happens most often is that a partial payment is made pursuant to a settlement of claims agreement. For a settlement to work well, the basic rules are as follows:

  1. The agreement must be in Chinese and enforceable in China. Chinese authorities typically ignore English language agreements enforceable outside of China.
  2. It is normal to include in such an agreement standard settlement language: the creditor takes payment in full settlement of all claims; the creditor agrees not to file a legal action anywhere in the world; the creditor agrees to maintain confidentiality; the creditor agrees not to contact any PRC government authority.

If you have a settlement agreement that meets these above rules the local police and the exit authorities will normally take the side of the foreign buyer and you should be safe from being held hostage or blocked from leaving China. If the payment settlement agreement does not comply with the above rules, it is a waste of time and paper and money.

In general, in the case where there is payment in full or the case of a partial payment under an enforceable written settlement agreement, the risks I write about above will be resolved. I have never experienced an instance where a Chinese entity took anyone hostage or pressed for an exit ban after getting paid and signing an enforceable written settlement agreement. For this reason, even though our China lawyers we have drafted dozens of these settlement agreements, none of us have any experience in having to provide one of these settlement agreements to PRC authorities to try to convince them to free a hostage or lift an exit ban after a formal settlement has been reached.

But on the flip side we also have a lot of experience with companies that have either made a partial payment to their Chinese factory without getting a written settlement agreement or getting a written settlement agreement that does not comply with the two rules set forth above. Our experience in these situations has been uniformly bad and in most instances our clients have had to pay the full amount allegedly owed (and fast) to resolve their crisis situation.

Even in those cases where the reason for non-payment is because of product defects, no authority in the PRC will accept a simple claim from the buyer on this issue. The only way to be sure the PRC authorities will take any notice of the defect claim is by the buyer filing a lawsuit in its home country or (even better) in China making a claim for the defect. Anything short of that will simply be ignored. You can show the Chinese authorities a pile of emails 10 centimeters thick and they will be ignored. You can show them an inspection report and that will be ignored. The only thing they will get their attention is a formal lawsuit with service pursuant to the Hague Convention brought by you against your China supplier. We have done many kidnapping negotiations where our buyer-clients believed they could make the claim that nothing was owed due to defect. This claim never works. The police just laugh and walk away. The local government officials just hang up the phone. On the other hand, presenting evidence of formal legal proceedings where service was properly provided has always worked.

As they say on the cop shows, “Let’s be careful out there.”

For more on dealing with defective products from China check out the following:

China and Hong Kong legal systems
For commercial law purposes, think of Hong Kong as a different jurisdiction from the Mainland

In an effort to reduce the challenge of manufacturing in Mainland China, many foreign companies decide not to go direct. They instead make use of intermediary companies that act as the sellers in the transaction. These intermediaries deal with the buyer, but the messy business of manufacturing is done in the PRC. These intermediary companies are often located in Hong Kong. We have seen that most foreign buyers do not understand the risks involved in dealing with Hong Kong companies and this too often causes them to unknowingly take on significant risks. One of those significant risks arises in the area of intellectual property protection.

From the standpoint of legal jurisdiction, Hong Kong and the PRC are two entirely different countries. The most important result of this legal distinction is that foreign investment in the PRC by Hong Kong companies and individuals is restricted in the same way it is restricted for American and European and Australian companies. This means Hong Kong companies cannot operate directly in the PRC. To operate legally in the PRC, a Hong Kong company must form a WFOE or an Equity Joint Venture, in the same way as for any other foreign entity. See How to Form a WFOE in China, Part 3: What’s Hong Kong Got to Do With It?

What does this mean in the manufacturing setting? The foreign buyer enters that enters into a contract with a Hong Kong company is (999 times out of 1000) not entering into a contract with the actual manufacturer because the actual manufacturer is a company located in the PRC. The actual manufacturer is a legal entity entirely separate from the Hong Kong company. To make this clear, in the manufacturing contracts drafted by the China lawyers at my firm, we call the Hong Kong company the “Seller” and the PRC manufacturer the “Factory.”

Now consider what all of this means from the standpoint of intellectual property protection. The foreign buyer provides its proprietary design to the Hong Kong seller. Complicated molds embodying the proprietary design are fabricated. Extensive engineering and production design work is conducted to develop a working product prototype. But, none of this work is done by the Hong Kong-based Seller because all of this work is being done by the factory in the PRC. This work is almost always being done by entities unknown to the buyer and with which the buyer has no contractual relationship. The molds and tooling and product prototypes are physically located in the PRC.

The result is that the buyer has given away its most valuable intellectual property to persons and entities it both does not know and cannot control. So what happens if something goes wrong? What happens if the buyer wants access to the molds to transfer production to another factory. What happens if the buyer learns the molds are being used to make “knock off” products? What happens if the buyer learns the product prototype is being used in the PRC to manufacture a competing product? These are not trivial questions as these things happen every single day in the PRC. The answer is that the buyer has no recourse at all in the PRC. The only legal action the buyer can take is against the Seller in Hong Kong. In the intellectual property area, this means the only thing the buyer can do is to sue for damages. The buyer can take no direct action against the infringer nor does it usually have any good legal basis to prevent the infringement happening in the PRC.

Now add to this that in most cases (at least most instances — by far — where companies have retained my law firm to investigate the above sort of situations), the Hong Kong Seller has no real assets. The Seller is no more than a small office with a phone and computer and sometimes a small sales staff. All the productive assets are located in the PRC, in the hands of companies and individuals with no direct legal relationship to the Hong Kong entity. Cash received by the Hong Kong entity is regularly swept into separate accounts with no direct relationship to the Hong Kong entity. In litigation terms, the Hong Kong entity is judgement proof.

What this all means is that the foreign buyer has essentially given away its intellectual property. The intellectual property is in the hands of a company in China and nothing can be done in China if the intellectual property is misused in some way. For physical items like molds, tooling, and prototypes, the items are gone forever. The PRC entity may refuse to return the items. The PRC entity may pass the items on to its subcontractors, who then further pass the items on to a subcontractor or family friend. In the end, it is not unusual to find that no one knows the ultimate fate of the items. But what is known is that the items are located in the PRC and the buyer has no legal recourse in the PRC. The buyer has nothing more than a claim for monetary damages against a Hong Kong entity likely to be judgment proof.

A foreign buyer that fully understands the risks may make the business decision to incur the risk. However, in our own work in Asia, we pretty much never encounter U.S. or European buyers that understand the situation. Most simply assume that when they contract with a Hong Kong entity, their legal situation is no different than if they were contracting with a PRC entity. They have already decided to incur the risk of manufacturing in the PRC and they see working with a Hong Kong entity as a way to reduce that risk, not increase it. They assume the Hong Kong entity will be easier to communicate with and that because Hong Kong’s legal system is better, they and their IP will be better protected this way.

But in reality, the foreign buyer has not reduced its risk. It has instead dramatically increased it. If the increase in risk is intended, that is part of the commercial calculation. But when the increase in risk is based on a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the law and the facts, it is nothing more than a mistake.

For more on why it is important to distinguish Mainland China from Hong Kong, check out the following:

Negotiating China contracts
Negotiating contracts with Chinese companies

When negotiating a contract with a Chinese party, firm deadlines are essential, but also dangerous. They are dangerous because many (most?) Chinese companies have mastered the technique of manipulating deadlines to their advantage.

There are many reasons to set a deadline for concluding a contract with a Chinese party. In any deal where the Chinese side will be required to make a payment, such as the purchase of an offshore asset, the Chinese side will tend to delay making a final decision. Setting a tight contract deadline controls this tendency. On the other hand, when the money is flowing in the other direction, the Chinese side will often impose an artificial deadline unrelated to the deal. In my experience, the most common is for the Chinese company to assert that the deal must be done on a specific date because a public signing ceremony has already been scheduled.

If you are negotiating with a Chinese company that has set a deadline for completion, you need to be prepared to deal with what is now the fairly standard Chinese program for manipulating contract deadlines. Without regard to who set the deadline and without regard to why the deadline has been set, you must be willing to simply walk away from the deal if all of the terms and all of the drafting is not complete on the deadline date. If you are not willing to simply walk, then you will be manipulated by the Chinese side.

The standard program Chinese companies use for manipulating a deadline usually works in three stages, as follows:

Stage One: The first draft of the contract is always submitted by the foreign party. The Chinese company never provides the first draft because that would require they “tip their hand.” The foreign party works overtime on a tight timeline and provides its draft thirty days before the deadline. This is done under the assumption that thirty days is sufficient to work out all the deal issues and arrive at a final draft agreement on the deadline date.

The foreign party hears nothing, not even an acknowledgment of receipt. This causes concern and after three or four days the foreign party asks the Chinese side about receipt and comments. The Chinese side responds that it did a quick review and everything looks okay. The foreign party is relieved and begins preparing to implement the project on the terms stated in the draft contract.

Stage Two: Seven or so days before the deadline, the Chinese side finally sends its comments on the draft agreement. At this stage, the Chinese side proposes two or three changes. However, these changes are designed to make the contract completely unenforceable against the Chinese side. Here are my three current favorites:

1.  The key to the contract is that the obligations provided in the contract are absolutely binding on the Chinese party for a period of three to five years. The Chinese side makes no revision to the 35-page contract. Instead, they insert a single article that provides that the Chinese side can terminate the contract at will on 30-days notice.

When challenged, the Chinese side claims mutual termination is common in international contracts.

2.  The Chinese side adds what it calls a force majeure provision. The standard force majeure provision provides that neither side can be compelled to perform in situations where performance is impossible due to matters outside the control of that party: war, strike, typhoon, earthquake. The key to a standard force majeure provision is that neither party is required to perform. If the force majeure condition continues, the affected party is required to return the matter to the pre-contract status quo.

The Chinese provision is always written in a way that stands the standard force majeure provision upside down. In the Chinese version, the Chinese side is concerned only with the actions of the Chinese government. The Chinese force majeure provision will provide that if the Chinese government or its agents (foreign exchange bank) makes performance by the Chinese side impossible, the Chinese side is not obligated to perform. But the foreign party is still obligated to perform and the Chinese side is not obligated to return the matter to its pre-contract status quo.

When challenged, the Chinese side replies: force majeure provisions are standard in international contracts.

3.  In the critical provisions of the contract, in every place where it says “the Chinese party shall be obligated to do” the contract is revised to say “shall not be obligated to.” This is usually done where the revisions are not redlined or otherwise identified in a cover memorandum. The added word is only located after careful review of the contact. The longer and more detailed the contract, the more difficult it is to find this kind of revision.

When challenged, the Chinese side replies: we only inserted one word. What is your problem with that?

When the foreign side objects, the Chinese side will complain that the foreign side is being unreasonable. If well advised the foreign side will hold the line and refuse to agree to revisions like these that will essentially render the contract meaningless. The Chinese side then agrees to back down and the foreign side then feels relieved, assuming the agreement as drafted will be executed on or before the deadline. The unsuspecting foreign party does not realize that the opposite will almost certainly happen, leading to stage three.

Stage Three: Two to four days before the deadline, the Chinese side returns the contract with extensive revisions throughout the entire document, usually with no redline of the revisions. Some Chinese parties will redline some but fail to redline others. No explanation is ever given for the large number of revisions. No explanation is ever given for why these revisions were provided so close before the deadline when it is clear the Chinese side was aware of the issues weeks earlier when the draft was first provided to it.

Most foreign parties at this stage fall directly into the trap laid by the Chinese side since day one The foreign party works desperately to revise the document in the face of the by now ridiculously short deadline. In this setting, the Chinese side is hoping two things will happen. First, the foreign side will make concessions just to get the document signed. Second. the foreign side will make drafting mistakes due to the short timeline and the need to work in two or more languages. The Chinese side will then ruthlessly take advantage of those mistakes at a later date.

It is always a mistake to fall into the deadline trap. The better response is to realize from the start that the deadline is not relevant to the Chinese side. The Chinese side is merely using the deadline as a tool to gain an advantage over you. The first step when faced with this trap is to refuse to make the revisions and execute the agreement under this time pressure. Instead, tell the Chinese side that since they are the ones who responded late, you view their response as a contract rejection and for this reason, the deal is off.

Then simply walk away. Do not propose a new deadline. If you propose a new deadline, the Chinese side will go through exactly the same steps (as above) in almost exactly the same way. The only useful course of action is to tell the Chinese side that if it is still interested in doing the deal it should come back with a reasonable set of proposals and if we are still interested, we will take a look. But, since the deadline has passed, we may never come back to you. It is your risk.

In that situation, some Chinese parties will simply capitulate and come back with a reasonable set of proposals quite soon, often within one week. However, the most common response is that the Chinese side will continue to act in a manner designed to force the foreign party into making an unreasonable concession or a mistake. The only way to prevent that is to treat the deadline as a hard date and to walk away when the Chinese side is unreasonable.

It is impossible to predict what the Chinese side will do when you walk away. The Chinese side is not using this three-stage technique because it is inexperienced. The opposite is true. These entities are very experienced and they have learned that the deadline manipulation technique works very well. The only appropriate response from the foreign side is to call the bluff by walking away. But like a poker game with a stranger, you never know what will happen when you call the bluff. The response from the Chinese side is entirely unpredictable.

Be prepared.

China WFOE Formation
China WFOE Formation. It’s complicated.

Yesterday, in the first part of this two-part series, I discussed how China is requiring foreign companies reveal all layers of WFOE ownership in the WFOE formation stage, I talked about how just as so many foreign companies are realizing the importance/necessity of forming a China WFOE, China has made it nearly impossible to form a WFOE without a full list of its owners. I first wrote about this issue in China’s New Foreign Investment Law: The “Actually Controlling Person” Requirement is Going to be Tough, but it is now at the point where the China lawyers at my firm are very clear with our clients who seek to retain us to help them form a China WFOE: you either reveal pretty much all owners of the WFOE-to-be (through the various layers of ownership) or your chances of getting a WFOE are not good. Clients unwilling or unable to make the required ownership disclosure in the exact form required by the PRC government authorities cannot proceed. There are no exceptions to the rule.

As noted in my earlier post, this is a threshold issue and this issue must be resolved before it makes sense to incur the time and expense required for aWFOE formation application.

China’s intent with this new [ownership disclosure] system is clear. The PRC government will no longer allow the use of special purpose vehicles and related entity structures to hide the actual ownership of the investors in PRC foreign-invested enterprises. And any attempt by a foreign investor to invoke a foreign law that allows secrecy with respect to ownership will [almost surely] be ignored. MOFCOM has plans to carefully audit all FIEs and that audit will include carefully reviewing their ownership structures. More important, however, is that a response that does not list out owners will simply not be accepted by the automated system. A response is therefore forced. A false response is a violation of law that can result in penalties and other legal/administrative action by the PRC government and its agencies.

Consider a typical private equity fund/venture capital type of ownership structure. The investor in the WFOE is Operating Company A. The owner of Operating Company A is a Holding Company B. Holding Company B is in turn owned by three private equity funds: Equity Funds C, D and E. The largest of the funds is owned by Equity Fund Z. As you can see, there are four layers of ownership.
For the MOFCOM information report, it is certain we will be required to disclose the following:
  • Operating Company A as the investor. This will require disclosing the officers and directors of Operating Company A.
  • Holding Company B is a 100% shareholder of Operating Company A. This will require we disclose Holding Company B, together with its officers and directors. We usually argue that Holding Company B is a “private equity fund”, and for that reason, we should not be required to disclose the shareholders of Holding Company B. Some MOFCOM offices will accept this argument. Some will not. Even if the local MOFCOM accepts, the higher level MOFCOM that does the later audit may not accept and then require all shareholders of Holding Company B be disclosed.
  • The local MOFCOM office may require disclosing the three shareholders of Holding Company B. If MOFCOM makes this demand, it will also require disclosing the directors and officers of Holding Company B. For the past several months, most MOFCOM offices have required this level of disclosure and foreign investors should plan on this disclosure being required.

The big question is whether MOFCOM will require moving up the chain to mandate disclosing the shareholders of the three shareholders in Holding Company B (Equity Funds C, D and E).  We have in the last few months been asked by various MOFCOMs for this level of disclosure, but we have so far been able to convince them that this should not be necessary. In one instance, we provided MOFCOM with an organization chart showing nearly 75 owners of an LLC (including many private equity funds) but ended up convincing it not to require our client disclose the names of these nearly 75 owners, as originally requested. When MOFCOM requests/requires this sort of disclosure, we normally argue that the C, D and E entities are “private equity funds” and disclosure of their ownership should not be required for the same reasons public company investors are not required to disclose their shareholders. Several local MOFCOM offices have recently tentatively accepted this argument, but this decision is not binding and the higher level of MOFCOM could demand more disclosure, either as part of the initial WFOE formation process or later as a result of their audit.

China has rejected shareholder secrecy and its requirement of full shareholder disclosure imposed on foreign investors is simply the consistent application of PRC law to all legal persons. The shareholder disclosure requirement is contrary to European and North American legal principles and on that basis many shareholders will refuse to consent to disclosure. However, under PRC law, there is no exemption. Moreover, as noted in Part One of this series, PRC local governments and MOFCOM offices are authorized to require even more sensitive private documents, such as the shareholders’ tax returns and tax returns of the WFOE’s foreign employees.
Bottom Line: If you are unwilling or even legally unable to comply with China’s ownership disclosure requirements you cannot proceed with a China WFOE formation. It is that simple and resistance is futile.
China Manufacturing Contracts
China WFOE Formation Ownership Disclosure: Like a Maze

Just as so many foreign companies are realizing the importance/necessity of forming a China WFOE, China has made it nearly impossible for a WFOE to be formed without a full list of its owners. I first wrote about this issue in China’s New Foreign Investment Law: The “Actually Controlling Person” Requirement is Going to be Tough, where I predicted what has now transpired.

It has reached the point now where we are very clear with our clients who hire us to help them form a China WFOE: either you reveal pretty much all owners of the WFOE-to-be (through the various layers of ownership) or the odds of your getting a WFOE are not good. Clients unwilling or unable to make the required ownership disclosure in the exact form required by the PRC government authorities cannot proceed. An Anti-Money Laundering Letter will be ignored and insisting on such a letter will only produce a hostile response. There are no exceptions to the rule.

This is a threshold issue and this issue must be resolved before it makes sense to incur the time and expense required for aWFOE formation application.

I provided the explanation for this in my earlier post:

China’s intent with this new [ownership disclosure] system is clear. The PRC government will no longer allow the use of special purpose vehicles and related entity structures to hide the actual ownership of the investors in PRC foreign-invested enterprises. And any attempt by a foreign investor to invoke a foreign law that allows secrecy with respect to ownership will [almost surely] be ignored. MOFCOM has plans to carefully audit all FIEs and that audit will include carefully reviewing their ownership structures. More important, however, is that a response that does not list out owners will simply not be accepted by the automated system. A response is therefore forced. A false response is a violation of law that can result in penalties and other legal/administrative action by the PRC government and its agencies.

Since I wrote that post, the China lawyers at my firm have found the local MOFCOM authorities are becoming even stricter about enforcing its WFOE ownership disclosure rules. The current trend is to require full disclosure all the way up the line of ownership. The only concession we have recently received is that some local governments will agree to end the disclosure at the level of what can be called a private equity or SICAR type fund. That is, some (not all) local MOFCOM offices will not require disclosing investors in private equity fund/SICAR type entities. However, other local MOFCOM offices DO require disclosure of private equity fund/SICAR investors.

There are though two levels of disclosure and getting past MOFCOM just means getting past the first level. The first disclosure is made in the information report provided to MOFCOM as part of the formation process. However, the new system includes an elaborate auditing process, so even if a local MOFCOM office allows for limited shareholder/ownership disclosure, an expanded disclosure may be required as a result of an audit. This is because the audit is done by a higher level office of MOFCOM. Such higher level offices are almost always stricter than the low-level offices.
So even if you are able to convince a local MOFCOM office to accept a limited disclosure of the shareholders of the investor, this is not a final decision. The initial MOFCOM decision can be overturned at any time and the demand for full disclosure can be made at any time. This demand would likely be made after your WFOE has started operations and if you then fail to comply with the demand your WFOE would be at great risk of being shut down.
Our European clients are usually the most taken aback by China’s new ownership disclosure requirements and we therefore often must spend extra time explaining the situation to those clients. Investor secrecy is at the heart of the European investment system. Most SICAR entities do not even disclose the identity of directors and officers. However, this form of secrecy has been rejected by the PRC government. For domestic companies that are not publicly listed entities, all shareholders are listed on publicly available websites. It is now possible to trace every PRC corporation up to the point of either a natural person shareholder or a public company shareholder. This is the system the PRC government intends to impose on foreign investors in China.
The investor disclosure requirement has become a fundamental policy in Chinese law. The PRC government fully understands that its policy of full investor disclosure is exactly opposite the investor secrecy systems standard in Europe and North America. Accordingly, any argument from a foreign investor that invokes European or international law is simply ignored as irrelevant. As noted above, as foreign entities have tried to resist fully disclosing their ownership, the PRC authorities have become more demanding, not less. We expect this trend to continue.
Note also that there are other disclosure risks, including the following:
  1. As part of the audit procedure, the PRC government may demand the tax returns of the disclosed shareholder(s) to confirm the accuracy of the reported information.
  2. It is nearly certain the PRC government will at some point require the WFOE provide three years of personal tax returns for each foreign individual employed by the WFOE.
  3. Other intrusive requests for what you likely will consider very private personal information may also be required during the life of the WFOE.
If you are not willing to provide the required information you should not move forward in trying to form a China WFOE because there is no way around these requirements. The PRC laws in this area are clear and the fact that those laws conflict with the laws and norms of Europe and North America is simply not relevant. What is relevant is that if you are not willing to comply with China’s ownership disclosure laws, you will not be permitted to set up and operate a WFOE in China.
As I wrote in my previous post, the “actual controlling person” requirement does not make legal sense under modern corporation structures, but the PRC government simply ignores this fundamental point. Thus, even after we do a full disclosure of all shareholders and thereby PROVE there is no single actually controlling person, the response of MOFCOM is to say: “You must identify the actual controlling person or we will not approve the investment.” Most local MOFCOM offices accept the name of the Chairman/CEO of the first level shareholder as the “actual controlling person.” Even that result though is not certain and there are two other possibilities:
  • The CEO/Chairman/Managing Director of the majority owning private equity fund or SICAR, no matter how far up the chain of ownership.
  • Endless requests for the name of the actual controlling person, when in fact there is no such person, making a response to the request impossible.
Our China attorneys have encountered all three of the above in our work on WFOEs during the period after the actual controlling person requirement was imposed. To date, there has been no consistency in the requirements.
In part 2 of this post, to come out tomorrow, I will discuss some of the specific situations we have encountered regarding ownership disclosure requirements when trying to register a China WFOE.

China Software as  Service SaaSThe market for software has shifted to the cloud. Using the Internet cloud, software products are no longer delivered as compiled programs installed on physical devices. The software is delivered online as an Internet-based service. This is known as Software as a Service (SaaS).

SaaS works fine when confined to the Internet of a single country or region such as North America or the European Union. The core concept of SaaS is that an open Internet exists on which SaaS can be built and delivered. But what happens when companies attempt to deliver SaaS into a closed Internet system?

That is the ultimate issue in providing an SaaS product in China. SaaS products not approved by the Chinese regulators are either blocked or in danger of being blocked. Gmail, Google Docs, Dropbox, and GitHub are all examples of SaaS products that are always at risk of being blocked in China. For SaaS products housed on servers located outside China, Chinese regulation makes active commercial exploitation difficult.

This applies to new SaaS products. Both IBM and HP are planning to roll out SaaS-based blockchain products. HP even calls their new offering “Blockchain as a Service.” Almost by definition, the blockchain system is intended to be global. But what happens when that service hits the closed Internet of China?

There is essentially only one way to deliver SaaS in China. The system must be housed on a server located in China and be licensed to a Chinese owned entity that has direct contact with Chinese customers.

The China server/China licensee model works like this:

1. The SaaS software is housed on a server located in China. This means the Chinese government will at all times have the right to access the server and inspect the contents of the software and all related data and information.

2. The SaaS service typically must be provided by a Chinese owned entity even though the regulations suggest this entity may be a Sino-Foreign joint venture.

3. The SaaS service is licensed to the Chinese entity in accordance with a very expensive and restrictive set of minimal requirements.

4. The SaaS software/platform has received the required approvals.

It has been difficult for many foreign SaaS developers to accept that the China server/China license model is in most cases the only way to sell SaaS products to Chinese consumers but the major SaaS players have already figured this out.

For example, the developers of video games have always been plagued by pirating in China. Game developers moved to the online model and developed the Massive Multiplayer Online Game model (MMOG), which is a form of SaaS. All of the major U.S. MOOG game developers now deliver their product in China using the China license model:

  • Valve Software’s Dota 2 is provided in China by Perfect World.
  • Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft is provided in China by Netease.
  • Riot Game’s League of Legends is provided in China by Tencent.

In the field of business software, Microsoft provides its Office 360 and Azure cloud service in China through a license with 21 Vianet.

Having accepted that a license in China is required, the real difficulties begin. The Internet infrastructure in China is quite advanced and due to the work of 21 Vianet and others, there is plenty of server space and bandwidth available for effective delivery of even the most complex SaaS products. The success of MOOG products in China is proof of this.

The real problem in China is in finding an appropriate partner/licensee. For the Chinese entity, operating as a licensee is expensive and technically demanding. So the real challenge in China is to find a licensee that is a) willing to take on the burden, b) has the technical capability to do the work, and c) the financial ability to take on the burden of ICP licensing, obtaining and maintaining approvals and then operating the complex server and software systems. Finding a willing licensee is oftentimes difficult for small SaaS systems and start-up products with no existing base of customers to provide immediate cash flow for the licensee.

For large, established SaaS providers, the issues are different but still significant. In this setting, due to the advanced technical requirements, the licensee will often be a direct competitor. So the challenge for large SaaS developers comes from managing the business in China, in protecting IP, and in dealing with the development and marketing of spin-off products. For many SaaS developers, these spin-off products are where the real value is generated.

In trying to evade the rules to avoid the China server/China licensee requirement, foreign SaaS developers are missing their opportunity to access the Chinese market. The real challenge is in finding ways to work within the China system in a way so the foreign SaaS developer both remains in control and earns a profit from China.

So resistance to China’s system for foreign involvement in SaaS is futile, but success is possible, so long as you get clear on what needs to be done.

China e-commerce laws
China e-commerce laws

The PRC National People’s Congress last week promulgated a second discussion draft of the PRC E-Commerce Law (电子商务法草案). If you are interested in commenting, you can find the new statute and a portal for comments here.

This statute is an attempt to gain greater control over the online consumer markets. These markets have exploded in China, in a situation where there is little or no regulation. The lack of regulation has not slowed development of e-commerce in the PRC. The success of online marketing is shown by the recent results of Alibaba’s November 11 “Singles Day” online sales event. As reported by ZD Net, the results were impressive:

Alibaba Group has raked in US$25.3 billion (168.2 billion yuan) in gross merchandise volume (GMV) from its annual online shopping festival, breaking last year’s record sales by 39 percent.

Held on November 11, its Singles Day shopping bonanza this year involved more than 140,000 participating merchants, including 60,000 international brands. Some 165 of these each generated more than US$15.1 million (100 million yuan) in sales, including Gap, Nike, and Samsung, with 17 merchants exceeding US$75.4 million (500 million yuan) and six surpassing US$150.9 million (1 billion yuan) in sales.

Japan, Australia, and Germany were amongst countries with the most sales selling into China during Singles Day this year.
At its peak, Alibaba processed 256,000 transactions per second and US$1 billion (6.6 billion yuan) was processed within the first couple of minutes. In the first two hours, it registered US$11.9 billion (78.8 billion).

Overall, Alibaba processed 1.48 billion payments, up 41 percent year-on-year, and 812 million delivery orders via its logistics arm, Cainiao Network. This was 23 percent higher than last year’s 657 million delivery orders.”

As you can see, foreign products played a big part in the success of the Singles Day event. Section 5 of the Discussion Draft sets out the proposed rules for cross-border sales. The Singles Day even illustrates the way the Discussion Draft plans for the future of cross-border online sales:

1. Foreign retailers will not be permitted to directly participate in online sales in China. All online sales will be limited to Chinese owned entities that have obtained the required commercial ICP license. Though there had been some hope there would be a limited exemption to the ICP license rule for e-commerce product sales, there is no hint of such a change in the Discussion Draft. The PRC government intends to continue restricting e-commerce sales to Chinese owned or controlled entities.

2. Foreign-owned operators of e-commerce platforms will also be excluded from operating in the Chinese market. Sales of foreign products will be forced to come into China through Chinese owned or controlled platforms.

3. The Discussion Draft provisions on cross-border e-commerce focus on ensuring cross-border sales comply with Chinese law and only approved products are imported into China and all taxes and duties on those products get paid. The Discussion Draft seeks to shut down online sales as a way to import illegal products into China and to shut down online sales as a method for evading China taxes and import duties.

4. The method for control proposed by the Discussion Draft is to create highly centralized e-commerce processing centers. The China (Hangzhou) Cross-Border E-Commerce Processing Pilot Area is an example of the ultimate goal. The idea is that these centers will handle the procedures related to e-commerce: foreign purchase, shipping to China, import into China with full compliance with all PRC applicable regulations on product approval, inspection and quarantine, payment of duties and taxes, and warehousing and distribution.

The plan is to funnel all cross-border e-commerce through a limited number of processing centers, all of which are controlled by the national government. These processing centers will also be under the control of a single e-commerce sales platform. The Hangzhou Center will be controlled by Alibaba, with competing online sales giants in China presumably establishing and controlling their own competing centers. This would be the opposite of the freewheeling approach that typifies e-commerce development in the U.S. It is though quite consistent with the current domination of retail e-commerce in the U.S. by a limited group of large players.

The success of the Alibaba event shows that the model envisioned by the Discussion Draft is already fully functioning. Foreign retail brands were excluded from direct sales. They were instead funneled through the single channel provided by Alibaba. Alibaba assumed all liability for compliance with PRC rules and regulations. No foreign entity was involved in any way with the actual direct sale of its product or with any direct relation to any Chinese consumer; all of this was handled by Alibaba.

This is the future of e-commerce in China. For foreign brand owners that want to penetrate the PRC online sales market, the Discussion Draft makes clear how the system will work.

Resistance is futile.

China manufacturing contracts
Use your China manufacturing contract to get out

When foreign buyers purchase products from Chinese factories the big issue is usually who owns the design of the product. This issue is often discussed in a theoretical way, based on intellectual property law principles, without getting to the real point. You are having a product made at Chinese Factory A. You decide the price Factory A is charging you for the product has become too high. The fundamental issue is this: can you take that exact product and have it made at factory B?

Say you are using the following procedure. You find a product made and designed by a Chinese factory. Normally, you will not purchase off-the-shelf products in their “as-is” condition. Normally you will customize the product by maybe changing its colors, and/or its surface design and/or small surface features such the number of buttons.

In this situation, the Chinese factory will take the position its own the design and you have no rights to the underlying design. In general terms, the Chinese factory will say:

a. Chinese Factory owns the underlying design and can sell that product anywhere in the world.

b. Chinese Factory agrees to “customize” its product for you by making surface changes such as color, logo, surface design features. Chinese Factory agrees not to manufacture and sell a product using those same features for sale anywhere in the world.

Given this basic position, what happens if you want to go to a different manufacturer for the same product? There are several alternative responses:

i. The normal response is that the Chinese Factory says you can go ahead and customize the product made by a different factory, but you CANNOT have that factory manufacture your product based on our underlying product design.

ii. In the alternative, some factories will say that you can go to a different factory, but you must pay us a royalty.

iii. In the alternative, some factories will agree to give you a license to go to another factory solely to manufacture the product but not to make any adaptation or other “new work” relying on the underlying design.

Where does your Chinese program fit into this system? Most buyers settle on alternative b. This is a type of stand-off. The Chinese factory cannot sell “your” customized product anywhere in the world, but you are stuck with the Chinese factory. If you want to go to a different factory, you have to start over from scratch or pay what is usually a very high royalty. This can be a disaster if there is no readily available alternative source for your product.

Another issue that arises from this situation is the question of exclusivity. If you have worked hard to create a market for a specific product in a certain territory, you will not want virtually the same product to be sold in that territory in direct competition with your product. It is common to provide that your factory is not permitted to sell the customized product to any other buyer. On the other hand, the factory is free to work with a different buyer who customizes the product in a different way. It is that alternative customized product that will then appear as a competitor in your territory.

Obtaining the agreement of your Chinese factory not to sell your customized product to anyone else is relatively easy because no one else really wants that product. It is much more difficult to get your Chinese factory to agree not to sell an alternative product to another foreign buyer. If you are looking for that kind of protection, you must be clear about the rules and you must expect the Chinese factory will only agree to those rules if it receives a substantial benefit for doing so. That benefit is normally your agreement to a specific volume of product purchase for each year of exclusivity. Big companies often get this sort of deal; SMEs, far less often.

China VAT TaxesConsider the following situation. Your company is a service provider. Let’s say your business assists domestic and foreign entities register drugs with the FDA. You are contacted by a Chinese entity to do a registration. Having read China Law Blog (See Getting Money out of China: It’s Complicated), you submit a written, signed invoice to the Chinese entity and you require payment in advance. Within five days, you receive payment.

But, you are surprised to see your payment amount has been reduced by 6 percent. You complain to your Chinese client, and your Chinese client explains that the 6% was deducted as VAT tax on the payment, upon the demand of the local tax authority. You explain that all services were performed in the United States. No services were performed in China. For this reason, there is no basis for the Chinese tax authorities to impose any tax of any kind. The Chinese side explains: we agree, but if we had complained, our payment to you would have been denied and you would not have received any payment at all.

This has become a standard scenario for service providers that provide services to Chinese entities. It applies to all types of services:

  • Legal services
  • IP registration services
  • Product and advertising design services
  • Software development services
  • Environmental consulting services
  • Architectural services, both structural and landscape.

In all these areas, the Chinese foreign exchange banks will refuse to make any payment without documentation. Often the request for documentation is onerous and can cause considerable delay. Finally, when approval for payment is received, the foreign exchange bank then requires a deduction from the payment be made.

Now get this: the amount of the deduction varies from bank to bank and from region to region. We have seen deductions range from 5% to 40%. What is the reason for this wide variation? Since there is no legal basis for the deduction, its amount and its supposed basis vary. This variation means there is no way to predict in advance the amount of the deduction. Even within the same bank for the same services we have seen the amount of the deduction vary from payment to payment, depending on the attitude of the bank at the time and the identity of the bank officer and the local tax office personnel involved in the transaction. Of course, the status of the payer in the local economy is a factor. An SOE that is the sole employer in a small town is treated differently than a small privately owned business in Shanghai.

Our China lawyers constantly get calls seeking help from American and European service providers whose payments have been held up by China’s banks. We tell them the following: “we can help you get the money out, but it will be net of taxes and we do not know what that amount will be.” A classic good news/bad news scenario.

What though can you as the foreign service provider do to eliminate this tax deduction risk? The only solution is to put all of the payment risks onto your Chinese customer by providing in your service contract that all payments must be made net of taxes and fees. If the amount of the invoice is $60,000, the service provider must receive $60,000. All taxes and fees are paid by the Chinese customer on behalf of the foreign service provider. This approach places the risk where it belongs: on the Chinese side. The Chinese government/foreign exchange bank is imposing the fee. The Chinese payer is the only party that can object to the fee and argue it should not be imposed or should be reduced. You as a foreign entity receiving payment have no standing and no power to impact the decision of the Chinese authorities, but your Chinese customer does. Placing the risk on the Chinese payer is, therefore, the only practical way to deal with this issue.

It is essential to deal with this issue in advance in the written service contract and in the written invoice for services. If the written documents are silent, the Chinese side will fall back to the basic rule that VAT and income tax is the liability of the foreign party and make little to no effort to prevent or reduce it. Though this rule has no application to arbitrary and illegal exactions imposed by foreign governments, the foreign service provider will always lose on this kind of claim.

So this then leads to the following rules for performing services for Chinese entities:

1. Execute a written service agreement.

2. Provide a written, signed invoice for every payment.

3. Provide in the agreement and invoice that payments are net of taxes and fees.

4. Do no work until after full payment is received.

Service providers outside China normally operate with a relaxed contracting and billing system. The rules for China are very different and contrary to service provider culture. Moreover, many Chinese entities will resist following the rules. My response to all this is: So what? As my first law firm boss explained to me: there is only one thing worse than working. That is working and not getting paid. If you want to get paid by a Chinese customer, you need to follow the rules.