Basics of China Business Law

China laws and business are very different from the West, of this there should be no dispute. China lawyers

And yet, our China lawyers oftentimes get emails from potential clients telling us that they have drafted a contract for China and asking us whether we would revise that contract to “make it work for China.” Our initial response to this is to say yes but to warn them that our fees for doing so will almost always be the same as our fees for our drafting the contract from scratch. The reason for this is because, with very few exceptions, the contract we are given is so different than what is required for China that its only benefit is that we can pull some (never all) of the terms we need for drafting the contract.

But guess what, that benefit almost never outweighs the harm. Let me explain.

Much of the time when we are given a draft contract that contract is a result of weeks of negotiations between the Western company and the Chinese company. If our China attorneys then substantially revise the contract and our Western company client then sends the substantially revised contract to the Chinese company, the Chinese company is rightly irritated because it believed it had a deal or was on the verge of a deal with the Western company, even though it really wasn’t.

But most of the time, the draft contract we are given is so far afield from what is needed that instead of our China lawyers being able to draft a new contract, our China lawyers instead have to tell our client that it really needs to start back at square one. Most of the time the draft contract we are given is so internally contradictory and so rife with provisions that literally do not work at all under China’s laws, that the first thing we need to do with our client is figure out exactly what it is trying to accomplish with the deal.

And then, once we have that figured out, the next step is usually to draft (in English and in Chinese) a term sheet to send to the Chinese company to determine whether drafting a contract will ever be warranted. Oftentimes, there is a critical provision that the Western company and the Chinese company never previously discussed and on which they are at clear loggerheads. The term sheet quickly reveals this and the parties then choose to go their separate ways. Oftentimes, there is a critical provision that simply cannot legally work and without that provision one or both sides do not want to go forward with the transaction and the parties then choose to go their separate ways.

We see these sorts of looming problems so often with draft agreements that I have drafted the following “template” explanation, which I then modify to fit the particular situation:

We reviewed the draft contract you sent us and we think it premature to begin drafting a contract based on it. Some of it is contradictory, some does not make sense, and some is almost unworkable or illegal. It also fails to address critical deal terms.
What we need to do here is to work with you to figure out what exactly you are seeking to do and then use that to determine whether the Chinese side will be on board with that or not. Once we are clear on what you are seeking to do here, we then draft a term sheet in English and in Chinese and use that to see whether a deal is possible. If a deal is possible, we then move forward on drafting the contract. If it is clear that no deal is possible on your terms, you then determine whether you want to compromise or walk away.
We will charge considerably less to develop the term sheet than we would charge to draft a full-fledged contract. This means that If it turns out no contract is warranted, you will have saved quite a lot of money. If it turns out a contract is warranted, much of what we will have done to develop the term sheet will apply to what we will need to do to draft the subsequent contract.
The above is our advice, but obviously what you do is up to you in the end.
Please let us know.

China Law Professor Donald Clarke sent me a great article this week from New York Magazine, entitled, How China Drove Out Mister Softee. Professor Clarke’s email with the link said the following:

Thought you might like this. Interestingly, it is NOT a story of “guy skirts rules, naively trusts Chinese partner, gets screwed.” It’s “guy does everything absolutely by the book, has reliable Chinese partner who does not screw him, and still gets screwed by changing political atmosphere.” For him to get competition eventually is quite normal, and the competition wasn’t using a trade name similar to his. But the rules were not evenly enforced.

This is the sort of story I both love and hate. I love this sort of story because it is interesting and important but I hate it because I constantly and aggressively stress to my clients the need to follow China’s laws to the letter and with that I ought to be able to tell them that by doing so they will have no problems. I also hate this sort of story because it reveals the cynical truth that the reality is really more the opposite: if you do not follow China’s laws you will have a problem. If you do follow Chinese laws the odds of your having a problem will go way down, but hey, it is no guarantee. Truth is that as a foreign company doing business in China you will be a target and this means you must follow the laws to avoid being an easy and legal target but even if you do follow the rules you are still a target.

Quick aside. Why the Jim Carey clip about “messing with the doo?” Two reasons. One, It’s just a great clip. And two, I love soft-serve ice cream and I have fond memories of eating Mr. Softee ice cream when visiting my grandmother in New Jersey. So I see China’s messing with Mister Softee as the equivalent of “messing with the doo.” But I digress.

So if you read the New York Magazine article, you will learn that Turner Sparks brought New York’s iconic Mister Softee trucks for the first time to China” back in 2007 and eventually built his ice cream empire to ten trucks and 25 employees in Suzhou. You will also learn the following:

Mr. Sparks did local TV and newspaper interviews and was a fixture at school and corporate events, where he and his team doled out waffle-cone soft-serve to thousands. During one corporate party at Bosch, an international electronics company, he sold $9,000 worth of $1 cones in just two hours.

Competition was scarce, because he essentially invented the Suzhou ice-cream-truck market. “All these trucks were just going nuts, doing really well. Huge lines all the time,” he told me. “Everyone knew Mister Softee.”

He planned an ambitious expansion, and lined up investors to back it: He wanted to quintuple his fleet to 50 trucks, add more storefronts, and move into new territory.

More importantly, you will learn how tough it can be to do business in China, because you will learn that instead of expanding his business in China, Mr. Sparks ended up leaving China “with just enough money to reinvent his life as a New York stand-up comic.” and that “what happened to Sparks is an illustration of how the landscape has shifted for foreign businesses in China since current premier Xi Jinping has taken over the country, and the climate has become considerably less hospitable for foreign business — small ones, in particular.”

The article talks about how things began to change for foreign companies in China starting in 1978 and how Sparks was able to build up his ice cream empire:

They created a local supply chain from scratch, finding vendors for cones, straws and soft-serve mix at a Shanghai food-and-drink expo. Using secret blueprints from Mister Softee, the truck was built in Nanjing by a company that makes telecommunications trucks, armored vehicles, and ambulances. Workers were hired from a job fair, with many long-distance drivers jumping on the opportunity to work locally and try something different. To give the soft-serve the same taste as back home, they shipped the milk in from the U.S.

Suzhou officials worked with Sparks to create a new kind of business permit for their ice-cream trucks, called a Qualified Mobile Vendor License. It let them operate the trucks, but only as “delivery vehicles” for two stores. The license also required they have a staffed office and were restricted to operate at certain spots around the city. The solicitousness of Suzhou officials wasn’t unique. All around China, local governments were inviting in foreign businesses, easing the cost of doing business with tax breaks, and giving them friendly government liaisons to help them navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy.

Then you will learn how the ice cream empire fell apart, for reasons that will likely not be unfamiliar to most foreign companies that operate in China — taxes and thieving employees who then go out and illegally and even violently compete:

The first inclination Sparks got that things were changing was around 2012, when a local official called him into his office and accused Sparks of not paying enough in taxes.

“Immediately, I knew it was a shakedown,” he said. “This guy was an idiot. He was like, ‘There’s money, I need some.’”

Sparks declined the man’s offer and left, but says that meeting was his first experience with the corruption he’d often heard about in China. Soon after, two new drivers alerted Sparks to a longtime scam by his eight other drivers. They were quietly making extra soft-serve sales and pocketing the money for themselves. Because Mister Softee was a cash business, office workers would count drivers’ ice-cream cones at the start and end of their shifts to make sure they weren’t stealing. To circumvent that control, drivers bought their own cones. When Sparks started measuring the ice-cream mix instead, the drivers would buy extra cones and mix, too.

Eventually, he instituted random checks on drivers and fired several on the spot when they were caught with more mix in their trucks than they had at the start of the day. Soon after, his tires outside his apartment were slashed. Then a fired driver showed up at Mister Softee’s office and threatened to kill the workers there.

Things got more bizarre. In early 2013, just a few weeks after they were fired, Sparks’s former drivers resurfaced with their own unlicensed ice-cream trucks, with knockoff names including Baby Bear, Snow Princess, and Mr. Big. These drivers would park along Mister Softee trucks’ routes to poach customers. Plus, they didn’t have the special city license, which allowed them to operate without having to open storefronts or an office, and they could sell wherever they wanted.

Conway was too far away to help out as problems started cascading. Cai, meanwhile, had moved to the suburbs about an hour away and was starting another printed circuit board business, so had no time to lend a hand.

*   *   *   *

Perhaps the slashed tires and death threats were unique to Mister Softee, but local officials’ deciding to yank support was downright typical of the changing times.

For the record, nothing that happened to Mister Softee in Suzhou is “unique.”

The article then goes on to rightly note that foreign companies that bring technology or know-how that China hasn’t developed on its own are still very much welcome in China, but the others not so much. “One in four foreign businesses are scaling back in China or say they plan to, and most say they feel increasingly unwelcome, according to a 2018 survey from the American Chamber of Commerce in China.”

The article extensively quotes Anil Gupta, professor of University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business, “who’s been researching and writing about China for 25 years” and who has this to say:

Gupta added that blatant knockoff enterprises are so common in China that it’s almost a wonder Mister Softee’s easily replicated business wasn’t copied sooner. Plus, local officials and courts are more likely to back the local knockoffs to support Chinese businesses — to hell with the permits.

“With 99 percent confidence, I would say this was destined to happen,” Gupta said of Mister Softee’s fate. “I would say that God couldn’t even save this business.”

What or who exactly killed Mister Softee. China:

After receiving one-year permits for his trucks without fail from 2007 through 2012, Mister Softee’s permits were withheld without explanation and Sparks couldn’t reach government officials for months to clear up the issue. When Sparks finally heard back from government officials in mid-2013, they told him they would figure out a way to regulate the new trucks. Nearly a year later, with Sparks still operating without a new permit, officials proposed holding a lottery to dole out Suzhou permits to Sparks and the knockoff trucks. Around that time, police started ticketing Mister Softee trucks for parking illegally in spots they’d been working for years.

By 2015, it became clear the lottery would never take place and Sparks’s new round of investment crumbled.

“Part of it was a relief, to know it was over,” Sparks told me. “You feel, obviously, helpless.”

Over the next year, he wound down the business, paid his remaining staff and sold off the trucks so some others could spread the gospel of neighborhood soft-serve to nearby cities.

In early 2016 on a Friday, Mister Softee’s tumultuous foray into China quietly ended with Sparks, his lawyer, and accountant filing liquidation papers and figuring out who they still owed money to. Sparks had already sold off the office furniture to his ice-cream cone supplier.

Ignoring for a minute whether any deity could have saved Mister Softee, was there anything it could have done to survive China? Maybe. Were a company like Mister Softee come to me today, I would likely recommend that instead of going into business in China, it seek our a licensee in China for its name and its ice-cream know how and its trucks look and feel. Indeed, my law firm a few years ago did a licensing deal on behalf of a regional American ice cream that has worked out very well for the American company. I constantly find myself trying to steer clients away from what I call “theoretical massive profits” that can allegedly be realized by going into China as a WFOE or a Joint Venture in favor of a licensing or distributing deal. See Forming a China WFOE: Needed or Not. See also my Forbes Magazine on this: Want Your Product In China? Try Using A Local Distributor.

Welcome to China 2018 people.

What are you seeing out there?

UPDATE: Literally minutes after I wrote this I received an email from a China lawyer friend who said I should have talked about how Mister Softee could have prevented “at least some of its problems” by having made its employees sign non-compete agreements. I don’t think those would have worked because China’s courts generally will not enforce those against any but high level employees and I do not think ice cream truck operators would qualify as high level employees. See

China employment lawyers

As promised in my post from last week, China Employment Contract FAQs, I am back to write about some of the most commonly asked questions we get about China employer rules and regulations with short answers to each of them. The below are the questions that we field most often when doing our China employer audits.

Question 1: I have several separate company policies that deal with different topics such as overtime, employee leaves and discipline. Do they need to be in one document called employer rules and regulations?

Yes. You need a comprehensive employer rules and regulations document that includes all your employer policies/rules. First, this is what Chinese authorities like to see. Second, the fewer documents you have, the easier it will be for your management to enforce your company polices and for your employees to learn about and follow them. Third, by including all the policies in the same document, it will be easier to search out and eliminate any potential inconsistencies. Fourth, this makes it easier for you to be sure to keep everything updated. Lastly, having all employer policies and rules in one document and then getting each of your employees to sign a receipt proving they received it will give you added protection.

Question 2: I have more than one office in China. Do I need a different set of employer rules and regulations for each of my offices?

Yes. China’s employment laws are highly localized and this means employment rules/practices can and usually do differ by city and even by district within the same city. The differences between your various rules and regulations will depend on where your offices and your employees are based. For example, if you have an office in Beijing and an office in Shanghai, you will likely have a very different set of rules and regulations for these two cities. On the other hand, if all your offices are located in Guangdong Province, you likely will have quite similar employer rules and regulations among your offices.

Question 3: I have been operating in China for a long time and I’ve never had a set of rules and regulations. Is it too late to start doing it now?

Absolutely not. Having a well-drafted set of employer rules and regulations will not solve past problems but it will certainly go a long way towards preventing future problems.

Question 4: The rules and regulations seem negative in tone. Will my employees accept them?

Your rules and regulations need to be reasonable to be enforceable in China. But so long as they are reasonable and enforceable, and you implement them according to Chinese law, your employees need to abide by them. One thing you as employer need to do is to get an acknowledgement of receipt signed by your employees proving they received a copy of your rules and regulations. Their signing that acknowledgment also means they have agreed to follow your rules and regulations. It is true that a big part of the standard China employer rules and regulations relates to employee discipline and terminations, but a well-drafted set of these rules and regulations should also provide detailed explanations regarding employee rights and benefits, which will give your employees clarity and protections. Well-written employer rules and regulations are good for both employers and employees and most China employees recognize this and they virtually always are willing to sign off. See China Employee Rules and Regulations: Use Them as a Talent Magnet.

Question 5: Can I just use a template set of rules and regulations from the Internet? 

Only if you do not care at all about preventing all sorts of future employee problems and setting yourself up for difficult and costly employee litigation. Your rules and regulations should match your specific situation, your industry, your locale, and, most importantly, your specific issues, goals, and concerns. Every employer client for whom we have drafted rules and regulations has had their own unique programs/policies/rules and the job of our China employment lawyers is to work with our clients to determine whether what they want is workable and legal for their specific situation and locale.

 

 

 

 

China employment lawyers
China employment contracts: the questions we get

With the end of the year fast approaching, our China employment lawyers have been handling an onslaught of China Employer Audits and with those audits comes an onslaught of China employment law questions. The below are some of the most commonly asked questions we get about China employment contracts with short answers to each of them.

Question 1: I have an English version of the employee agreements our parent company uses around the world. Can I put that into Chinese and send it to our China employees to sign?

Not a good idea. When it comes to China employee agreements, localization is key and I have yet to see a single non-Chinese style employment agreement that does not contain at least one thing that is completely unenforceable under Chinese law. You need a China-centric contract because that sends a strong signal to your China employees and to China’s labor authorities and arbitrators/courts that you understand how China’s employment laws work and you have made the effort to comply with those laws. Using China-centric employment contracts will greatly decrease the odds of your having China employment law problems and greatly increase the odds of your prevailing in any China employment law dispute.

Question 2: The labor authorities in my locale provided me with an employment contract template. Is it okay for us to just use that?

Not a good idea. First off, these templates are often outdated and often fail to keep up with national (and even local) law changes. Second, they completely fail to account for your specific situation and goals or for the situation of your employees. Third, they virtually always favor the employees and fail to sufficiently protect the employer.

Question 3: Our China employment contracts are just in Chinese. That’s okay, right? 

Not really. Legally, this makes complete sense in that you really do need to have all of your China employment contracts in Chinese. But if you also are going to want all of your China employment contracts to be in English as well if anyone in your company who might be making what even looks like an employment decision cannot read Chinese. We always draft our Chinese employment contracts in both Chinese and in English because that works best.

Question 4: How easy it is to terminate an already signed China employment contract?

Not easy at all. Since China does not have employment-at-will it is generally difficult to terminate an employee during his or her contract term and, contrary to popular belief, this includes employees on probation. Under Chinese law, a probation period is part of the contract term and so probationary employees are also not at-will employees. Once you bring someone on as your employee in China it is difficult to terminate them. See Terminating a China Employee: Why YOUR Rules and Regulations are Key.

Question 5: Will an open-term employment contract mean that I will not be able to terminate the employee until his or her statutory retirement age? 

Not exactly. Open-term employees have greater protections against termination than employees on fixed-term employment contracts, but they can be terminated. For example, an open-term employee can be unilaterally terminated without severance if the employer can prove that the employee engaged in serious wrongdoing in violation of the employer’s rules and regulations. But it does often make economic sense to try to work out a mutual termination even with your most troublesome employees.

Despite the issues that arise from open-term contracts, they are sometimes all but required for business reasons. We see them most often in situations where our client is intensely competing for a particularly desirable job candidate and offering this candidate an open-term contract is necessary to get him or her to work at their company.

Question 6: Does not this offer letter constitute our employment contract?

It most certainly does not. An offer letter is not an employment contract and no offer letter I have seen even comes close to including all that is necessary for a good China employment contract. We regularly take our clients’ offer letters and incorporate the relevant terms from those letter into employment contracts, but doing so always requires we get additional information from our clients for the employment contract.

Question 7: We have been using this same employment contract template for years and no employees have complained about it. Why then do I need to have you review it?

There are many benefits in our reviewing your employment contracts, especially if they were drafted years ago. The mere fact that no employees have complained about your employment contracts does not mean they do not need to be improved. Most importantly, China’s national and local employment laws and enforcement policies are constantly changing and you want your employment contracts to reflect those changes. See China Employment Law: Local and Not So Simple. Not only that, your own situation may also have changed over the years and you want your employment contracts to reflect that as well. We often review employment contracts that made sense for a company that had 20 employees in one city doing one thing and now make no sense at all for the same company with 200 employees doing ten different things in three different cities. You do not want your company to get ahead of its employment contracts.

Next week I will write about the questions we get about Employer Rules and Regulations.

China lawyer

Our China lawyers had a team meeting yesterday and as is so often the case at such meetings, much of the meeting involved our talking about what we have been seeing lately. We mostly focused on the following trends:

  1. Six months ago, we rarely worked with our firm’s international trade lawyers. Sure, we would occasionally call one of them in to help with a sticky customs issue or a client concerned about getting hit with antidumping or countervailing duties, but these days we find ourselves working with them constantly. Companies that are getting hit or will soon be hit with having to pay 25% tariffs are looking for help in figuring out how to have their Made in China products made elsewhere so that they can legally avoid having to pay the tariffs. See China Tariffs and What to do Now, Part 1 and China Tariffs and What to do Now, Part 2.
  2. Six months ago, about 90% of the international contracts we drafted involved China or the EU. That number is now nearing 60% as our existing and new clients are diversifying outside China.
  3. International litigation is on the rise. We are reading about this we are seeing it. This is happening because of the uncertainty and the disruptions stemming from the tariffs. With disruptions and uncertainty comes disputes.
  4. China is more open to foreign businesses than it has been in years. Forming a WFOE is a bit faster, cheaper and easier than it was just a few years ago, especially if your WFOE will be operating fully legally. Check out The NEW Steps for Forming a China WFOE.
  5. Chinese factories are copying and selling their foreign customers’ products faster than ever before. Almost every week we hear of a Chinese factory that sold its foreign customer’s product before or right after shipping out the foreign customer’s first order. The tariffs are causing Chinese factories to question the viability of a long-term relationship with their foreign buyers and they are simply calculating that they can make more by selling their customers’ products online themselves. In the past, our lawyers did not push back when start-up companies wanted to test their product in the marketplace before spending for a contract to protect against their Chinese manufacturer competing with them. Now though we make very clear that this a very bad idea because by the time market strength has been determined, there may no longer be a product to sell. See China Trademark Theft. It’s Baaaaaack in a Big Way, China and the First to Market Fallacy, and Protecting Your Product From China: The 101.
  6. Following the law makes sense if you are going to be doing business in China. The number of companies coming to us with big China legal problems has gone way down but the number of companies coming to us to proactively present big and small China legal problems has gone way up. This is a good thing because it means foreign companies have come to realize China has gotten both serious and effective at enforcing its laws as against foreigners. See Doing Business in China Without a WFOE: Will the Defendant Please Rise for a good example of where China has really cracked down against foreign companies and see China Employer Audits: The FAQs for a good example of the sort of thing foreign companies are doing in China to avoid future legal problems.

What are you seeing out there?

the risks of doing business in China

As China governmental power continues to expand and continues to get more concerned about its slowing economy and how it is viewed by its citizens, it continues to get tough on foreign businesses. China is right now in one of its perpetual crackdowns on foreign companies doing business in China. This makes now a good time for foreign companies doing business in China or with China to determine their China risks. The following ten sets of questions are a good starting point for making that calculation.

1. How does the Chinese government view your industry? If your China business is in an industry in which foreigners are restricted (such as mining or publishing or education) or one in which China’s citizenry has major concerns (food and medicine are classic examples), your risk is likely to be high. If your China business is in an industry that requires you joint venture with a Chinese entity, your risk is also high. If your business is in an industry the Chinese government views as its own province, such as SAAS, cloud computing, the internet, or telecom, your risk is high. On the flip side, there are certain businesses (like the Internet of Things or IoT) China wants to encourage and so if your business comes within that sort of category, your risks will be reduced.

2. Are you in an industry the Chinese people consider to be their government’s responsibility, such as health care or education or environmental protection or food? A number of companies in these areas have been subject to government scrutiny for activities that probably would have been ignored in other industries.

3. Is your company primarily making money from China or spending money in China? If it is the former, you are at increased risk. Does your company have 20 foreign employees for every one Chinese employee? Your risk is high. Does your company have 300 Chinese employees for every one foreign employee? Your risk just went down.

4. Is your company based in the United States or exporting products to the United States? Your risk just went up. China is not particularly happy with the United States right now thanks to the US-China trade war. Equally important, you now need to make sure that any products you send to the United States truly come from the country from which you say they come. United States custom is checking almost everything coming from Asia these days and failing to properly label the products you are sending to the United States can bring huge penalties and jail time. See China Tariffs and What to do Now, Part 1 and China Tariffs and What to do Now, Part 2. See also China or Vietnam for Product Sourcing?

5. Are your China contracts written in Chinese for China? If so, your risks are lower. Or are you using English language template contracts written for a Western legal system (like the United States, Canada, Australia, or the EU)? If so, your risks are higher. See China Contracts: Make Them Enforceable Or Don’t Bother.

6. Do you know what your Chinese staff are doing? Chinese staff often fail to realize foreign companies are treated considerably differently in China than domestic companies, and they fail to act accordingly. Your Chinese staff will usually want to do things the “China way,” but the Chinese government and courts will be judged against the “foreign standard.” See China Compliance: Don’t Rely On Your China Staff. Do you think you can do whatever your Chinese competitors are doing? Your risk just went up. Do you believe that as a foreign company you will be more closely scrutinized and that the laws will be likely be enforced against you? Your risk just went down.

7. Are your China employment contracts and your employer rules and regulations in both Chinese and in English? If you answered yes, good for you; you have lowered your risks. See The Top Six Warning Signs of Impending China Employee Problems. Do you constantly update and audit your employment documents and procedures to make sure you are complying with all national and local employment laws and regulations? If so, you’ve greatly lowered your risks.

8. What have you done to protect your intellectual property from being lost in and to China? If you have the right contracts and the right IP registrations, you have reduced your risks. If you do not, you have increased your risks. See Protect Your IP from China Now not Later. Do you sometimes show your trade secrets to a Chinese company without first making the Chinese company sign a China-specific NNN Agreement? If you do, your IP is probably already gone.

9. What is the culture of your China business? If you are relying on “strategic” relationships to work around the letter or the intent of China’s laws, you are at greater risk. If you do not know well those with whom you are doing business, you are at greater risk. If things are happening that make you uncomfortable, you are at greater risk. If you believe things are happening at your company behind your back, you are at greater risk. If you know your company did not pay every RMB it should have paid in China taxes, you are at great risk. See China Tax Audits: The Day The Music Died.

10. Are you doing business in China without a Chinese legal entity, such as a WFOE, a Joint Venture or even a Representative Office? If you are, you are so off the charts on risk that you and your other personnel should leave China today or tomorrow. See Doing Business in China Without a WFOE: Will the Defendant Please Rise.

China’s government is surprisingly tolerant of problems a foreign company has already fixed, and even of problems a foreign company is truly trying to fix. But the Chinese government rarely tolerates a problem it discovers and about which the foreign company has done nothing. If you check out clean for the above list, congratulations. But if you do not, start making changes now.

China employment lawyer

We have done a ton of China employer audits this year and from those our China employment lawyers have compiled the following list of the top six “warning signs” of impending employment problems.

1. All or some of your employment documents are in English only. If your employment documents are in English, you are handing your employees with a valid defense for not abiding by them. Nearly all Chinese courts and arbitrators will either refuse to enforce such contracts and documents or just rule in the employee’s favor. Equally bad is that anyone who believed that having their China employment documents in just English has no clue about Chinese employment law and the documents (in English) reflect this. You are almost certainly not going to be able to enforce your English language employment documents and yet your employees will be able to sue you for what you put in them, including any provisions that violate Chinese law. Your only real remedy is compliant documents with the English and the Chinese in one document.

2. All or some of your employment documents are in Chinese only. This one is very common and almost always a big mistake. I hate to sound like a broken record (actually I don’t) but you need your employment contracts and agreements to be in both English and Chinese and these two languages should be drafted together in each document, not as separate documents. You need these contracts in both Chinese and in English unless ALL of your relevant higher level employees (typically your HR personnel and management or anyone else who will be overseeing your employees in China) can read and understand written Chinese perfectly. Separate documents can lead to all sorts of problems. For example, when one version gets updated or amended and the other version does not (trust me when I say this happens all the time) you have a problem. Having separate documents also creates headaches for your HR people in terms of document retention. Much of the time when we see the employment documents in just Chinese they were drafted by a “trusted” Chinese employee not an HR expert and this usually means they fail to comply with either the national or the local employment laws AND they favor the employees. This situation also commonly leads management (especially out of the home office) to make employee decisions that run counter to what their own documents say simply because they do not know what their documents say. Again, your only real remedy is compliant documents with the Chinese and English versions in one document.

3. You get a lot of employee questions regarding your employment document or your employment policies. For example, your company recently implemented a new leave of absence policy and many employees are asking whether they are eligible and what they need to provide if they want to apply for the leave. This does not necessarily mean the relevant document is unworkable or even that the provision needs a re-writing. But it usually means you should at least consider making the document that is generating so many questions more clear. Similarly, if your employees are frequently contacting you with questions not addressed in your documents, you likely should put the answers in your employer rules and regulations or your employment contracts.

4. Your employer documents were implemented years ago. China’s national and especially its local employment laws and rules are constantly changing. On top of this, local interpretations and enforcement policies are constantly changing as well. See China Employment Law: Local and Not So Simple. Just last week, one of our China attorneys got an email from a reader thanking us for our employment law blog posts and for our China employment law book and saying that his new China WFOE had used those to draft all of its employment documents. Our lawyer wrote back with the following:

Using our blog posts and our book to draft your employment documents is a huge mistake. These are meant to give you general information and general guidelines but much of what we write becomes outdated soon after we write it and much of it will not apply to your specific locale or your specific industry or your specific situation. You need real employment law help and fast.

You should have someone who truly understands Chinese national and local employment laws review your employer rules and regulations at least once a year and, ideally, audit your entire HR program at the same time.

5. Your China office(s) has undergone or will be going through a significant change (such as a merger or an exit of key personnel). Your employment documents need to fit your existing situation, not what it was a week ago when you were half or twice your size. Your solution is to be sure to stay current.

6. Some or all your employment agreements are not signed or chopped. Check now to make sure all of your employees have signed your latest version employment contracts and written acknowledgments confirming receipt of your latest version employer rules and regulations. If this is not the case, your remedy should be clear and immediate. Do what it takes to update what you need to update and get signed what you need to have signed.

Bottom Line: If you see your company in the above, get moving. Now.

China trademark lawyers

About a year ago, American Lawyer Magazine did an article, That Law Firm’s Website Might Not Be for a Real Law Firm on “a new white paper [that] examines a growing trend of fraudsters posing as attorneys or legal consultants online to exploit those seeking legal services.”  When it comes to China and Southeast Asia, that “growing trend” has reached epidemic proportions.

I say this because in the last year my law firm’s China lawyers have seen at least a five-fold increase in the number of instances in which American and European companies have been ripped off and greatly harmed by fraudsters who advertise their “China legal services” on the internet, usually with Google paid ads.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about the sites that charge $99 (or whatever) for template China contracts that are worth less than nothing. These companies provide a joke of a product but they at least provide what they say they are going to provide. For more on that, check out. China Contract Templates for $99 Each. As far as I know, these companies do not flat out steal your money but they oftentimes can be just as dangerous. These companies lead their clients to believe they are communicating with lawyers when in fact they are not. This means there is no attorney-client privilege and the odds of whoever does your legal work knowing your situation and your goals and having the capability to draft a cross-border document or file your trademark in the right category or form your company correctly are slim.

No, I am talking about flat-out criminals and fraudsters who will take your money and claim that they did what they were paid to do and then not provide you with any services whatsoever.

And again, just to be clear, I am not aware of a single instance where a legitimately licensed lawyer from any country has done this. No Chinese lawyers. No U.S. lawyers. No lawyers from any country. As far as I can tell those engaging in these schemes are not lawyers at all, though they often claim to be.

We first wrote about fake China lawyers more than a decade ago, in China: Where Even The “Law Firms” Are Fake. That post  was on fake Chinese lawyers taking money for never-filed trademark registrations:

There are those who take money to file trademarks in China and then simply run away. A new client told me he had sent about $750 to what he thought was a legitimate China law firm to have his company’s brand name registered. As soon as the first $750 hit Shanghai, he was asked to send an additional $600 to “cover the filing fees,” which he did.

A week later the website was down and the Shanghai “firm” was gone.

It turns out this scam is actually pretty common and it also turns out that in every case of which I am aware the scammers were neither licensed Chinese lawyers nor licensed Chinese trademark agents. In other words, they are just people who run China trademark registration scams.

It has continually gotten worse since then and as foreign companies move from China to other countries in Asia (Vietnam, the Philipines, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, etc.) these scammers are moving as well.  I have heard multiple accounts of foreign companies that paid for trademarks or employment contracts or manufacturing contracts  or company registrations or various other things lawyers typically do for their clients, only to receive nothing in return and only to learn that the “law firm” or the “lawyer” they paid for their legal work never even existed. How many foreign companies believe their trademarks are registered in China or in Vietnam or wherever when in fact they never were? How many think they have registered companies in China or in Vietnam or wherever when they don’t? I don’t know the numbers, but I do know that the number of these fake law firms is on a rapid rise.

It is not that hard to avoid these sort of scams. Do some due diligence before you pay/hire a lawyer, especially if you will be paying upfront for something like a China trademark or a China WFOE where it may take you years to realize you were scammed. There are fast and easy steps you can take to confirm that your lawyers actually have a law license. Every U.S. state lists its licensed practitioners online in its Bar Director and most countries have something similar. Check to see how long they claim to have been in business as compared to how long they have had their website. One fake China attorney claimed to have more than 20 years experience but his website appears to have been online for a total of only 5 months. Read as much as you can online about the lawyer or the law firm you will be hiring. If you are looking to hire an international lawyer or law firm and you have a local lawyer, enlist that lawyer to conduct the due diligence on your behalf. See China Partner Due Diligence for some of the most basic things you can and should be doing before entering into any transaction.

Don’t let yourself be the next victim. Please!

China trademark registrationLast week, the Foshan Intermediate People’s Court awarded RMB 10 million (nearly $1.5 million) in damages to the well-known British luxury goods brand Alfred Dunhill, finding Chinese copycat brand Danhuoli liable for trademark infringement and unfair competition.

The press coverage (which apparently took its cue from the PR release) trumpeted the size of the award and the groundbreaking nature of the victory. To an observer unfamiliar with China trademark practice, both of these claims might seem odd in that the infringement was obvious, outrageous, and longstanding. The infringing company selected a name (“Danhuoli”) similar to Dunhill and then mimicked the elongated vertical lines and lower-case lettering of the Dunhill logo to create a copycat brand identity. And they were apparently successful at it, with more than 200 low-budget clothing stores (franchises, according to the South China Morning Post) in more than 61 cities across China. And just in case there was any doubt about their intent, the infringing company also created a Hong Kong parent company called Dunhill Group.

In the U.S. this kind of nonsense would last about as long as it took to file a TRO, but in China the road to enforcing trademark rights is long and frustrating. Chinese judges are reluctant to find trademark infringement unless the marks are identical, and even then it’s not guaranteed. Chinese judges are also reluctant to award high monetary damages because of the speculative nature of anything that can’t be proven with written evidence. So Dunhill is absolutely justified in feeling vindicated by the verdict.

But a landmark? I beg to differ. A landmark verdict is one that signals a change in the way cases are being decided. But this decision is no landmark, or if it is, it is too early to tell. Nor does this decision show that China is really serious about enforcing IP rights, because this decision is still the exception, not the rule. Check back in a year and let me know if every other decision since this one followed the same logic and came out in favor of the trademark owner.

Still, one detail about the Dunhill decision bears repeating: both companies had registered trademarks, but Dunhill’s was registered first (by decades). That fact alone signifies that Dunhill has had an active and forward-thinking trademark strategy for years. And they would never have emerged victorious in the latest dispute without superior trademark rights. See 8 Reasons to Register Your Trademarks in China.

A quick search of the CTMO database reveals that Danhuoli, whose entire business model is based on ripping off Dunhill’s trademark, is itself the subject of trademark squatting. It seems karmically appropriate.

China contract lawyerOne of the things I love about my work is the different sort of clients we get. Some of our clients care little to not at all about the rationale behind what we as lawyers do. Other of our clients prefer an explanation for everything. The other day, one of our China lawyers cc’ed me on an email she sent to a client who wanted to know more about the contract damages provisions (a/k/a liquidated damages) we had put into a number of contracts we had just drafted for this client. I am running that e-mail below (modified slightly) because it is relevant to most China contracts and therefore relevant for just about anyone doing business with China or doing business in China.

The PRC Supreme Court has ruled that contract damages are always subject to being adjusted to actual damages. Adjustment can be up or down, based on the facts. That is why we never provide for a contract damage amount that is high. We always draft  our contract damage provisions to comply strictly with the actual and foreseeable damages standard.

For the following reasons, we nearly always provide for contract damages (subject, of course, to the Chinese company on the other side going along with them):

1). Injunctive relief is extremely difficult to get in China.

2. One of the best ways to stop a Chinese company from infringing on your intellectual property rights (IPR) is with a prejudgment writ of attachment. But to to get that you need a reasonable standard for the amount of damage that will set the amount of the writ. Contract damages provides that reasonable standard. Though it may be adjusted later we draft them very carefully and conservatively and clearly so that is likely not to happen. The amount we specify in our contract damages provisions is both clear and fair and because of that it serves as a good basis for a prejudgment write of attachment motion.

3. Under PRC Supreme Court interpretations, contract damages is not a replacement for actual damages as proved at trial or as the basis for a final judgment. This renders the contract damages provision weak, but it does not render it meaningless because it provides the basis for the court decision on the damage amount. If the contract damage provision is reasonable and is based on a specific method of calculation that is ultimately based on an external fact (how many infringing items sold and their value), then it will be very unusual for a defendant to be able to convince a court to reduce the amount. On the other hand, if the contract damages is based on nothing or is clearly a penalty amount, the court will simply ignore it. When a court ignores the contract damages amount set forth in your contract, your having had such a provision does you more harm than good. See China Contract Damages: More Art Than Science.

For more on the benefits of contract damages provisions and how to draft such provisions, check out the following: