International Law

My firm’s clients often ask how their contracts with Chinese companies should be signed and/or chopped (affixed with the company seal). We typically respond with something like the following:

Each Chinese company has only one “legal representative” (a term of art under Chinese law), who is identified as such on the company’s business license. Any agreement signed by a Chinese company’s legal representative is binding on the company, whether or not a chop is affixed. However, to enforce a contract that is not chopped, you must prove that the signature on the contract really belongs to the Chinese company’s legal representative. Therefore, if you can get the contract chopped, you should.

Larger Chinese companies often do not have their legal representative sign their contracts. In this situation, you need to be particularly vigilant about securing a proper chop.

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A great many of our most polarizing political discussions involve deciding what we should be able to sell. Pot legalization, for instance, is oftentimes framed as a debate over whether we should be able to smoke marijuana cigarettes at our leisure. But that debate’s over. It’s been won by the High Times crowd a thousand times over, no matter how many times a kid gets popped on a possession rap. No, the schism involves the sale of weed. The business of it. News articles about Colorado are less interested in doofuses smoking pot and more interested in the brave, new world of pot dispensaries. The business of America is business and all that.

This weekend brought news of a burgeoning overseas market in human organs. And gay eyeballs. If you can’t see the connection, allow me…

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With the media recently paying so much attention to foreign (read American and British) businesspeople getting in trouble in China, my firm’s China lawyers have been getting a large number of calls lately from worried Americans based in China. These callers are asking the following kinds of questions, and we are giving the following kinds of short answers (needless to say, our long answers are much more nuanced):

1.  Should I leave China? Not unless you or your company have violated Chinese law in such a way that you are at risk for going to jail. Let’s talk about whether or not that is the case…

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China joint ventures are notorious for their high failure rate. An old Chinese saying that is often applied to joint ventures is “same bed, different dreams.”[1] Far too often, American companies and Chinese companies rush into joint ventures without ever discussing their respective dreams.

Many years ago, a client about to fly to China to meet with a potential Chinese joint venture partner asked for my help. I compiled a list of issues to raise at that meeting, and have provided a similar list (honed a bit more each time) to subsequent clients facing the same situation. The goal of raising these issues is to determine whether the two companies share the same dreams, and whether the Chinese company is JV worthy. Currently, this list includes the following questions:

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Is cruelty-free makeup legal in China? Nope!

Many years ago, an American credit reporting company called seeking help with forming a subsidiary in China. This company told me of their extensive and expensive market research demonstrating that China had a tremendous pent-up demand for their credit reporting services. As I listened, I kept thinking that unless the law had changed recently, foreign companies were prohibited from engaging in such business without a Chinese joint venture partner.

So I asked politely if anyone had determined whether their planned business would be legal in China. They paused and said they had not, and I suggested that we do so straightaway. After ten minutes of research, I reported back that credit reporting was barred to foreign entities seeking to go it alone. This company never went into China.

Flash forward to the present. Organic, cruelty-free cosmetics have become big business, including in China, where many who can afford such things would not be caught dead putting made-in-China products on their skin. American cruelty-free cosmetic companies are being contacted in droves by Chinese companies seeking importation and distribution deals…

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Rule number one for succeeding at doing business in China is to have a good partner. The odds of having problems with a Chinese company are much lower when you deal with a “legitimate” Chinese company. That means rule number two is making sure that you are dealing with a legitimate Chinese company.

But how do you do that? How do you distinguish between a Chinese company that is legitimate and one that is not?

The following are the basics for making that determination…

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The traditional arguments against going to law school are: (1) there are too many lawyers and not enough jobs; (2) tuition and student loan debts are too damn high; (3) the high-paying or high-powered jobs are available only to the top students of the top schools; and (4) most “JD Advantage” jobs could have been obtained without a law degree.

The typical response to the above is something along the lines of, “That won’t apply to be because I’m going to put in the work and be one of the top students.” Now those of us who lived through law school might find this amusing and even ridiculous. But we can’t really blame them for their determination. We were their age once. Back then, the world was a playground and full of opportunities. If 0Ls today know all of the risks and can obtain a decent scholarship at least for the 1L year, then they should take a shot and see where they fall on the bell curve.

Today, I am going to talk about a few issues regarding law school and law practice that have not been discussed (at least extensively) amongst the law school critics. The issues apply to most students (even the top students) of almost every law school….

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I recently spoke with a reporter who asked me why our clients that had chosen to locate in Vietnam had chosen Vietnam over China. I mentioned lower costs, less competition, and how some had told me that it was because they just flat out preferred spending time in Vietnam to China. He then said, “But it must be strictly the low costs in the end, right?” I said that could not be the case because if companies were choosing their locations on low costs alone, countries like Yemen and Niger would be on the top of their lists, rather than nowhere on them.

We are always getting asked why our law firm has its lead China lawyer and an office in Qingdao — we also have an office in Beijing, but nobody ever asks us why there. The answer is actually quite simple, particularly when compared to the high-level analysis many companies employ in making their location decisions. Steve is in Qingdao because we have had an excellent relationship with Qingdao’s biggest (and I think best) law firm for nearly a decade, and that firm was instrumental in helping us establish ourselves in China. But probably the driving factor in our choosing to locate in Qingdao is that Steve loves the place and loves that he can easily afford to live in a luxury apartment with twelve-foot-high windows overlooking the East China Sea at about half the price (and the pollution) of Shanghai or Beijing. The fact that at least 80 percent of our China work is 2-3 hours from Qingdao by plane only adds to its attraction. Steve is completely fluent in Chinese (as is our other attorney stationed there), and so Qingdao’s small expat community and dearth of people who speak English is no deterrent…

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For every 100 Wholly Foreign Owned Entities (WFOEs) and Joint Ventures (combined) my firm helps set up in China, it only sets up one Representative Office. Why so few, when Rep Offices are the easiest entity for foreigners to form in China? Because their inherent limitations mean they seldom make sense.

Representative Offices are aptly named — they are the China representative of the foreign company. A Rep Office is not considered a separate legal entity in China, and it is limited by law to performing “liaison” activities. It cannot sign contracts or bill customers. It cannot supply parts or perform after-sales services for a fee. It cannot earn any money in China or take any payments from a Chinese person or business for any reason.

Rep Offices are pretty much limited to engaging in the following…

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American companies make a lot of mistakes in China. And even when they don’t make mistakes, they get frustrated.

I view both of these results as healthy, because mistakes and frustration are par for the course in China, and the sooner companies realize that the better. That said, they could avoid at least some of their heartbreak by following these five principles…

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