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Structuring Investments in China

By Maarten Roos, Tony Lu & Robin Tabbers
Posted: 17th December 2012 09:05
Continued uncertainty in Europe and the US is leading more international companies to expand activities in China, both in terms of sourcing, and – increasingly – by selling directly on the Chinese market. 
The key question to this new boost of investment is how to optimally structure an investment into China, which we hereby divide in two main components: Choosing the optimal legal structure to invest in China, and (in the second part of this article) establishing a corporate governance system to allow the investor to control the business. 
Representative Office, Consultancy WFOE or Trading WFOE?

Balancing investment and costs when establishing a presence in China
Several structures are available to an international business that invests in China.  For those businesses that want to partner with a local company, there is the Chinese-Foreign Joint Venture (JV).   The JV allows an investor to share risks, and take advantage of the local partner’s local resources.  It is also the only vehicle allowed in certain restricted industries such as car manufacturing and recruitment.  However, the track-record of JV’s in China is mediocre at best.  As a result, most companies prefer to choose a structure that allows them to fully control operations:
(A)   The Representative Office (RO);
(B)   The Wholly Foreign-Owned Enterprise in consultancy services (Consultancy WFOE); or
(C)   The Wholly Foreign-Owned Enterprise in trading (Trading WFOE). 
A.      Representative Office(RO)
This vehicle is meant for companies that only make a limited (capital) commitment, with a need for people on the ground to conduct market research, quality control activities and liaison with (new) suppliers.  The RO’s main disadvantage is that it cannot directly engage in business activities – it is not permitted to invoice (in China or abroad) for goods or services.  Moreover recent regulations have expanded the already complex procedures, and made the RO much more expensive from a tax perspective.  As a result, few RO’s are being established these days, and many investors with existing RO's have turned to the Consultancy WFOE or the Trading WFOE as an alternative structure.
As opposed to the RO, the WFOE is a full-owned, independent legal entity or limited company owned entirely by its foreign investor.  This structure is straightforward to establish, convenient to operate and relatively easy to control – as long as the right systems of checks and balances are in place.  The key issue when establishing a WFOE is to determine what kind of business activities it will engage in.  This determines what type of WFOE should be established.
B.      A Consultancy WFOE
To replace the RO function, it may be sufficient to establish a Consultancy WFOE since this company can provide the same activities as the RO, such as marketing, liaison and QC functions to headquarters or to third parties in China and abroad, with much less restrictions than the RO and subject to more flexible fiscal policies.  In addition, the WFOE can retain employees directly, which has advantages in terms of lower service fees, better protection against claims and control of IP and confidential information. 
Meanwhile, the sale and purchase of goods remains directly between the investor and the Chinese suppliers, customers or distributors in China - so there is no impact on the existing trade flows.  The WFOE Consultancy merely provides added-value services to the investor, and can invoice these services on a cost-plus basis.  This has substantial tax benefits compared to the RO.  While this structure requires a small investment, it can lead to costs savings especially when the business is growing.   
C.      Trading WFOE
To have a better grip on the market, foreign companies that source from or sell to China can consider going one step further: establishing a local trading company.  A Trading WFOE can import and export, purchase and sell domestically.  It allows for a more direct relationship with domestic suppliers and customers (including foreign customers), the possibility of warehousing in China, and the opportunity to buy Chinese goods and sell them directly to Chinese customers (and issue a local invoice fapiao) without exporting these goods first, thereby avoiding transportation costs and customs duties.
The Trading WFOE is more complicated to establish than the Consultancy WFOE, and generally requires a slightly larger investment.  Thus investors that want to start slow to support their existing sales or sourcing activities often choose to establish a Consultancy WFOE first.  Once the business is big enough and local invoicing is required, they can then expand the business scope to include trading as well.
(1)    Establishing a Corporate Governance System: The Legal Representative

Balancing Smooth Operations with Shareholder Control
To have sufficient control over the business in China, international companies must understand the Chinese system of corporate governance, appoint the right people in relevant positions, and ensure that documentation is in place to counter or respond to any abuse.  One of the key figures in this system is the legal representative, and its appointment and the practical steps to restrict its authority, is an important challenge.
Every Chinese limited company - whether Chinese-invested, solely invested by one or more foreign shareholders (i.e. WFOE) or jointly invested by foreign and Chinese shareholders (the Chinese-foreign joint venture), has a Board of Directors or one Executive Director, who represents the investors in the most important decisions.  However to represent the company to third parties such as government departments, business partners and employees, the investor(s) or the Board of Directors must appoint one person as the legal representative.
Chinese law sets some conditions to the appointment of the legal representative, including:
  • this person must be a natural person;
  • only one person can take this position (i.e. it cannot be shared);
  • this person must also be either the company's general manager, the chairman of its Board of Directors, or its Executive Director.
There are no rules on the nationality of this person, nor does the law establish whether this person is actively involved in the business, resides or visits China on a regular basis.  Thus investors should avoid being led by a local manager who says that only he can be the legal representative.
Key Considerations on Appointment
Many investors grapple with the choice of appointing as legal representative the manager in charge of the Chinese business, or choosing someone from headquarters.  Some investors prefer to completely empower their local (general) manager, however this results in considerable risks.  When leaving the local manager with legal as well as physical control, it is extremely difficult for the shareholders to forcefully remove him from his position. 
The safer approach is to appoint someone from headquarters as the legal representative, thereby separating legal and physical powers.  Legal authority can be delegated (in writing) to the local manager in China through the signing of an authorisation document.  Meanwhile, physical control is either fully or partially delegated to the local manager by effectively using China's system of company stamps.  In Chinese practice, the Company Stamp (which is registered with local police) is even more effective than the legal representative's signature in representing the company, and so physical control over commercial decisions lies with the party that controls this Company Stamp.  Usually it is either controlled directly by the local manager (giving him the power to represent the company in practice), or by a Chinese proxy of the legal representative (e.g. a local law firm or accounting firm) for use at the manager's detailed request and subject to confirmation from the shareholder or legal representative. 
A similar system can be established if investors prefer a strong system of financial supervision and/or control.  Usually the financial stamp and the legal representative stamp together give access to the company's bank account - either one can be kept by a proxy to avoid abuse.  Internet banking is also widely available in China, and can be controlled directly by the investor or through the proxy as well.
Mr. Maarten Roos is the founder and Managing Director of R&P China Lawyers.  He advises and represents European and American companies with business interests in China, focusing on foreign investment projects, commercial transactions, intellectual property rights protection and dispute resolution.  Maarten has worked in the industry for over a decade and since 2008 has each year been voted among Asialaw’s Leading Lawyers in China for general corporate and dispute resolution (and corporate governance in 2012).  He also authored one of the most popular books on Chinese law, “Chinese Commercial Law: A Practical Guide” (Kluwer Law, 2010).
Maarten Roos can be contacted by phone on +86 21 61738270 or alternatively via email
Mr. Lu “Tony” Zhenbin was educated in law both in China and the United Kingdom (LLM), and has worked as a litigator since 2001 for several large Shanghai law firms including Albright Law Office and Deheng Shanghai office, and as in-house litigation counsel for a Fortune 500 company.  Mr. Lu is head of R&P’s dispute resolution practice, covering commercial litigation, IP counterfeiting & enforcement, administrative & criminal cases, employment arbitration & litigation, and customs issues.  He also represents foreign clients before the CIETAC in Shanghai and Beijing, and the Hong Kong Arbitration Centre.  Major clients include multinationals and SME’s in healthcare, automotive and general manufacturing.
Lu Zhenbin can be contacted by phone on +86 21 61738270 or alternatively via email
Mr. Robin Tabbers was educated at Tilburg University with a LL.M. degree in International Business Law, and worked at Baker & McKenzie before joining R&P China Lawyers.  He advises European and US clients with business activities all over in China.  Mr. Tabbers has experience in the field of M&A, as well as general corporate and commercial issues.  Together with R&P's employment and dispute resolution teams he advises clients on the best strategy to resolve their disputes with employees and third parties.
Robin Tabbers can be contacted by phone on +86 136 416 05 259 or alternatively via email

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