China Customs Problem? Keep Your Mouth Shut!

One of my law firm’s international trade lawyers recently got an email from a company that was having a problem with one of its employees. This employee had left the company and at that moment the company realized it should have made this employee sign various trade secret agreements long ago. They came to us for help and we essentially told them that they had left the barn door open and the horse had sprung free and now about all we could do was try to get the horse back by using a lot of sugar. We didn’t really use such a stupid farm analogy, but you get the point.

At the end of their email, they mentioned they were also being investigated by China customs. To which we told them they needed to immediately retain experienced professionals to assist them. I then regaled them with horror stories of companies that had come to us after having cooperated with Chinese customs, only to have Chinese customs “turn” on them and threaten them with criminal actions, after having seen their documents. I stressed they should treat any China customs investigation as a criminal investigation and act accordingly. They assured me that they would. I told them not to reveal anything to China customs as “anything can and would be used against them.” They assured me they would act accordingly.

Just got an email from them saying they had spoken with China customs about their problems and they were “confident” everything will work out just fine. My response was somewhat along the lines of how I had just thrown a lit match into a can of gasoline but everything would be fine. Well, I didn’t really use such a stupid car analogy, but you get the point. Anyway, I cannot reveal more because the matter is still ongoing, but I am a lot less optimistic than they are about how it will all get resolved. Maybe the gas can won’t explode.

The truth is that no matter how warm and fuzzy you want to get with China customs, they have no desire to get all warm and fuzzy with you. Their goal is to fine you as much as they can and then maybe toss you in jail for good measure. Their goal is to make their quotas and YOU are their quota — not kidding. Think of them as traffic cops whose bonuses are directly tied to the money they collect and whose largest bonuses come from jail time.

If China customs comes gunning for you, seek help and fast. Why the weird picture of Kim Jung Un? Two reasons. One, Kim Jung Un looks so warm and fuzzy but he isn’t. Two, I just figured I needed to do something/anything out of the ordinary to get people to listen on this point.

UPDATE: I waited many years to write this so nobody would know any identities, but this company ended up having to call us in for help, and just as we feared, they had revealed things in a way we as lawyers would never have done and they were going to be hit with a massive fine. We did a lot of explaining to China customs and in the end we were able to talk them down to an amount likely about halfway between what we could have accomplished if this company had brought us on earlier and the amount China customs originally demanded of them. Our magic was simply knowing the law and the facts and combining them in such a way as to convince China customs that what our client had done was not as bad as China customs originally believed — in other words, garden-variety lawyering.

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