The Power of Well-Crafted China Contracts

The Power of Well-Crafted China Contracts

In The High Cost of China Contract Mistakes, I discussed the importance of having the right person craft your China contracts. I am often asked (usually right after I quote our fee) whether a China contract I am proposing to write “is even enforceable in China.” I always give the same answer, which is more or less the following.

The Three Pillars of Effective China Contracts

There are three reasons why it makes sense to have a contract with your Chinese counterparty, and only one of those reasons is enforceability in court. The other two deal with more mundane but extremely important issues.

1. Clarity: The Beacon of Successful Deals

The first is to achieve clarity. The worst business deals fail for lack of clarity, which leads to a lot of finger pointing as the deal starts to unravel. Handshake deals are bad for so many reasons, but the primary reason to have a good China contract is to make sure you and the Chinese company are on the same page.

For example, if you ask your Chinese supplier if it can get you your product in 30 days, it will say “yes” pretty much every time. But if you put in your contract that the product needs to ship in 30 days and for every day it is late, the Chinese company must pay you 2% of the value of the order, there is a great chance the Chinese company will get honest with you and tell you that 30 days is impossible. At that point, you and the Chinese company can figure out what is realistic and then you know what to expect, realistically, going forward.

Too many times recently I have been reviewing Chinese contract disputes involving a poorly written contract or no written contract at all. Both sides are certain they remember conversations and swear the other side knew exactly what was expected of them. Clarity before you start the relationship. It is more important than you think. Chinese words matter. English words matter. Google translate can only get you so far.

2. Constraint: The Force Behind Compliance

The second benefit of having a clearly written contract with your Chinese counterparty is that it will likely bring that company back to the table for whatever kind of conversation you need to have to ensure they comply with the terms of your contract. Just having a well written contract that the Chinese side believes is enforceable means it knows exactly what it must do to comply.

Let’s use the 30-day example as the example here as well. If your Chinese manufacturer makes widgets for 25 foreign companies and five of those foreign companies have China-specific contracts with clear time deadlines and a clear and enforceable liquidated damages provision, and the Chinese company starts falling behind on production, to which companies will the Chinese manufacturer give production priority? Of course, it will put the five companies with a good contract at the front of the line because they can clearly read in Chinese their damages per day or per week for failing to fulfill your order.

During COVID’s PPE sprint, buyers could not dictate terms because it was a seller’s market. The market dynamics have swung back to center, and in many industries they now favor product buyers. Take every opportunity to introduce liquidated damages into your China contracts so your orders get filled ahead of everyone else’s.

3. Enforceability: The Backbone of Trust

The World Bank ranks China fifth in the world in contract enforcement. Though this ranking is suspect because the CCP was bribing World Bank officials to improve China’s scores, China’s courts are generally good (not great!) at enforcing  commercial contracts.

And that is a lot of the point. If your Chinese counterparty believes your contract will be enforced or even if it just believes it may be enforced, it is a lot less likely to breach it and risk being sued and losing.

Conclusion: The Art of Crafting China Contracts

Contracts are more than mere legal documents; they are the lifeblood of successful relationships, particularly when conducting business internationally. Crafting contracts tailored for the Chinese business landscape is an art, and it serves three pivotal purposes.

Clarity is the beacon guiding both parties, illuminating expectations and preventing misunderstandings. In the absence of clarity, even the most promising deals can falter.

Constraint acts as the force behind compliance, ensuring that your Chinese counterparts prioritize the commitments they make to you. It positions you at the front of the line, especially in dynamic markets where priorities shift.

Enforceability, the backbone of trust, adds weight to your agreements. Contracts that are enforceable are key to convincing your Chinese counterparty that it will be better off abiding by your contract than breaching it.

So, are China contracts worth doing? Absolutely, but only if they are done right.