Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Choice of Law and Contracts in China

Disputes happen. It certainly happens to foreign companies doing business in China. The multinational company Danone is in a huge one now.

I think it is safe to say that conflicts and disputes are unavoidable in doing business in a foreign country, but one can control the risks involved and minimize the damages thereunder. Choice of law in contracts with foreign parties can be of strategic importance if and when disputes arise in commercial activities.

Article 126 of the Contract Law of China governs foreign-related contracts. It provides that “parties to a foreign related contract may choose the applicable law for the resolution of their disputes, unless the law provides otherwise.” As it is clear from the contract code itself, the contracting parties' express provision on choice of law will be enforceable in case of a dispute later. Whether to choose Chinese law, the law of your own residing jurisdiction, or a neutral third jurisdiction is a difficult decision. The best thing to do is to get competent counsel who understands, comprehensively, the laws and regulations of all the three possible jurisdictions. Only upon a careful examination of all the applicable laws of the various possibilities can one make an educated choice.

The Contract Law of China also contemplates that if the parties fail to expressly state in the contract the choice of law, the disputes between the parties shall be governed by law of the country with the closest connection (nexus) to the contract. Simple it might seem, but the two words “closest connection” have generated voluminous commentaries among contract law and international law scholars. Some suggest that the connection is one that should be assessed in terms of both the quantity and quality of the connections, while other suggest that the presiding judge over the case should have wide discretion to determine by weighing the interest of the parties involved. Still others argue that the contracting parties’ intent warrants some consideration in determining what law governs. My two cents worth on this is that if the scholars cannot figure it out over years of research, the contracting parties REALLY need to expressly provide the choice of law clause for their own good.

Not all contracts in China can be governed by laws selected by the parties. According to the Contract Law, the following three types of contracts shall be governed by the law of P. R. China:

Chinese-foreign joint equity venture contracts to be performed in China
Chinese-foreign cooperative joint venture contracts to be performed in China
Chinese-foreign contracts for joint exploration and development of natural resources in China

If you really do not want a piece of the Chinese law over your contract, consider structuring your business deals around the contract law by avoiding forming a joint venture in China. But a deal, as I understand, is often more complicated than that.

For more on Chinese Contract Law, check out my earlier posts.

Freedom of Contract in China: Not So Fast Yet

Freedom of Contract in China: Not So Fast Yet (II)

Freedom of Contract in China: Not So Fast Yet (III)

Freedom of Contract in China (IV): The Role of the People's Court

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