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Doing Business in China

Market Overview

In November 2013, following the Third Plenum of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping rolled out an ambitious agenda to re-shape the Chinese economy and fully embrace the market as the “decisive force” in shaping the country’s economic future. In order to continue China’s labor force evolution and to supplement the strong manufacturing exports that have fueled its unprecedented growth, Xi directed his administration to implement policy changes that increase domestic consumption, stimulate domestic innovation, and develop a world-class services sector – all the while expanding China’s middle class and moving millions of rural Chinese citizens to urban centers.

Market Challenges

The depth and complexity of China’s proposed macroeconomic reforms bring with them significant challenges and pitfalls that will require skillful policy making and implementation. Problem areas to look out for include rising local debt, potential property bubbles, outflows of capital, shadow banking, excess capacity in industry sectors, and endemic corruption across industry sectors. China continues to make steady progress on the world stage as an emerging market in which to do business. The World Bank recently ranked China 96th (out of 189) in its Ease of Doing Business Report. However, China’s explosive economic growth of the last several decades is beginning to slow. In 2013, real GDP grew 7.7 percent (down from 10.4 percent in as recently as 2010). While the government has set a 7.5 percent growth target, some economists predict that China’s GDP growth will slow to 7.3 or 7.4 percent in 2014, which would represent China’s slowest economic expansion since 1990. U.S. companies doing business in China remain concerned about rising costs for labor, enforcing intellectual property rights, competition with Chinese state-owned or state-supported companies, lack of transparency, burdensome bureaucracy, and protectionism in the business licensing and approval process.

Market Opportunities

Despite these and other longstanding concerns, China remains an extremely attractive market for many U.S. companies. In fact, ninety percent of U.S.-China Business Council member companies responding to a USCBC survey report that their China operations are profitable, the highest percentage reported since 2006. Foreign direct investment into China saw modest growth in 2013, rising 5.3% year-on-year compared with a 3.7% drop in 2012. Furthermore, many of the economic reforms called for as part of the Third Plenum, particularly those related to foreign investment, are starting to take shape. Some highlights so far include:

  • Revising the three basic laws that govern foreign investment in China.
  • Slashing the number of business or administrative approvals needed while delegating much of the approval responsibility to provincial or local government.
  • Relaxing “paid in” and minimum registered capital requirements for foreign-invested enterprises, and replacing the annual government inspection procedure with an online filing system.
  • Undertaking efforts to improve the legal and enforcement regime for intellectual property (IP) rights, and amending the trademark law to provide stronger protection and enforcement tools for all trademark owners.
  • Liberalizing financial controls, including interest rates and limits on foreign exchange.

In a move that garnered significant attention, China established the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone (SFTZ) in September 2013. Covering approximately 29 square kilometers in Shanghai’s Pudong district, the SFTZ was envisioned as a venue for China’s leaders to experiment with market-based reforms, such as relaxed controls on foreign investment, increased market access in industry sections not on a “negative list,” streamlined administrative procedures, and financial and foreign exchange reforms, but regulatory details are still slowly trickling out.

Market Entry Strategy

As always, companies should consider their own resources, previous export or business experience abroad, and long-term business strategy before entering the China market. For many companies, representation in China by Chinese agent, distributor, or partner that can provide local knowledge and contacts will be critical for success. Intellectual Property rights holders should understand how to protect their IP under Chinese law before entering the China market, and should conduct thorough due diligence on potential partners or buyers before entering into any transaction. All companies, IP rights holders and otherwise, should consult closely with lawyers who have extensive experience with the China market, including lawyers based in the United States and China.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, United States Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS) offers customized solutions to help U.S. companies, including small- and medium-sized enterprises, succeed in the China market. USFCS stands ready to help U.S. companies develop comprehensive market entry or expansion plans, learn about export- and customs-related requirements, obtain export financing, and identify potential partners, agents, and distributors through business matchmaking programs, trade shows, and trade missions led by senior U.S. government officials. For U.S. companies that purchase our Gold Key Service, USFCS can facilitate one-on-one meetings with: pre-screened buyers; potential customers or end-users; experienced professional services providers; and key government officials. Furthermore, by engaging USFCS, U.S. companies can learn how to leverage the outcomes of high-level policy discussions, such as the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade and the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, where senior U.S. officials have been successful in expanding market access and improving the business climate for U.S. companies in China. With these tools, U.S. companies will be better positioned to take advantage of the many economic reforms that are being rolled out in the wake of the Third Plenum.

The U.S. Commercial Service has developed a toolkit to help exporters understand some of these challenges; our “Are You China Ready” assessment is available here.