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How to draft a contract for China

by Dan Harris

Contract drafting guru Ken Adams interviewed our own Steve Dickinson for a post he did regarding drafting contracts for China. The interview was in the form of a Q&A and I urge you to go herefor the whole thing.

Steve made the following points, among others, during the interview:

Ancient Purchase and Sale Contract

Language of the contract. Chinese law provides that the parties are free to choose the language of their contract. If the contract is in two languages, the parties are free to choose which language will control. If the contract is in Chinese and in English and the parties do not specifically choose a governing language, a Chinese court or arbitration panel will take the Chinese version as controlling. If the contract is in English, then the court or arbitration panel will appoint a translator to do the translation. These translators are often not very good, which causes many problems in litigation/arbitration, since the case gets sidetracked in disputes about translation.

Contracts involving a foreign party in China are almost always done in a dual-language format, with English almost always the other language. For example, every contract between Russian and Chinese parties I have ever seen is dual-language, Chinese and English.

The tradition in such contracts is to provide for the English-language version to control, for the law to be that of the foreign party country, and for litigation to be in some location outside China. These provisions seldom make sense but they are common in contracts between private parties and when the Chinese party is a State Owned Enterprise not controlled from Beijing. However, Beijing controlled SOEs normally will require the reverse: The Chinese language and law controls and disputes will be resolved in China, either in the courts or through the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC).

American and British “lawyer” Language.  Chinese lawyers and businesspeople usually reject traditional U.S. contract language outright. The Chinese use simple contract language. Often, U.S. companies insist on using U.S.-style common-law contracts. The Chinese side never reads the English; they have the document translated into Chinese and they work with the Chinese. When litigation occurs in China, the Chinese court will often say, “This contract is just a translation of a standard U.S. contract. Obviously, the Chinese side did not understand any of it. Therefore, we are going to ignore the key provisions on which you are relying and we are not going to enforce them.” Many banks and investment funds have learned this to their detriment. For example, many foreign-drafted futures contracts have been thrown out in China because the courts concluded that the Chinese party simply did not understand the contract. The result is that the Chinese companies got a free ride, which is not a trivial issue.

It is a much deeper issue than language. Chinese courts, Chinese lawyers, and Chinese business people are not going to agree to legal provisions that have no meaning under Chinese law. If you expect to litigate in China, your document must be in accord with Chinese law. If you expect to be able to enforce your contract in China, you must have a contract that is in accord with Chinese law. Much bad U.S. contract writing involves using ten words to express one concept and drafting provisions so as to address every single possible contingency. For China, only the concept is important. Another motivation for bad U.S. contract writing is to try to draft around case law or statute. China does not care about cases or U.S. statutes. Chinese courts and arbitrators do not allow drafting around the provisions of black letter Chinese law and they do not allow for results that they think are either unfair or in bad faith. Thus, the real issue is not so much bad U.S. drafting methods. The real issue is how the Chinese court views the motivation behind the contract.

I should also add that Chinese lawyers have major problems interpreting U.S. and British common law contracts. Their standard approach is to guess at the meaning and then mistranslate and then work with the mistranslation, leading to disaster on all counts.

Again, go here for the full interview. And for more on China contracts, check out the following:

Dan Harris is founder of the Harris & Moure law firm, a boutique international law firm focusing on small and medium sized businesses that operate internationally. China is the fastest growing area for the firm. Dan writes as a source of China legal and business information.

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