China bribery. Don't. Just Don't.
China bribery. Don’t. Just Don’t.

Earlier this week I gave a talk before the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cleveland. One of the things I talked about was how it is wrong to contend that contracts are not needed in China because of court corruption.

I talked of how most Americans don’t understand court corruption. Otherwise they would not so frequently say that there is no point in bringing a lawsuit in such and such a court because it’s corrupt. Corruption influences (sometimes greatly) court cases, but neither as often nor as much as so widely believed. When dealing with court corruption, one has to be sensitive to location, type of case, and relative influence of the parties. In other words, a $300,000 breach of contract case between a foreign company and a Chinese private company is much more likely to get a “fair trial” in a Chinese court in Shanghai than a case against a massive China State Owned Entity involving stolen trade secrets that might have military applications in the small Chinese city in which that SOE is based and employs a large percentage of the town Sometimes this is due to corruption and sometimes this is due to what lawyers commonly call getting “home-towned.” There are Wall Street lawyers who are as afraid of going to trial in a rural Alabama court as US companies are of going to trial in China.

But when Americans think of a corrupt court they usually think of the opposing party paying a judge in cash for the ruling of their dreams. But it is rarely that simple. I was taught the “finer points” of court corruption by a very smart, very honest Russian lawyer friend of mine who practiced law in the Russian Far East. What he explained to me works pretty much the same way in most of the other emerging market countries of which I am aware with a less than pristine court system — or at least that is what lawyers in some of these countries have told me.

My schooling on Russian court corruption was in “real time” as it involved a real case and a real client. It has been many years so I may be a bit off on the numbers and it is possible things have changed in Russia since then and it is also possible this information held true only for this one region in Russia. It is also possible the Cleveland Cavaliers will sign me to a multi-million dollar contract within the next few months.

My client had a contract with a Russian company under which the Russian company clearly owed my client $2 million, but the Russian company was refusing to pay and all but challenging my client to sue it in a Vladivostok court, the only place my client could pursue its claims. Legally, my client’s case was about as close to a slam-dunk winner as you are likely to see in a business dispute. But my client was rightfully concerned how corruption would influence its case.

Our Russian local counsel explained how we should view the case, corruption warts and all, and he did so by explaining the following:

Nine of the fifteen judges are corrupt. The other six are not. But I still like our case even before one of the corrupt ones. First off, there is a very good chance the opposing side will not offer any bribe at all. Second, our case is so strong it is possible that even if offered, none of the corrupt judges will take it. Third, if any do take the bribe, it will be really high because no judge wants to be thought of as corrupt and ruling against our client in this case will definitely raise eyebrows.

The Russian company will probably need to pay the lower court judge approximately $300,000 for the ruling it wants. And then we can appeal to a three judge appellate panel, made up of judges from throughout the province. A lower percentage of the appellate judges are corrupt and those that are require large payments, especially on a case like this. The odds of all three of our appellate judges being corrupt are quite low. The odds of the Russian company having close connections with any of the appellate judges are lower than when all of the judges are based in its home city. This means that to try to bribe two of the three judges will be very risky and very expensive. Risky because people sometimes do go to jail on bribery charges. Expensive because we are talking about 3 appellate judges. So in the end, I estimate that for the Russian company to be assured of winning through the appellate level, it will need to pay maybe a million dollars. And that ignores our ability to at least try to appeal to the Supreme Court in Moscow.

These numbers are just estimates but this means that even though corruption is a factor, we cannot allow our client to panic in the face of it. We can settle this case on good terms and that is what we should be trying to do. The Russian company would rather pay us to eliminate risk than pay a bunch of judges and take on new risks.

We ended up settling the case and at a figure not all that much lower than what it would have been in the United States.

I am not by any means trying to minimize the impact of corruption; I am merely trying to show that it oftentimes is not as overwhelming as it may initially appear.

Note also that we never discussed our client paying a bribe to anyone. That is always the worst alternative because it puts people at real risk of going to jail without anything close to a guarantee it will even work. When our Russian lawyer said that people in Russia rarely get arrested for bribery, he was talking about Russians, not foreigners. Do you really think you have the savvy to engage in risk-free bribery in a foreign country? I can tell you that none of our firm’s China lawyers would ever make that claim.

When I talked about the above at my Cleveland talk, an audience member, Kimberly Kirkendall, commented that in her experience many of the times where she was aware of someone having paid a bribe in China they had done so essentially because they wanted to, not because it was necessary they do so. We then talked of how some companies seem almost to delight in paying bribes but that our China lawyers — believe it or not — had never once been asked to pay a single bribe in China, even though we are constantly dealing with the Chinese government to register trademarks and copyrights and WFOEs and Joint Ventures. Kimberly commented on how foreigners sometimes brag about paying bribes and how troubled she was by that. I then mentioned how stupid and risky it is to pay bribes in China.

I spoke with Kimberly after the event and learned of her extensive experience and of how she had recently written on China bribery. When I got back to my computer I read what Kimberly had written and I loved it, and with her permission, I am running an excerpt from it below.

 

In China 30 years ago it was very common to incentivize someone to do their job by giving them a gift. Why? The China of the late 1980’s and into the 90’s was a communist economy that relied on 95% government controlled business. And in that communist economy there was very little difference between the salary for the GM of a factory and the guy who mopped the floor. So how were they compensated for their relative value to the organization? The GM could “gift” some of the company’s products to someone else, who often then re-gifted that to someone they wanted to influence and so on and so forth. By gifting them, the GM was able to get a slightly larger apartment, or their child in a better school, or some other economic benefit. People recognized their relative power in the economy by giving and/or accepting gifts. Sometimes cash, but frankly there wasn’t a lot of cash to go around. Much of this was actually bartering, trading your goods/access/influence for someone else’s.

In the booming late 1990’s and into the early 2000’s, as people were allowed to own a business in China, things changed a bit. How do you move a government owned or controlled economy to a privately held one? Where do individuals get the money to buy apartments or companies if they weren’t making much cash beforehand? In this period of transition there were many instances of people using their power and influence for economic gain. From how these government companies were taken private (and ownership and shares divided up) to how people came up with the money to buy apartments or build new ones. In this environment people in high positions saw the money being made and they wanted their share – and now there was the cash to pay them.

Towards the late 2000’s and into today, we are looking at a China where many people (but not all) are in a position to make money in direct ways. Through entrepreneurship, increased education and wages, investment, taking risks on new ventures, or changing jobs to accelerate their careers. Much of the population are no longer stuck in a powerless place where bribes are their only way to obtain value from their position of authority. Certainly it still exists, and there are still people who feel that they can’t get ahead so they exact a little extra money on the side.

When I hear that a US company has used bribes I start wondering about the reason for the bribe. Was it a payment to someone to do his or her job or a payment for them not to do their job? In almost every instance these days, it seems it is the foreigner who initiates the bribe. The below examples of matters on which I personally worked highlight the important difference between these two reasons.

Example: A U.S. company was importing components from China, using both its own team in China to find suppliers and control the orders and a trading company. The US management came to be for help in figuring out why some in their company were claiming that they needed to use a trading company for some of their China business, even though the trading companies were increasing costs by taking their own payments from the transactions. They wanted to know why they were paying a trading company to buy and export goods when they could do all of that themselves. It turned out that a group within the company wanted to utilize lower HTS custom codes for export to save money and Chinese Customs didn’t agree with that custom code classification. The US company was using the trading company to pay China customs a bribe so they could export their products under the “wrong” code and save money. In other words, there was no need to pay bribes, just a desire.

Example: A company was setting up a factory in China and the local government was concerned about air emissions from its manufacturing process. In the U.S. the company had shown that emissions were well within range of EPA guidelines. The local Chinese agency was not convinced and asked for more tests and documentation. The company was left with options – see if there was an “economic incentive” that would encourage the regulatory official to approve the paperwork, or spend a few months and thousands of dollars doing the research to prove their manufacturing met the guidelines. They chose the “economic incentive” route. Again though, an example of a company choosing to pay a bribe out of a desire to get a government official not to do his or her job, not a bribe necessary to get that official to actually do his or her job.

The point I am trying to make here is that the excuse foreigners make about having no choice but to pay a bribe rarely if ever holds true. The foreign companies I hear about paying bribes had plenty of choice; they simply chose wrong. They were not responding to a request for money but offering money as an incentive for a Chinese worker to deviate from his or her professional responsibility.