Setting up in China can unlock business opportunities for your company but, as with any market with which you are not familiar, it can be challenging.
On this page you’ll find advice on successfully setting up a digital and tech business in China. It includes practical tips for getting started, information about risks, and guidance on what you can do to manage them.
Before setting up your business in China, you might find it helpful to ask yourself the following questions.
Have I confirmed that China’s Foreign Investment Law permits me to invest and whether there are any restrictions on that investment?
What type of entity do I want to establish under Chinese law? This might be a Wholly-Foreign Owned Enterprise (WFOE), a Joint Venture, or a Representative Office.
Have I registered my intellectual property (IP) for the China market? This might include filing patents, registering trademarks or obtaining copyright protection.
Have I sought professional advice for legal, financial and human rights matters?
Have I decided where to set up in China, in terms of cities or regions?
Risk and strategic consulting firm Control Risks have provided the following questions to ask yourself when you are considering working with a Chinese partner.
For more information about compliance and protecting your organisation’s data, visit this advice page from Control Risks.
Control Risks is not the only organisation that provides this service. Control Risks are not endorsed or recommended by HMG. You should research whether this service provider will be suitable. HMG does not accept any liability arising to any person for any loss or damage suffered through using these service providers or this information.
Before setting up your business in China, there are a number of UK and Chinese laws you should be aware of. If you fail to adhere to these laws, even inadvertently, you could risk damage to your organisation’s assets and your ability to operate in China.
There are a number of potential pitfalls UK businesses need to avoid when entering the China market, investing in China, or trading with Chinese parties.
Before setting up your business in China, you should be aware of the potential commercial risks to your business and how to mitigate them. This will help you protect your assets, data and IP – and ultimately improve your chances of long-term success in China.
Taking legal steps to protect your IP in China is important, but you should also consider your cybersecurity.
In September 2020 the then Foreign Secretary also warned of Chinese global cyber attacks. More information on this and previous announcements can be found here.
In July 2021 the UK joined like-minded partners to confirm Chinese state-backed actors were responsible for gaining access to computer networks via Microsoft Exchange servers.
The UK opposes and defends against the targeted theft of UK knowledge assets and expertise.
Asking yourself the following questions is a good way to start to address potential commercial risks:
For more information, visit the DIT Doing Business Abroad Guide or the China Britain Business Council China Business Handbook
When setting up your business you should consider the ethical implications of engaging with China on emerging technologies.
The UK Government is committed to upholding human rights and has serious concerns regarding the Chinese State’s use of technologies in ways that violate human rights and harm individuals and society. Where China is not meeting its obligations under international law and falls below the standards required and expected of responsible governments and nation states, the UK Government will continue to speak out publicly.
Our concerns include China’s use of facial recognition and predictive computer algorithms for mass surveillance, profiling and repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and elsewhere; automated internet and media surveillance and censorship including in a number of new ‘smart cities’, to expand social control and limit individual freedoms.
While engagement offers many opportunities, there is a risk that your company’s technology could be used to violate human rights, posing a significant risk to your business’s reputation. Businesses engaging in joint research and development activities in the fields of surveillance, biometrics, or tracking technology are at a heightened risk.
In addition, you should be aware of China’s programme of Civil Military Fusion (highlighted below). As well as ensuring that you are abiding by the relevant legal obligations, you may want to consider the possible reputational consequences if your company’s technology contributes to China’s military development.
Asking yourself the following questions may be a good way to start addressing the potential ethical challenges of doing business in China.
Organisations with links to severe human rights abuses, such as those taking place in Xinjiang, face reputational and legal risks.
Though analysis by Verisk Maplecroft suggests that standard due diligence practices are unlikely to be effective in preventing links to human rights violations, companies can take the following steps:
- Align approaches to business policies, strategy, systems, supplier codes of practice, KPIs and training programmes, helping to raise awareness of social and environmental issues;
- Map operations of suppliers and subsidiaries to identify where the most salient risks lie;
- Set up audit programmes for the highest risk areas identified in mapping exercises. You may wish to enlist the assistance of independent, third-party auditors to check your assessments;
- Collaborate with industry peers, suppliers, governments, NGOs and other local partners to share knowledge, good practice and on-the-ground projects.
A good resource to further understand the different types of human rights issues and how they impact your supply chain is the Human Rights & Business Dilemmas Forum produced by Verisk Maplecroft and the UN Global Compact.
Human rights organisations have also suggested the following best practice when conducting due diligence:
- Be transparent about whom you are doing business with, including publishing the names of local partners, suppliers and collaborators. This could include any government agencies, public security bureau-affiliated research laboratories, or military-economic entities.
- Publicly report on human rights due diligence to display that you have a strategy, that you have applied it, and that you have assessed the risks.
You may find it helpful to contact specialists who offer advice and knowledge on doing business in China. Who can I talk to?
International Trade (DIT)
The Department for International Trade (DIT) helps businesses export and grow into global markets, as well as helping overseas companies locate and grow in the UK.
DIT’s network of trade advisors across the UK can help create a tailored export growth action plan, advise you on which markets are best for your business and put you in touch with contacts who can help you expand internationally.
The China-Britain Business Council (CBBC) is the leading organisation helping UK companies grow and develop their business with China. CBBC provides advice, support and networking opportunities for companies at every stage of their China journey.
Visit CBBC’s website for detailed practical guidance for tech companies on the business environment, setting-up, finding partners, and business risks.
Intellectual Property Office
HMG’s Intellectual Property Office website hosts detailed, cross-sector information on GOV.UK about protecting and enforcing IP when working with China.
A number of factsheets, and an IP attaché team in China which can offer advice on specific issues with registering and enforcing your IP rights in China.
British Chamber of
Commerce in China
British Chamber of Commerce in China is a membership organisation for British businesses focused on boosting UK-China trade and investment. It has chapters in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Southwest China, and provides a wide programme of events, publications and industry insights.
The Centre for Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) are the national technical authorities on physical, people and cyber security. They have created Secure Innovation to help founders and CEOs of emerging technology startups and their investors protect fledgling companies so that they can thrive.
Detailed guidance is available to empower startups and investors with the tools to foster a healthy security culture from the outset and continue to protect vital company assets as businesses scale and collaboration opens up overseas opportunities.
NCSC for Startups
NCSC for Startups is the successor to the NCSC Cyber Accelerator, a programme which helped more than 40 tech companies raise in excess of £100m in external investments. The aim is to bring together innovative startups with NCSC technical expertise to solve some of the UK’s most important cyber challenges.
NCSC for Startups offers something for startups at all stages of maturity; from those developing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), to those with established solutions looking to expand into new markets. There are also opportunities for organisations to get involved with the programme to bring additional support and expertise through:
- Shaping technical challenges to bring a focus to areas of interest
- Working together and directly with startup companies to influence their products
- Providing technical leadership and influence to encourage the growing cyber eco-system
Where can I go to get advice on travelling to China?
How can I develop working relationships if there is a language barrier?
GOV.UK has a list of translators and interpreters in China. You should research whether a service provider will be suitable.
The FCDO does not accept any liability arising to any person for any loss or damage suffered through using these service providers or this information.
This representative example is based on real cases where companies have failed to negotiate the complexities of the Chinese market.
A UK-registered medical company (Company A) developed a data-driven platform that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help doctors identify and diagnose hard-to-treat diseases.
In January 2020, Company A partnered with a private Chinese medical services provider (Company B) and six government bodies in China, to launch the platform in China. This required the participating medical organisations to upload their patients’ symptoms onto the platform, enabling the system to analyse the patient’s data and provide the doctors with potential diagnoses and treatments.
Whilst Company A’s platform was initially an overwhelming success, a series of widely documented complaints revealed that patients had no consent or control over the use of their data. This granted Company B and the six government bodies, unrestricted access to sensitive patient data without patients’ consent.
Company A received significant negative scrutiny from the international press for their lack of ethical consideration in developing a service that uses unethically sourced data. The negative media coverage severely damaged Company A’s reputation and sales.
Company A recognised that it did not conduct comprehensive due diligence on Chinese data laws prior to launching in China and has since sought legal advice on the practical steps it can take to secure and protect data in China.