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Foreign direct investment (FDI) in China

FDI in Figures

According to the World Investment Report 2023 published by UNCTAD, FDI inflows into China increased by 4.5% year-on-year in 2022, totalling USD 189.1 billion (above the pre-COVID level), making the country the second-largest host country in the world. The increase was concentrated in manufacturing and high-tech industries (mainly electronics and communication equipment) and came mostly from European MNEs. Cross-border M&A sales tripled to USD 15 billion. The largest deals were the 4 billion USD acquisition by BMW (Germany) of a further 25% stake in BMW Brilliance Automotive, a Beijing-based manufacturer and wholesaler, and the USD 3.4 billion merger of COVA Acquisition (United States) and ECARX Holdings, a Shanghai-based manufacturer of semiconductors and electronics. In the same year, the total stock of FDI stood at USD 3.82 trillion, around 21.1% of the country’s GDP. China is also the third-largest investor worldwide, with a stock of outward FDI estimated at USD 2.93 trillion at the end of 2022. Hong Kong, the Virgin Islands, Japan, Singapore and the United States are among the major investors (data U.S. Trade Administration). Investments are mainly oriented towards manufacturing, real estate, leasing business and services, and computer services. Data from the Peterson Institute for International Economics and sourced from China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) shows FDI inflows have hit multi-year lows in 2023, totalling only USD 15 billion. Among the reasons for the decrease were escalating geopolitical tensions, as the “chip war” with the U.S. concerns foreign investors, particularly American-headquartered companies operating in China, leading to hesitancy in investing in local firms. Moreover, the closure of due diligence firms, essential for foreign investors to make informed decisions regarding Chinese companies, coupled with a new national security law targeting cross-border data flows, has discouraged significant investments.

Over the last few years, China made improvements in a wide array of subcomponents ranging from procedures for starting a business to measures to improve electricity access and get construction permits. The country demonstrated reform agendas that aim to improve the business regulatory environment. The reforms mainly focus on increasing the efficiency of business processes, such as tax cuts, trade with tariff cuts, and reduced barriers to foreign investors. In order to attract further foreign investment, the country has introduced mechanisms to improve the delivery of major foreign investment projects, reduce import tariffs, streamline customs clearance, and establish an online filing system to regulate FDI. With a wealth of employees and potential partners eager to learn and evolve, the country is a base for low-cost production, which makes it an attractive market for investors. Nevertheless, certain factors can hinder investments, such as China’s lack of transparency, legal uncertainty, low level of protection of intellectual property rights, corruption or protectionist measures which favour local businesses. The revised investment screening mechanism under the Measures on Security Reviews on Foreign Investments took effect on January 18, 2021, without any public comment period or prior consultation with the business community. Foreign investors expressed dissatisfaction with China's new investment screening rules, citing their broad scope, lack of an investment threshold triggering a review, and inclusion of greenfield investments, a departure from practices in most other countries. Additionally, concerns grew among foreign investors due to new guidance on Neutralizing Extra-Territorial Application of Unjustified Foreign Legislation Measures, a measure akin to "blocking statutes" in other markets, exacerbating worries about the legal complexities of complying with both host-country regulations and those in China. Foreign investors lamented that national security-related legislation increasingly undermined market access in China. Finally, the country ranks 12th among the 132 economies on the Global Innovation Index 2023 and 151st out of 184 on the 2023 Index of Economic Freedom.

 
Foreign Direct Investment 202020212022
FDI Inward Flow (million USD) 149,342180,957189,132
FDI Stock (million USD) 1,918,8283,633,317-6,914,969
Number of Greenfield Investments* 413482357
Value of Greenfield Investments (million USD) 33,63731,71617,966

Source: UNCTAD, Latest available data

Note: * Greenfield Investments are a form of Foreign Direct Investment where a parent company starts a new venture in a foreign country by constructing new operational facilities from the ground up.

 
Country Comparison For the Protection of Investors China East Asia & Pacific United States Germany
Index of Transaction Transparency* 10.0 5.9 7.0 5.0
Index of Manager’s Responsibility** 4.0 5.2 9.0 5.0
Index of Shareholders’ Power*** 5.0 6.7 9.0 5.0

Source: Doing Business, Latest available data

Note: *The Greater the Index, the More Transparent the Conditions of Transactions. **The Greater the Index, the More the Manager is Personally Responsible. *** The Greater the Index, the Easier it Will Be For Shareholders to Take Legal Action.

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What to consider if you invest in China

Strong Points

Strong points for FDI in China include:

  • The largest internal market in the world, with 1.44 billion potential customers
  • Sovereign risk contained as public debt remains mainly domestic and denominated in local currency
  • Importance of foreign currency reserves and public debt owned by Chinese government and individuals
  • A well-developed production sector (manufacturing sector and heavy industry)
  • A favourable geographic location (close to emerging Asian markets, to Japan, maritime frontage)
  • Top economy in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) thanks to rapid growth of the economy
  • Labour costs remain comparatively low, although the situation is changing in certain areas
  • New opportunities with the development of the western provinces (particularly Sichuan province)
  • Development of a new export network (Silk Road network)
Weak Points

Some of the disadvantages for FDI in China include:

  • An ever-changing legal environment
  • Bureaucratic and administrative complexities
  • A lack of transparency and weak intellectual property rights protection
  • Ageing population
  • High level of corporate indebtedness
  • Production overcapacity in several sectors
  • A strongly degraded environmental situation in several big cities
  • Cultural differences in business practices that may be difficult for foreigners to learn and apply in new business situations
  • Underdeveloped middle management and low rate of qualified workers
Government Measures to Motivate or Restrict FDI
Generally speaking, the Chinese government is more restrictive than other big economies in regard to foreign investment, with numerous sectors closed to FDI. State companies and "national flagships" are protected (discriminatory practises, non-independent judicial power, selective application of regulations). Until a few months ago, the Chinese state required forced technology transfer and its system of intellectual property protection was among the weakest in most industrialised countries.

The Chinese government encourages investment in the following industries or sectors: high technology, production of equipment or new materials, service sector, recycling, use of renewable energies and protection of the environment. In addition, the country appears to discourage foreign investment in key sectors, for which China seeks to transform domestic firms into globally competitive multinational corporations and sectors that have historically benefited from state monopolies or traditionally of State. The government also discourages investments intended to profit from speculation (money, real estate, or assets). In addition, the government plans to limit foreign investment in resource-intensive and highly polluting industries.

The Law on Foreign Investments of the People's Republic of China, adopted at the second session of the 13th National People's Congress on 15 March 2019, has been in force since 1 January 2020. The new Foreign Investment Law seeks to address common complaints from foreign businesses and governments. The Law specifically prohibits the government and government officials from forcing transfer of technology, while technology cooperation on the basis of free will and business rules is encouraged by the state. Indeed, article 22 stats that the State shall protect the intellectual property rights of foreign investors and foreign-funded enterprises. The law also gives the possibility to foreign investors to receive the same treatment when they apply for licences (article 30) and participate in public procurement (article 16). The competent departments for commerce (Ministry of Commerce) and for investment (National Development and Reform Commission) are delegated major responsibility to promote, protect and manage foreign investment.

On June 23, 2020, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Commerce (MOF) jointly issued two "negative lists" (on Foreign Investment and Free Trade Zone Special Administrative Measures) and a draft edition of the Catalogue of Encouraged Industries for Foreign Investment. Compared with the 2019 edition (full list in Chinese available here), the proposed 2020 Foreign Investment encouraged catalogue has been further lengthened, with 125 new industries added and 76 previously listed industries amended. There are no major changes compared to the 2019 catalogue; it welcomes more FDI in the following three main areas of China: high-end production; production-oriented service industries; China’s central, western, and northeastern provinces.

Bilateral investment conventions signed by China
China has signed bilateral agreements for investments with several countries. To see the list of the countries, consult UNCTAD website.

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Latest Update: June 2024

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