The Contract

Taking stock today of contracts—social, personal, and professional. Since this is a blog about China, I’ll stick with Chinese contracts or at least the ones that have to do with China. Forbes offers good advice to foreigners about verifying a Chinese contract—check the official ‘chops’ and look up business licenses—that sort of thing. If you’re a foreigner signing a contract in China (whether rental agreement or employment contract), your contract is only valid if it’s written in Chinese. You may have a copy in English too, but only the Chinese version is legal.

Nothing official is truly official in China without a red chop (an official seal). The Chinese writer Yu Hua sums up the importance of official seals quite nicely in China in Ten Words,  “. . . . [In] our sixty years under communism these insubstantial-looking accessories have often been the concrete emblems of immense political and economic power. Documents of appointment require an official seal, contracts between companies require a seal, and seals also provide verification of whether one possesses legal status. . . In China, official seals are needed everywhere, all the time” (120). Hua goes on to cite the centrality of seals in the January Revolution where rebel factions made snatching Shanghai city government seals the basis for their seizure of power. “Whoever seized the official seal would be the possessor of true power. . . Any and all actions would be instantly legitimized, so long as they were recorded on a piece of paper and stamped with the official seal” (121).

He tells stories of Solomon-like decisions in China where official company seals are cut in half to demonstrate compromise and of company takeovers that occur via seal ownership. The importance of red seals in China is well-known in foreign circles. One expat I knew, who, for bureaucratic reasons, needed to get a sort-of-fake marriage license in the U.S. to enter China with his very real wife, said the American town official stamped the license “multiple times,” since in her words: “The Chinese like to see a lot of stamps.”

Aside from the significance of seals, the culture of contracts isn’t so different in China—but enforcing them via the Chinese legal system is dicey and the legal ramifications of broken contracts are another story. For foreign individuals (unlike companies), there aren’t many hurdles to void your contract—just exit the country in the dark of night. The greater problem is determining ahead of time if the company or school you’re contracting with is legitimate. A shocking number of teachers sign contracts with “schools” or “companies” (emphasis on the quotation marks) or with third-party agencies overseas without ever investigating their reputations. This article in VICE should shake you up if you’re moving to China and haven’t found a first-rate international school.

Why a post now on contracts? Because China Incidentals led to a book contract (per photo above). Perhaps I have a future as a travel writer? Culture Shock! Shanghai: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette is nearly finished, thankfully, and it’s the only tangible, intact contract in my life—so onward. I like closing with a photo, so let’s make it a book recommendation: China in Ten Words by Yu Hua, a fantastic book of essays that compares life during the Cultural Revolution to life in contemporary China—technically it’s banned in China, but as everyone knows, banning a book only makes it more appealing.

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