In 2020, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) became the top global Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) destination. As the world’s second-largest economy, with a large consumer base and integrated supply chains, China’s economic recovery following COVID-19 reassured investors and contributed to higher FDI and portfolio investments. In 2020, China took significant steps toward implementing commitments made to the United States on a wide range of IP issues and made some modest openings in its financial sector. China also concluded key trade agreements and implemented important legislation, including the Foreign Investment Law (FIL).
China remains, however, a relatively restrictive investment environment for foreign investors due to restrictions in key economic sectors. Obstacles to investment include ownership caps and requirements to form joint venture partnerships with local Chinese firms, industrial policies such as Made in China 2025 (MIC 2025) that target development of indigenous capacity, as well as pressure on U.S. firms to transfer technology as a prerequisite to gaining market access. PRC COVID-19 visa and travel restrictions significantly affected foreign businesses operations increasing their labor and input costs. Moreover, an increasingly assertive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and emphasis on national companies and self-reliance has heightened foreign investors’ concerns about the pace of economic reforms.
Key investment announcements and new developments in 2020 included:
On January 1, the FIL went into effect and effectively replaced previous laws governing foreign investment.
On January 15, the U.S. and China concluded the Economic and Trade Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the People’s Republic of China (the Phase One agreement). Under the agreement, China committed to reforms in its intellectual property regime, prohibit forced transfer technology as a condition for market access, and made some openings in the financial and energy sector. China also concluded the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement on November 15 and reached a political agreement with the EU on the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) on December 30.
In mid-May, PRC leader Xi Jinping announced China’s “dual circulation” strategy, intended to make China less export-oriented and more focused on the domestic market.
On June 23, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) announced new investment “negative lists” to guide foreign FDI.
Market openings were coupled, however, with restrictions on investment, such as the Rules on Security Reviews on Foreign Investments – China’s revised investment screening mechanism.
While Chinese pronouncements of greater market access and fair treatment of foreign investment are welcome, details and effective implementation are still needed to ensure foreign investors truly experience equitable treatment.
Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on July 1, 1997, with its status defined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. Under the concept of “one country, two systems,” the PRC government promised that Hong Kong will retain its political, economic, and judicial systems for 50 years after reversion. The PRC’s imposition of the National Security Law (NSL) on June 30, 2020 undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy and introduced heightened uncertainty for foreign and local firms operating in Hong Kong. As a result, the U.S. Government has taken measures to eliminate or suspend Hong Kong’s preferential treatment and special trade status, including suspension of most export control waivers, revocation of reciprocal shipping income tax exemption treatments, establishment of a new marking rule requiring goods made in Hong Kong to be labeled “Made in China,” and imposition of sanctions against former and current Hong Kong government officials.
On July 16, 2021, the Department of State, along with the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Homeland Security, issued an advisory to U.S. businesses regarding potential risks to their operations and activities in Hong Kong.
Since the enactment of the NSL in Hong Kong, U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Hong Kong may be subject to increased levels of surveillance, as well as arbitrary enforcement of laws and detention for purposes other than maintaining law and order.
On economic issues, Hong Kong generally pursues a free market philosophy with minimal government intervention. The Hong Kong government (HKG) generally welcomes foreign investment, neither offering special incentives nor imposing disincentives for foreign investors.
Hong Kong provides for no distinction in law or practice between investments by foreign-controlled companies and those controlled by local interests. Foreign firms and individuals are able to incorporate their operations in Hong Kong, register branches of foreign operations, and set up representative offices without encountering discrimination or undue regulation. There is no restriction on the ownership of such operations. Company directors are not required to be citizens of, or resident in, Hong Kong. Reporting requirements are straightforward and are not onerous.
Despite the imposition of the NSL by Beijing, significant curtailments in individual freedoms, and the end of Hong Kong’s ability to exercise the degree of autonomy it enjoyed in the past, Hong Kong remains a popular destination for U.S. investment and trade. Even with a population of less than eight million, Hong Kong is the United States’ twelfth-largest export market, thirteenth largest for total agricultural products, and sixth-largest for high-value consumer food and beverage products. Hong Kong’s economy, with world-class institutions and regulatory systems, is bolstered by its competitive financial and professional services, trading, logistics, and tourism sectors, although tourism suffered steep drops in 2020 due to COVID-19. The service sector accounted for more than 90 percent of Hong Kong’s nearly USD 348 billion gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. Hong Kong hosts a large number of regional headquarters and regional offices. Approximately 1,300 U.S. companies are based in Hong Kong, according to Hong Kong’s 2020 census data, with more than half regional in scope. Finance and related services companies, such as banks, law firms, and accountancies, dominate the pack. Seventy of the world’s 100 largest banks have operations in Hong Kong.