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Red-chip enterprises’ overseas listing: Securities regulation and conflict of laws

Written by Jingru Wang, Wuhan University Institute of International Law

 

1.Background

Three days after its low-key listing in the US on 30 June 2021, Didi Chuxing (hereinafter “Didi”) was investigated by the Cyberspace Administration of China (hereinafter “CAC”) based on the Chinese National Security Law and Measures for Cybersecurity Review.[1] Didi Chuxing as well as 25 Didi-related APPs were then banned for seriously violating laws around collecting and using personal information,[2] leading to the plummet of Didi’s share. On 16 July 2021, the CAC, along with other six government authorities, began an on-site cybersecurity inspection of Didi.[3] The CAC swiftly issued the draft rules of Measures for Cybersecurity Review and opened for public consultation.[4] It proposed that any company with data of more than one million users must seek the Office of Cybersecurity Review’s approval before listing its shares overseas. It also proposed companies must submit IPO materials to the Office of Cybersecurity Review for review ahead of listing.

It is a touchy subject. Didi Chuxing is a Beijing-based vehicle for hire company. Its core business bases on the accumulation of mass data which include personal and traffic information. The accumulated data not only forms Didi’s unique advantage but also is the focus of supervision. The real concern lays in the possible disclosure of relevant operational and financial information at the request of US securities laws and regulations, which may cause data leakage and threaten national security. Therefore, China is much alert to information-based companies trying to list overseas.

The overseas listing of China-related companies has triggered regulatory conflicts long ago. The Didi event only shows the tip of an iceberg. This note will focus on two issues: (1) China’s supervision of red-chip companies’ overseas listing; (2) the conflicts between the US’s demand for disclosure and China’s refusal against the US’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.

 

2. Chinese supervision on red-chip companies’ overseas listing

A red-chip company does most of its business in China, while it is incorporated outside mainland China and listed on the foreign stock exchange (such as New York Stock Exchange). Therefore, it is expected to maintain the filing and reporting requirements of the foreign exchange. This makes them an important outlet for foreign investors who wish to participate in the rapid growth of the Chinese economy. When asking Chinese supervision on red-chip companies listed overseas, such as Didi, the foremost question is whether the Chinese regulatory authority’s approval is required for them to launch their shares overseas. It is uneasy to conclude.

One reference is the Chinese Securities Law. Article 238 of the original version of the Chinese Securities Law provides that “domestic enterprises issuing securities overseas directly or indirectly or listing their securities overseas shall obtain approval from the securities regulatory authority of the State Council following the relevant provisions of the State Council.” This provision was amended in 2019. The current version (Art. 224 of the Chinese Securities Law) only requires the domestic enterprises to comply with the relevant provisions of the State Council. The amendment indicated that China has adopted a more flexible approach to addressing overseas listing. Literally, the securities regulatory authority’s approval is no longer a prerequisite for domestic enterprises to issue securities overseas.

When it comes to Didi’s listing in the US, a preliminary question is the applicability of such provision. Art. 224 is applied to “domestic enterprise” only. China adopts the doctrine of incorporation to ascertain company’s nationality.[5] According to Article 191 of the Chinese Company Law, companies established outside China under the provisions of foreign law are regarded as foreign companies. Didi Global Inc. is incorporated in the state of Cayman Islands, and a foreign company under the Chinese law. In analogy, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., another representative red-chip enterprise, had not obtained and not been required to apply for approval of the Chinese competent authority before its overseas listing in 2014. A Report published by the Chinese State Administration of Foreign Exchange specifically pointed out that “domestic enterprises” were limited to legal persons registered in mainland China, which excluded Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., a Cayman Islands-based company with a Chinese background.[6]

In summary, it is fair to say that preliminary control over red-chip enterprise’s overseas listing leaves a loophole, which is partly due to China’s changing policy. That’s the reason why Didi has not been accused of violating the Chinese Securities Law but was banned for illegal accumulation of personal information, a circumvent strategy to avoid the possible information leakage brought by Didi’s public listing. Theoretically, depends on the interpretation of the aforementioned rules, the Chinese regulatory authority may have the jurisdiction to demand preliminary approval. Based on the current situation, China intends to fill the gap and is more likely to strengthen the control especially in the field concerning data security.

 

3. The conflict between the US’s demand for audit and China’s refusal against the US’s extraterritorial jurisdiction

Another problem is the conflict of supervision. In 2002, the US promulgated the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, under which the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (hereinafter “PCAOB”) was established to oversee the audit of public companies. Under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, wherever its place of registration is, a public accounting firm preparing or issuing, or participating in the preparation or issuance of, any audit report concerning any issuer, shall register in the PCAOB and accept the periodic inspection.[7] The PCAOB is empowered to investigate, penalize and sanction the accounting firm and individual that violate the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the rules of the PCAOB, the provisions of the securities laws relating to the preparation and issuance of audit reports and the obligations and liabilities of accountants. Opposed to this provision (although not intentionally), Article 177 of the Chinese Securities Law forbids foreign securities regulatory authorities directly taking evidence in China. It further stipulates that no organization or individual may arbitrarily provide documents and materials relating to securities business activities to overseas parties without the consent of the securities regulatory authority of the State Council and the relevant State Council departments. Therefore, the conflict appears as the US requests an audit while China refused the jurisdiction of PCAOB over Chinese accountant companies.

It is suspected that despite the PCAOB’s inofficial characteristic, information (including the sensitive one) gathered by the PCAOB may be made available to government agencies, which may threaten the national security of China.[8] Consequently, China prevents the PCAOB’s inspection and some of Chinese public accounting firm’s application for registration in the PCAOB has been suspended.[9] In 2013, the PCAOB signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Chinese securities regulators that would enable the PCAOB under certain circumstances to obtain audit work papers of China-based audit firms. However, the Memorandum seems to be insufficient to satisfy the PCAOB’s requirement for supervision. The PCAOB complained that “we remain concerned about our lack of access in China and will continue to pursue available options to support the interests of investors and the public interest through the preparation of informative, accurate, and independent audit reports.”[10] After the exposure of Luckin Coffee’s accounting fraud scandal, the US promulgated the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act in 2020. This act requires certain issuers of securities to establish that they are not owned or controlled by a foreign government. Specifically, an issuer must make this certification if the PCAOB is unable to audit specified reports because the issuer has retained a foreign public accounting firm not subject to inspection by the PCAOB. If the PCAOB is unable to inspect the issuer’s public accounting firm for three consecutive years, the issuer’s securities are banned from trade on a national exchange or through other methods.

China has made “national security” its core interest and is very prudent in opening audit for foreign supervisors. From the perspective of the US, however, it is necessary to strengthen financial supervision over the public listing. As a result, Chinese enterprises have to make a choice between disappointing the PCAOB and undertaking domestic penalties. Under dual pressure of China and the US, sometimes Chinese companies involuntarily resort to delisting. This may not be a result China or the US long to see. In this situation, cooperation is a better way out.

 

4. Conclusion

China’s upgrading of its cybersecurity review regulation is not aimed at burning down the whole house. Overseas listing serves China’s interest by opening up channels for Chinese companies to raise funds from the international capital market, and thus contribute to the Chinese economy. The current event may be read as a sign that China is making provisions to strengthen supervision on red-chip companies’ overseas listing. It was suggested that the regulatory authority may establish a classified negative list. Enterprises concerning restricted matters must obtain the consent of the competent authority and securities regulatory authority before listing.[11] It is not bad news for foreign investors because the listed companies will undertake more stringent screening, which helps to build up an orderly securities market.

 

 

 

[1] http://www.cac.gov.cn/2021-07/02/c_1626811521011934.htm

[2] http://www.cac.gov.cn/2021-07/04/c_1627016782176163.htm; http://www.cac.gov.cn/2021-07/09/c_1627415870012872.htm.

[3] http://www.cac.gov.cn/2021-07/16/c_1628023601191804.htm.

[4] Notice of Cyberspace Administration of China on Seeking Public Comments on the Cybersecurity Review Measures (Draft Revision for Comment), available at: http://www.cac.gov.cn/2021-07/10/c_1627503724456684.htm

[5] The real seat theory is recommended by commentators, but not accepted by law. Lengjing, Going beyond audit disputes: What is the solution to the crisis of China Concept Stocks?, Strategies, Volume 1, 2021, p. 193.

[6] 2014 Cross-border capital flow monitoring report of the People’s Republic of China, available at: http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/site1/20150216/43231424054959763.pdf

[7] Sarbanes-Oxley Act, §102(a), §104 (a) & (b).

[8] Sarbanes-Oxley Act, §105 (b)(5)(B).

[9] https://pcaobus.org/Registration/Firms/Documents/Applicants.pdf

[10] China-Related Access Challenges, available at: https://pcaobus.org/oversight/international/china-related-access-challenges.

[11] https://opinion.caixin.com/2021-07-09/101737896.html.