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Christoph Schmitt – an unusual lawyer

Christoph Schmitt is Head of the China Desk at Hoffman Liebs

“In China, it is frowned upon to speak positively about yourself,” says Christoph Schmitt. So he tells what others say about him: He is an unusual business lawyer. That’s because he’s not just interested in paragraphs, he is also a good listener, and he finds solutions. These are all important qualities when, for example, he draws up joint venture agreements between German and Chinese companies. “After Xi Jinping’s monetary policy made foreign investments more difficult, they have been replaced by a large number of cooperations that have to be negotiated,” says the 58-year-old. Such negotiations define his everyday work.

Together with his team of seven German-Chinese consultants, Christoph Schmitt provides consulting services to German companies that want to expand into China – as well as to Chinese companies that want to gain a foothold in Germany. This involves a wide variety of matters, such as: Can a Chinese person who does not live in Germany become the CEO of a German company? What permits does he need to do business here? What aspects of competition law and what technical requirements must he consider if he wants to launch products on the European market?

Christoph Schmitt is well acquainted with the cultural customs in China, as he has been in the China business for 25 years and traveled to China more than 80 times. “German-Chinese business doesn’t come about by inviting German business owners to Shanghai and setting them with Chinese business owners at one table in a restaurant,” he explains. Instead, it comes down to people who can carefully acquaint the two cultures. “Chinese entrepreneurs don’t talk business directly, they first ask where their counterpart’s daughter goes to school, which German entrepreneurs might find offensive,” he explains.

Another example: For German business owners, a letter of intent is a common non-binding declaration of intent without consequences, while Chinese business owners consider the paper to be much more binding and are correspondingly more cautious about signing it. Christoph Schmitt sees it as his task to explain and familiarize both sides with each other’s mindsets.

Naturally, Christoph Schmitt has to be acquainted with Chinese politics and law, because both have a strong influence on his clients’ business options. His extensive network helps him here, he explains, both with the team of Chinese lawyers and legal experts in his own firm and with cooperation partners in China: “We keep each other informed about new legislation and the latest jurisdiction. And we simply call each other when questions arise. These conversations usually take place in German or English. “It’s just incredible how quickly Chinese learn German. But learning Chinese is quite difficult,” admits the family man. In a hotel, he can communicate more or less in Mandarin, but his Chinese skills are not yet sufficient for complex negotiations.

Incidentally, it was a client who led Duesseldorf native Christoph Schmitt to China decades ago. “He wanted to sell exhaust gas disposal systems for the microchip industry, and companies in Taiwan and China were already further along at the time,” he recalls. At that time, the client founded a company in Hong Kong. Later, trade with mainland China began. This was followed by the establishment of the first local sales satellites. Through this, Christoph Schmitt made his first contacts with state-owned enterprises. Finally, from the 2000s on, a free middle class developed in China, which was also interested in Europe and learned to appreciate the work of the German lawyer. Janna Degener-Storr


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