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Florian Wolff

Partner and Head of the China Desk at law firm Görg in Frankfurt am Main.

Florian Wolff has been extensively involved with China since 2007. In his opinion, the country has already undergone “five total changes” during this time. The renowned lawyer, who was a partner at the commercial law firm GvW for many years, now heads the China Desk of the major law firm Görg. He recalls his first trips to Shanghai, when the city resembled Asian metropolises from liberal countries. “But the last time I was in Shanghai, the city was covered with red flags on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic. This was never seen before,” Wolff remarks. But changes are not only pushed by the CCP leadership, as he knows to report.

His area of expertise is primarily mergers & acquisitions (M&A). Specifically, Wolff advises private Chinese companies looking to invest in Germany or other European countries. However, the reluctance on the Chinese part has increased recently. While in 2018/19, the M&A business was still booming, it has shrunk in the meantime. “On the one hand, this is due to the fact that Chinese companies got burned financially in transactions here in Europe,” says Wolff.

Rhetoric and bureaucracy scare off investors from China

But probably even more impactful is the German attitude. “Mr. Altmaier with his rhetoric, which in parts has to be interpreted as anti-Chinese, and the lengthy and terribly bureaucratic approval procedures Altmaier has installed – that’s already a big deterrent in China,” he says. His verdict is that the cooling of the M&A market from China to Germany is primarily homemade by the government. If Chinese companies were allowed to operate more freely, investment in German SMEs, which Wolff specializes in, would be much higher.

However, Chinese interests remain very high and one should not give too much credence to Beijing’s rhetoric regarding technological independence, says Wolff. “The fact is, in many areas of mechanical engineering, in many areas of the automotive supply industry, but also in areas of medical technology and even in electrical engineering, China still needs to rely on a great number of technologies it cannot create on its own,” says Wolff. That is why they want continued access to German development and research capacities.

Chinese on the lookout for distribution partners

As a lawyer, however, other areas of responsibility arise for him as well. For example, he and his law firm are increasingly allowed to negotiate international trade agreements within the supply chain between Germany and China. “Chinese state-owned enterprises realize that they are simply bad at marketing their products around the globe. That’s why they are looking for distribution partners in Europe and testing distribution channels to generate more business abroad,” Wolff explains.

As head of the China Desk at Görg, he works with five native speakers on his team, including Jia Ding, who is also admitted to practice law in China. While Wolff himself was not yet geared towards China at the start of his career, he had long set his gaze eastward. In the 1990s, he completed part of his legal training in the Moscow office of a major law firm.

A heart set on colonial architecture

A few years later, regular travel to China began. In addition to business meetings, Wolff had always tried to gain a better understanding of the people and culture in the big cities. Understandably, he is not happy about recent developments. “In the last 15 years, China has become much more closed off. There is a lot bigger emphasis on national pride and people are becoming more intolerant of internal or external criticism,” Wolff assesses.

However, he always has enjoyed traveling to the People’s Republic. “Being the architecture geek that I am, my heart goes out to the French Concession in Shanghai and the colonial architecture, even in other cities, because it sends out a whole different flair,” Wolff says. “Culturally, what appeals to me most in Beijing is the National Center for Performing Arts. I’ve seen a lot of concerts there by artists around the world. Whenever I’m in Beijing, I try to get a ticket because it also has a great urban society, which is a rare thing in most other parts of China.” Constantin Eckner

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