China revamps overseas listing rules

Article 26 January 2022 Experience: Corporate

Towards the end of 2021, China released two draft rules on overseas stock listing for public comments. These new draft rules, namely the “Provisions of the State Council on the Administration of Overseas Securities Offering and Listing by Domestic Companies” and the “Administrative Measures for the Filing of Overseas Securities Offering and Listing by Domestic Companies”, will reshape the way Chinese companies’ raise funding outside of Mainland China in the future.

The draft rules are widely perceived as a significant step by the China Securities Regulatory Commission (‘CSRC’), the country’s top securities regulator, to dispel market doubts and concerns about the ability of Chinese companies to float their shares in Hong Kong and on other overseas stock exchanges. These concerns arose after the fallout over the Chinese ride-hailing app Didi’s initial public offering (‘IPO’) in late June 2021.

Overseas Offering and Listing Redefined

Previously, Mainland regulators would only oversee domestic companies’ overseas listing, while listing applicants set up outside of Mainland China, namely “red-chip” companies and companies with variable interest entity (‘VIE’) structure to be listed on the New York or Hong Kong stock exchanges, fell outside of its jurisdiction.

The draft rules cover both direct and indirect overseas offerings of stocks, depository receipts, convertible corporate bonds and other equity-like-securities, as well as overseas listings of stock by domestic companies.

“Direct overseas listing” refers to the offering and listing on overseas stock exchanges by domestic companies. “Indirect overseas listing” covers fund raisings outside of Mainland China by offshore entities whose main places of business or business activities in China either derive a majority of their revenue or profits domestically, or whose senior management personnel are Chinese citizens.

This redefinition of the scope of overseas listings extends the CSRC’s jurisdiction over red-chip structures and listings involving VIE structures. In addition, companies going to other markets via special-purpose acquisition companies (‘SPACs’) should also follow the same filing requirements as overseas IPOs. Hence all companies, whether they are established in China or overseas, will have to go through the CSRC filing procedure first if their major operations are in Mainland China and wish to raise funds elsewhere.

VIE Structures’ Eligibility Clarified

The VIE structure has mostly been used by companies for IPOs on overseas stock markets, primarily in the US, to skirt Chinese rules restricting foreign investment in sensitive industries such as education, media and telecommunications. This structure allows founders to set up offshore vehicles to exert effective control over, and enjoy the economic benefits of, Chinese operating companies via contractual arrangements.

Under the draft rules, companies with VIE structures that meet compliance requirements are eligible for an overseas listing after filing with the CSRC. The draft rules and the CSRC’s public remarks put to rest earlier speculation that China would ban listings featuring VIE structures.

The companies with VIE structures that already listed overseas would feel immediately relief as the draft rules follow the principle of non-retroactivity, and they are not required to adjust their ownership structures.

Government Approval

The draft rules, if passed, will establish a unified filing-based regulatory system for overseas listings, which is intended to streamline regulatory oversight by Chinese authorities.

At present, direct overseas listings of domestic companies require the approval of the CSRC. The draft rules will change the approval system to a filing system, under which the CSRC will only review the filing materials as a compliance formality. This represents a relaxation of the current requirements on direct overseas listings of domestic companies.

Currently, indirect overseas listings of domestic companies do not require the CSRC’s approval. However, in practice, listing applicants relying on VIE structures are strictly regulated by relevant overseas authorities and stock exchanges because of the risk of contractual defaults. Under the draft rules, if an overseas entity is recognised as a substantial domestic company to be listed overseas indirectly, it must first complete the filing process with the CSRC before the listing, and will be subject to post-IPO filings as well. This is a positive development as it will improve regulatory certainty for prospective issuers with VIE structures.

The CSRC will also establish a supervision and coordination mechanism with other relevant governmental authorities to strengthen policy coherence, information sharing and supervision coordination.

Companies Prohibited from Overseas Listing

Domestic companies are prohibited from listing overseas, if:

1. national laws and regulations prohibit such listing and financing activities;
2. the proposed overseas listing may constitute prejudice to national security;
3. there are material ownership disputes over equity, assets, and core technology;
4. in the last three years, the domestic company or its major shareholders, actual controllers have committed corruption, bribery, embezzlement, misappropriation of property, or other relevant criminal offenses, or are under investigation for suspicion of criminal offenses or major violations of laws and regulations; or
5. in the last three years, any of the domestic company’s directors, supervisors or senior management personnel has been subject to administrative punishments for severe violation or are under investigation for criminal offense or major violations.

Security Review

Domestic companies seeking to list overseas should apply for security reviews such as foreign investment security reviews, cyber security reviews and others required by law and regulations before filing their applications for overseas listings.

The issuer may be required to divest relevant business and assets within Mainland China or take other effective measures to mitigate or avoid any impact on national security resulting from such overseas listing.

Starting from February 2022, internet platform operators with at least one million users must undergo a cybersecurity review before going public overseas, except for listings in the Hong Kong market.

In addition, shortly after release of the CSRC draft, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) rolled out the updated “Special Administrative Measures for Foreign Investment Access (2021 Edition)” (the ‘Negative List’), prescribing new restrictions for overseas listings of Chinese companies engaged in prohibited businesses.

Such companies can only apply for overseas listing after obtaining clearance from domestic regulators. Foreign investors are not permitted to participate in the operation and management of such domestic companies, and foreign shareholdings in Mainland-listed Chinese companies with businesses in the “prohibited category” must not exceed 30% in aggregate or 10% individually.

Registration of Foreign Security Firms

Foreign securities firms that underwrite domestic companies’ overseas IPOs are required to register with the CSRC and report on their underwriting businesses annually. This would create new compliance challenges to foreign underwriters.

Observations

The rules will not apply retroactively but it remains unclear whether companies that have filed for listings but haven’t been listed will fall under the new rules.

The draft rules, if passed in current forms, will reduce market and regulatory uncertainty related to the VIE structure. However, the VIE structure might face more and tougher scrutiny under the new rules and overseas IPOs will likely take longer to complete. In addition to the risk of contractual default, companies with VIE structures seeking to float their shares overseas will also need to weigh the compliance risks.

Nonetheless, with special-purpose acquisition companies (‘SPACs’) becoming available in Hong Kong as new viable alternative for companies that wish to list overseas, the draft new rules are expected to tilt the balance for technology, e-commerce and other new economy players to leverage Hong Kong as the preferred IPO market, particularly if the political tension between Mainland China and the U.S. does not materially improve in the near future.

In summary, we concur that the new draft rules will bolster Hong Kong’s IPO market, especially if geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. persist. However, reduced regulatory uncertainty may increase the cost of compliance.

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