Many years ago, I saw a Chinese construction contract for the first time, and there was mention of a person called a “Jian Li” in the contract. I asked myself – what strange creature is this Jian Li?

The literal meaning of Jian Li in Chinese is “project supervisor” and it refers to someone engaged by the owner to supervise the contractor on matters like construction quality, progress of works and cost control. The Jian Li’s main role is really to ensure that a project is constructed safely and to the quality standards as required under law. The appointment of a Jian Li is mandatory for certain types of construction projects in China, for example projects funded by international development agencies, infrastructure projects and public utilities projects.

The concept of a Jian Li in China originated in the 1980s, early years in China’s transition to market economy. In those days, it was common practice for employers to manage construction projects on their own without any external professional support. The obvious problem was that inexperienced employers often ended up with projects with quality problems because the contractors were not properly supervised or managed in their work. Poor quality buildings and works were a major headache for the industry. The introduction of a Jian Li was part of an effort by the government to resolve this problem. Although appointed by the employer, the Jian Li is primarily intended to play a statutory role similar to that of an independent checker of works which we see in many countries.

In the last three decades, we have seen a massive influx of foreign investors relocating their manufacturing operations to China. Factories were and continue to be put up all over the country at an amazing speed. Most of these factories were built and will continue to be built by local Chinese contractors. Foreign contractors have not been able to get a foothold in the Chinese construction market due to a variety of reasons including restrictions on market entry, the tough requirements to obtain and maintain a contractor’s license and most importantly the inability to compete with the local Chinese contractors on pricing.

However, many foreign investors who are new to China are not used to working with the local Chinese contractors. They do not know for sure if the local Chinese contractors will build their factories in China to the same standards as their factories elsewhere. They therefore often look to the foreign contractors or construction professionals that they have used elsewhere to build their factories for help in managing or supervising the construction of their projects in China.

Many foreign contractors and construction professionals have come to China with the objective of servicing the foreign investors. Many of them have in fact followed their clients to China. Most of these foreign contractors and construction professionals have chosen to set up “project consultancy” companies employing both foreign and Chinese construction professionals. The business that a project consultancy company is licensed to undertake is however fairly limited, but it is relatively easy and cheap to set up. Although not ideal, with the right contract structures, these project consultancy companies have been able to service their clients’ needs adequately. Many become involved from the very start of a project, helping their clients with site selection and due diligence, right up to the ultimate delivery of the completed project to the clients.

On many projects, one would often find the foreign owner appointing a Jian Li as well as a project consultant. The project consultant’s role is usually wider than that of the Jian Li but it would invariably also involve ensuring that the project is built to the correct standards and quality. The Jian Li is however primarily concerned with ensuring that statutory standards and quality are met andthe project consultant is concerned with ensuring that contractual standards and quality are met. Although statutory and contractual requirements often overlap, the former are often less stringent than the latter. This gives rise to a risk that the Jianli and the project consultant in performing their respective supervision duties on a project may give inconsistent messages to the contractor if they are not properly coordinated.

One would have thought that it would be more efficient for one party to perform the duties of both the Jian Li and the project consultant. Most owners would certainly prefer a single point of responsibility. It would at least avoid any inconsistency in performance of their respective duties. For a long time, this was not possible. To set up a Jian Li company, one has to be licensed by the construction authorities. Before 2007, foreigners were not allowed to set up or acquire interest in a Jian Li company.

On 26 March 2007, the Regulations on the Administration of Foreign-invested Construction Service Enterprises was introduced which allows foreigners to set up or acquire interest in Jian Li companies. This was part of China’s effort to fulfill its World Trade Organization commitment to open up the construction engineering services sector. However, despite the Regulations, the market has not seen the setting up of many foreign invested Jian Li companies. Why is this?

I can think of a few reasons. I suspect the main reason is the regulatory limitations. Similar to construction and design companies, Jian Li companies must obtain Skill Qualifications Certificates (SQCs) from the construction authority before they can carry out business. The SQCs are classified into several grades which determine the size and scope of the projects that the holder is permitted to work on. A newly set up Jian Li company is only allowed to apply for the lowest grade of SQC and has to wait for at least two years to apply for a higher grade. This is obviously not appealing to foreign investors as it will take too long before they are able to upgrade to a SQC that will allow them to undertake the bigger projects that they desire.

Local protectionism may also be a factor hindering the growth in numbers of foreign-invested Jian Li companies. One of my clients recently complained to me that his proposal to acquire a Chinese Jian Li company was rejected by the local construction authority. I asked him about the reasons for the rejection. My client said that he believed the real reason was that the authority is keen to protect the local Jian Li companies from foreign competition. The official response from the local construction authority was that the review of our client’s application could not take place because the central construction authority has not issued any detailed implementation rules for the Regulations yet. And so we wait…

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