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What Is a Foreign Invested Enterprise?

Plus500 | Monday 29 April 2024

In today's globalised business landscape, understanding the intricacies of Foreign Invested Enterprises (FIEs) is pivotal for international entities considering investments, particularly in China. 

Serving as a financial vehicle for offshore entities, FIEs enable businesses to invest in projects or enterprises in foreign jurisdictions, with the Chinese economic market being a primary focus. 

However, the complexity of FIE regulations and the recent significant shift in China's regulatory landscape, marked by the 2020 updates to the Foreign Investment Law (FIL), necessitate a strategic and well-informed approach. 

The diverse typology of FIEs, including Equity Joint Ventures (EJVs), Cooperative Joint Ventures (CJVs), and Wholly-Owned Foreign Enterprises (WOFEs), underscores the varying degrees of control available to businesses operating in China. 

This article delves into the evolution of FIE regulations, the impact of the updated FIL, and the strategic considerations for businesses, emphasising the critical importance of navigating the nuanced regulatory landscape to make informed decisions on establishing an FIE or opting for alternative structures such as Representative Offices.

Foreign Invested Enterprises (FIEs) Explained

Key Points

  • Foreign Invested Enterprises (FIEs) are crucial business structures enabling offshore entities to financially invest in projects or businesses abroad, notably in China and other Asian nations, with a focus on their complex legal landscapes.

  • Regulatory Landscape Shift: The 2020 updates to China's Foreign Investment Law (FIL) marked a significant regulatory shift, emphasising transparency, promotion, and protection of foreign investment. The accompanying measures, including the Negative List and the Encouraged Industries Catalogue, showcase China's commitment to attracting more foreign investment.

  • FIEs operate in China primarily as Equity Joint Ventures (EJVs), Cooperative Joint Ventures (CJVs), or Wholly-Owned Foreign Enterprises (WOFEs), each offering varying degrees of control over business operations within the country.

  • Timing and market evaluation are critical for establishing an FIE, considering factors such as project scope, product investment, or share acquisition. Recognizing situations where an FIE is unnecessary and opting for Representative Offices for limited business activities is equally important, emphasising the need for a nuanced approach in aligning business requirements with appropriate legal structures.

FIE Structure

A Foreign Invested Enterprise (FIE) is a business structure used by offshore entities to financially invest in a project or business in a foreign jurisdiction. While predominantly utilised in China, this form is also used by those seeking to invest in other Asian nations. 

An FIE, encompassing various legal structures, serves as a vehicle for companies to engage in foreign economies. Notably, FIEs face stringent government regulations at pivotal junctures, imposing constraints on both the profitability of foreign ventures and the level of control wielded by the foreign parent over the established FIE in the foreign country. 

These regulations can significantly impact a company's ability to maximise profits and influence decisions within the FIE. Therefore, businesses must navigate these regulatory nuances and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of an FIE against other available business forms, especially when operating in jurisdictions beyond China, ensuring a well-informed and strategic approach to international investments. (Source: Investopedia)

Understanding FIE

Due to the complex legal structures used in several Asian countries, most prominently among them China, Foreign Invested Enterprises have become a widely-used structure to enable business entities from other countries to invest in the world’s most populous nation. China’s business laws are especially strict, so FIE regulations are used to strictly dictate the do’s and don’ts of investing in the country. 

China’s Updated Foreign Invested Enterprise Law

At the beginning of 2020, Chinese authorities updated the laws regulating foreign invested enterprises in the country. The PRC Foreign Investment Law (FIL) and its Implementing Regulations, effective since January 1, 2020, mark a significant shift in China's regulatory landscape. Replacing three previous laws governing foreign investment and foreign invested enterprises (FIEs), the FIL aims to enhance regulatory transparency and promote and protect foreign investment. Accompanying measures include the 2019 Negative List, which relaxed restrictions on some market sectors, and the Encouraged Industries Catalogue, which encourages target investment in certain industries. These two have been in effect from July 30, 2019, and they all collectively constitute the New Law.

The FIL consolidates various legal aspects, signalling China's commitment to opening its market and attracting more foreign investment. The revised Negative List liberalises specific market sectors and reduces restrictions, while the Encouraged Industries Catalogue identifies key sectors, like manufacturing, technology, and agriculture, where foreign investment is encouraged with preferential policies.

Anticipating future developments, the New Law addresses key concerns in U.S.-China trade negotiations. Notable changes include national treatment for foreign investment (within the Negative List), protection of foreign intellectual property rights, and equal treatment of domestic and foreign companies in government procurement. These align with agreements outlined in the phase one trade agreement between the United States and China.

Despite these positive developments, foreign investors may need a comprehensive understanding of the New Law's changes and benefits. Recognizing enforcement needs and identifying concrete steps have become essential for leveraging new investment opportunities in China while navigating this evolving regulatory landscape.

FIE Typology

The majority of Foreign Invested Enterprises (FIEs) operate within China, primarily as either Equity Joint Ventures (EJVs) or Wholly-Owned Foreign Enterprises (WOFEs). The key distinction between these types lies in the degree of control exerted over the business.

Equity Joint Ventures (EJVs) involve collaboration between a foreign enterprise and a Chinese entity, adhering to foreign investment and company laws in China, requiring approval from the Chinese government.

Cooperative Joint Ventures (CJVs) represent another form of FIE, jointly established and operated by a Chinese company and a foreign investor. In this arrangement, both parties share profits, losses, and risks.

Wholly-Owned Foreign Enterprises (WOFEs) are businesses in China fully owned and operated by foreign investors. While foreign entities can establish and finance WOFEs, compliance with Chinese business laws is mandatory, given their operations within the country.

WOFEs are particularly favoured among foreign business owners due to the significant control they afford over the business. This preference stems from the autonomy allowed in decision-making and operational aspects, making WOFEs the predominant choice for foreign investors in the Chinese market.

When Is an FIE Required?

Establishing a Foreign Invested Enterprise (FIE) in China can be challenging, but it offers significant advantages for businesses entering the Chinese market. To determine whether setting up an FIE is appropriate, an evaluation of the target market and its potential is crucial. FIEs become essential when investing in specific projects, and products, or acquiring shares in Chinese companies.

FIEs facilitate collaboration with local businesses, providing access to resources and leveraging established brand names, particularly beneficial when acquiring a business as an FIE. The timing of setting up an FIE is critical for optimal business benefits. However, it's equally important to recognize situations when an FIE is not required.

If business needs in China are limited, opting for a Representative Office is a viable alternative. Representative Offices are suitable for activities like market research, product landscaping, and financial planning. Nevertheless, they have limitations, such as the inability to execute contracts, engage in import/export activities, or participate in major legal undertakings. Thus, understanding the scope of business requirements in China is essential for making informed decisions about whether to establish an FIE or opt for a Representative Office.


In conclusion, a Foreign Invested Enterprise (FIE) serves as a crucial business structure for international entities looking to invest in China, particularly given its prominence in the country's complex legal landscape. The recent updates to China's Foreign Investment Law (FIL) and associated regulations in 2020 signify a significant shift, emphasising China's commitment to transparency, foreign investment promotion, and protection. The FIE typology, encompassing Equity Joint Ventures (EJVs), Cooperative Joint Ventures (CJVs), and Wholly-Owned Foreign Enterprises (WOFEs), highlights the varying degrees of control businesses can exercise over their operations within China.

Understanding the nuances of when to establish an FIE is pivotal, dependent on factors such as market potential and the nature of the investment. While FIEs provide significant advantages in collaboration and brand leverage, recognizing situations where an FIE is unnecessary, and opting for a Representative Office instead, is equally important. The Representative Office, suitable for limited business activities, underlines the need for a nuanced approach to aligning business requirements with the appropriate legal structures. Navigating China's evolving regulatory landscape requires a strategic and well-informed approach for foreign investors to seize new opportunities while complying with the dynamic legal framework.


What is a Foreign Invested Enterprise?

A foreign invested enterprise is a business structure used by offshore entities wishing to invest in certain jurisdictions, above all China

What is considered a foreign-owned company?

In the Chinese context, a foreign-owned company is one that is under the ownership of a business entity from abroad and must abide by the regulations set by the Chinese authorities.

What are the motives/advantages for Foreign Invested Enterprise?

FIEs can be lucrative for investors who want to take part in new growth markets and unlock different economic opportunities.

What challenges do FIEs face?

Foreign investment enterprises face the challenge of having to abide by specific Chinese regulations according to the defined type of FIE they operate under.

How can foreign investors invest in Chinese securities (QDII)?

Foreign investment in China includes Qualified Domestic Institutional Investor (QDII) programs, which involve institutional investors meeting specific qualifications to invest in securities outside their home country. The China Securities Regulatory Commission provides a controlled channel for entities like banks, funds, and investment companies to engage in foreign securities investment through QDIIs. These programs bear a resemblance to China's Qualified Domestic Limited Partnership (QDLP) initiative, demonstrating China's regulatory efforts to facilitate controlled international investment avenues for qualified institutional entities.

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