Why Inconsistencies in English and Chinese Trade Contracts Can Lead to Legal Complications

Untitled 5


Global commerce often necessitates the use of bilingual trade contracts, particularly in transactions involving English-speaking countries and China. However, these contracts can pose unique challenges, primarily when inconsistencies exist between the English and Chinese versions. It’s not uncommon for some Chinese companies to subtly modify the Chinese version to create terms more favorable to themselves. Furthermore, the choice of language precedence in the event of discrepancies can significantly impact legal dispute outcomes. This article examines these complexities and proposes strategies to mitigate potential risks.


Discrepancies in Contractual Terms: A Hidden Pitfall

A key issue in bilingual contracts lies in the potential discrepancies between the terms set out in the different language versions. There are instances where Chinese companies introduce subtle changes to the Chinese version of the contract, thereby tilting the balance of the agreement to their advantage. These modifications can span various contractual elements, such as payment terms, dispute resolution mechanisms, and liability clauses.

These disparities, often nuanced and rooted in intricate language use or legal terminology, may not be immediately detectable to the non-Chinese party. However, these discrepancies can escalate over time into significant disagreements, potentially leading to legal confrontations.


Prevailing Language in Chinese Courts: An Important Consideration

In a dispute, the parties will refer to the contract for resolution. At this point, inconsistencies between the English and Chinese versions can lead to considerable legal difficulties. If the contract terms conflict between the versions, which terms should apply can be unclear, leading to extended and costly legal proceedings.

If the contract doesn’t specify the prevailing language in the event of discrepancies, Chinese courts typically default to the Chinese version. Moreover, even if the English version asserts its precedence in case of discrepancies, the Chinese version might contain a similar assertion. In such cases, Chinese courts are likely to favor the Chinese version, potentially leading to an interpretation more favorable to the Chinese party and creating legal complications for the non-Chinese party.


Essential Precautions: Understanding the Chinese Version

A fundamental strategy for avoiding such complications is thoroughly understanding what is written in Chinese before signing the contract. This understanding is crucial as it can help identify any terms that have been skewed in favor of the Chinese party. Engaging professional legal translation services or a bilingual lawyer proficient in both languages and knowledgeable about both legal systems is advisable. They are more likely to spot potential discrepancies and ensure accurate translation.


Mitigating Risks: Clear Language Clause and Bilingual Legal Assistance

In addition to understanding the Chinese version, several strategies can be adopted to mitigate potential legal complications. First, the contract should clearly state which language version will take precedence in case of inconsistencies. However, given the Chinese courts’ tendency to favor the Chinese version, this clause should be unequivocally stated in both the English and Chinese versions.

Finally, involving a bilingual lawyer in the drafting and negotiation process can be invaluable. Such a lawyer can help ensure fairness and balance in the contractual terms in both languages, reducing the likelihood of disputes arising from inconsistencies in the contract.



In conclusion, while bilingual contracts are critical in international trade, they can present challenges due to potential inconsistencies. Parties need to ensure accurate translation, fair contractual terms, and clarity on the prevailing language version in case of discrepancies to avoid potential legal complications.



1. Why do inconsistencies in English-Chinese bilingual trade contracts cause legal complications?  Inconsistencies between English and Chinese contract versions can cause legal complications due to differing terms, clauses, and obligations interpretations. This can lead to disputes over the contract’s meaning and applicability, resulting in costly and prolonged legal proceedings.

2. Why might Chinese companies include more favorable terms in the Chinese version of a contract? Some Chinese companies might include more favorable terms in the Chinese contract version to gain an advantage in the agreement. Due to language barriers or nuanced legal terminology, these terms may not be immediately apparent to non-Chinese parties.

3. How do Chinese courts handle inconsistencies in bilingual contracts? If the contract does not specify which language version will prevail in the event of inconsistencies, Chinese courts typically favor the Chinese version. Even if the English version states that it should prevail in case of discrepancies, if the Chinese version contains a similar assertion, Chinese courts will likely favor the Chinese version.

4. How can I protect myself from potential legal complications arising from inconsistencies in bilingual contracts? To protect yourself from potential legal complications, it’s crucial to understand what is written in the Chinese version before signing the contract. Engage professional legal translation services or a bilingual lawyer proficient in both languages and familiar with both legal systems. Ensure that the contract clearly states which language version will take precedence in case of inconsistencies. Involve a bilingual lawyer in the drafting and negotiation process to ensure fairness and balance in the contractual terms in both languages.

5. Why is it important to involve a bilingual lawyer in a bilingual contract’s drafting and negotiation process? A bilingual lawyer can help ensure that the contract terms are fair and balanced in both languages. They can also identify potential discrepancies or inconsistencies between the two versions and help negotiate terms that protect your interests. This can significantly reduce the likelihood of disputes arising from inconsistencies in the contract.


Contact us if you need legal help in China, like drafting contracts that follow Chinese law, background investigation of Chinese companies, protecting patents, trademarks, and verification of contracts to the law in China, etc.

If you require our assistance or have further questions about our services, please do not hesitate to contact our Customer Relationship Manager, Jan Erik Christensen, at janerik@ncbhub.com. We look forward to hearing from you and helping your business succeed in China.