COMPANIES’ legal structures are usually mind-numbing fare. But occasionally it is worth pinching yourself and paying attention. Take “variable interest entities” (VIEs), a kind of corporate architecture used mainly by China’s tech firms, including two superstars, Alibaba and Tencent. They go largely unremarked, but VIEs have become incredibly important. Investors outside China have about $1trn invested in firms that use them.

Few legal experts think that VIEs are about to collapse, but few expect them to endure, either. One sizeable investor admits loving Chinese tech firms’ businesses while feeling queasy about their legal structures. Like scientists appalled by their monstrous creations, even the lawyers who designed VIEs worry. They are “China’s version of too-big-to-fail”, says one. As well as being spooky, VIEs are another instance of how China’s weak property rights hurt its citizens.

What are VIEs? Over 100 companies use them. Since the 1990s private firms have sought to break free of China’s isolated legal and financial systems. Many have done so by forming holding companies in tax havens and listing their shares in New York or Hong Kong. The problem is that they are then usually categorised as “foreign firms” under Chinese rules. That in turn prohibits them from owning assets in some politically sensitive sectors, most...Continue reading