When foreign companies set out to do business with China, a web of red tape blocks the road ahead. Hacking through it is what China legal specialists do for a living. Lawyers at Hong Kong-based Simmons and Simmons have been helping clients battle bureaucracy for the last 20 years. Wong Huen, managing partner for China, said property was one area of the mainland system that was particularly difficult to navigate. 'Property development in China is a different world from Hong Kong,' he said. 'Here we have pretty standard procedures to follow. You know exactly what to do because any project is exactly the same procedure. In China, that will certainly not be the case.' In China, there is one set of laws - the national law. But the interpretation of those laws is left in the hands of local officials. So everybody knows what the law is, but not everybody knows how the law is enforced. 'In different locations, you have to deal with different local land administration bureaus and they have different requirements,' Mr Wong said. As for mainland banking services, he said those lagged 20 years behind Hong Kong. Just writing a cheque becomes a lengthy chore, requiring multiple chops and signatures. If one of those chops is not clear enough, the bank may reject it and send it back. 'With the WTO [World Trade Organisation], if they don't improve, they're asking for trouble,' Mr Wong said. Corporate partner, Daniel Liew, has also come up against the tendency of local governments to put their own spin on national legislation. Under national law, overseas companies can conduct some types of transactions using English documentation, as long as they provide a summary of the key terms translated into Chinese. 'But in our experience, sometimes we come across local authorities who demand the whole thing be translated into Chinese,' Mr Liew said. 'Of course, it's not in the client's interest to resist.' Corporate partner Stephen Mok said the same was true when dealing with the mainland listing process. 'The fundamental difference [between China and the SAR] is when you help Hong Kong firms list you only deal with the Hong Kong stock exchange,' Mr Mok said. 'But mainland companies deal with a whole range of PRC authorities. It makes the listing more tedious and more time-consuming.' Applications pass through the Ministry of Finance, the State Land Authority and the China Securities Regulatory Commission. Premier Zhu Rongji's streamlining of government had helped, he said, but the system was still very cumbersome. Still, there are some encouraging signs of better times ahead. Chinese authorities have pledged to turn around applications for the new GEM in 30 days. 'That would have been unheard of before,' Mr Mok said. Another sign of improvement comes from the clients themselves. Over the years, the businessmen seeking mainland mergers or listings have become much more knowledgable. 'In the early 90s at seminars, companies barely knew what shares were,' Mr Wong said. 'Now they ask technical questions. We have to be prepared to be more specialised, more focused on the new discipline in China.' He said that, under the WTO, lawyers can no longer rely on what they have been selling for the last 20 years - holding the clients' hand. Under the old order, the key element of any deal was guanxi, Putonghua for 'relations'. Back then, lawyers would lecture their clients on the importance of the old boy network. Mr Wong said: 'One of the best selling points would be 'We know the authorities. We know how the system works here'.' But these days, that is no longer enough. 'Now the system is more and more sophisticated,' Mr Wong said. 'It is not just helping them get closer to the authorities. Then, there wasn't much legal input required. Now, the other side [in a merger] will have their own PRC lawyers. 'It is a totally different ball game.'