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Personal Bankruptcy Arrives in China in March 2021

posted by Jason Kilborn

The process I noted in an earlier post has come to fruition, and the Shenzhen special economic zone will introduce the first personal bankruptcy law in China, effective March 1, 2021. It will apply to a quite limited number of people (a total of about 12.5 million residents in Shenzhen three years ago, as of 2017, and one must have been a Shenzhen resident for three years to qualify for the new bankruptcy procedure), though by people, I mean real people, as it is not restricted to merchants or even business-related debts. This is a really powerful and bold step forward, and many have expressed concern about the payment-morality effects of such a liberal procedure for escaping from one's debts (the common phrase "lao lai" 老赖 means "debt dodger" or someone who evades responsibility).

That's why a discovery in the final text of the new law really struck me today. I was comparing the language from an early 2015 draft, the June 2020 draft, and the final version, adopted on August 26, 2020. The new word for "discharge" used for years in the earlier drafts was "mian ze" (免责), loosely, "free/excuse from responsibility." But between June and August, that term was replaced in over a dozen instances by a slightly different term, "mian chu" (免除), again loosely, "exemption/remission." In the couplet forming this new term, the character for "responsibility/duty" (ze 责) was replaced by a much less morally laden character carrying the meaning "get rid of, remove" (chu 除), which is more or less redundant with the meaning of the common first character (mian 免, excuse/waive). Neutralizing the concept of a discharge of debt to remove connotations of excusing someone from duty and replacing this with a sterile, redundant notion of simply removing (technical) liability struck me as an interesting rhetorical move.

I don't know if any ordinary Chinese person would perceive a difference here, but the US played this rhetorical game in the Bankruptcy Code by replacing the judgmental term "bankrupt" with the neutral term "debtor." This latest move to re-coin the new Chinese word for discharge seems to me to follow along those same lines. [Incidentally, I checked the Enterprise Bankruptcy Law, and neither term figures prominently in that law, which doesn't confer any discharge at all, so the Shenzhen authorities had to come up with a more or less new term.]

If you have a better sense of the potential emotional/rhetorical impact of this change, let me know what you think (I'm probably making too much of it, but it was an interesting twist).

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