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Antique Chinese Debt - The Latest

posted by Mitu Gulati

Mark Weidemaier and I have talked about antique Chinese (mostly Imperial) debt often on this site.  And we've also discussed these debts on our podcast with sovereign debt gurus Tracy Alloway and Lee Buchheit (here).  Yes, we are a bit obsessed. Part of our fascination with this topic is that the Chinese government asserted a defense of odiousness to paying these debts.  The lenders (backed by western powers, seeking influence in China) and the Imperial borrowers (seeking to sell access to their country in exchange for self preservation) had, in essence, sold out the people of China.  End result: Revolution and refusal of successor communist governments to pay these debts, no matter what - even today, when China is a financial behemoth.  

Below is the abstract for a wonderful new paper, "Confirming the Obvious: Why Antique Chinese Bonds Should Remain Antique" in the U Penn Asian L. Rev. by two of our former Duke students, Alex Xiao and Brenda Luo.  Bravo! We are so proud.

As the Sino-U.S. relationship goes on a downward spiral, points of conflict have sparked at places one might not expect: antique sovereign bonds. In recent years, the idea of making China pay for the sovereign bonds issued by its predecessor regimes a century ago have received increasing attention in the U.S. This note takes this seeming strange idea seriously and maps out the possible legal issues surrounding a revival of these century-old bonds. Although two particular bonds show some potential for revival—the Hukuang Railways 5% Sinking Fund Gold Bonds of 1911 and the Pacific Development Loan of 1937—the private bondholders would unlikely be able to toll the statute of limitations on the repayment claims based on these bonds. Even in the unlikely scenario that they succeed, the Chinese government would have an arsenal of contract law arguments against the enforcement of these bonds, most notably defenses based on duress, impracticality, and public policy. By going into the details of the legal arguments and history behind these bonds, we seek to confirm the obvious, that is, the idea of making China pay for these bonds is as far-fetched as it sounds and would not be taken seriously by courts.

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