postings by Jason Kilborn

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).

New Greek Bankruptcy Code

posted by Jason Kilborn

Responding to an EU Directive and what was likely already a long-simmering plan to revise a not entirely satisfactory patchwork of constantly shifting bankruptcy and insolvency laws, the Greek government recently released a draft of a new Code for Debt Settlement and Second Chance. A webinar earlier this week hosted by Capital Link offered a rare insight into this developing legislation, introduced by the architects of the new law. If all goes as planned in the legislature, the new Code will become effective in 2021. Watch for much more of this type of activity in other European countries in the months ahead.

Personal Bankruptcy Coming to China

posted by Jason Kilborn

The English-language press has discovered a long-gestating project to introduce personal bankruptcy law in China. The project is described as "China's first personal bankruptcy law," though it remains just a draft for now, and it is strictly limited to longtime residents of Shenzhen, in the special economic zone just north of Hong Kong. If it's a success, something like this law may be rolled out across the country, as the CCP Central Committee (meeting at the 3rd session of the 13th National People's Congress a few weeks ago) explicitly announced its intention to "promote individual bankruptcy legislation" (see item 8, first paragraph). As far as the suggestion that this has been prompted in any sense by the COVID-19 pandemic, lawyers in Shenzhen have been working on this project since at least 2014, and they released a book-length discussion of this project in 2016. And as far as the characterization of this being "the first" such draft law, another extremely thoughtful and impressive draft law was released a few weeks ago by a group of bankruptcy scholars associated with the Research Center for Personal Bankruptcy Law of Beijing Foreign Studies University (coordinated by the amazingly energetic and dedicated Prof. Liu Jing). Meanwhile, courts in several southern coastal cities have been undertaking their own experiments with dealing with debt collection cases involving insolvent debtors. So ... BIG things have been underway in China on this topic for some time now. Stay tuned for more details on these interesting developments (I'm working on a couple of articles on developments in small business bankruptcy in the Arab world and in China this summer and fall ...).

What's in a Word: New Immigration Public Charge Rule and "Bankruptcy"?

posted by Jason Kilborn

I was surprised to find that the explosive new US immigration "public charge" rule has some interesting bankruptcy angles. The rule is a thinly veiled attempt to reduce immigration to the US by non-wealthy individuals (i.e., the vast majority of applicants) by expanding the legal basis for "inadmissibility" based on the likelihood that the immigrant might at some point become a "public charge" drain on the US public welfare system (such as it is). The indirect bankruptcy angle is how similar this is to the BAPCPA means testing fiasco of 2005. Want to reduce access to a public benefit on the pretextual basis that it's being "abused"? Simply ramp up the formalistic application requirements! The new rule imposes a ridiculous and substantial paperwork burden on immigrants to demonstrate that they're not "inadmissible" as potential public charges, requiring completion of a means-test like questionnaire (with often only vaguely relevant questions) supported by a thick sheaf of evidence. The direct bankruptcy angle is ... one of the questions is about bankruptcy! Item 14 (!) asks "Have you EVER filed for bankruptcy, either in the United States or in a foreign country?" (emphasis in original). The thing that struck me about this question is that, of the small but growing number of non-Anglo "foreign countries" that have a system for providing debt relief to individuals, few call this system "bankruptcy." That word is reserved for business cases, creditor-initiated cases, a traditional liquidation not involving a multi-year payment plan, or some other distinction. Individual debt-relief procedures are often intentionally called something other than bankruptcy to signal these differences, reduce the stigma of seeking relief, and emphasize the rehabilitative function of the procedure. The public charge form (and instructions) betray no familiarity with this reality, even in the context of a follow-up question, "Type of Bankruptcy," with check-boxes for "Chapter 7," "Chapter 11," and "Chapter 13." Chauvinism, anyone? I guess I should be relieved that the ignorance of the drafters of this silly and odious new rule might have undermined the "bankruptcy" question, but that leaves honest immigration attorneys in a bit of a bind: do I prompt my client to answer "yes" and explain that her country doesn't have three "Chapters" or even "bankruptcy," but that her gjeldsordning procedure was the functional equivalent? Oh, I forgot--immigration from Norway is actually encouraged!

Debt Limits ... and Poison Pills

posted by Jason Kilborn

The Russian Duma last week adopted on first reading a bill that attempts to solve the biggest problem with the new Russian personal insolvency law, but the bill contains a poison pill provision that will all but kill its effectiveness if the bill makes it past the second and third readings and becomes law.  The problem lawmakers are trying to solve is that far fewer than the anticipated (and desired) number of overindebted individuals are seeking relief. While policymakers estimate a stock of nearly 800,000 potential debtor-beneficiaries of the new bankruptcy relief, only a small fraction have applied, mostly due to the prohibitive cost of the procedure. The obvious solution? Make it less expensive by cutting out the needless and counterproductive formalism, especially the court process. Well, while that message is clearly reflected in the new bill and its proposed solution, the poison pill is in a different and easy-to-miss access restriction: The proposed out-of-court procedure (run and financed by self-regulating organizations of insolvency trustees, a clever and unique approach) is available only to debtors with no seizable income or assets and less than 50,000 rubles (US$2000 PPP) in all bank accounts over the past three months ... and with a total debt burden of no more than 500,000 rubles (US$20,000 PPP, or about $10,000 using official exchange rates). The estimate of 800,000 expected debtors, by the way, includes only individuals with more than 500,000 rubles in debt, so this new bill will not make any headway at all toward solving the existing problem. The English bankruptcy system has struggled with a similar problem of overly complex and therefore expensive access, too, and the English have "solved" this problem in a similar way, by making light-admin Debt Relief Orders available only to debtors with debts below £20,000. English analysts have estimated that more than 75% of bankruptcy debtors meet the "no income, no asset" DRO restriction, like that in the new Russian law, but the debt ceiling excludes them from the cheaper and more efficient form of DRO relief. This is pernicious and counterproductive, as Joseph Spooner argues in his terrific new book (see pp. 122-30). What is the purpose of excluding no-income, no-asset debtors from an efficient bankruptcy procedure because they have too much debt? It is extremely disheartening that the otherwise very clever and progressive new Russian NINA procedure contains the seeds of its own undoing. The new clinic will not treat patients with anything more than a common cold.

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