My apologies to blog followers for my absence. I will address Zhou Qiang’s comments on judicial independence in a later blogpost, for which I want to do some more detailed research than is possible at this time.
This blogpost will look at a less contentious question–what does the profile of civil and commercial disputes in Zhejiang province mean for the Zhejiang/Chinese economy and the role of the courts (in civil/commercial disputes).
Judge Zhang Hengzhu, head of the #2 civil division of the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court (High Court), spoke in early January at a conference organized by Tiantong & Partners, the boutique litigation law firm on civil and commercial disputes in his province.
What is special about Zhejiang?
The Zhejiang economy is dominated by small and medium enterprises (SMEs), many integrated with the global economy. These companies are private, family-owned companies. Judge Zhang noted that these companies tend to have irregular corporate governance, with vague lines between property ownership by the company founder, the company, and affiliates.
Civil & commercial litigation in Zhejiang
Zhejiang (and Jiangsu) are the two most litigious provinces in China. The Zhejiang courts accepted over a million cases (1,112,900) in the first nine months of 2016, up 11% over 2015, of which over half (572,300) were civil and commercial cases, up 7% year on year. [Comment–year-end numbers will be even higher.]
A significant proportion of those cases during that period were bad debt-related. About 17% of those cases (136,500) were private (shadow) lending disputes, involving total amounts in disputes of RMB 78.366 billion (almost USD 11.4 billion). Private/shadow lending in Zhejiang is a supplement or replacement for bank financing. During the same period, about half as many financial disputes were accepted (85,400), up almost 20%, but the total amounts in dispute were RMB 232 billion, or USD 33.79 billion). [Comment–year-end numbers will be even higher.]
How Zhejiang courts support SME economy
Judge Zhang commented on what the Zhejiang courts have been doing to support the province’s SME-dependent economy. Those actions, which appear unusual those unused to the Chinese judicial system, include:
- Taking the lead to generate judicial guidance on private (shadow) lending. In 2009, the High Court was the first to issue provincial level guidance. which it updated in 2013.
- In 2013, it issued a concurrence (in the form of a meeting summary) with the provincial procuratorate and public security department on criminal law issues relating to collective fundraising.
- The High Court is working with the provincial financial institutions on the disposal of non-performing assets.
- It was one of the first provincial courts to take steps to generate judicial guidance on bankruptcy law and to take steps to deal with zombie enterprises (after raising it with the provincial Party secretary and government, who issued written instructions (批示）。
- In late 2016, establishing a joint mechanism with fourteen departments of the provincial government to advance the use of bankruptcy and related issues, such as re-employment of workers, use of land formerly used by bankrupt enterprises, generating bankruptcy-favorable tax policies (document on the mechanism found here).