Supreme People’s Court reports on its bankruptcy accomplishments

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The warm sun and shopping mall Christmas decorations were not what drew Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang and a large group of senior court and other government leaders to Shenzhen on Christmas Day–it was a rare national bankruptcy trial work conference. It sends signals about the importance of bankruptcy post 19th Party Congress.

This appears to have been one of the last official activities of Grand Justice Du Wanhua, who has taken the lead in promoting bankruptcy work in the courts (see earlier blogposts) and is a classmate of President Zhou Qiang. Du, who turns 64 in January, is retiring.  Takeaways from the conference include:

  • some statistics;
  • the latest political/professional policy on bankruptcy;
  • some informed comments on where the challenges are (with some of my further comments in italics).

Statistics

The Chinese courts accepted 8984 bankruptcy & compulsory liquidation cases in 2017 (through 21 December), heard by 97 bankruptcy divisions (up from 6 in 2016, a consequence of a 2016 SPC notice, described here).  The courts concluded 4404 bankruptcy cases through November.

Reforms aimed at speeding up cases moving from enforcement to bankruptcy proceedings are showing some initial success, with the Guangdong courts handling over 43,000 in the second half of 2017, of which 10,000 were handled by the Shenzhen courts.

Latest bankruptcy policy statements

President Zhou Qiang conveyed the macro policy on bankruptcy.

  • adhere to problem orientation (必须坚持问题导向) (one of the current political slogans);
  • if at all possible, merge or reorganize, less bankruptcy liquidation 尽可能多兼并重组,少破产清算 (the current policy);
  • Explore establishing a simplified procedure and a pre-reorganization system (简易破产程序、预重整制度) (this idea, a borrowing of pre-packaged administration from US/English law has been discussed by academics and others for some years, but this prominence seems to be new.  Pre-packaged administration is a bankruptcy/insolvency procedure under in which a company arranges to sell all or some of its assets to a buyer before appointing an administrator to facilitate the sale. It involves a company’s institutional creditors agreeing to it, so it is understandable that would be an attractive idea in China);
  • intermediate courts in larger cities and economically developed areas should establish bankruptcy divisions or collegial panels (this follows from an announcement in 2016, discussed here);
  • use informatization to improve the hearing of bankruptcy cases (信息化建设提高破产审判质效).

Du Wanhua had more specific signals to the lower courts.

  • improve professionalism;
  • improve the bankruptcy administrator system, promote establishing a bankruptcy administrator society, bring in a competitive system;
  • improve the enforcement to bankruptcy system,  accelerate cases that can’t be enforced transferred to bankruptcy proceedings;
  • use reorganization as much as possible through the market and legal methods to save companies in trouble;
  • establish a normalized government/courts unified coordinated system (要建立常态化的“府院破产统一协调机制”), protect the rights of each party on an equal basis;
  • use informatization.
  • handle carefully bankruptcy cases involving debts that are mutual/joint guarantees, guide financial creditors to convert the debt into equity or other methods that simplify the debtor relationship and enable the company to survive;
  • handle carefully the consolidated bankruptcy of affiliated companies, balance the conflicts between the rights and interests of each party.
  • improve cross-border bankruptcy trial work.

 On problems facing bankruptcy courts

Professor Li Shuguang of the China University of Political Science & Law, one of the preeminent Chinese bankruptcy law scholars, who attended the conference, had informed comments, citing the following challenges for the bankruptcy courts:

  1. The relationship between the courts and government when hearing bankruptcy cases needs to be resolved. (Despite the official talk of a united approach by courts & government, discussed above, it remains a challenge. For some local color, see this excerpt from an article by a team of Zhejiang bankruptcy judges on real estate developer bankruptcy:

If a real estate developer is having a crisis, government will involve itself first, and only if administrative measures don’t work, will they think of judicial measures. This creates problems in transitioning from administrative to judicial procedures. For example, how should a court treat the legal authority of the creditor settlement arrangement of the special work team formed by government to deal the crisis? Once the company goes into bankruptcy procedures, government hasn’t withdrawn completely, and on the one hand, all sorts of bankruptcy matters require coordination and cooperation by many government departments, and on the other hand government will give instructions and suggestions about bankruptcy work, considering the needs of the local economy, stability, and other interests.

3.  Many local courts are afraid to accept bankruptcy cases and even establish unreasonable barriers to for local protection–new systems need to be put in place.

4.  On bankruptcy administrators, there need to be more detailed rules on selection, oversight, administration, operation. [I can testify to this, based on the questions raised on one of my Wechat chat groups about bankruptcy administrators and the many articles published on bankruptcy law-related Wechat public accounts.] 

5. Professor Li asks how Chinese bankruptcy law can be reformed to effectively rescue companies, to enable courts to identify salvageable companies, properly protect the rights of creditors and shareholders.  More detailed rules are needed on preferences in bankruptcy.  These are ongoing issues for Chinese bankruptcy courts, as the current system protects local government interests.

6.  There exist a group of specific issues related to bankruptcy liquidation, such as how to expand the pool of assets available to the creditors, balance the interests of various creditors, deal with the relationship between creditor committees (under the bankruptcy law) and financial institution creditors committee (these committees were put in place from 2016, see more details here).  This also relates to issues of transparency and procedure, particularly what information will be available to members of the creditor committee, and at what point. An important area where legal infrastructure is lacking, as discussed in this Wechat article.

Among those issues is how to protect the interests of consumers who have purchased property from a bankrupt real estate developer.  This is an important practical issue for all involved (including local governments) because an increasing number of real estate developers are going into bankruptcy.  A recent Wechat article analyzes a 2015 SPC ruling that requires the bankruptcy administrator to perform the purchase and sale contract where payment has been made in full.  In practice, courts take different approaches to variations on this scenario.

7.  He echoes Du Wanhua on issues related to consolidation of bankruptcy cases involving corporate affiliates and the transfer of cases from enforcement to bankruptcy, raising the problem of the courts performance indicators.

8. Professor Li opens up the issue of “informatization,” so that it becomes a platform collecting and analyzing bankruptcy data, and information sharing mechanism for all involved.  This comment echoes my own experience that the electronic platform is not helpful for a researcher seeking access to bankruptcy documents, as few are accessible, not even those that are otherwise publicly available. Some bankruptcy judges have responded to my discrete inquiries that little information is available because it is possible to set access restrictions on information.)

9.  He raises the increasingly prominent issue of cross-border bankruptcy, in which judges lack legislation and experience to deal with these issues, and suggests that at an appropriate time harmonization of Chinese cross-border bankruptcy standards with international ones.  By this, he is likely referring to the UNCITRAL model law on cross-border insolvency.  These issues are ongoing ones for the professional community in Hong Kong and increasingly in the rest of the world, see this law firm alert. This has been a frequent topic of academic analysis.

Finally, Professor Li states (what is clear from the comments above) that bankruptcy legislation is inadequate–the judicial interpretations the SPC has issued. deal with only a small portion of the outstanding issues and there isn’t time to draft a long judicial interpretation.  As judges are hearing bankruptcy cases, large numbers of technical issues have arisen [I can testify to this, based on the questions raised on one of my Wechat chat groups.]  SPC academic journals and academic studies address specific issues, see these articles. Professor Li suggests that a “conference summary” be issued based on this conference and input from bankruptcy court professionals. (A conference summary is explained in this blogpost.)

Quick comment

Finally, this area of law is a microcosm of issues facing the Chinese courts, whether it is the requirement for the SPC and lower courts  to reflect current Party/government policy in what they do, relationship between the courts and government, issues with judicial professionalism, large number of technical issues but a lack of legislation, related issues that affect the ordinary person, consideration of foreign law models, and the disconnect between international and Chinese practice.

China’s draft court law

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Screenshot of trial in the Haidian district court

A draft of the first comprehensive overhaul of China’s court law since 1979 (the organic/organizational law of the people’s courts) is now open for public comment (until 4 October).  A translation of the draft is available at Chinalawtranslate.com (many thanks to those who made it possible).  A translation of the current law is here and an explanation of the amendments has also been published.  The draft is significantly longer than the earlier version of the law (66 vs. 40 articles). It retains much of the framework of the old law, incorporates legislative changes as well many of the judicial reforms, particularly since the Third and Fourth Plenums, and leaves some flexibility for future reforms. As with the current law, Communist Party regulations address (and add another layer to) some of the broad issues addressed in the draft law. Some comments:

Drafting process

The drafting process (the explanation has the details) reflects the drafting of much Chinese legislation (further insights about the process from Jamie Horsley here)–several years of soft consultation by the drafters of relevant Party and government authorities, plus one month of public consultations. Among the central Party authorities consulted were: Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Central Organizational Department (in charge of cadres); Central Staffing Commission (in charge of headcount); Central Political Legal Committee.  On the government side: Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate; State Council Legislative Affairs Office; Ministry of Finance, National People’s Congress Legal Work Committee. Investigations and consultations were also done at a local level.

General Provisions

Some of the dated language from the 1979 version has been deleted (references to the “system of the dictatorship of the proletariat,” “socialist property,” and the “smooth progress of the socialist revolution.” replaced by “lawful rights and interests of legal persons,” and protection of national security and social order. Although the draft court law deletes language that distinguishes among owners of different types of Chinese companies, Chinese criminal law still does (see this chart setting out sentencing guidelines, for example).

Article 10 of the draft incorporates judicial responsibility systems into the law (a prominent feature of the recent judicial reforms), but a topic regarding which dispassionate analysis is hard to find.

The draft contains clear statements about judicial openness and the right of the masses (i.e. ordinary people, that term is alive and well) to know about the work of the courts (according to law).

Organization of the courts

The draft mentions some of the specialized and special courts that have been established over the last thirty years:

Article 14 incorporates the guiding case system into the draft.

Article 15 of the draft crystallizes the SPC’s circuit courts (tribunals) into law (SPC regulations on the jurisdiction of those courts found here).

Article 24 gives space for establishing cross-administrative region courts (the time has not yet been ripe for establishing them).

Articles 26 and 27 give courts some flexibility on their internal structure (courts in remote areas with few cases need not establish divisions, while large city courts can have multiple specialized ones. (Earlier blogposts have mentioned establishing bankruptcy divisions, for example.)

Trial Organization

This section of the draft law incorporates the current judicial reforms in several ways, including:

  • In Articles 30-31, on the operation of collegial panels and requiring the court president to be the presiding judge when s(he) participates in a collegial panel;
  • Mentioning in Article 32 that the members of the collegial panel are the ones to sign their judgments and dissenting opinions are to be recorded;
  • Article 34 gives space for eliminating the role of people’s assessors to determine issues of law;
  • Article 37 incorporates into law previous SPC regulations on judicial interpretations and guiding cases, specifying that they must be approved by the SPC judicial committee;
  • Article 40 contains provisions imposing liability on members of the adjudication/judicial committee for their comments and their votes. It also incorporates into the law SPC regulations on disclosing the views of the judicial committee in the final judgments, except where the law provides it would be inappropriate;
  • Article 41 also incorporates into the law the specialized committees mentioned in judicial reform documents (briefly discussed in prior blogposts).

Court Personnel

Article 42 requires court presidents to have legal knowledge and experience.  It has long been an issue that court presidents have been appointed more for their political than legal expertise.

It appears that the reform of having judges below the provincial level appointed by the provincial level is not yet in place,

This section of the draft court law incorporates the personnel reforms set out in the judicial reform documents in several ways: quota judge system; selecting higher court judges from the lower courts; the roles of judicial assistants and clerks (changed from the old model); other support personnel in the courts; a new career track for judges, including judicial selection committees; preference to hiring judges with legal qualifications;

Safeguards for the courts’ exercise of authority

Article 56 gives courts the right to refuse to engage in activities that violate their legally prescribed duties (with this end the phenomenon of judges sweeping streets?);

Article 57 relates to reforms relating to enforcement of judgments (and the social credit system);

Article 59 relates to threats to judges’ physical safety and personal dignity, that occur several times a year in China, and have been the subject of SPC regulations;

Scope for further reforms for judicial personnel management (including salary reform!) are included in this section.

Article 60 reiterates the principle that judges may only be transferred, demoted, dismissed according to procedures specified by law (Party procedures  to which most judges are subject,are governed by Party rules.)

Article 62 relates to judicial (and judicial personnel training)–some earlier blogposts have shed light on this topic.

Article 64 incorporates into the draft law President Zhou Qiang’s focus on the informatization (including use of the internet and big data) of the Chinese courts.

Etc.

My apologies to readers for the long gap between posts, but several long haul trips from Hong Kong plus teaching have left me no time to post.

Forthcoming individual bankruptcy legislation revealed in letter to President Zhou Qiang’s mailbox

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 12.48.54 PMMost readers of this blog are unlikely to know that the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) publishes on its website responses to selected letters to President Zhou Qiang that make suggestions and give opinions. In a July 11 response, the SPC revealed that individual bankruptcy legislation is on its agenda. As I suggest below, actual legislation is likely to come later.

The letter said:

Dear Mr. Pan Dingxin:

We received your proposal, and after consideration, we respond as follows:

establishing and implementing an individual bankruptcy system is beneficial for those individuals or households who have fallen into serious financial distress to exempt some of their debts and enable them again through their hard work to achieve normal business and living conditions. Because of this, it has an important function to protect individuals and households that have fallen into financial difficulties. However an individual bankruptcy system relates to the establishment and improvement of an individual credit system and commercialization of commercial banks or their further marketization and other factors.  At the same time, the implementation of an individual bankruptcy system requires the National People’s Congress or its Standing Committee to legislate. We believe that with development and improvement of the socialist market economic, the National People’s Congress or its Standing Committee will promulgate an individual bankruptcy law on the basis of the experience with the “PRC Enterprise Bankruptcy Law.” The Supreme People’s Court will definitely actively support the work of the relevant departments of the state, and promote the implementation of an individual bankruptcy system.

Thank you for your support of the work of the Supreme People’s Court!

Supreme People’s Court

June 15, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 9.37.15 PM Few are aware that Shenzhen has been working on draft individual bankruptcy legislation for several years now, looking to Hong Kong’s experience and legislation, described in a recent report as a “complete” individual bankruptcy system (“完善的个人破产制度”).  The process has been going on for so long that the team (designated by the local people’s congress and lawyers association) and headed by a Shenzhen law firm partner published a book one year ago with its proposed draft and explanations.

Although Professor Tian Feilong of Beihang University’s Law School has been recently widely quoted for his statement about Hong Kong’s legal system undergoing “nationalisation,”  this is an example, known to those closer to the the world of practice, that Hong Kong’s legal system is also seen as a source of legal concepts and systems that can possibly be borrowed.  The drafting team looked at Hong Kong (among other jurisdictions) and others in China have proposed the same as well.

Shenzhen’s municipal intermediate court has completed an (award-winning) study on judicial aspects of individual bankruptcy shared with the relevant judges at the SPC.

If recent practice is any guide, individual bankruptcy legislation will be piloted in Shenzhen and other regions before  nationwide legislation is proposed, and it will be possible to observe the possible interaction between those rules and the government’s social credit system. So national individual bankruptcy legislation appears to be some years off.

As to why the SPC has a letter to the court president function, the answer is on the SPC website: it is to further develop the mass education and practice campaign (mentioned in this blogpost four years ago) and listen to the opinions and suggestions of all parts of society (the masses).  Listening to the opinion and suggestions of society are also required of him as a senior Party leader, by recently updated regulations. The regulations are the latest expression of long-standing Party principles.

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Welcome to the “Court President’s Mailbox”

 

 

Welaw Monitor (微律观察) #2

I am traveling at the moment, so my time to review articles published on Wechat is limited.  But below are some links of interest.

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Huazhen (Flower Town) emotional counseling

Oldies but goodies

Several prominent media sources, the South China Morning Post among them, are running articles on China’s clean-up of the financial sector, this one pointing to the government’s focus on privately owned insurance companies.

But those reading Wechat would have known that several years ago, China’s legal analysts had been writing  articles such as “China’s private entrepreneurs are all on their way to jail  or China’s businesspeople are either in jail or on their way to jail. 

China’s Good Samaritan case Peng Yu back in the news-  a backgrounder plus-retired SPC judge Cai Xiaoxue criticizes as does former judge & Peking U Professor Fu Yulin.

Detention Center Law draft

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has recently issued its draft Detention Center Law for public comments (link to Chinalawtranslate.com’s translation.  The draft has caused a great deal of comment within China and those concerned about the treatment of fellow human beings in criminal detention in China should read these articles:

The MPS is drafting the Detention Center Law, but the entire legal world is opposed

10 years of calls for separating detention from criminal investigation

Professor Chen Ruihua, defects of the detention system and how it should be reformed

Professor Chen Ruihua–the detention centers should be transferred to the justice authorities

Commercial law

China’s distraught buy online counseling packages, but does China’s consumer protection legislation protect them if there are no standards for counseling?

Party discipline

A Cangzhou court president is under investigation. Is it connected to the strip search of a woman lawyer?

In CCDI hearing procedures, will evidence provided by the accused be considered?  The answer is, the scope is limited

Criminal law

Three SPC judges (likely to have been on the drafting team) unpack the asset recovery regulations (discussed in this January blogpost). It shows they looked to foreign legislation when doing so;

 20 years of bribery prosecutions, with 9 acquittals

SPC on anti-drug day, with white paper and 10 typical cases

Is it rape if the sexual contact comes after the coercion?

Supervision Commission

The first father’s day after being transferred to the Supervision Commission

Labor law

Does “remote working” in China mean the place of employment has changed?

Don’t make these 10 mistakes when terminating employees

Family law issues & property

Leta Hong Fincher’s book Leftover Women discusses the Marriage Law interpretation & home purchases.  This Wechat post sets out a chart with various scenarios related to marriage & home purchase--a very handy reference.

Bankruptcy

10 typical bankruptcy cases from Suqian, Jiangsu Province, including some real estate companies

Chongqing courts borrow concepts of personal bankruptcy from abroad when dealing with private (shadow) borrowing cases

The many inadequacies in China’s non-performing asset legislation

Judiciary

A review of the Party’s work at the SPC since the 18th Party Congress

 

 

 

 

Welaw Monitor (微律观察) #1

I am tweaking the type of content on the blog, cutting down on the long analytical blogposts.   I will provide links to reports and analysis on court and other legal matters on Wechat. I am concentrating on writing a book and some other related writing and editing projects.

It remains my hope that some followers with the financial wherewithal to do so will consider supporting (in some fashion) the blogs that are enabling the English speaking and reading public to perceive (through translation or bite-sized analysis) the “elephant” that is the Chinese legal system, among them Chinalawtranslate.com and this blog.

Commercial law

14 situations where the corporate veil can be pierced

Criminal law

Public security v. SPC & SPP on what is prostitution–does that include other types of sexual services?

SPC vice president Li Shaoping on drug crimes–relevant sections of Criminal Law should be amended, better evidentiary rules needed for drug crimes, & death penalty standards need to be improved

Hebei lawyer’s collateral appeal statement, alleges torture during residential surveillance, procedural errors (part of China’s innocence project

China’s financial crime trading rules are unclear

Defendant changed his story on appeal but the appeal court ruled he was the killer

25 criminal law case summaries from People’s Justice magazine 

Criminal procedure law

public security does not want the procuratorate supervisors in police stations

A corrupt official’s polygraph problems

Supervision Commission

Its power should be caged

Beijing supervision authorities take someone into custody, will shuanggui be abolished?

Party discipline

On confession writing

10 No nos for Party members using Wechat

Administrative litigation law

SPC issues 10 typical administrative cases, including one involving the Children’s Investment Fund

Those disputing compensation for expropriation of rural land must first apply for a ruling–land is now part of the Harbin Economic and Technical Zone (unpacking of  case #46 of #2 Circuit Court’s case summaries)

Labor law

Important study by the Guangzhou Intermediate Court on labor disputes 2014-16, with many insights & a section devoted to sex discrimination issues

Don’t make these 10 mistakes when terminating employees

Family law

Status report on family court reforms (& difficult issues for judges)

 Why it’s so hard to deal with school bullying in China

How juvenile justice should be improved (the semi-official view)

Judiciary

300 cases in 100 days–a team of young judges & expedited criminal cases

Environmental Law

Procuratorate has brought 79 public interest law suits in Yunnan (press report)

Bankruptcy

Why bankruptcy is so difficult and what needs to improve

Lawyers

 legal qualification system needs changing, the profession needs those with non-law undergraduate training

 

 

 

Supreme People’s Court releases 2016 bankruptcy data

7427ea09324917a26ee719The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued 2016 data on bankruptcy cases on 24 February: 5665 cases were accepted by the Chinese courts while 3602 were closed.  This is up substantially from 2015, when 3568 cases were accepted.  This is an increase of 53.8% over 2015.   Of these, 1041 were bankruptcy reorganization cases, up 85.2% over 2015. As this blog has previously reported,  long delays in filing bankruptcy cases have meant that practically all bankruptcy cases have been liquidation rather than reorganization cases. This is contrast to the downward trend in bankruptcy cases 2005-2014, shown in the graph published on this earlier blogpost. These numbers represent only a tiny proportion of what the Chinese government terms “zombie enterprises,” but it does show that the SPC has been doing its part to serve the nation’s major economic strategies.

What has the SPC done to support this important government strategy highlighted in the 5th Plenum?  In reverse chronological order, a quick list of some of the highlights:

  1. In February, 2017, the SPC issued guidance  to the lower courts on transferring cases that are in debt enforcement proceedings into bankruptcy, so that bankruptcy reorganization has a chance of working. Justice Du had flagged the importance of this a year ago. The Zhejiang Higher People’s Court piloted measures because the courts of that province are piloting bankruptcy reforms. As reported in a December, 2016 blogpost, close to half (40-50%) of the unsatisfied enforcement cases are ones that are wholly unsatisfied, with a goodly portion involving corporate judgment debtors. Judge Du pointed out that unsatisfied judgments because of local protectionism have led to conflicts between creditors and “fierce” conflicts between courts. He called for courts not to engage in “buck passing” on enforcement cases that are transferred to another court for bankruptcy procedures.
  2. In December, 2016, the SPC and lower court judges (as well as Chinese bankruptcy practitioners and scholars) were involved in dialogue with American bankruptcy judges and practitioners on bankruptcy issues, under the framework of US Department of Commerce initiative
  3. On 1 August 216, launched a bankruptcy electronic information platform  (it harmonizes with President Zhou Qiang’s promotion of information technology in the Chinese courts). According to the SPC’s press release, close to 9000 cases are in the database. The platform has assembled relevant documents on some high profile cases, such as Dongbei Special Steel. This platform has received a good market response with 9,760,000 page views as of early February, 2017 (likely to be primarily bankruptcy professionals).
  4. In June, 2016, as this blog has reported earlier, the SPC has required lower courts to establish specialized bankruptcy divisions (4 on the provincial level, 47 intermediate courts, and 22 basic level courts).  One of the aims of the SPC is to create a corps of more competent judges to handle bankruptcy cases. Given the link between the bankruptcy of large state owned enterprises and social stability highlighted by judges writing on this topic previously, serving as a bankruptcy judge in China requires a set of skills unneeded in other jurisdictions.
  5. As more and more companies go into bankruptcy, (as highlighted in this blogpost), more labor litigation can be expected. Senior SPC judges have highlighted that people are increasingly aware of their rights. Those with the means are going to court to try to protect them. The SPC is likely to work on technical issues highlighted in the report such as: how to characterize labor claims in bankruptcy, and whether they should be treated as labor disputes or claims against the bankruptcy estate; whether labor disputes needed to be submitted first to labor arbitration; how the courts can better obtain files from labor arbitration authorities and can ensure labor disputes are addressed and not avoided; and how to ensure that bankrupt enterprises pay social insurance payments for their employees.
  6. Expect to see the SPC focus on bankruptcies (or reorganization) in important areas of the Chinese economy, such as real estate.  This analysis published by a member of the Shanghai Bar Association highlighted some of the complex interests relating to the bankruptcy reorganization of real estate companies : is it practicable;  the workers; the lender, who are often private (shadow) lenders; the individual purchasers. These cases generally involve a string of companies.

Liaoning high court looks into labor issues in bankruptcy

While Zhou Qiang’s statements on  judicial independence, mistaken “Western” thinking, and separation of powers continue to be discussed inside and outside of China, others in the Chinese legal community face more prosaic and difficult issues of how to protect workers when companies go into bankruptcy.  This is a particular issue in the northeastern provinces, particularly in Liaoning.

According to statistics released in the past month (January, 2017), there were 345 other bankruptcy cases accepted by the Liaoning courts, aside from the bankruptcy of Dongbei Special Steel, which has received the lions share of attention outside of China. While strikes are regularly reported in the English language media , what is not known that in many of these bankruptcy cases, employees have gone to court.

A research report by the Liaoning Higher People’s Court (Liaoning High Court) recently released in the People’s Court Daily (the Supreme People’s Court’s )SPC) newspaper, giving the report the SPC’s semi-official imprimatur) drilled down on 79 labor cases related to enterprise bankruptcy that arose in 2015-16. The Liaoning High Court did not specify the overall number of bankruptcy-related labor cases the provincial courts accepted.  A quick search reveals several hundred, the exact number depending on how the search is framed.

The research report provides a glimpse into the concerns of the judiciary, involvement of counsel in these disputes (a more general report on representing workers was recently published, available here), inadequacies of related legislation, and chaotic record keeping of these companies.

Research report reveals several major issues

The report identified the top issue to be the re-employment of workers, citing two large scale bankruptcies, the Hongmei Group (MSG manufacturer) and Badaohao Coal Mine. (A 2014 social media posting criticized the Hongmei Group’s violation of labor law).

A second issue was that bankruptcy caused group labor litigation, particularly by senior staff, who were more highly paid, and older, but faced difficulties being reemployed (and likely had the funds to hire a lawyer).  The report noted that this group had overly high expectations from litigation and if their individual claims were not supported by the court, they would resort to group litigation or petitioning.The research report mentioned, with a positive spin, that labor lawyers were involved  to resolve disputes.

The litigants raised more varied claims rather than simply wages, including: damages; determination of a labor relationship; social insurance; work-related injury; wages and status; etc., as shown by the chart below.

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-8-50-40-amUnlike ordinary labor cases, most cases were decided by court judgment, not mediated. In 66% of the cases, the plaintiff’s claim was upheld in whole or part, with a dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims in 28% of cases.

The report also illustrates the importance of social stability related procedures.  Although a Chinese law firm partner criticized as quite vague and incompatible with the existing labor law system  the requirement in a 2016 State Council policy document that a worker resettlement plan (for certain industries)  be approved by the workers’ congress or all workers, this is not new and is taken seriously by local judges.  The requirement is contained in Liaoning provincial level legislation (and other legislation) and compliance was noted by the research team. (The team noted that after the resettlement plan was approved (for Hong Mei Group and Badaohao Coal) was approved by the workers congress, it was reported to the local labor and union authorities authorities.

Compliance with labor law related formalities, by both  companies and employees created problems for judges hearing these claims, such as in work-related injury cases, where companies failed to pay legally required wages to employees and employees failed to submit needed documentation.  Some of the companies continued to pay employees under old “planned-economy” systems rather than comply with current labor law, requiring employees to work overtime without overtime pay, a particular issue in the Badahao Coal Mine bankruptcy.

Inadequacies of legislation highlighted by the team included: how to characterize labor claims in bankruptcy, and whether they should be treated as labor disputes or claims against the bankruptcy estate; whether labor disputes needed to be submitted first to labor arbitration; how the courts can better obtain files from labor arbitration authorities and can ensure labor disputes are addressed and not avoided; and how to ensure that bankrupt enterprises pay social insurance payments for their employees.

Comments

The research team (at least on the version publicly available) did not further explore the reasons for the failure of these bankrupt companies (likely many SOEs) to comply with basic labor law requirements, why local labor arbitration authorities avoided hearing cases, or why the Liaoning High Court needed to issue the recommendation that  “labor administrative departments should also strengthen the daily management and supervision of the enterprises before their bankruptcy.”

This report contains a disturbing signal about the disposal of assets of bankrupt companies.  This is significant because the government is promoting the use of bankruptcy. The report recommended that the liquidation group effectively dispose of tangible and intangible assets of the bankrupt companies such as coal mines and well-known trademarks, and implement better supervision and management, to ensure that the realization of bankruptcy assets to maximize the protection of the employees.

Liaoning bankruptcies may be an illustration of what an bankruptcy lawyer recently commented in Caixin:  “falsifying financial reports and asset transfers has often occurred in SOE bankruptcy cases to escape obligations. Meanwhile, local governments’ intervention has also often disrupted the fairness of such cases.”

It appears that employees of the bankrupt companies are the ones who suffer the most when these cases are not handled fairly.As the research team recognized, employees are the weaker party. The team recommended that local government provide a coordination mechanism and funding to secure the workers’ claims against the company, so that the company can withdraw from the market but overall societal interests are balanced.  Whether local Liaoning governments do so remains to be seen.