Back to the Future (Again): Horatio Gadfly and Those Imperial Chines...

07/29/20

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FT Alphaville has had a long line of quirky and brilliant reporters over the years, something that I've always enjoyed (Joseph Cotterill, Tracy Alloway, Colby Smith, Cardiff Garcia and more). And I've especially liked the pieces that do deep dives into obscure and arcane sovereign debt matters.

The latest such piece is from Izabella Kaminska, on the the topic of antique imperial Chinese bonds and the possibilities for recovery (from about ten hours ago, here).  The likelihood of using purely legal methods and recovering on these today is near zero.  But near zero is not zero and periodically, as a means to get students engaged on the thorny questions of statutes of limitations and sovereign immunity, Mark Weidemaier and I will assign them the task of figuring out which of the defaulted imperial sovereign bonds have the best chance of recovery. The assignment is usually framed in terms of a set of bonds that Mr. Horatio Gadfly inherited (here) (Joseph Cotterill's hilarious piece on Mr. Gadfly's adventures is here)).

This past semester, a group of our students -- Michael Chen, Charlie Fendrych, and Andres Paciuc, dug deep and found a small subset of bonds that maybe, just maybe, had a long shot. Their fun paper, "The Emperor's Old Bonds" (soon to appear in print in the Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law) is here.

Izabella's article today makes a deeper point, which is that these legal claims -- while implausible if viewed in purely legal terms -- can acquire muscle as a function of political context.  Is this such a time?  Maybe.  Coronavirus, trade talks, election rhetoric, Taiwan, and given that some of Trump's supporters have lots of these old Chinese bonds and Trump is . . . well, Trump may have changed the equation from what it has been for the past century.  Steve Bannon, of all people, has talked about imperial Chinese bonds on his War Room show multiple times (e.g., this War Room episode at about 40:50. . . Aiyiyiyi . . . here).  

If you are intrigued and want to go down the rabbit hole, this question of politics and antique Chinese bonds has come up before -- see Tracy Alloway's piece on Bloomberg (here), Cardiff Garcia on NPR (here) and Mark Weidemaier on creditslips (here and here). 

Izabella is (I hope) not done with her writing on this topic and there might be more on Alphaville soon (today's teaser was in the main paper).  This topic connects to so many other fun topics relating to historic wrongs too -- like the fact that the British museum holds the Elgin Marbles and the British crown holds the Koh-i-Noor diamond (US museums undoubtedly have lots of these sorts of items as well). If Chinese imperial bonds need to get paid, maybe it is time to give the Elgin Marbles and the Koh-i-Noor back? Come to think of it, maybe it is time to give them back regardless of the bonds? Sovereigns are infinitely lived, which means that their obligations are too -- if someone can figure out a way to get around the statutes of limitations.

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