February 04, 2008
Chinese corporate law: where's the beef?
Posted by Donald Clarke

Many thanks to Gordon for his kind introduction and for inviting me on as a guest blogger. I'm a regular reader of Conglomerate and it's an honor to be asked to join in.

My research interest is in modern Chinese legal institutions generally and corporate governance in particular; recently I've been looking not at the substantive rules of corporate governance, but at the institutions that would make those substantive rules matter, and the extent to which they exist in China.

One can't spend much time studying Chinese law without being struck by the tremendous gap between what the rules say and what actually happens. This goes beyond the usual law-on-the-books versus law-in-practice gap that one can find in any jurisdiction, where the gap is attributable to obsolescence, resource constraints, and political factors such as government unwillingness to enforce certain types of laws. In China it seems to arise sometimes from a different view of law altogether:
essentially a kind of didactic text that regulated parties are supposed to read and obey. If obedience is not forthcoming, the response is to blame the regulated parties for their willfulness. An alternative response would, of course, be to look at the enforcement structure provided by the regulations in question: do regulated parties have any reason to obey? But this response is relatively rare.

Thus, for example, the Chinese Company Law provides that joint-stock companies (more or less the equivalent of the Delaware corporation) shall have both a board of directors and a board of supervisors. The latter is supposed to keep an eye on the former. But it is elected by exactly the same body that elects the board (i.e., the shareholders) and, while it can ask questions of the directors or request explanations of certain acts, it has no real power to do anything if the answers aren't satisfactory. A recent revision to the Company Law (in 2005) gave it the power to call a shareholders' meeting, but that's about it.

Another example is the director's duty of care and loyalty. This is stated in one provision of the 2005 revised Company Law, but there is no right of action clearly attached to it. Where the law does not very clearly provide you with a right of action (and even in some cases where it does), Chinese courts are typically very unwilling to give you one.

This in turn stems from another feature of Chinese law: that it often seems to make sense more as a set of instructions to officials than as a rights-granting instrument. For example, one type of company under the Company Law may dispense with a board of directors if it is "relatively small" and has a "relatively small" number of shareholders. But the law provides no clue as to how we are to know what counts as "relatively small" in each case. If we think of the law as a recipe for entrepreneurs, it's bad drafting. But if we think of it as instructions to officials in the bureaucracy that handles corporate registrations, then it's easier to understand: it's telling them to make a discretionary judgment. The same thinking is behind regulations that look like private law but say that something or other "should normally" be done or "should in principle" be done.

One might reasonably ask, "But is that so different from US (or other Western) law? Surely we have vague terms such as 'due process' and 'reasonable' that we happily give to judges, juries, or administrative agencies to interpret." This is not a bad point. I think the difference, though, is in the fact that in the US system, we now have a pretty good idea of who has the power to interpret what; when people draft legislation, they could probably readily tell you which body would be interpreting which term and under which principles. Very few of these matters are well worked out in the Chinese legal system. Legislation will always have problems, but the courts have very little power and prestige, and thus aren't a good institutional solution to these problems. As a result, while all legal systems generate uncertainty and contradiction, China's is unusual in not having well-understood techniques for resolving that uncertainty and contradiction.

The bottom line is that when one hears that Chinese corporate law requires such-and-such or imposes such-and-such a duty, one has to ask whether there's any reason to think that this alleged requirement or duty is at all meaningful. One doesn't have to be a card-carrying Holmesian realist to wonder whether a duty that is in substance wholly hortatory should really count, and be reported, as a legal duty just like the legal duty to drive carefully, refrain from embezzlement, etc.

China, Comparative Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Law, Law & Society | Bookmark

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