By Richard Parker
China has a secret: It owes American investors hundreds of billions of dollars.
The Chinese government doesn’t like to talk about it and the U.S. government doesn’t want to raise it. But decades ago, Beijing defaulted on debt owed to Americans, as well as investors and governments around the world. In one case, it was paid. In the rest it was not. More than 20,000 American investors own this debt. The U.S. government may also own Chinese war debt, unpaid since World War II.
With the simple stroke of an executive proclamation, President Barack Obama can begin the process of addressing this issue. A 1930s-era law has established a quasi-public agency within the Securities and Exchange Commission, known as the Corporation of Foreign Securities Holders, which can arbitrate this dispute, much as a predecessor agency did for decades. China can both afford and benefit from this solution; it will afford goodwill at a time when relations between the world’s two superpowers are strained.
The story begins nearly 100 years ago, in 1913, when the government of China began issuing bonds to foreign investors and governments for infrastructure work to modernize the country. As the country fell into civil war in 1927, paying these debts became increasingly difficult and the government fell into default. Even so, in April 1938, the Nationalist government of China began to issue U.S.-dollar denominated bonds to finance the war against Japan’s brutal invasion.
Locked in a pitched battle for survival, the government issued these bonds into 1940. As part of its wartime financial aid, the U.S. government further provided a $500 million credit to China in March 1942, shipping gold there and helping to stabilize the currency. In return, it appears that the U.S. government redeemed some of these dollar-denominated bonds. But China doesn’t appear to have repaid this debt either, according to State Department records, and the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 ended decades of political, military and financial cooperation.
While successor governments are usually bound by the debts of predecessor governments, the new Communist government refused to pay any of these claims. The issue lay dormant for decades, just as the bilateral relationship did. Then, in 1979, as part of normalizing relations, Washington released government financial claims regarding the expropriation of American property and appears to have dropped the matter of the war debt entirely. However, it is one thing for government decision-makers to let go of government debt, however questionable that is.
And it is entirely another thing for individual citizens to press their claims. Some U.S. investors tried to sue the Chinese government in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act makes it very hard for any U.S. citizen to sue a foreign government in U.S. courts because the law generally says that U.S. courts do not have jurisdiction.
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