The “Soft Law” of the Supreme People’s Court

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On 13 November, the TianTong Law Firm published a bilingual version of the article below in their TianTong Litigation Circle Wechat public account. (Follow the article link to read the Chinese version.) The Tian Tong Litigation’s public account has half a million subscribers. I am very appreciative of TianTong litigation partner David Gu’s (顾嘉) kind invitation and the careful editing of his colleagues.  The Chinese title of the article is: 最高人民法院对“软法”的适用:外国观察者的视角 | 跨境顾释 (with the English title of “A foreign observer comments on the ‘soft law’ of the Supreme People’s Court”).  The hard work of my research assistant Sun Dongyu, one of our Peking University School of Transnational Law graduates, and Fu Panfeng, assistant research fellow of the Institute of International Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences transformed my English article into readable Chinese. 

Much of the substantive content of the article has previously appeared in this blog, but with a different perspective and conclusion. 

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I am very honored to have this opportunity to publish some of my observations about the developments of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) with TianTong Litigation Circle. I have been observing developments of the SPC for almost 30 years, and am honored to have been included in the first batch of members of the international expert committee of the China International Commercial Court. The views expressed in this article are my own and should not be attributed to the committee, the China International Commercial Court, or the SPC.
One of the many special features of the SPC, as an important supreme court in the world, that it allocates a great deal of effort to different types of “soft law.” Soft law is a concept that the late Professor Luo Haocai, formerly vice president of the SPC, introduced and developed in China, so discussing the “soft law” of SPC is particularly appropriate. For those who are not aware of this academic concept, it means norms that affect the behavior of related stakeholders, even though the norms do not have the status of formal law.
This article gives my thoughts on two aspects of SPC soft law—its judicial policy documents and cases that it has specially selected.

I. Judicial documents

I have a special interest in judicial documents, because they drew me into researching the SPC in the early 1990s.
The seven categories of documents below are classified as judicial documents or “judicial normative documents” (“司法文件” or “司法规范性文件”) and sometimes judicial policy documents” (“司法政策性文件”). The SPC’s website lists some of them. An attentive reader can discover from reviewing the documents on the website that my description is not comprehensive. The SPC issues many other documents as well, covering personnel and administrative matters, but this article focuses on those with normative provisions.
SPC judicial documents are partially governed by 2012 regulations on the handling of SPC official documents (“人民法院公文处理办法”), which leave much unsaid and unexplained. It seems likely that additional guidance exists, whether in the form of bureaucratic custom or internal guidelines. Many, but not all, are the SPC’s special versions of Party/government documents.

1. Categories of judicial documents

1) Opinions (“意见”). According to my observations, the SPC issues several types of Opinions. I have not yet done detailed research into these different types of documents and have not seen detailed analysis in Chinese (or English). What I’m setting forth below is my tentative analysis.

i. Opinion Type 1

An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that addresses a range of matters. The Services and Guarantees Opinions appear to fall into this category. These documents create and transmit to the lower courts new judicial policy, update previous judicial policy, establish new legal guidance that may be eventually crystallized in judicial interpretations and direct the lower courts, but cannot be cited in judicial judgments or rulings. They are generally linked to an important Party or state strategy or initiative. The ones labeled “Guiding Opinions” are intended to push policy forward, but others may do as well. Sometimes the SPC issues illustrative “model/exemplary/typical cases to clarify certain points to the lower courts (and the legal community), such as the Opinion providing Services and Guarantees [Safeguards] to the Yellow River Basin, for which the SPC issued illustrative cases.

ii. Opinion Type 2

An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that consolidates rules or guidance found in disparate documents and adds some new rules, focuses on one particular topic, relating to litigants. The April, 2020 Opinions on Promoting Lawful and Efficient Trials of Bankruptcy Cases is a good example. It incorporates a provision from the Minutes of the National Court Work Conference on Bankruptcy Trials, for example, regarding consolidating bankruptcy cases of affiliated enterprises.

iii. Opinion Type 3

An Opinion also issued solely by the SPC, that sets out in normative form Party policy/judicial reforms, that may be the framework for further normative opinions, and eventually crystalized in law. An example is the 2015 Opinions on Improving the Judicial Responsibility System of the People’s Courts . The first line clearly links the document to Party decisions–“for the purpose of implementing the general deployment of the Party Center on deepening the reform of the judicial system….(“为贯彻中央关于深化司法体制改革的总体部署”). It is linked to several normative Opinions and the judicial responsibility system has been incorporated into the People’s Court Law.

iv. Opinion Type 4

An Opinion in which the SPC is one of several issuing institutions, that does not create new legal rules but harmonizes legal positions among institutions and for the courts, and clarifies how the law should be applied. This type of Opinion also cannot be cited as the basis for a judgment or ruling. This type of Opinion is particularly common in the area of criminal law, and is often related to the latest campaign or focus of the authorities. The 2019 Opinions on Several Issues Regarding the Handling of Criminal Cases of Illegal Lending , (“最高人民法院、最高人民检察院 公安部 司法部印发《关于办理非法放贷刑事案件若干问题的意见》的通知” ) part of the Special Campaign to Crack Down on Underworld Forces (“扫黑除恶专项斗争”) is a good example. One aspect of the ongoing campaign, which began in early 2018, is to use the criminal justice and regulatory authorities to crack down on “routing loans” (“套路贷”), an offense not defined by the Criminal Law. This 2019 Opinion harmonizes the understanding among the criminal justice authorities to punish those providing “routing loans.” Article 1 describes certain types of lending activity that can be punished under the crime of illegal business operations (Criminal Law article 225(4)).

2) Conference summary/meeting minutes (“会议纪要”). A conference summary arises from an SPC specialized court conference. A conference summary is used to transmit central legal policy, unify or harmonize court practices in accordance with that policy. Although conference summaries do not have the status of a judicial interpretation, the lower courts will generally decide cases according to its provisions. My understanding of the term “harmonizing court practice” means in Chinese judicial parlance that judges are applying the law similarly. A recent example is the 9th National Courts’ Civil and Commercial Trial Work Conference Summary. The document itself has a very useful explanation: “the Conference Minutes [Summary], which are not judicial interpretations, cannot be cited as a basis for adjudication. For first instance and second instance pending cases after the Conference Minutes have been issued, people’s courts may reason according to the relevant provisions of the Conference Minutes when specifically analyzing the reasons for the application of law in the “The court is of the view” section of adjudicative instruments.”

3) Professional judges meeting summary (“法官会议纪要”). I have not yet written in detail about these, but in my observation, they are a product of the judicial reforms. The SPC circuit courts appear to have led the way on publishing these as a way of “unifying judicial practice” but the #2 Civil Division (focusing on commercial issues) has published a collection as well.

4) Response or reply (“复函” or “答复”). These are responses or replies to requests for instructions or approvals. The SPC, like other Party and state organs, handles requests for instructions (“请示”). Although proposals have been published either to incorporate the practice into procedural law or abolish it, the practice lives on at all court levels, including the SPC. If the issue raised is considered important enough, the reply will be approved as a judicial interpretation. There are apparently fewer requests for instructions than ten or twenty years ago. I surmise more are submitted on the criminal issues than civil. One subcategory of these responses are the ones issued by the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, the division focusing on cross-border commercial and maritime issues. These are responses to request from instructions (“请示”) from provincial-level courts (including the higher courts of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing), as required by the SPC’s Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters.

5) Notice (通知). Documents transmitting one of the above types of judicial documents are often called notices, but this is meant to call attention to a document entitled “notice” (“通知”), such as the Notice concerning some questions regarding the centralized handling of judicial review of arbitration cases (“关于仲裁司法审件归口办理有关问题的通知”) .

6) Rules (“规则” and “条例”). One recent example of the use of rules (“规则” is the CICC’s Procedural Rules for the China International Commercial Court of the Supreme People’s Court (“最高人民法院办公厅关于印发《最高人民法院国际商事法庭程序规则(试行)》的通知” ), issued by the SPC’s General Office. The rules were discussed by the SPC judicial committee but not issued as a judicial interpretation. I have observed that “规则” is used for court rules–as the same term is used for the Working Rules of the SPC’s Compensation Committee (最高人民法院赔偿委员会工作规则) . The term “条例” is used to regulate internal court system matters, such as rules (using the term “条例”) on judicial training(“法官教育培训工作条例” ) and 2012 rules on especially appointed inspectors (最高人民法院特约监督员工作条例).

7) Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The most well-known example is the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding on Taking Joint Disciplinary Actions against Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement (“《对失信被执行人实施联合惩戒的合作备忘录》”). It appears to be the first time (or at least one of the first times) that a large group of central Party-state institutions has concluded an MOU. The SPC concludes many, only some of which have been made public. The lower courts do so as well. It shows that some “Western” legal concepts are useful in the Chinese context.

2. Comments

According to the SPC’s rules on judicial interpretation work , judicial interpretations must be published. The SPC Gazette and People’s Court Daily are required to publish the interpretations, but for the other documents published, it is hit or miss. As for the judicial documents listed above , not all are published, as there is no requirement to do so. As I have observed previously, the SPC is generally publishing more judicial documents than before. The contrast is clear, when compared to the early 1990’s, when I started to research the SPC. One positive and important example is the approved judicial interpretation agenda, issued in the form of a notice from the General Office of the SPC .
The SPC’s official website publishes some, but not all of the judicial documents that can be found in some other sources. A problem for those puzzling out these documents is that unfortunately the staff of the SPC’s website does not take the due care they should to ensure that documents are published in the correct classification, so the careful observer will find that misclassifications occur from time to time. Sources other than the SPC’s website may have more of these judicial documents. Some of these judicial documents, such as replies or responses by the #4 Civil Division under the Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters, are published in the division’s own publication, as discussed further below.
There are two additional comments on judicial documents worth mentioning, i.e. data (or lack thereof) and persuasiveness to the lower courts. It is difficult to determine how the number of judicial documents/judicial regulatory documents that the SPC issues compares to the number of judicial interpretations, as it is clear that it is inconvenient for some judicial documents to be made public (and some appear to be classified).
A second comment is on the persuasiveness of these judicial documents to the lower courts. I surmise that some of them are more important to local court leaders than to ordinary judges, but it depends on the nature of the judicial document. It is my understanding that judicial documents with normative provisions (conference summaries or Opinions with normative content) are cited in trial reports (“审理报告” or “审查报告”), but not in judgments or rulings.

II. SPC Selected cases and decisions

A second important area of SPC soft law is SPC selected cases and decisions, which are increasingly important as a form of guidance to lower court judges, especially with the formal implementation of the similar case guidance system . Since 2016, I have been writing about the development of case law with Chinese characteristics, because in my view, it is a very important development.

1. Guiding Opinions 

The 27 July 2020 Guiding Opinions Concerning Strengthening Search for Similar Cases to Unify the Application of Law (“Guiding Opinions”) (“《关于统一法律适用加强类案检索的指导意见(试行)》”) , is significant because it will make judicial decisions more consistent, an ongoing issue in the Chinese court system. The SPC is approving the practice of judges using principles derived from prior cases to fill in the gaps in legislation and judicial interpretations.
The Guiding Opinions codifies many of the practices of the Chinese courts and imposes some new requirements. I have written before that it does not mean that China has become a common law legal system. Although the Guiding Opinions do not address this question, comments by an SPC judge suggest that the special status of cases selected by the SPC by its operational divisions remains in place. It is cases with a special status that I will discuss further below, because it is something most readers in and out of China do not focus on.
The rules on case law in Article 4 of the Guiding Opinions are in line with what I have previously written:
1) SPC guiding cases;
2) SPC typical (model) cases (“典型案例”) and judgments or rulings of the SPC;
3) Reference cases issued by provincial-level higher people’s courts and decisions by those courts;
4) Higher-level courts in the jurisdiction in question and judgments of that court.

2. Specific types of SPC cases

My understanding is that these are general principles, but the specific scope of cases that need to be searched will depend on the specifics. Among the specific types of SPC cases not mentioned in the Guiding Opinions are the following:

1) The cases issued by the SPC Circuit Courts

The SPC Circuit Courts issue cases under different names that are intended to guide the lower courts within their circuits and also indirectly guide legal practitioners in that circuit. In 2016, for example, the #2 Circuit Court issued a set of 30 case summaries (literally important points, 案例要旨) on administrative cases, selected from the many administrative cases heard in the first year and a half of operation. It appears that all six Circuit courts issue reference or typical cases. Earlier this year, the #2 Circuit Court launched a “case a week” (每周一案) series. The Sixth Circuit issues cases entitled Sixth Circuit Case Guidance (“六巡案例参考”) , while the Third Circuit issues typical cases .

2) Cases selected by the operational divisions of the SPC

The SPC provides guidance to the lower courts in the form of cases published in “trial guides”(“审判指导丛书”) and other related specialized publications. The cases published in these trial guides, which have various titles, are for the most part not “guiding cases”(“指导性案例”) and therefore may not be cited in a court judgment. However, because they have been specially selected by the SPC, they are quite persuasive to the lower courts and therefore important to legal professionals. The SPC sees them as a supplement to legislation, judicial interpretations, various types of judicial normative documents/judicial documents/(“司法规范性文件”/ “司法文件”) and useful in providing a source for judicial interpretation drafting. I call these cases “stealth” guidance or “soft precedents”, as they are used without citation in judgments.
Examples of these trial guides include: Reference to Criminal Trial (“刑事审判参考”), edited by a team from the five SPC criminal divisions, the #4 Civil Division’s Guide to Foreign-related Commercial and Maritime Trial; and the Administrative Division’s Administrative Law Enforcement and Administrative Adjudication (“行政执法与行政审判”).
The editors of these publications select cases they consider significant. The editors describe them as “selected to provide specific guidance and reference for criminal justice officials in finding facts, admitting evidence, applying the law and determining sentences when handling similar cases.”(“选择在认定事实,采行证据,法律适用和裁量刑罚…为了刑事司法工作人员处理类似案件提供具体指导和参考”) The editors of the Guide to Foreign-related Commercial and Maritime Trial describe the cases as providing powerful guidance (“具有较强的指导意义”“为了…遇到类似问题提供了解决思路”). They describe their selected cases as being typical and of guiding significance (“具有典型和指导意义的审判案例”). Some of the cases in these trial guides are entitled replies (some called “答复” and others entitled “复函”), as discussed above. One very important type is required by the SPC’s Prior Reporting system for cross-border arbitration matters (for example, as when a lower court intends to refuse the enforcement of a foreign arbitral award). The #4 Civil Division publishes both the request for instructions as well as their response, while the SPC Administrative Division in their publication Administrative Law Enforcement and Administrative Adjudication (“行政执法与行政审判”) only publishes their responses to the lower courts.

These cases retain their special authority even after the Guiding Opinion was issued, as indicated by comments by Senior Judge Yu Tongzhi , an editor of Reference to Criminal Trial. He noted in an article published on 31 July that for criminal cases, the best source to search similar cases is the guidance cases published in Reference to Criminal Trial.”(“就刑事司法而言,可供检索的“类案”,首选无疑是最高人民法院五个刑事审判庭唯一、共同主办的《刑事审判参考》刊载的“指导案例”)。
In my view, this discrete, technical reform of the Guiding Opinion, including the SPC selected cases described above (a form of soft law), has implications greater than the drafters of the Guiding Opinions may have realized, including a possible impact on Chinese legal education. It has the potential to make litigation and assessment of a party’s legal position in non-contentious matters more predictable for parties.

III. Conclusion

Some final thoughts about why the SPC often uses “soft law” to guide the lower courts. In my understanding. SPC judicial interpretations (司法解释) are SPC “quasi-hard law”, as rules on judicial interpretation work state that they have the force of law. That means that they are intended to be in place for an extended period of time and as a consequence, the drafting process tends to be long and involved. Chinese courts, in my understanding, must serve the greater situation (服务大局). The greater situation is dynamic. Soft law enables the SPC to guide the lower courts timely in applying the law and judicial interpretations in specific cases, harmonized with current policy. In this way, the courts perform their important role in governance.

In sum, whether it is SPC policy documents or different types of case guidance or case decisions, SPC soft law is intended to strengthen the firm guiding hand of the SPC, as part of its authority to guide the lower courts.


I have replaced footnotes in the article with links.

Civil Code & the Supreme People’s Court

 
The new Chinese Civil Code will become effective on 1 January 2021, with broad impacts on Chinese law in and out of China.  As mentioned by most of the better law firms commenting on the Civil Code, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) will fill in some of the broad principles through judicial interpretations.  Other regulatory ministries will do so for specific issues, such as land and property mortgages.  But the Civil Code involves a great deal of work behind the scenes at the SPC, so that 1 January 2021 sees a seamless transition from the separate bodies of Contract Law, Inheritance Law, etc. to the Civil Code and inconsistent judicial interpretations are no longer in effect.  A recent article in one of the SPC’s media outlets by the group in charge of the work gives more detail to the work that I flagged this in May, when I gave comments on the SPC’s major research topics on Chinalawtranslate.com::

the SPC will support the Civil Code by issuing transitional arrangements & judicial interpretations. Over the years, the SPC has been issuing judicial interpretations and other documents relating to the areas of law that will form the Civil Code, particularly in the area of personality rights (Portraiture, Personal Information, Privacy, Genetic Information rights etc.), areas where legislation has been lacking. So work will be needed to review the previous documents in a big “housecleaning exercise”. The articles [in the Civil Code] on personal information, privacy, etc. are not very detailed, although they are important to individual people. Then the question is here, what protections will be provided by forthcoming judicial interpretation(s). This will fill in some of the abstract statements in the Civil Code.

The article by the Leading Small Group Office reveals the following:

  1. Civil Code work is high priority as it is work that designated by the Party Center (literally, 党中央决策部署在人民法院得到不折不扣贯彻落实).  General Secretary Xi Jinping has pointed out that related judicial interpretations need to be improved timely, so the Civil Code, related legal provisions and the spirit are consistent ( 要及时完善相关民事司法解释,使之同民法典及有关法律规定和精神保持一致). But the focus in this post is not on the politics, but the practicalities of implementing the Civil Code in China). 
  2. The SPC has created a leading small group to lead an institution-wide team, entitled the Leading Small Group for Implementing Civil Code Work  民法典贯彻实施工作领导小组 (Leading Small Group).  SPC President Zhou Qiang heads the Leading Small Group. I’ve not yet identified who is heading the Leading Small Group’s Office (最高人民法院民法典贯彻实施工作领导小组办公室).
  3. The Leading Small Group Office [presumably] assembled a Task Breakdown Table( “切实实施民法典”任务分解表”).  The work involved includes: reviewing 591 related judicial interpretations and 139  guiding cases as well as SPC Gazette cases. It seems to involve significant project management skills.  At the SPC level, the Leading Small Group’s Office worked with the judicial interpretation department (the Research Office, as far as I know) and assigned responsibilities by the the principle:  “whoever drafted is responsible”.  That means that the #1 Civil Division would have reviewed interpretations related to family law issues (marriage and inheritance law, for example), and the #2 Civil Division would have reviewed company law and other related issues for which it is responsible.  According to the article, this review work was basically completed by the end of September. 
  4. The criteria for review are as follows: if the content of an old judicial interpretation has been completely adopted by the Civil Code, then the judicial interpretation will be abolished when the Civil Code becomes effective. If a current judicial interpretation completely conflicts with the Civil Code, the current one will be scheduled to be abolished. Another scenario is that the Civil Code and the current judicial interpretation are inconsistent, but it is worth amending it.  A last category is where the Civil Code has new provisions for which the SPC lacks related judicial interpretations. That goes on the SPC’s “to-do” list. For the many people interested in Chinese civil law, please be aware that the Leading Small Group Office has published a related set of books 《中华人民共和国民法典理解与适用》(全6卷11册)
  5. The article does not further mention the review of guiding cases and SPC Gazette cases, but presumably the same process applies to guiding cases and SPC Gazette cases. As the SPC’s Research Office is responsible for guiding cases, I expect that a careful review of existing cases was the responsibility of that office.
  6. The next step is to consolidate the long list of judicial interpretations that have been affected and the recommended solution in a list and accompanying report for eventual review and approval by the SPC’s judicial committee .  I would expect that there is a separate list for guiding cases that need to be abolished.  I would expect that the list of cases that may need to be abolished would also require an accompanying report.  
  7. As I have written on this blog previously, local courts issue local court guidance under different titles. In a blogpost last year, I mentioned that the SPC  has/will require local courts to report guiding rules applicable within their jurisdictions to the SPC. Part of the  work of the SPC in preparing for the Civil Code is to guide and supervise local courts to carry out a similar exercise to the SPC and report the results to the SPC.  Presumably some number of persons in the Leading Small Group Office are responsible for monitoring and coordinating with local higher people’s courts.  It is likely that the local courts are also discussing issues with their counterparts at the SPC. We should expect each local high court (and intermediate courts, such as Shenzhen) that issue local court guidance to issue lists of local court guidance that will be abolished or amended as of 1 January, to ensure a uniform approach by the Chinese courts as of 1 January.
  8. On the agenda for 2021 is amending the approved causes of action (案由) to be consistent with Civil Code, as the Civil Code will provide for new types of civil actions.  The SPC has designated persons to work on this (presumably on the “whoever is responsible principle”) and the plan is for work on drafting new causes of action to be completed by the end of 2021. 
  9. Another issue is transitional arrangements and retroactivity, that is, what law should be applied for cases that arose before the Civil Code was effective or were already in the court system when the Civil Code becomes effective. These are “universal” issues, not confined to China ( a quick search turned up relevant articles from the United States, Germany, England and Wales, among others).   The SPC undertook surveys within the court system on these issues and held three internal workshops in Guangdong to solicit views of local judges, particularly on commercial law-related issues. 
  10. An initial draft of the first judicial interpretation of the Civil Code (part 1) is in place, with the provisional title of “Supreme People’s Court Interpretation Concerning the Some Questions on the Application of the Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China (1) 《最高人民法院关于适用〈中华人民共和国民法典〉若干问题的解释(一)] 》”.  It will be sent to “relevant departments” to solicit their views. The relevant departments are not listed, but there would be many of them, including the Ministry of Land and Resources, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, and Ministry of Civil Affairs. Soliciting the views of the general public is not mentioned. 
  11. As for specialized judicial interpretations on critical issues such as property, contract, personality rights, family law issues, inheritance, and tort law (including sexual harassment, presumably), those are already “cooking” on the SPC’s judicial interpretation “stove.”  That is, the divisions of the SPC responsible are researching and drafting related issues, so that soon after the Civil Code becomes effective, old judicial interpretations are amended and new ones are issued. The divisions are taking the following three approaches–codifying prior judicial interpretations concerning a particular issue or issues, so that there is a single relevant judicial interpretation. The lower courts and the Chinese legal profession (and foreign parties as well) would find this approach helpful, as the relevant legal principle would be clearer.   A second approach would be to amend an existing judicial interpretation. The SPC plans to do this for certain interpretations, to provide timely guidance to the lower courts, to better ensure uniformity of court decisions. Third, for new areas of law, such as personality rights, relevant judicial interpretations will be issued “at an appropriate time.” 
  12. We can expect the SPC to further guide the lower courts (and the legal profession) on personality rights issues through “typical cases” and guiding cases or guidance cases issued by divisions of the SPC, before the SPC issues a related comprehensive judicial interpretation.
  13. The SPC is also working on improving its punitive damages system in intellectual property rights cases and when the timing is right, will work on a judicial interpretation. 
  14. On environmental and natural resource issues, the SPC is working on a judicial policy document, which is expected to be issued before year end. I surmise it is one of the major tasks of the SPC’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division. 
  15. The SPC will adjust its quality assessment standards for civil cases, and is working on related measures (研究制定评估考核办法文件),which will involve increasing use of professional judges meetings and judicial committee meetings as a way of ensuring uniformity of court decisions.
  16. The SPC’s guidance will promote diversified dispute resolution, (linked to the Fengqiao experience), which will have different implications in commercial areas of law than family law.  
  17. The SPC is still working on its judicial interpretation involving civil/criminal cross-over cases and has done several rounds of consultations with the “relevant departments,” presumably including the Ministry of Public Security and Supreme People’s Procuratorate.  This is a long-standing issue and difficult one.  This issue has been repeatedly raised by private entrepreneurs and their lawyers, among others. This issue is also “universal,” not confined to China.
  18. Other matters for the SPC include ongoing and future training, publicity, research, and publication concerning the Civil Code. The training is already ongoing within the SPC and lower courts on the Civil Code. The SPC is holding a series of training sessions conducted by experts.  Additionally, the SPC is also tasked with issuing Civil Code-related publicity aimed at the general public.  The SPC’s professional publications will do their part and publish Civil Code related articles research and practice oriented articles.  Although it isn’t specifically stated, I surmise that it is likely that next year’s SPC research agenda will include Civil Code related issues.
  19. I hope that the Leading Small Group Office takes heed of the recently published comments of retired SPC Judge Cai Xiaoxue:  when formulating judicial interpretations, various opinions should be humbly listened to in order to avoid errors or infeasibility of rules to the greatest extent. In the implementation of judicial interpretation, only by frequent self-examination and listening to different voices can errors be discovered and corrected, and fairness and justice can be maintained to the utmost extent (“在制定司法解释时,应当虚心听取各种不同意见,才能最大限度地避免规则错误或者不可行。在司法解释施行过程中,只有常常自省,注意倾听不同声音,才能发现错误,纠正错误,才能最大限度地维护公平正义”。).

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Persons with comments or corrections, please use the comment function or email me.

Partial guide to Supreme People’s Court documents

The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issues a range of documents as part of its authority to supervise the lower courts. The significance and authority of these documents is confusing to many, both in and out of China, in the world of practice, in academia, and in government, and of course among Chinese law students and graduates.

They are an illustration of how documents continue to be an important tool for Chinese governance, a fact it appears is often forgotten outside of China. “In current Chinese political life, governing the country by documents objectively exists” ( “在现实中国政治生活中,文件治国是一种客观存在”), from this 2017 article by Zhang Xuebo of the Central Party School’s Politics and Law Department.

This blogpost provides an updated consolidated (partial) guide through the forest of SPC judicial documents, drawing on my past research and analysis, not including judicial interpretations (司法解释). I will return to this topic in the future and will discuss judicial interpretations in a separate blogpost.  I have a special interest in judicial documents, because they drew me into researching the SPC in the early 1990s.

The seven categories of documents below are classified as judicial documents  or “judicial normative documents” (司法文件 or 司法规范性文件 and sometimes judicial policy documents” (司法政策性文件). The SPC’s website lists some of them. As I’ve written before, this fuzzy use of terminology is not unusual. An (authoritative) follower has proposed using the English translation “judicial regulatory document” for 司法规范性文件.  An attentive reader can discover from reviewing the documents on the website that this blogpost is not comprehensive.I will have more to say about all of these documents in the fullness of time, when I have an opportunity to explore the forest. The SPC issues many other documents as well, covering personnel and administrative matters, but this blogpost focuses on those with normative provisions.

SPC judicial documents are partially governed by 2012 regulations on the handling of SPC official documents (人民法院公文处理办法), which leave much unsaid and unexplained. It seems likely that additional guidance exists, whether in the form of bureaucratic custom or internal guidelines. Many, but not all, are the SPC’s special versions of Party/government documents.

It is one of the special features of the SPC that so much time and effort is allocated to different types of “soft law,” likely linked to other features of the Chinese legal system.

Partial catalogue of SPC judicial documents

1.Opinions (意见)–In my view, the SPC issues several types of Opinions. I have not yet done detailed research into these different types of documents and have not seen detailed analysis in Chinese (or English).  What I’m setting forth below is my tentative analysis. I’m likely to discover more categories of Opinions as I do further research.

Opinion Type 1:  An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that addresses a range of matters. The Services and Guarantees Opinions appear to fall into this category. These documents create and transmit to the lower courts new judicial policy, update previous judicial policy, establish new legal guidance that may be eventually crystallized in judicial interpretations and direct the lower courts, but cannot be cited in judicial judgments or rulings. They are generally linked to an important Party or state strategy or initiative. This post has a summary of what opinions are, while another one focuses on how they are structured.  I have often written about this type of Opinion. The ones labeled “Guiding Opinions” are intended to push policy forward, but others may do as well.  Sometimes the SPC issues illustrative “model/exemplary/typical cases to clarify certain points to the lower courts (and the legal community) , such as the Opinion providing Services and Guarantees [Safeguards] to the Yellow River Basin, for which the SPC issued illustrative cases.

Opinion Type 2: An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that consolidates rules or guidance found in disparate documents and adds some new rules, focused on one particular topic, relating to litigants. The April, 2020,  Opinions on Promoting Lawful and Efficient Trials of Bankruptcy Cases is a good example.It incorporates a provision from the Minutes of the National Court Work Conference on Bankruptcy Trials, for example, regarding consolidating bankruptcy cases of affiliated enterprises.

Opinion Type 3: An Opinion also issued solely by the SPC, that sets out in normative form Party policy/judicial reforms, may be the framework for further normative opinions, and eventually crystalized in law.  An example is the 2015 Opinions on Improving the Judicial Responsibility System of People’s Courts.  The first line clearly links the document to Party decisions–“for the purpose of implementing the general deployment of the Party Center on deepening the reform of the judicial system….(为贯彻中央关于深化司法体制改革的总体部署). It is linked to several normative Opinions and the judicial responsibility system has been incorporated into the People’s Court Law.

Opinion Type 4: the SPC is one of several issuing institutions. They do not create new legal rules but harmonize legal positions among institutions and for the courts, and clarify how the law should be applied. They also cannot be cited as the basis for a judgment or ruling. These are particularly common in the area of criminal law, and are often related to the latest campaign or focus of the authorities. The 2019 Opinions on Several Issues Regarding the Handling of Criminal Cases of Illegal Lending, (最高人民法院 最高人民检察院 公安部 司法部印发《关于办理非法放贷刑事案件若干问题的意见》的通知) part of the  Special Campaign to Crack Down on Underworld Forces (扫黑除恶专项斗争) is a good example.  One aspect of the ongoing campaign, which began in early 2018, is to use the criminal justice and regulatory authorities to crack down on “routing loans” (套路贷), an offense not defined by the criminal law.  This 2019 Opinion harmonizes the understanding among the criminal justice authorities to punish those providing “routing loans.” Article 1 describes certain types of lending activity that can be punished under the crime of illegal business operations (Criminal Law article 225(4)). (See more here).

2.  Conference summary/meeting minutes(会议纪要): the SPC uses specialized court conferences as a way of transmitting central legal policy, unifying or harmonizing court practices in accordance with that policy, and obtaining an overview of court practices and problems. Although conference summaries do not have the status of a judicial interpretation, the lower courts will generally decide cases according to its provisions. “Harmonizing court practice” means in Chinese judicial parlance that judges are applying the law similarly.” A recent example is the 9th National Courts’ Civil and Commercial Trial Work Conference Summary.  The document itself has a very useful explanation: “the Conference Minutes [Summary], which are not judicial interpretations, cannot be cited as a basis for adjudication. For first instance and second instance pending cases after the Conference Minutes have been issued, people’s courts may reason according to the relevant provisions of the Conference Minutes when specifically analyzing the reasons for the application of law in the “The court is of the view” section of adjudicative instruments.” This post has a summary of what conference summaries are.

3. Professional judges meeting summary (法官会议纪要):  I have not yet written a blogpost focused on these. although I have mentioned them from time to time. I have several published collections of these in my library.  The SPC circuit courts appear to have led the way on publishing these as a way of “unifying judicial practice” but the #2 Civil Division (focusing on commercial issues) has published a collection as well.

4. Response or reply (复函 or 答复) These are responses or replies to requests for instructions or approvals. SPC, like other Party and state organs, handles requests for instructions (qingshi 请示). Although proposals have been published to either incorporate the practice into procedural law or abolish it, the practice lives on at all court levels, including the SPC.  If the issue raised is considered important enough, the reply will be approved as a judicial interpretation. There are apparently fewer requests for instructions than ten or twenty years ago. I surmise more are submitted on the criminal issues than civil.  One subcategory of these responses are the ones issued by the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, the division focusing on cross-border commercial and maritime issues. These are responses to request from instructions (请示) from provincial-level courts (including the higher courts of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing), as required by the SPC’s Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters. See more here.

5. Notice (通知).  Documents transmitting one of the above types of judicial documents are often called notices, but this is meant to call attention to a document entitled “notice” (通知), such as the Notice concerning some questions regarding the centralized handling of judicial review of arbitration cases (关于仲裁司法审件归口办理有关问题的通知), discussed here.

6. Rules (规则)and (条例 ) One recent example of the use of rules (规则 is the CICC’s Procedural Rules for the China International Commercial Court of the Supreme People’s Court (最高人民法院办公厅关于印发《最高人民法院国际商事法庭程序规则(试行)》的通知), issued by the SPC’s General Office.  The rules were discussed by the SPC judicial committee but not issued as a judicial interpretation. I have observed that 规则 is used for court rules–as the same term is used for the Working Rules of the SPC’s Compensation Committee  . The term  条例 is used to regulate internal court system matters, such as rules (using  the term 条例) on judicial training(法官教育培训工作条例) and 2012 rules on especially appointed inspectors.

7. Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)  The most well-known example is the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding on Taking Joint Disciplinary Actions against Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement (对失信被执行人实施联合惩戒的合作备忘录).  It appears to be the first time (or at least one of the first times) that a large group of central Party-state institutions has concluded an MOU. The SPC concludes many, only some of which have been made public. The lower courts do so as well.  It shows that despite ongoing criticism of “Western” law and legal concepts, the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese government finds it useful to borrow some of them for its own uses. (See more here.)

Transparency

According to the SPC’s rules on judicial interpretation work, judicial interpretations must be published.  As for the judicial documents listed above, not all are published, as there is no requirement to do so.  (I have more on this subject in an academic article on judicial transparency). As I have observed on this blog and in the article, the SPC is generally publishing more judicial documents than before. The contrast is clear, when compared to the early 1990’s, when I started to research the SPC.  One positive and important example is the the approved judicial interpretation agenda, issued in the form of a notice from the General Office of the SPC. The SPC Gazette and People’s Court Daily are required to publish the interpretations, but for the other documents published, it is hit or miss.  The SPC’s official website publishes some, but not all of the ones that can be found in some other sources  A problem for those puzzling out these documents is that unfortunately the staff of the SPC’s website does not take the due care they should to ensure that documents are published in the correct classification, so the careful observer will find that misclassifications occur from time to time. Sources other than the SPC’s website may have more of these judicial documents.  Some of these judicial documents, such as replies or responses by the #4 Civil Division under the Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters, are published in the division’s own publication, as discussed here.

Other comments

Two additional comments on data (or lack thereof) and persuasiveness to the lower courts.  It is difficult to determine how the  number of judicial documents/judicial regulatory documents that the SPC issues compares to the number of judicial interpretations, as it is clear that it is inconvenient for some judicial documents to be made public (and some appear to be classified).

A second comment is on the persuasiveness of these judicial documents to the lower courts.  I surmise that some of them are more important to local court leaders than to ordinary judges, but it depends on the nature of the judicial document. It is my understanding that judicial documents with normative provisions (conference summaries or Opinions with normative content) are cited in trial reports (审理报告 or 审查报告), but not in judgments or rulings.Finally, I surmise that SPC decisions are or will become increasingly important as a form of guidance to lower court judges, especially with the formal implementation of the similar case guidance system.

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Those with corrections or comments or additions, please use the comment function or email me at supremepeoplescourtmonitor@gmail.com.  Many thanks to certain knowledgeable persons for spending some of their valuable free time commenting on earlier drafts of this blogpost.

 

Supreme People’s Court’s new policy document on opening to the outside world

SPC Press conference announcing the policy document

On the afternoon of 25 September, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued yet another guiding opinion providing services and guarantees, this one on providing services and guarantees in support of expanding opening to the outside world  (Services & Guarantees to the Open Policy Guiding Opinions (Guiding Opinions)) (最高人民法院关于人民法院服务保障进一步扩大对外开放的指导意见). It was approved by the SPC’s Party Group, as was BRI Opinion #2.

Senior legal officials from the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spoke at the SPC press conference, in what this observer views as a cross-institutional show of support for China’s policies of opening to the outside world. At a time that government officials are focused on “dual circulation,”  it is a reminder that the opening to the outside world policy remains in place and that one of the SPC’s many responsibilities is to handle those issues properly.  The photo is also one illustration of the place of the SPC within China’s system (体制). 

SPC Vice President Yang Wanming (杨万明) spoke first at the press conference, with the officials from MOFCOM and MFA adding comments. This signalled to the careful observer that he has assumed the responsibility for overseeing the #4 Civil Division (responsible for foreign-related commercial and maritime matters) from Luo Dongchuan (who has been transferred to Fujian Province to serve as Political Legal Commission Party Secretary).

This brief (17 articles) guiding opinion providing judicial services and guarantees (not a judicial interpretation, see this explanation of what it is) is the latest judicial policy on foreign-related (this blogpost will use the term “cross-border”, to incorporate some Hong Kong-related) legal issues (inbound and outbound) relevant to the Chinese courts, drawing on BRI Opinion #2 (issued end 2019 and BRI Opinion #1) and the June, 2020 guidance on Covid-19 and cross-border commercial issues. 

As readers of this blog could anticipate, this opinion is harmonized with the latest international and domestic developments and the latest guidance from Xi Jinping.  According to the official commentary, it is intended to be guidance for judges engaging in cross-border cases for the foreseeable future, and appears to further develop the principles related to cross-border issues in the Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on Thoroughly Implementing the Spirit of the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress to Advance the Modernization of the Judicial System and Judicial Capacity.  

As to what those judicial services and guarantees are, Justice Yang said the following:

Wherever the national strategy is deployed, the judicial services and guarantees of the people’s courts will be there (国家战略部署到哪里,人民法院司法服务和保障就到哪里.)

How does this document relate to other Chinese legislation?

To clarify the relationship between this opinion on the one hand and legislation, judicial interpretations and other types of judicial documents (such as the two BRI Opinions), Justice Yang gave a quick summary in SPC jargon:

While maintaining consistency with existing laws and regulations, judicial interpretations, and judicial policy documents, the Guiding Opinions also strengthen the macro-guidance of the people’s courts’ services and guarantees opening to the outside world from a higher level,  and are organically linked to other SPC judicial policy documents for major opening-up decisions, major strategies, and major initiatives, to further improve the system of judicial services and guarantees of the work relating to opening to the outside world与现有法律法规和司法解释、司法政策文件保持一致的同时,从更高层面加强人民法院服务保障对外开放工作的宏观指导,与最高人民法院出台的其他司法服务保障国家对外开放重大决策、重大战略和重大举措的司法政策文件有机衔接,进一步完善了司法服务保障对外开放工作体系。

What is means is:

  1. The Guiding Opinions are intended to be consistent with current law and regulations, SPC judicial interpretations, and SPC judicial policy documents.
  2. The Guiding Opinions links with previous SPC policy documents (such as BRI Opinions #1 & #2, the FTZ Opinions, the Lingang Opinions, Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinions, etc.)(see more below);
  3. It is intended to provide comprehensive guidance and better support government policies on opening to the outside world.

The Guiding Opinions. like many of the documents analyzed on this blog, are written in SPC jargon. Decoding this language poses challenges to those are concerned or who should be concerned about the impact of how the Chinese courts interact with the rest of the world. 

Decoding the language, however, enables the careful reader to understand outstanding issues and contemplated reforms or other measures, including possible judicial interpretations.

Summary and comments

This blogpost will summarize and make some brief comments on some of the issues mentioned in each of the six sections of the documents and make a few concluding comments.  There are many more issues in this document that should be explored, but I’ve been delayed by a hand injury.

1. Political stance

The first section calls for judges to raise their political stanceThis is standard language in the New Era. The first article frames the documents in current political language, including that frequently used in Chinese foreign policy documents and to relevant political documents. Therefore the first article (and elsewhere) refers to multilateralism, equally situated parties, and creating a legalized, internationalized convenient business environment.

The second article calls for the courts to provide services and guarantees for ten crucial national strategies and policies: promoting the BRI; pilot free trade zone construction [enhancement]; Hainan Free Trade Port construction; construction of the Greater Bay area; Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area development; Yangtze River basin development; Shenzhen model city for socialist development; China-Shanghai Cooperation Organization local economic cooperation demonstration zone; Great Maritime Power construction. 自由贸易试验区建设、海南自由贸易港建设、粤港澳大湾区建设、京津冀协同发展、长江三角洲区域一体化发展、长江经济带发展、深圳中国特色社会主义先行示范区建设、中国-上海合作组织地方经贸合作示范区建设、海洋强国建设。This second article also calls for new mechanisms for hearing cases, and improving the application of law, to create a transparent stable predictable legalized business environment. The list of ten national strategies and policies is a signal to the leadership and to the lower courts, but for those of us far outside the System,  it signals to us that these are the most important current policies related to foreign-related judicial policy. It also appears that the national strategies linked to the opening policy evolves over time.

2.  Basic principles of foreign-related litigation

The second section focuses on basic principles of foreign-related litigation–of which it sets out three: protecting the equal rights of parties; respecting the intent of the parties; and implementing (judicial) jurisdiction according to law. 

The second principle, described in Article 4, includes the right of parties to choose governing law, a court with jurisdiction and arbitration, litigation, or mediation to resolve their disputes. However, as mentioned previously, Chinese law treats choice of arbitration and litigation differently, requiring litigants choosing a (foreign court) to have an actual connection to the foreign court (see Professor Vivienne Bath’s previous scholarship on this), although there isn’t a counterpart position for arbitration. As mentioned previously, the  application of foreign law by Chinese courts is a work in process.  The SPC has given a great deal of publicity to its platform for the ascertainment of foreign law. which includes determinations of foreign law on a certain issue by certain authorized organizations and opinions given by members of the international expert committee of the China International Commerce Court (CICC). As I wrote close to two years ago, the China International Commercial Court (CICC) rules do not clarify a number of practical questions. Could a court request an advisory opinion from an expert and from a designated ascertainment center, and if so, what relative weight will be attached to each? Presumably, a court would give it greater weight than an opinion from an expert provided by a party. 

The third principle, described more fully in Article 5, is linked to protecting China’s judicial sovereignty and repeats the statement that conflicts in jurisdiction and parallel proceedings will be resolved properly (妥善解决). This has appeared in BRI Opinions #1 and #2, but specific measures to resolve parallel proceedings have not yet been noted. Parallel and conflicting proceedings are an ongoing issue (not only between the Chinese courts and other courts outside mainland China) and will be further mentioned below.  As Professor Bath discussed, several scenarios are common. One involves situations in which parties had agreed to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of one country, but a party brings proceedings in the courts another country (China), which accepts the case and may issue a judgment before the original court. Another set of cases involves an alleged arbitration agreement which provides for arbitration overseas, but a party brings a case in a Chinese court nonetheless.  A variation has recently been noticed by two leading practicing lawyers in China.  In that case, an issue that had been pleaded in arbitration proceedings in Hong Kong and reviewed by the relevant Hong Kong court was not given res judicata effect in China.  The ruling by the Shijiazhuang court has been reviewed by the SPC under its Prior Review proceedings.

Although parallel proceedings in courts outside of China and in China have previously been noted primarily in maritime law (and anti-suit and anti-anti-suit orders),the parallel/conflicting proceedings issues seem to be moving to the area of Intellectual property (IP) law, likely related to the multi-jurisdiction litigation between Huawei and Conversant concerning standard essential patents, including in the UK Supreme Court and the German courts. What has been noted is one of the SPC’s research topics includes protecting China’s judicial sovereignty (national interests) through anti-suit or anti-anti-suit injunctions. The SPC Intellectual Property Court has issued an anti-suit injunction order against Conversant and the Wuhan Intermediate Court issued an anti-suit injunction order against Intel Digital (the linked article has a summary of the facts in the Wuhan case, but reserve judgment on the author’s comments on the authority of Chinese courts to issue these order).

3. Modernizing China’s foreign-related and maritime litigation systems

This third section contains four articles: application of law; fully develop the advantages of service and guarantees to cross-border trade and investment; promote the integration with the internet of foreign-related litigation; and develop diversified dispute resolution related to international commercial dispute resolution. Many of the provisions in this section repeat provisions in the BRI Opinions #1 and #2.  What appears to be new is a statement that the SPC will seek to integrate prestigious foreign arbitration and mediation organizations to be part of its one stop mediation/arbitration/litigation mechanism.

4. Increase judicial protections

Article 10 mentions foreign-related administrative litigation issues. They were mentioned briefly in BRI Opinion #2 and once in BRI Opinion #1, here seeing greater stress.  Section 11 focuses on cross-border intellectual property issues.  It has some important new content.  It mentions improving (完善涉外知识产权诉讼制度) foreign-related IP litigation procedures, putting into judicial policy previous statements by former Vice President Luo Dongchuan about the need for special IP litigation rules. It again mentions researching and responding to parallel international litigation relating to intellectual property rights and becoming a preferred place for settling IP disputes. From comments made by several leading experts in a recent webinar the Chinese courts are an important jurisdiction in IP litigation. It is unclear whether the use of anti-suit (or anti-anti-suit )injunctions by the Chinese courts will be the way that litigants are encouraged to turn to the Chinese courts to settle their global IP disputes. According to comments by several persons with expertise in Chinese IP law and related commercial issues, a number of factors are leading to the Chinese IP courts becoming an important forum for the resolution of IP disputes.  Related to this, see the analysis by Doug Clark, partner in the IP law firm Rouse in this article, in which he says that the Chinese courts are looking to take on the role of setting global FRAND rates. Also see related blogposts on Mark Cohen’s blog, Chinaipr.com.  These issues are complex and important.

5.  Prevent and resolve major risks

This section has only two articles.  Article 13 focuses on perfecting risk control mechanisms for major cases and firmly establishing an overall national security concept.  These phrases are not unique to the SPC, but reflect language in Party documents, with the “overall national security concept” attributed to Xi JinpingThis article also calls on courts to coordinate the overall international and domestic situations, adhere to bottom-line thinking and risk awareness, understand the domestic and international situation and risks and challenges facing China’s opening up.  The final phrase in this article calls on courts to resolutely defend our (China’s) judicial sovereignty and national security.  So it seems that the concept of “judicial sovereignty” (used several times in this document) is being used to protect China’s national sovereignty.

The second one (Article 14), on guaranteeing state security and economic and social order gives a different priority to possible cross-border criminal law issues from either BRI Opinion.  Neither BRI Opinion mentioned  infiltration (渗透), espionage (间谍), sabotage, subversion  (渗透颠覆破坏). Infiltration and espionage are mentioned immediately after the article heading. (the sentence is: “thoroughly participate in the struggle against infiltration, espionage, separatism, terrorism, and cults, by strictly combatting crimes of infiltration, subversion, and sabotage, and crimes of espionage, violent terrorism, ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and other crimes that endanger national security” 深入参与反渗透反间谍反分裂反恐怖反邪教斗争,严厉打击各种渗透颠覆破坏、间谍、暴力恐怖、民族分裂、宗教极端等危害国家安全的犯罪. (Many thanks to Chinalawtranslate.com for this translation). Other concerns, such as violent terrorism, ethnic separatism, religious extremism have been seen previously in the other two BRI documents. and article 14 again stresses criminal justice cooperation between China and the rest of the world. The reason for the change in priorities is unclear. What signal does this send to the international commercial and judicial world (international community) that infiltration, espionage, sabotage and subversion are being mentioned?

6. Increasing judicial cooperation, increase the international influence of the Chinese judiciary

These three articles address judicial cooperation, judicial exchanges, and training of judges who can handle foreign-related cases.  

Article 15 concerns judicial assistance treaties, encouraging Chinese judges to participate in the negotiation of bilateral and multilateral judicial assistance treaties.

Article 16, on judicial exchanges, including highlighting exchanges with the principal international legal organizations, also summarizes ongoing SPC practices in developing exchanges with BRI judiciaries, although it is not so specified.  

Article 17 calls for the better training, recruitment and promotion of persons who can deal with specialized legal issues such as cross-border finance, environmental protection, maritime law, intellectual property. Measures include joint programs with universities, exchanges with international organizations and international commercial courts, with the objective of having judges who are able to participate in the drafting or amendment of relevant international rules [a glimpse into a judiciary certain special functions] and the creation of a group of Chinese judges with an international perspective. This appears to be directed to law schools and senior personnel in the lower courts and likely involved concurrence by the SPC’s International Cooperation Bureau.  As has been mentioned in earlier blogposts, the career progression for legal professionals to become judges has slowed because of the personnel reforms in the previous round of judicial reforms, under which young professionals work as judges assistants for a number of years before applying (and passing relevant examinations)to become a judge.  From my observations, fixed quotas on the number of judges in a court can mean a talented, educated judges assistant in one court may wait significantly longer than a similarly qualified person in another court to become a judge.

A few concluding comments

Perhaps it is not realized that multiple documents conveying many of the same messages, with references that need decoding, may not convey the intended message to the international business community that the Chinese courts welcome and will treat fairly foreign commercial litigants, and that Chinese law is stable, transparent and predictable. 

The Guiding Opinions call for increasing publicity about and the international influence of Chinese justice, and international confidence in Chinese law, through translating guiding and typical (exemplary/model) cases into foreign languages.  This echoes language in BRI Opinion #2.  The international community outside of China may or may not consider those sources to be primary ones in forming a view about the Chinese courts.  In my view, it is more likely that the international community will look to decisions and rulings of the Chinese courts in several categories of cases: enforcement or other proceedings involving foreign (and Hong Kong) arbitral awards;  parallel or competing proceedings, whether with other courts or with international arbitration;  difficult commercial ones, particularly involving Chinese state-owned enterprises, or other Chinese national champions and issues related to intellectual property, particularly as it relates to “cutting-edge” technology.  This observer surmises that the international judicial community will also look for a spirit of mutual respect for foreign courts and their jurisdiction.

The Guiding Opinions repeats language about Chinese courts participating in the formulation of international rules, an ongoing theme since the 2014 4th Plenum of the 18th Party Congress decision. One example is the constructive role of the SPC negotiator as a member of the Chinese delegation that participated in the drafting of the Hague Judgments Convention. But what the international community will also look for is China’s capacity to harmonize its legislation to be able to ratify the international conventions whose drafting it participates in.

The introduction to Guiding Opinions notes that comments were sought from many sources. It is unclear whether the views of international users of the Chinese court system were solicited. Other developments in which the international community may display an interest are the creation of additional institutions within the Chinese judiciary to enable the Chinese judiciary to better understand the needs of(domestic and international) users.

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Many thanks to several highly knowledgeable readers who commented on earlier drafts of this blogpost.

Supreme People’s Court & National Development & Reform Commission Solicit Public Comments on Bankruptcy (insolvency)-Related Policy Document

Solicitation of public comments on the SPC website

This post focuses on one discrete but important initiative of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)–improving its bankruptcy system. 

Late in the afternoon of 18 September, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and the National Development & Reform Commission (NRDC) separately posted on their official websites a solicitation of opinions/public consultation on a policy document directed towards improving measures related to China’s bankruptcy (insolvency)-system and ensuring that bankruptcy administrators can carry out their duties according to law 关于完善企业破产配套制度保障管理人依法履职 进一步优化营商环境的意见(征求意见稿).  The NRDC link is available here .  For some reason, the document has been posted as a Word document, but I have uploaded it here. It has been reposted on several Wechat accounts as well. As mentioned before, soliciting views from the public means that views “from the market” are needed. The usual practice when the SPC drafts policy documents is quite often soliciting the views of certain experts outside the court system in the drafting process (as well of many in the court system and in relevant departments).  This seems to be changing, as the SPC has solicited public opinion on several policy documents in the past year. As previously mentioned, soliciting views from the public requires high level internal approval at the SPC. The deadline for public comments is October 18, 2020, but presumably in practice a bit of flexibility is possible. The notice direct comments to be sent by fax to 86-10-67556808 or 86-10-68502342, or alternatively, by email to: pochanzhidu@163.com.  As will be clear from my brief summary, the document evidences the many complexities involved.

The document is linked to a multi-institutional document of over a year ago on reforming China’s system for improving entities exiting the market 加快完善市场主体退出制度改革方案, of which the SPC is only one of many institutions.

  As for what the practical link is to the real economy–one discrete example is that according to this report in the 21st Century Business Herald that as of early September, at least 500 real estate developers have made bankruptcy filings (compared to 450 for all of 2019).  The recent SPC policy document on the economy 为加快完善社会主义市场经济体制提供司法保障)has a paragraph that touches on many bankruptcy related issues (I regret to say I didn’t unpack that paragraph sufficiently), seen here:

As machine translated:

5. Improve the exit mechanism of judicial treatment for market players. Grasping the main line of supply-side structural reforms, in accordance with the requirements of the National Development and Reform Commission’s “Accelerating the Improvement of Market Entities Exit System Reform Program”, speed up the clearing of “zombie companies”, give full play to the rescue function of bankruptcy and reorganization, and strengthen the management of troubled but have operational value Protection and treatment of enterprises. Refine the implementation rules of the reorganization procedure, and strengthen the effective connection of the out-of-court reorganization system, the pre-reorganization system and the bankruptcy reorganization system. Improve the working mechanism for the government and the court to coordinate the handling of corporate bankruptcy incidents, and explore methods and measures to comprehensively manage corporate dilemmas and co-handle financial risks. Expand and extend the social functions of the bankruptcy system, and promote the establishment of a socialist market entity rescue and withdrawal mechanism covering various market entities such as for-profit legal persons, non-profit legal persons, unincorporated organizations, and natural persons. Improve cross-border bankruptcy and related enterprise bankruptcy rules, and promote the resolution of judicial problems such as cross-border bankruptcy and bankruptcy of complex entities. Further improve the procedures for the initiation and hearing of corporate bankruptcy, and increase the intensity of the implementation of transition to bankruptcy. Optimize the administrator system and management model, and promote the improvement of the protection mechanism and supporting policies for the rights and interests of relevant entities during the exit process of market entities. Strengthen the professionalization and informatization of bankruptcy trials, and improve the quality and efficiency of bankruptcy cases.

This blogpost will briefly summarize some of the main points in the document (primarily the headings of each article) with occasional quick comments in italics) and leave it to those with real expertise in this area to explain the issues in greater detail:

 basic principles:

1) Combination of guarantee and supervision. Relevant government departments and financial institutions shall actively support and cooperate with managers to independently perform duties such as taking over, investigating, and disposing of the property of bankrupt enterprises in accordance with the law…–this is consistent with China’s state-led economy.  (The role of a US bankruptcy administrator , for example is different) This basic principle is linked with 18) on “establishing a normalized government/courts unified coordinated system” (“要建立常态化的府院破产统一协调机制”). 

Machine translation) of Article 18: Local people’s governments at all levels must actively support the people’s courts in bankruptcy trials, give full play to the government’s active role in bankruptcy procedures in accordance with the law, and avoid improper interference in bankruptcy judicial practices and the work of administrators. Encourage local people’s governments to establish a normalized coordination mechanism between government and courts. Relevant government departments responsible for maintaining social stability, funding guarantees, credit restoration, business cancellation, and corporate taxation should participate as member units.

In this late 2017 blogpost, I discussed some of the problems. A detailed article by a judge from Shanghai bankruptcy tribunal details many of the issues.  The #2 Circuit Court (its circuit is the northeastern provinces, China’s rustbelt) held a conference recently on bankruptcy in which a senior # Circuit Court judge commented on some of the issues:

(machine-translation) government-court linkage is not a new idea. It has been explored for nearly ten years and some experience has been accumulated, but the development is not sufficiently balanced and the results are hardly significant. The main reason is that on the one hand, judges do not have a clear understanding of the regularity and particularity of bankruptcy reorganization, and lack the initiative to communicate with the government; on the other hand, the government has insufficient knowledge of bankruptcy and has a tendency to stigmatize and avoid it. To this end, it is necessary to deepen the understanding of the necessity and importance of the linkage between the government and the court; to enhance the initiative of the court, especially the leading cadres of the court…

2. Strengthen data sharing and business collaboration. 

3. Employee protection;

4. Prevent debt evasion;

Improve information about changes in status of the bankrupt enterprise  

This title understates the content here, which includes:  

  1. independent public announcement system of bankruptcy status (and related public announcement issues);
  2. better implementing a simplified cancellation system of business registration for bankrupt enterprises;
  3. create registration system for the restriction of employment of relevant personnel in bankrupt enterprises– (linked to the social credit system, to make it more difficult for managers who caused a bankruptcy to be reemployed);
  4. Establishing and perfecting business processes that are connected with bankruptcy procedures--on support by involved financial institutions, but also mentioning systems for the bankruptcy of financial institutions (it appears we can expect more failures in the financial sector;
  5. Facilitate the opening and renewal of the administrator’s [bank ] account;
  6. Support the administrator to take over and investigate the debtor’s bank account;
  7. Assist and cooperate with the advancement of bankruptcy procedures, calling on banks to better cooperate in creditor committee procedures and mentioning again the bankruptcy of financial institutions–that the administrator must coordinate and communicate with the regulatory authorities to maintain the stability of the financial system (金融机构破产的,管理人与相关金融监管部门应当加强协调沟通,维护金融体系的稳定);
  8. Strengthen financing support for bankrupt and reorganized enterprises;
  9. Improve and reorganize the financial credit of enterprises, to make it possible for companies under reorganization to be eligible for credit.

Improve the handling of tax-related affairs of bankrupt companies

10. Guarantee the supply of necessary invoices for bankrupt enterprises (companies should coordinate with the tax authorities and vice versa);

11. Tax owed by the bankrupt enterprise shall be written off in accordance with the law;

12. Facilitate the cancellation of tax registration;

13. Restore the tax credit of enterprises (undergoing reorganization);

14. Implement the pre-tax deduction policy for income tax in the reorganization and settlement.

Improve asset disposal

15. Effectively activate land assets–this means ease procedures for the sale of land use rights;

16. Properly determine the ownership of assets;

17. Legally dissolve the property preservation measures of bankrupt enterprises–this is directed at better intergovernmental cooperation if a company undergoing bankruptcy procedures has had its property subject to some sort of asset freezing procedures;

Strengthening organizational guarantees

18. (set out above)

19. Strengthen information sharing, communication and coordination.

 

Solicitation of public comments on the NRDC website

 

 

Supreme People’s Court Monitor in People’s Court Daily

Earlier this month I had the honor of receiving an invitation from He Fan (何帆), head of the planning department of the Judicial Reform Office of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) to write a short article on the SPC case database (裁判文书网)and its impact outside of China for People’s Court Daily (人民法院报). I saw the invitation as a significant opportunity to be able to address the readers of the SPC’s media at this historical point. Fortunately, Professor He Haibo of Tsinghua University School of Law (who along with colleagues) has done extensive research on the case database), had been invited earlier. His article had already been published when I received He’s invitation, giving me an example to consider.

I drafted the article in English and was honored to be able to persuade Fu Panfeng (傅攀峰), assistant research fellow with the International Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to transform it into readable Chinese. Several readers of drafts made insightful suggestions which were incorporated into the final version.

The article was published on 11 September in the SPC’s electronic media (Wechat and Weibo)–see the screenshot below from the beginning of the Wechat version. It was published on 13 September in the People’s Court Daily (see the screenshot above). Several Wechat public accounts have republished it, including that of Hu Changming, of the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (his version has one additional sentence). The English version below is not identical with the Chinese version, because the amendments occurred in several rounds.

I am very honored to be invited to provide some thoughts about the impact of the 裁判文书网 from an international perspective. When I first started to become interested in the developments of the Chinese courts about 30 years ago, Chinese law could only be found only in books, with few published cases. I have seen the development and impact in China of the 裁判文书网 with my own eyes. Much is made of the number of judgments that have been posted, but I will bring the focus back to each individual judgment.

Outside of China, the 裁判文书网 has had a great impact on a broad range of people, because it is one of main faces of Chinese justice that the world sees. Although it may not be apparent, every judgment or ruling has many readers—the parties themselves plus many unknown readers inside and outside of China. It is from those documents that readers from far away will consider whether that court gives a fair hearing to the parties involved, regardless of the crime committed or nature of the breach. Readers will consider whether the facts presented support the legal conclusion, whether the legal conclusion is supported by logical, clear and persuasive reasoning, how was the case decided, and for criminal cases, whether the punishment appears appropriate given the facts set out. To the readers outside of China, each judgment or ruling is an original and unfiltered voice of Chinese justice and gives a view of many aspects of Chinese society and economy, historical and contemporary. We note that the legal requirement is that all judgments and rulings that can be published are published.

As to who outside of China is concerned about the judgments and rulings on裁判文书网, that includes a broad range of types of institutions and people. One type of institution is foreign governments and their departments. The foreign affairs, commercial, intellectual property authorities of foreign countries look to judgments and rulings posted on the 裁判文书网 to understand how the Chinese courts consider cases that involve its citizens, companies, and other institutions, especially if national diplomats monitor the particular cases. If cases are translated into foreign languages, foreign judges may read them to understand how Chinese judges consider similar cases.

Other frequent readers of cases in the 裁判文书网 are private lawyers, in-house counsel and executives, who may directly or indirectly oversee company-related litigation in China. It enables them to make more informed strategic decisions about many aspects of doing business in China, because they can search previous similar cases. Will a Chinese court support their claim against a party who has breached its obligation to the company, regardless of the nationality of the company? Will a Chinese court protect the intellectual property rights of the foreign company in the event of breach? In a dispute, is the opposing party’s settlement offer reasonable?

Non-profit organizations, whether religious, or secular, consult the 裁判文书网. How do Chinese courts protect the rights of the religious, or, for example, members of environmental organizations?

Foreign journalists, too, use the 裁判文书网, too, to understand from the sources what Chinese justice means in action.
Two other categories must be mentioned–academics and students abroad as well individuals. Many professors and students at foreign universities undertake big data studies involving cases in the Chinese courts, looking to the 裁判文书网.
Finally, foreign individuals who work, study, and live in China also may be readers of Chinese judgments or rulings. Will a Chinese court protect the rights of a foreign individual whose Chinese employer has failed to comply with his legal obligations?

The foreign community is aware of the requirement from this summer for judges to search for like cases. It has generally been considered to be a positive development, as on the one hand, it enables like cases to be decided similarly, and formalizes the practice of lawyers and other litigation representatives submitting cases for judges to consider.

As to suggestions from outside of China, we would suggest on the one hand, that requirements to delete sensitive personal or corporate information be strengthened, so that the 裁判文书网not be used as a way to obtain confidential corporate or sensitive personal information.

The 裁判文书网 is an important public good, and the technical aspects should be made convenient and as user-friendly as possible to all users.

Supreme People’s Court to Issue White Paper on Judicial Review of Arbitration and Related Model Cases

For a longer project, I am carefully analyzing the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC’s) 2019 Opinions on the People’s Courts Providing Further Services and Guarantees for Belt & Road Construction (BRI Opinion #2) (关于人民法院进一步为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的意见, about which I previously wrote in January (at some length). Each phrase in an SPC Opinion has a particular meaning and usually a backstory. As I said in January, it takes knowledge of a constellation of related policies and practices to decode SPC Opinions.  Those of us outside the Chinese court system realistically can be expected to identify only a portion of the references. This blogpost focuses on two phrases in Article 25 of BRI Opinion #2–“publish typical (model/exemplary) cases on an irregular basis, issue white papers at a suitable time (不定期公布典型案例, 适时发布白皮书).  

What’s new?

In public speeches this month (August, 2020), two SPC judges revealed that the suitable time for issuing a white paper and model cases somewhat related to the BRI is “soon.”  As I (and many others) have written, the SPC has used the political importance of the BRI to improve the legal infrastructure for and personnel handling the judicial review of arbitration.  (As others have written, under Chinese arbitration law, the courts have a greater role in the review of arbitration.), Judge Shen Hongyu, deputy head of the SPC’s #4 Civil Division revealed in a speech in early August, reported in Legal Daily, that “in the future, a bilingual white paper annual report on the judicial review of arbitration in 2019 and analysis of typical cases on the judicial review of arbitration will be issued” (将发布《2019年度仲裁司法审查案件白皮书》(中英双语版)以及仲裁司法审查典型案例分析).  The same news was repeated by #4 Civil Division Judge Ma Dongxu and Judge Shen Hongyu in a recent conference (held on-line) of the Chinese Arbitration Law Society.

White Papers

Issuing a judicial review of arbitration white paper would be a first for the #4 Civil Division and a step forward in transparency about the work of the SPC and judicial review of arbitration in particular. From the title, I surmise that the white paper will be nationally focused, similar to the SPC’s annual bilingual intellectual property white paper and environmental protection white paper. Although I have previously written about difficulties in locating full text versions of Chinese court white papers, I am quite sure that this white paper will be made accessible.

Late last year, the Beijing #4 Intermediate Court (and China University of Political Science and Law) issued a big data study of cases involving the judicial review of arbitration cases (analyzed here in English) I surmise that the SPC’s white paper it will show the success of the new judicial interpretations that the SPC issued in late 2017 and related notices as well as the pro-arbitration policy of the SPC. Greater openness about the judicial review of arbitration would be welcome by all interested parties. It is unclear whether the #4 Civil Division will give consolidated information about the cases that it reviews through the Prior Approval system, which is its version of the qingshi (请示,request for instructions), about which I have previously written.  This article in the Kluwer Arbitration Blog provides a good summary of Chinese practitioner objections to the request for instruction procedures in the Prior Approval system.

Publishing typical cases

As I wrote last month and many times previously on this blog, the SPC frequently uses typical/model/exemplary cases, in several ways, including  to supplement judicial interpretations and legislation.  That was made clear by last month’s guidance on similar case search. The #4 Civil Division (the cases are issued by the SPC itself, of course) and the Supreme People’s Court Intellectual Property Court (SPCIPC) often use typical cases in analogous ways–unifying judicial standards. The press release that the SPC released in June on typical cases involving ship crew members was by SPC standards, quite blunt in pointing out the inadequacy of related law.  (“Our country has not formulated a special crew law.. it lacks more targeted regulations…Typical cases combine the characteristics of the protection of the rights and interests of seafarers, analyze the law and reasoning, and fill the gap between the norms and the facts by extracting the main points of the judgments (我国尚未制定专门的船员法…缺乏更有针对性的规定。典型案例结合船员权益保护的特点,析法说理,通过裁判要旨的提炼,填补规范与事实之间的空隙)

Justice Luo Dongchuan, formerly the SPC vice president responsible for both the #4 Civil Division and the SPCIPC pointed out the gap-filling role of typical cases more discretely. (He has since been transferred to Fujian Province to serve as Secretary of the Provincial Party Committee’s Political-Legal Commission).The SPC issued BRI-related typical/model cases in 2015 and 2017  and BRI guiding cases in 2019.   (For those interested, Stanford Law School’s Guiding Cases Project has translated the model and guiding cases (note that there is a trademark symbol for B & R cases). The legal rules in typical/model cases and guiding cases may eventually be incorporated into a judicial interpretation or legislation (explained in my earlier article).

Importance of the White Paper

I wrote in December of last year that one aspect of being in a leadership role in the SPC (referring to the president, vice presidents, division heads, deputy heads, and  their equivalents in the affiliated institutions of the SPC) is ensuring that policies, actions, initiatives, and other decisions hit the target of being politically correct (post 19th Party Congress and post 4th Plenum) while being “problem-oriented,” that is, addressing relevant practical issues.  Judge Shen skillfully hit that target in her speeches. She linked her first presentation to language in the Decision of the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress, stating that “promoting external publicity on the rule of law and spreading the voice of the rule of law in China is an important manifestation of serving the overall situation of the Party and the country ( 推进对外法治宣传,传播中国法治声音,是服务党和国家工作大局的重要体现). As I asked in January, does it hit the target with foreign audiences? Is engaging special publicity for foreigners in fact useful in reassuring foreign governments, foreign state-owned companies, commercial entities, and individuals that their dispute is best heard in China?

Rather than special publicity, the bilingual white paper and model cases, aimed at both domestic and foreign audiences, are in fact better vehicles by which the domestic and foreign legal communities can assess how Chinese courts supervise arbitration, and how that compares to other jurisdictions.  Because many trade, investment, and licensing agreements involving Chinese parties have arbitration clauses, this white paper is sure to be reviewed carefully by many. 

 

China-Belarus Judicial Cooperation under the Belt & Road Initiative

 

Official meeting of President Xi Jinping with Belarus President Lukashenko, 2016

Guest post by Safia Yablonskaia*

Belarus is an Eastern European country located between the European Union and Russia, recently in the news. This blogpost analyzes judicial cooperation between China and Belarus, under the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), both bilaterally and through China-led international organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and speculates on the possible impact of current events in Belarus.

Bilateral Judicial Cooperation between Belarus and China under the BRI

The scope of cooperation between China and Belarus has constantly been expanding in a broad range of areas, especially after China initiated the BRI. However, before 2016, the meetings and agreements rarely focused on judicial cooperation. Although the two countries signed a treaty on civil and criminal judicial assistance in 1993 , one of the only times the countries expressed the intent to expand judicial cooperation was at a 2007 meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee and Legislative Affairs Commission representatives with the judges of the Constitutional Court of Belarus. The sides discussed “the commonalities in the constitutional principles on which the two countries’ political systems operate”.

The meeting of the President of Belarus Aleksandr Lukashenko on September 29th 2016 with President Xi Jinping [in the photo above] appears to have served as the stimulus for a rapid increase in the level of judicial cooperation. At the meeting, the leaders signed a Belarus-China joint declaration on the establishment of relations of all-round strategic partnership and mutually beneficial cooperation. In the declaration, the sides agreed to continuously deepen mutual political trust and cooperation in various fields, to build up contacts between peoples and humanitarian exchanges, to enrich the component of the Belarusian-Chinese relations of comprehensive strategic partnership, and to develop “all-weather friendship.” Considerable attention in the declaration was also paid to joint promotion of the BRI. During that meeting, President Lukashenko expressed his admiration for the BRI, saying that he understands its importance in strengthening multipolarity of the world as the basis for its sustainability.

One and a half months after the two state leaders met, the cooperation between the Chinese and Belarus legal authorities began to improve. In November 2016, the Deputy Head of the Belarus Presidential Administration Valery Mitskevich held several meetings with senior Chinese officials concerning the cooperation in the area of the rule of law. The then Secretary of the Central Political- Legal Committee (and a Politburo member) Meng Jianzhu  and Valery Mitskevich signed “The Cooperation Agreement in the Area of the Rule of Law between the Central Political and Legal Committee of the Communist Party of China and the Administration of the President of Belarus” 《中共中央政法委员会与白俄罗斯总统办公厅法治领域合作协议》. A representative from the SPC was among the officials from Central Party and government institutions who attended the signing ceremony. Although the text of the agreement has not been made public, official commentary stated that the agreement can “help successfully carry out the BRI”, as the project’s implementation requires “all countries to strengthen the legal protection through communication in the area of the rule of law, such as through mutual judicial assistance”.

On that visit, Mitskevich met with the Executive Vice President of the Supreme People’s Court of China Shen Deyong, who expressed hope that “this meeting will open a new chapter in the cooperation and communication between the two countries’ judiciary, and thus will improve the overall relations”; he also suggested that the two countries’ Supreme Courts engage in cooperation on a deeper level. The Belarusian representative agreed to make contributions to deepen judicial cooperation, and noted that “the Belarusian side highly values its relations with China”.

After the meeting in November 2016, interactions involving the judiciary of the two countries increased. Several Chinese judicial delegations visited Belarus. In June 2017, a delegation from the Shanghai courts visited the Belarus Supreme Court and the Belarus Constitutional Court, and discussed the use of new technology in courts (such as the development in Belarus of the national courts online database with archived info on legal proceedings). In December 2018, three senior judges from Gansu Province visited Belarus, where they met with justices of the Belarus Supreme Court, and several judges of the Minsk City Court. The Belarusian side shared some insights about the Belarusian judicial system, as well as about the judicial reforms’ results aimed at integrating e-justice elements into the process and making legal proceedings more time efficient. The Belarusian side expressed the interest in furthering cooperation and the exchange of legal information. In July 2018, Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court Justice Zhou Qiang met with Valery Mitskevich and suggested that “the two countries cooperate, promote judicial reforms, such as“intelligent courts”, provide judges with better quality training, support the idea of justice for people, etc.” Both sides agreed to “work together in the field of judicial reforms to implement the BRI”.

Since the BRI has begun, legal cooperation between China and Belarus has expanded in other ways.  In March 2017, the Center for Belarusian Legal information was opened at Shanghai’s East China Normal University and in April 2018, the Director of the Belarusian National Center for Legal Information (NCLI) (a Belarus government agency) Evgeny Kovalenko met with Gan Zangchun, a Member of the Party Group of the Ministry of Justice of China. His visit was part of a three country visit (also to Mongolia and Russia) to discuss BRI dispute resolution. Gan and signed a Cooperation Memorandum with the NCLI. Gan Zangchun noted that “the signed memorandum will assist in continuing the judicial cooperation, […] increase the level of cooperation, and provide good legal services and legal protection to the development of the BRI.” According to the summary of the memorandum obtained by this author directly from the NCLI, the sides agreed to “cooperate in the areas of 1) creating and promoting legal info resources; 2) using IT in the regulation-making process, as well as in the process of the application and assessment of legislation; 3) creating a system of bilateral exchange of legal information that would provide support in the studying and implementation of regulations by the other party; 4) organizing conferences and seminars in the areas of mutual interest of the parties. The exchange of such information may possibly be used by the sides to assess the regulations that are related to the protection of the legal interests of the investors of the other side, as well as control and assess the application of such regulations by judges. At the same time, it can also make the process of applying foreign law in the lawsuits with international elements easier for foreign judges, as there will be online legal databases with the relevant information on foreign regulations as well as the guidelines for their application.

As Belarus is a member of the New York Convention and has signed “The Treaty Between the Republic of Belarus and the People’s Republic of China on Legal Assistance in Civil and Criminal Matters”, both court judgments and arbitral awards of one party can be recognized and enforced by the other party.

The Belarus-China Judicial Cooperation Within the Framework of the BRI through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Since 2015, Belarus has had the status of an observer state in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (it is the only European SCO observer state) which makes Belarus eligible to participate in the conferences and forums organized by the SCO members. In December 2015, Belarus sent its first delegation to the Session of the Council of the Heads of Governments of the SCO member states, at which the primary theme of discussion was the role of the SCO countries in implementing BRI.[6]

The judicial cooperation of Belarus with China through the SCO began in 2018 at the 13th Conference of the Presidents of the Supreme Courts of SCO member nationas held in Beijing (which was attended by the judges of the Supreme Court of Belarus, Xi Jinping in his speech stated that the SCO and specifically the presidents of the SCO Supreme Courts are playing an important role in implementing the BRI, and should focus on creating the mechanisms that would improve the legal environment in their countries.

During the meeting of the Supreme Court judges of the SCO states in June 2019 in Sochi, Russia, attended by the Head of the Belarus Supreme Court Valentin Sukalo, SPC President Zhou Qiang stated that the SPC is willing to engage with the Supreme Courts that participated in the conference in order to improve the cooperation in the judicial sphere, and thus “make a new contribution to the BRI and their development strategies.”

Comparison of EU-Belarus & China-Belarus Judicial Cooperation

The European Union introduced in 2014 a new direction for cooperation called “Partnership for Good Governance” (“PGG”), under which the EU strived to help the EU’s six Eastern partner countries (among which is Belarus) seek to meet European standards on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The first phase of the project took place from 2015 to 2017, and was implemented by the Council of Europe. One of the main aspects of that phase of the project was the promotion of the European human rights standards among Belarusian judges, law enforcement officials, etc.:  The project created human rights training and reference materials that were translated into Russian and widely disseminated. Also, online courses and other remote learning materials were integrated into the curricula of Belarusian State University and the Institute for Retraining and Qualification Upgrading of Judges, Prosecutors and Legal Professionals at the Belarusian State University to introduce the European system of human rights protection to Belarusian law students, judges and other legal professionals. In 2018, after the first phase of PGG ended, cooperation with Belarusian judges continued: for example, on May 30th, the Council of Europe organized a panel discussion on the right to fair trial attended by Belarusian judges, prosecutors, lawyers, etc. In April, 2018, a Round Table on “Legal Aspects of the Abolition of Death Penalty” was held for Belarusian judges from the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, as well as officials from the Prosecutor’s General Office, and other public bodies.Recently the European Union launched the second phase of the program, called “Partnership for Good Governance Part Two 2019-2021” and continues to engage in discussions with Belarusian judges and other legal professionals on topics such as the abolition of death penalty, the right to fair trial, corruption, etc. The nature of the EU judicial cooperation is different from that of China.

Judicial cooperation of China with Belarus focuses on matters related to the BRI and Chinese investment in Belarus, such as the Great Stone Industrial Park. access to legal information, data gathering, as well as promoting integrating e-justice elements into the judicial system, etc.

Impact of the Current Political Situation on Judicial Cooperation with China

Taking into account the current political situation in Belarus, this author expects that some changes in the dynamics of China-Belarus judicial cooperation might take place if the incumbent president leaves office.  For example, if power is transferred to Tikhanvoskaya (or to another opposition candidate), the role of the judiciary is likely to evolve to be more in line with EU principles. The popular opposition candidates promise to go back to the earlier version of the Constitution that gives greater powers to the Parliament and the judiciary, while the current Constitution that was amended in 1994 and 2004 provides for broad presidential powers, including the right to appoint the judges of the Supreme Court.

If the opposition comes to power, many Belarus citizens expect that Belarus will seek to build more balanced and transparent relations with both the EU and China. In the view of this author, good relations with China are beneficial for Belarus in many ways, including strengthening the Belarusian economy. So this author anticipates that judicial cooperation between the two countries will continue but may evolve if the new leaders reassess the role of Belarus under the BRI.

_________________________

Safia Yablonskaia is from Belarus and studies law at Fudan University.

Supreme People’s Court’s new guidance on similar case search

Screenshot 2020-07-27 at 8.49.14 PMOn 27 July 2020,  the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)  issued Guiding Opinions Concerning Strengthening Search for Similar Cases to Unify the Application of Law (Guiding Opinions) (关于统一法律适用加强类案检索的指导意见(试行)),  effective on 31 July.  It is not a judicial interpretation, rather it is guidance intended to make judicial decisions more consistent, an ongoing issue in the Chinese court system.  The SPC is approving the practice of judges using principles derived from prior cases to fill in the gaps in legislation and judicial interpretations.  The Guiding Opinions codifies many of the practices of the Chinese courts and imposes some new requirements. It does not mean that China has become a common law legal system.  As explained further below, although the Guiding Opinions do not address this question, comments by an SPC judge suggest that the special status of cases selected by the SPC by its operational divisions remains in place.

It also illustrates two larger points–that discrete judicial reforms aimed at more consistent judgments continue to be implemented even as the role of Party leadership and oversight continues to be stressed. It is also an illustration of how long it can take judicial reforms to be implemented. in my view, this discrete, technical reform has implications greater than the drafters of the Guiding Opinions realized, including a possible impact on Chinese legal education. It has the potential to make litigation a more predictable process for parties.

Case Search Requirements

What are similar cases?

Article 1 defines that–the cases that are already effective and are similar in their basic facts, disputed points, issues of law, etc. (指与待决案件在基本事实、争议焦点、法律适用问题等方面具有相似性,且已经人民法院裁判生效的案件).

When is similar case search required? (Articles 2 and 7)

  1. When a case is proposed to be submitted to a professional or specialized  (presiding) judges meeting (generally all the judges in a division) or the judicial/adjudication committee for discussion;
  2. Relevant judicial principles are unclear or conflicting;
  3. A court president or division head requires it under his or her supervision authority;
  4. Other relevant situations.

That is, similar case search is not required in all cases, only when the relevant “law” is unclear.

Similar case search should be set out in the trial report for the case or in a separate precedent (similar case) report (类案检索报告) and included in the case file. As noted in my earlier blogpost, trial reports are confidential and not accessible to parties or their lawyers. Article 8 requires that the search report must include details on the platform, means of search, etc. and how the search was used.

Who searches and how?

The judge in charge of the case (承办法官) is in charge of undertaking the search and is responsible for doing it accurately and properly, using either the SPC’s database or other case databases, focusing on cases from the last three years, except for guiding cases.

Judges can use methods such as keyword search, legal provision (article of the relevant law), or related case search.

What must be searched?

These rules (in Article 4) are in line with what I have previously written:

  1.  SPC guiding cases;
  2. SPC typical (model) cases (典型案例) and judgments or rulings of the SPC;
  3.  Reference cases issued by provincial-level higher people’s courts  and decisions by those courts;
  4.  Higher-level courts in the jurisdiction in question and judgments of that court.

Except for the guiding cases, priority is given to the search of cases or cases in the past three years; if a similar case has been searched in the previous order, no search is required. Article 5 provides that judges can use methods such as keyword, legal article-linked, and case-based searches.

My understanding is that these are general principles, but the specific scope of cases that need to be searched will depend on the specifics. As I have previously written, the SPC Circuit Courts have issued cases that guide the lower courts in their circuits.  The special authority of those cases remains in place. Judges reviewing issues related to the enforcement of foreign arbitral awards in China will need to look to a special set of cases (described here), for example.

I had previously written about cases selected by the operational divisions of the SPC providing guidance to the lower courts.  Those retain their special authority, as indicated by comments by Senior Judge Yu Tongzhi, an editor of Reference to Criminal Trial (the joint publication of the SPC’s five criminal divisions). He noted in an article published on 31 July, that as far as criminal justice is concerned, without a doubt, the first choice for searching similar cases is to search the guidance cases contained in their publication, setting indices to the guidance cases for the convenience of readers.

Are precedents binding?

Precedents are not binding, but guiding cases should be 参照 “referred to” (the link is to SPC Research Office Deputy Director  Judge Guo Feng’s authoritative explanation) unless the case conflicts with subsequently issued law or judicial interpretations. Other types of cases are not binding, but for judges to consider(参考).

How judges must respond

Article 10 imposes a new requirement on courts, if procurators, parties, their representatives (their lawyers) submit guiding cases or other cases in support of their legal position (as I had previously written had been the practice).  For guiding cases, courts are required to state in the reasoning section of their judgments whether or not the guiding case was referred to and why.

For all other types of cases, the court can use its power of clarification/explanation and other means (释明等方式) to respond.  It is understood that this is meant to give judges flexibility in responding to (non-guiding) judgments provided by parties–so the court may respond in its court’s judgment or in other ways. Those other ways may include:  responding to the cases submitted pre-hearing, during a hearing, after a hearing, as the court considers most appropriate.  We will need to observe what is done in practice, for example, whether courts respond primarily in their judgments or orally.  This will be the way that a party can monitor whether the search accurately reflects prior cases, as neither a party or its counsel has access to the trial report. Other unknowns are how this system will influence administrative proceedings such as those at the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board.

Link to Inconsistent Decision Mechanism

Article 11 contains a link to the inconsistent decision mechanism discussed here, which I described as a microcosm of themes reflecting how the SPC operates, given its high bureaucratic nature.

Why case law reform?

As this blog has discussed, in the New Era, the role of Party leadership and oversight continues to be stressed (see this blogpost, for example).  This discrete judicial reform is aimed at more consistent judgments. It is a critical tool that judges are already using because Chinese legislation lags behind the needs of the courts, and judicial interpretations are insufficient as well. Party policy would have an indirect impact on those cases, as would foreign law principles (mentioned here).

“Slow-cooking” judicial reform

The issuance of these rules shows the strength of the case law system and how long it can take a single judicial reform to be implemented. As mentioned in the June, 2019 blogpost, when Professor Hu Yunteng(until recently Justice Hu Yunteng, formerly a full-time member of the SPC’s judicial committee, now retired) recollected the history of the case system with Chinese characteristics, he mentioned that Jiang Huiling, then his colleague at the China Institute for Applied Jurisprudence (now Dean of the Tongji University School of Law) had looked to jurisdictions outside of China to advocate that China establish a case law system. Professor Hu Yunteng doesn’t specify whether Dean Jiang Huiling was looking to case law systems in civil or common law jurisdictions in the “West.”).  In his 2016 Harvard Law Review student note, Mark Jia (now clerking on the Supreme Court), cited Li Shichun of the China Law Society to the effect that it was the National People’s Congress that opposed those seeking to establish a Chinese case law precedential system. That opposition has been overcome by widespread professional usage (as described in my 2017 Tsinghua Law Review article). It is unusual in that the practice came first and was not a top-down reform (顶级设计).

Concluding Comments

This discrete, technical reform is an important one for the rules relating to judicial decision-making better harmonized with judicial practice.  There are a number of unknowns.  One is whether it will result in judges feeling more comfortable in setting out their reasoning,  knowing that other judges may look to it.  An important question is how the practice of responding to cases will evolve–will judges tend to respond in their judgments, or as I suspect, do it orally. (As to why I think that–it is related to the desire of Chinese judges to reduce their risk under the judicial responsibility system).

In my view, this reform has the potential to make Chinese litigation a more predictable process. It is a bit of evidence of the gradual harmonization of the operations of the Chinese courts with the rest of the world,  as current circumstances permit.

 

Judicial services & guarantees to aid China’s economy

Justice He Xiaorong at the press conference

I am going to experiment with a shorter format, starting with this blogpost.

On 22 July, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held a news conference with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) to announce their latest policy document providing judicial services and guarantees to accelerate the socialist market system in the New Era (为加快完善社会主义市场经济体制提供司法保障).  Justice He Xiaorong appears to be the SPC senior official in charge of the #1 Civil Division. From his appearance at the press conference, Zheng Xuelin, the head of the #1 Civil Division, must have taken the lead in drafting this document, but the subject matter reflects input from many divisions of the SPC, although none of them are mentioned. Wang Renfei, head of the NDRC’s Division of Economic Reform, also appeared at the press conference.  It is linked to a May, 2020 document of the Central Committee and State Council on improving the market economy in the New Era.

These policy documents that provide judicial services and guarantees are one of the hallmarks of the SPC in the New Era, as General Secretary Xi Jinping has called on the SPC to provide judicial services and guarantees to the important policy initiatives and strategies of the Party and state. Since Xi Jinping became General Secretary, at the annual Central Political-Legal Work Conference, he has given instructions to the political-legal institutions that the judicial organs provide “judicial services and guarantees” for major Party and government policies. For that reason, the SPC has increased the number of policy documents in which it has provided services and guarantees to the work of the Party and state. Consistent with Xi Jinping’s instructions, Party leadership, in the most recent inspection of the SPC, requested that the SPC strengthen its “services and guarantees” to the work of the Party and state.   This latest policy document has 29 articles, covering the topics of:

  • judicial protection of market entities, especially small entities;
  • judicial protection of property rights;
  • establishing a fair, just, and orderly competitive market system;
  • a legalized business environment suitable for high-quality economic development;
  • judicial protection of people’s livelihood;
  • improve foreign-related guarantees; and
  • one-stop diversified dispute resolution with Chinese characteristics.

There are a few new provisions, but most of the provisions are a repackaging of current or previous issues, many of which had been mentioned in a recent SPC New Era policy document and discussed on this blog. Some, while not new, send welcome signals.  The careful reader can pull out of the bureaucratic language of this document ongoing issues facing the Chinese courts and even some initiatives not previously mentioned.  An unscientific selection below follows:

  1. Judicial protection of market entities

This section repeats principles or raises issues such as:

  • parties being treated equally; protecting the individual and property rights of entrepreneurs (an ongoing issue–see this 2016 blogpost);
  • Absorb and transform beneficial international/foreign experience –this document uses the language “beneficial experience from legal systems with mature market entities” (吸收借鉴国际成熟市场主体法律制度的有益经验). This phrase is repeated elsewhere in the document. As I wrote in 2017–“a careful review of official statements, publications, and actions by the SPC and its affiliated institutions, as well as research by individual SPC judges [and teams of SPC judges] shows an intense interest in how the rest of the world deals with some of the challenges facing the Chinese judiciary coupled with a recognition that any possible foreign model or provision will need to fit the political, cultural, economic, and institutional reality of China, and that certain poisonous ideas must not be transplanted.”  This continues to be true (given the gaping holes in Chinese legislation, as seen from the perspective of Chinese judges), including a careful review of relevant US law.
  • Abuses by senior leaders in SOEs, causing loss of state assets (and likely benefiting private pockets), as seen in this phrase: “further clarify the relationship between state-owned property owners and agents, properly handle cases of loss of state-owned assets due to insider control, related transactions, and illegal guarantees by legal representatives, and pursue directors in accordance with the law. Supervisors and senior managers violate their legal responsibilities and obligations of loyalty and diligence. Promote state-owned enterprises to improve their internal supervision systems and internal control mechanisms, standardize  the positioning of powers and responsibilities and exercise methods, and improve the modern corporate system with Chinese characteristics.”
  • Improve the protection for small investors (relates to ongoing initiatives by the Shanghai Financial Court) and is connected with the most recent conference summary on bond disputes (全国法院审理债券纠纷案件座谈会纪要).  It mentions a forthcoming judicial interpretation on group securities litigation, apparently mentioned for the first time (及时出台证券纠纷代表人诉讼司法解释).  The Shanghai Financial Court has issued pilot regulations that will be considered by the SPC.
  • Exiting the market, the goal to be applicable to all sorts of legal and natural persons (signaling further developments relating to individual bankruptcy), establishing a better cooperative mechanism with government on bankruptcy (not new).

2. Judicial protection of property rights

Many of these have been discussed on this blog previously:

Better protection for property rights of private enterprises (discussed two years ago at the beginning of the anti-organized crime campaign).  It again mentions prevent the abuse of public power to infringe private property rights such as illegally sealing up, seizing, and freezing property rights of private enterprises;

Improving the hearing of cases involving land and real property condemnation (as this blogpost discussed, an underlying problem is the failure of related government departments to comply with legal requirements);

One article (#11) is devoted to improving intellectual property rights protection, but it does not flag anything not previously mentioned.

3.  Establishing a competitive market system

Article 12 re-emphasizes a concept basic to a market (oriented) economy–respect for the voluntariness and spirit of contract (尊重合同自愿和契约精神).

One provision in this section has attracted the greatest amount of attention–reducing the allowable interest rate for private lending, signaling a reversal of the provisions in the 2015 interpretation on private lending, which the document states will be amended soon.  The other provision that is repeated here (first mentioned three years ago), is stopping SOEs from using their easy access to bank capital to on-lend funds on the private market, for greater profit than their core businesses 规范、遏制国有企业贷款通道业务,引导其回归实体经济).

This section signals that the SPC will be working on more detailed provisions on taking security as a result of the Civil Code (进一步研究细化让与担保的制度规则和裁判标准).

4. legalized business environment suitable for high-quality economic development

Among the provisions mentioned here is better coordination between the financial regulators and the courts  (and legal oversight by the courts) (主动加强与金融监管机构的沟通协调,支持、促进金融监管机构依法履职,加强金融风险行政处置与司法审判的衔接,协助做好金融风险预警预防和化解工作).

5. judicial protection of people’s livelihood

This section mentions improving judicial protection for the consumer, better personal data protection, and improving protections for workers in new types of enterprises (i.e., working under algorithms).

6. Foreign-related commercial issues

Two new bits of information in this section are: the mention of exploring the establishment of a judicial review system for international investment arbitration (探索建立健全国际投资仲裁领域的司法审查机制 and issuing guidance on the recognition and enforcement of foreign commercial arbitration awards (适时出台涉外国民商事判决承认与执行的规范指引). This may evidence an expected increase in foreign arbitral awards sought to be enforced in China, in light of the (expected) increased number of Belt and Road Initiative related disputes.

7. One-stop diversified dispute resolution

This section repeats many of the current buzzwords (as discussed in my May blogpost), such as “resolving disputes from the source,” the “Fengqiao Experience,” giving mediation priority, and linking litigation with mediation.  However, as mentioned in earlier blogposts, some aspects of better mediation of disputes requires deeper reforms, such as changing incentives or evaluation of SOE executives.

Supreme People’s Court’s Bench Memoranda?

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Trial report and criminal judgment, from a Shantou district court

Justice Ginsburg’s article “Workways of the United States Supreme Court” and recent correspondence with brother blogger Mark Cohen has led me to reflect on what is known (and what I know) about how cases progress through the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). It is from the small details that it is possible to obtain greater insights about a judicial system.

In discussing the sources of law (meant broadly) to which SPC judges look when considering cases,  some knowledgeable persons reminded me of the existence of something called a “trial report (审理报告 or 审查报告 (for retrial cases)).  I analogize these to bench memoranda (as used in United States appellate courts),  although the analogy is imperfect. It seems also somewhat analogous to the Votum of the German Constitutional Court, although the analogy is imperfect. Perhaps a search through Soviet (or Russian) civil procedure legislation will reveal a better counterpart.

As to what a trial report is, it is a memorandum prepared by the judge in charge of the case ( 承办人), prepared for internal discussion within the court. That internal discussion is in the first instance by the collegial panel that heard the case.  If the collegial panel feels they need greater guidance (or other related factors are relevant, such as the case being “difficult” or “important”), the trial report may be used in discussion by the specialized judges meeting or if necessary, among the documents included in the package of documents submitted to the judicial (adjudication) committee (or specialized judicial (adjudication) committee).

A search of the Chinalawinfo (北大法宝) database revealed that the same term is used for internal memoranda prepared in the course of administrative penalty proceedings and Party disciplinary and other analogous proceedings.

The outside observer is handicapped in analyzing trial reports in great detail because few examples are available to those outside the system, as explained further, with a few found in specific databases. As for the reason for the handicap, that relates to a number of regulations that keep trial memoranda confidential, some mentioned in my article on judicial transparency.  Those include:

  • 2013 joint regulations by the SPC and the National Archives Administration (State Secrecy Bureau) requiring such memoranda to be placed in the supplemental file (副卷). Items in the supplemental file are confidential, as discussed in that article.  The article also discusses proposals within the Chinese court system for public access to the supplemental file;
  • regulations on work secrets, also discussed in my article.

Trial reports are mentioned in a number of SPC regulations and in documents issued by the SPC’s Judicial Reform Office. It is clearly one of the many discrete matters about which reform is being considered.

The trial report is a memorandum in which the judge in charge of the case sets out the facts of the case, evidence provided and facts determined; prior rulings or decisions in the case; issues in dispute; background information; proposed resolution of the case and rationale. The judge is not bound by the restrictions in the sources of law that may be cited, with some judges stating that the results of discussions with experts or foreign principles of law or cases are sometimes included.

Some reports I have seen have a section on “issues to explain” (需要说明的问题)–that raises non-legal factors, such as the impact of enforcement of an international arbitral award on the local economy. The rationale in the report may be more detailed than that in the judgment or ruling that is issued to the parties. As has been mentioned in earlier blogposts, only certain sources of law may be cited as the basis of a judicial ruling or judgment. The trial report apparently can take a broader approach to legal sources, which would be in keeping with the holistic approach that Chinese judges take to deciding cases. The trial report, unlike the judgment or ruling, is confidential. The SPC has issued forms of trial reports, such as this one for administrative retrials; others for first-instance administrative cases; second instance administrative cases; state compensation cases.

SPC rules of operation call for a judge‘s assistant to be responsible for preparing a draft of a trial report, with the judge in charge of the case responsible for it.  Interns may be involved in preparing a preliminary draft for the judge’s assistant to whom they are attached (as I know from my own students who have interned at the SPC). The judge’s assistant will review the intern’s draft thoroughly. There are proposals to require search of relevant prior cases, but this is something that likely is general practice at the SPC (see my article on case law).

A recent article by an experienced Chinese judge (at the local level) points out problems with the trial report system (at the local level). In his experience, since the last round of judicial reforms, most judges do not care much about drafting a trial report, in their rush to process cases on time. They, therefore, fail to provide a holistic report on the case. That complicates matters for the second instance judge reviewing the case file. Because the trial report does not describe fully the scope of factors that entered into judicial thinking, the second instance judge lacks a full understanding of the case. He says that for a Chinese judge, in addition to the facts and law, among the other factors to consider include:  judicial policy; petitioning and stability maintenance; the impact of media; the impact of the decision; interference and inquiries from either inside or outside the court; value judgments of individual judges.  In his experience, at least, the responsible second instance judge will meet face to face with the lower court judge to seek to understand the whole picture, rather than solely relying on the case file.  He points out that this practice has its drawbacks.   The author suggests using a system that he entitles “explanation of the situation regarding the decision” (裁判情况说明) rather than a trial report.

Concluding comments

The fact that little is known about trial reports speaks to how little scholars (in China or elsewhere) focus on the details of how the Chinese legal system operates.

As to whether judges would favor making trial reports public–an unscientific sample says no. One suggestion that I have heard was that a broader approach should be taken to sources that could be cited in a judgment, so that a judge could cite to persuasive scholarly works. But what if it is revealed that judicial thinking on a particular issue has been influenced by foreign theories?  The thoughtful Chinese judge wants to be both politically and legally correct.

Comings & Goings at the Supreme People’s Court

My brother blogger Mark Cohen’s recent post on comings and goings among intellectual property (IP) attaches attached to embassies and consulates in China has prompted me to think about how comings and goings at the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) are announced and issues related to those comings and goings.  As I have mentioned often, the institution of the SPC is stressed in preference to the role or identity of the individual judge.  As to how a person can track SPC personnel comings and goings: the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee appoints and removes judges(other than the president of the SPC).  Xinhua reports these and they are to be found on the NPC website as well (全国人民代表大会常务委员会任免名单)  The SPC reposts the information, found on its website under “important news” (要闻).  For appointments (or removals) that do not require NPC Standing Committee approval, the careful observer needs to monitor changes elsewhere on the SPC website: SPC leaders 最高人民法院领导, principal personnel in the SPC’s internal institutions 最高人民法院内设机构主要人员;circuit courts ( 巡回法庭); counterpart listings on the CICC and Supreme People’s Court Intellectual Property Court (SPCIPC).

Among the relatively recent comings and goings:  Justice He Rong has replaced Justice Jiang Bixin (born in 1956, who has retired). Justice He had previously been a vice president of the SPC but was transferred to the Shaanxi CCDI/National Security Commission.  Going from the courts to Party institutions (and back) is a career path for some judges. As discussed in this earlier blogpost (of almost 5 years ago), SPC judges are bound by official (Party/government official) retirement ages, with special permission possible for high ranking officials, including judges, such as Justice Jiang Bixin. Justice He Rong is in charge of day to day work of the SPC and has the rank of a minister.

In the most recent NPC Standing Committee notice, Judge Zhu Li (well known in the international IP community) and CICC judge, is shown to have been appointed deputy head of the SPCIPC.  Senior Judge Jiang Huiling, formerly a vice president (in charge) of the National Judges College , is shown to have left the SPC while Judge Shen Hongyu has been appointed the deputy head of the #4 Civil Division. She was previously a judge on the SPCIPC, after being a judge in the #4 Civil Division for many years. She is taking the position formerly held by Judge Gao Xiaoli. Both Judges Shen and Gao are well known to the international practitioner community because both often speak at international conferences.  Judge Shen was a visiting scholar in the fall of 2019  at Columbia Law School and spoke at Columbia, Yale (Paul Tsai China Center), Harvard, and Berkeley, among other law schools. Judge Jiang’s last official activity was to give the commencement address (virtually) at the School of Transnational Law of Peking University (where I teach).  The speech seems to have gone viral on (legal) Wechat public accounts.

Knowing where judges have moved requires additional research.  A quick check of the “principal personnel” (or Wechat reports) shows that Judge Gao Xiaoli is the new head of the International Cooperation Bureau of the SPC. This bureau was previously entitled “外事局”–“foreign affairs bureau” and was mentioned in my 1993 article.  The SPC, similar to other government organs, has a special bureau that handles incoming foreign activities and matters involving judges and court’s activities overseas.

Judge Jiang, who is in his late 50’s, is one of a number of people on the SPC who faced the SPC’s version of the “retirement trap” (analogous to the “middle-income trap”)–with a bureaucratic ranking insufficiently senior to be able to avoid retiring at age 60 or soon thereafter.  As I wrote in my 2015 blogpost, judges in many other jurisdictions are considered to be in their prime in their late 50’s and 60’s. US Supreme Court judges have lifetime appointments, while compulsory retirement ages include: Germany–68, Australia, 70, Hong Kong, 65 (with provisos). According to press reports, Jiang Huiling is now a professor at the law school of Tongji University, with some reports stating that he will become dean of its law school.  Senior academics have a later retirement age. He will be among the small number of Chinese law school deans that have a practitioner background. We hope he will use his experience to promote the reform of Chinese legal education.  As a professor, we would expect him to continue to publish insightful law journal articles and speak more to the academic world.

 

 

 

Using cases to explain the law in the New Era

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News conference to announce the issuance of 10 exemplary cases promoting socialist core values

As readers of this blog know, I have a special interest in the use of cases in the Chinese court system. I wrote most recently on the SPC’s use of cases in December, 2019, when I wrote How the Supreme People’s Court guides the lower courts through cases in its publications (1). In this blogpost, I am taking another look at two aspects of this topic in the post 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress New Era. A consolidated version will need to wait for an opportunity to write on this at greater length.

The SPC uses case law in two broad ways.  The first is to guide the lower courts, as previously mentioned in several previous blogposts and my 2017 academic article. Those developments are continuing. I’ll discuss one new example.  What I have not previously discussed very much, and will be the focus of this blogpost is how the SPC uses case law to popularize law (普法).

Guiding the Lower Courts

One example that I have not previously discussed, but is relevant to many practitioners, is the case law of the SPC’s Intellectual Property Court (SPCIPC, literally the SPC’s Intellectual Property Tribunal). A measure of the importance that the SPCIPC attaches to its cases in that the following paragraph was the first substantive section of its 2019 annual report [scroll to the bottom of the link for English]:

Ⅰ. Focus on the function of trial [court hearings] to strengthen typical exemplary effect of model cases and further unify the standards for adjudicating technology-related IP cases
Unifying the standards for adjudicating patent and other technology-related IP cases is the primary goal of the IP Court. In 2019, the IP Court focused on the function of trial and concluded a number of closely technology-related IP cases justly and efficiently in accordance with the law. A number of model judgments that have typical exemplary effect were made, and the “systematization project to unify judicial standards” has been implemented, further promoting the unification of judicial standards for technology-related IP cases. ( 一、立足审判职能,加强典型示范,进一步统一技术类知识产权案件裁判尺度
统一专利等技术类知识产权案件裁判标准,是法庭设立的重要目标。2019年,法庭立足司法审判职能,依法公正高效审结了一批专业技术性较强的知识产权案件,形成了一批具有典型示范作用的标杆性判决,建设实施“统一裁判标准系统工程”,进一步推动了技术类知识产权案件裁判尺度的统一。

In 2020, we can expect the SPCIPC to continue to use case law to unify judicial standards in technology-related IP cases.  This is one small example of the SPC’s work in this area.  The report speaks of its contribution of Chinese wisdom to the development of international IP law, but a person taking a closer look at some of the SPCIPC decisions will see that research of foreign law by SPC IP judges and interaction with persons with foreign law expertise has contributed to the development of Chinese wisdom.

Popularizing law (普法)

The second development is the popularization of law, an old development repurposed in the post 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress New Era. The close observer of these documents, implementation, and related activities can detect a repurposing of popularization for specialist purposes.

Popularizing law is mentioned in the policy document Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on Thoroughly Implementing the Spirit of the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress to Advance the Modernization of the Judicial System and Judicial Capacity (Implementing the 4th Plenum of 19th Party Congress Opinions), the subject of my May, 2020 blogpost. The last sentence in section 5 of the opinion, on improving the implementation of socialist core values and the ideological responsibility system stated:

Conscientiously implement the responsibility system for publicizing knowledge about law (普法) of “whoever enforces the law, explains the law”; strengthen public opinion guidance, perfect the mechanism for issuing typical cases; establish rules of conduct through fair decisions [judgments and rulings], promote [positive] social customs, and create a good environment for the rule of law.”认真落实“谁执法谁普法”普法责任制,加强新闻舆论工作,健全完善典型案例发布机制,以公正裁判树立行为规则、弘扬社会风尚,营造良好法治环境.

The responsibility system for publicizing knowledge about law (普法) of “whoever enforces the law, explains the law” relates to pufajiaoyu (普法教育) (educating the public about law).(For those with access to an academic library I recommend Susan Trevaskes’ related book chapter) on how pufajiaoyu has developed over time).

Background to this system

This pufajiaoyu responsibility system is mentioned in section V of the 4th Plenum Decision of the 18th Party Congress and is one of many different types of responsibility systems mentioned in that Decision. This responsibility system for publicizing knowledge about law is linked to broader Xi Jinping era Party initiatives to expand the responsibility of Party and government cadres.   In this context the SPC appears to be treated as any other state or Party organ.

The phrase in the 4th Plenum Decision has been built into a responsibility system for the courts through two documents and a joint ministerial system. The framework was set out in a joint Party-State Council document in 2017  “General Offices of the Party Central Committee and State Council Opinions on a Popularization of Law Responsibility System of State Organs Regarding “whoever enforces that law, explains the law.” (中共中央办厅 国务院办公厅印发《关于实行国家机关“谁执法谁普法”普法责任制的意见》Section 6 calls for judge, procurators, administrative enforcement personnel, and lawyers to establish a “using cases to explain the law” system (建立法官、检察官、行政执法人员、律师等以案释法制度). The document calls on judges, etc. to collect, sort, research and issue cases and establish a database, using exemplary/model/typical cases to guide, standardize, and as prevention  and for education.  典型案例的收集、整理、研究和发布工作,建立以案释法资源库,充分发挥典型案例的引导、规范、预防与教育功能。So from this one line in document it is possible to see popularization used for specialist purposes (standardization).

Later in 2017, the State Council approved the establishment of an interministerial joint conference on the popularization of law, with Zhang Jun, then head of the Ministry of Justice, as head and the SPC as one of the parties. At the end of 2017, the SPC issued its own document to implement the Party-State Council document, 人民法院贯彻落实〈中共中央办公厅 国务院办公厅关于实行国家机关“谁执法谁普法”普法责任制的意见〉的实施意见》(SPC Explaining the Law Opinions).   This document is the one guiding the work of the SPC most closely.

Section 9 of the Explaining the Law Opinions focuses on the use of cases for both popularization and specialist purposes.  It calls for establishing a system for judges to explain the law in the cases they hear (as a form of popularization). On the specialist side, it calls for judges to upload cases to the SPC case database according to regulations and increase the reasoning (说理) in their judgments. The latter can have both specialist and popularization and “rule of law” impacts.  If parties or the general public are convinced by the reasoning in a judgment, they are more likely to accept it as fair. However many factors (to be explored in a later blogpost and my students’ forthcoming articles) lead to judgments with thin reasoning. This document also calls for collecting, sorting, researching and issuing exemplary cases and organizing news conferences if useful. These exemplary/model/typical cases can have both specialist and popularization impacts.  One example, that I would recommend is a recent article by an SPC judge who studied at the University of Vermont, who published an article in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law article on a case that was designated one of the ten top mining rights typical cases.

So it seems that the Implementing the 4th Plenum of 19th Party Congress Opinions will be further implementing the provisions in the responsibility system for publicizing knowledge about law (普法) of “whoever enforces the law, explains the law” for both specialist and popularization purposes. In a later blogpost, I’ll explore the provisions in the pufajiaoyu 普法教育 responsibility system relating to judicial interpretations and judicial transparency.

Supreme People’s Court’s New Policy on Cross-border Commercial Issues and Covid-19

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From left, Li Guangyu, SPC spokesperson; SPC Vice President Justice Luo Dongchuan; Judge Wang Shumei, head of #4 Civil Division

On 16 June, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held a news conference (pictured above), to announce that it had issued “Guiding Opinion on the Proper Handling of Civil Cases Involving the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak in Accordance with the Law (III)” (SPC Guiding Opinion III).” SPC Guiding Opinion focuses on the most important cross-border commercial issues that have arisen in the Chinese courts this spring as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.  This brief blogpost provides some comments and an overview of the document, leaving the detailed analysis to the law firms that are sure to analyze it.

What is this document?

SPC Guiding Opinion III is a judicial policy document (司法政策性文件). As this blog has often commented, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) must serve the greater situation and deal with practical legal issues, so that the SPC itself and its senior leadership are correct, politically, and professionally. One of those ways is by providing properly calibrated guidance to the lower courts and other related authorities with the appropriate political signals.  For this document, Justice Luo Dongchuan provided the political background and signals in his introductory remarks at the SPC news conference. The document itself is practically oriented (as those in the system say “problem-oriented”–“问题导向”)(and the practitioners say “干活”).

From the photo above it is clear that the #4 Civil Division, headed by Judge Wang Shumei, which focuses on cross-border commercial and maritime issues, took the lead in drafting. That division is one of the smaller divisions of the SPC and “punches above its weight.”

A judicial policy document is not a judicial interpretation but as the SPC editors of a collection of these documents noted, “it is generally recognized that they have an important guiding impact on the trial and enforcement work of the courts at every level.”  SPC Guiding Opinion III is one example of the many types of SPC “stealth” guidance to the lower courts.  I describe it as “stealth guidance” because it affects how cases are handled, heard, and decided, but cannot be cited in a court judgment or ruling. For that reason, only the highly observant will note the impact of judicial policy documents.

I anticipated that the SPC would issue further Covid-19 pandemic guidance when I spoke [links to video] in April at a virtual event sponsored by Berkeley Law School’s Center for Law & Technology. Some of the guidance reveals frequently used litigation tactics of Chinese parties.

Selected comments on the content

The document is divided into four sections:

  1. Civil procedure mechanics–parties, evidence,  deadlines, and statutes of limitations (Articles 1-5): This section draws on the recently amended and effective civil evidence rules

Article 1 directs Chinese courts to approve applications for extensions for foreign (cross-border) parties who are delayed in being able to provide notarized and authenticated documents to evidence the identity.  Delays in obtaining notarized and authenticated powers of attorney are to be treated similarly. If China had acceded to the 1961  Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents, for all of China, this requirement would no longer be necessary. The Convention is applicable to Hong Kong because of UK-PRC handover arrangements, which enabled conventions originally applicable to Hong Kong pre-1997 to continue in effect.

Article 3 reveals one of the frequently used litigation tactics of Chinese parties in cross-border litigation in China–that is disputing the authenticity of a document because it has not been properly notarized and legalized. The SPC Guiding Opinion III advises lower courts to notify parties that they may reserve their arguments concerning these formalities, and focus their arguments on relevance and persuasiveness of the evidence.

      2. Ascertainment (determination) and application of law

These articles remind Chinese courts to use the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Law Applicable to Foreign-Related Civil Relationships to determine governing law (assuming a contract does not designate a governing law), and to look to the SPC Guiding Opinion I for guidance on force majeure under Chinese law.  The SPC also reminds lower court judges not to substitute Chinese law if foreign law governs.  This is not the first time that this type of reminder has appeared in SPC policy documents, indicating this is an ongoing problem.  This section also includes guidance on the application on the UN Convention on the Sale of Goods.

Articles 8 and 9 relate to letters of credit, standby letters of credit, and demand (independent) guarantees. It reminds lower courts to correctly apply the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC)’s UCP 600 (Uniform Customs and Practice for Documentary Credits), the ICC’s URDG 758(demand guarantee rules), and the related SPC judicial interpretation concerning demand guarantees.

This likely means that Chinese contractors who have provided independent guarantees or standby letters of credit for construction projects overseas are seeking to prevent the owner of the projects from drawing on these guarantees through litigation in the Chinese courts. This case decided by the SPC in April, 2020, reverses the judgment of the Shandong Higher People’s Court in favor of the Chinese contractor.  The dispute relates to a Shandong Electric Power Company (SEPCO) project in India. Previous reporting in the Indian press seen here.

3. Transport contracts

Articles 11-17 relate to various types of transportation contracts as well as shipbuilding contracts.

4. Green channel.

This last section reminds courts to use online procedures and cross-administrative region arrangements if convenient and that Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan related commercial cases should be handled with reference to this guidance.

How was the document drafted?

As to how the SPC determined the FAQs of the lower courts, it did what all corporates and institutions around the world do these days–convened a video conference. The participants presumably came from the maritime courts and the foreign-related civil divisions of the provincial courts.

Why did the SPC issue it?

The number of cases directly affected by this guidance is relatively small. According to statistics released with President Zhou Qiang’s report to the NPC in May, there were 17,000 first instance foreign-related commercial cases and 16,000 foreign-related maritime cases in the Chinese courts in 2019, compared with 31.5 million cases in the Chinese courts overall.

However, foreign-related cases tend to be more sensitive because, as Zhou Enlai said “外事无小事” (foreign matters are never small matters” –foreign-related matters, because they involve relations with other countries and the prestige of the Chinese state, are sensitive. That means that judges hearing cross-border cases have a particular pressure to handle these disputes in a way that is consistent with the law (of course), acceptable to the leadership of their court & to the outside world.  One important aspect of SPC Guiding Opinion III  is the impact on Belt & Road projects, In many of these projects Chinese companies are often contractors, or also contractors and equipment suppliers (and Chinese banks provide financing). On the civil/commercial side cross-border cases possibly involve treaty/convention obligations (or treaty-like arrangements, in the case of Hong Kong).

As issues dealt with in SPC Guiding Opinion III relate to the most important Chinese cross-border commercial issues that have arisen during the pandemic, it has an impact on the Chinese (and foreign) business community, far beyond the number of foreign-related cases in the Chinese courts, and is likely to have an impact on related arbitrations governed by Chinese law.

What Is the Impact of the SPC’s Circuit Courts?

President Zhou Qiang’s May, 2020  report to the National People’s Congress (which I will analyze when time permits) revealed that the number of cases that the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has increased about 10% over last year to 38,498 cases accepted. This year’s report usefully set out a bar graph with the number of cases that the SPC accepted and concluded.

 

These (also from the report) show that in 2019, almost 60% of the SPC’s cases were heard in the six circuit courts.

This is not accidental, but the result of intentional SPC policy. Judge He Xiaorong, current head of the #2 Circuit Court (and former head of the SPC’s judicial reform office) stated five years ago–” after the circuit courts (literally tribunals) are established, the center of the work of SPC headquarters will shift to supervision and guidance, primarily trying cases that have a major guiding function in unifying the application of law, that can become guiding cases  (巡回法庭普遍设立后,最高人民法院本部应当将工作重心转移到监督指导上,主要审理一些对统一法律适用有重大指导意义、具有重大示范价值、能够作为指导性案例的案件).

There has been one academic article in English (that I am aware of) (by Professors Chen and Wang) that focuses on the circuit courts, but looking at large scale policy rather than more granular analysis of circuit court decisions, whether in the form of judgments or rulings, or how circuit courts guide the lower courts, the impact on law practice in circuit court cities, and what it means for law students.  I’ll set out some quick thoughts on each topic.

Circuit Court Judgments & Rulings

According to the research of Tsinghua Professor He Haibo and colleagues, most of the SPC documents are rulings rather than judgments.  According to their data relating to 2017, 91% of the documents were rulings (relating to applications for retrial or trial supervision), with judgments accounting for about 4%, which in the authors’ view, makes it difficult for the SPC to fully fulfill its function of supervising and guiding the lower courts. This statement has made me think more about what the circuit courts are doing, particularly behind the scenes, as “supervising and guiding” the lower courts has multiple meanings.

What appears not to be generally known is that a substantial proportion of the cases heard in the circuit courts are administrative cases, although Chinese law firms have done many big data reports of commercial cases heard in the circuit courts. I am not aware of a comprehensive study on the number and type of administrative cases in the circuit courts.  This report on the #3 Circuit notes that approximately 70% of the cases were administrative, without breaking out annual statistics. I understand that similar statistics are true for the #1, #2, and #6 Circuit Courts. This report from a Shaanxi law firm on #6 Circuit cases (based on 2017-first half of 2019) found that practically all administrative rulings (96%) rejected the applicant’s request to retry or remand the cases (see the pie chart below).
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The law firm commented that of the administrative cases that were accepted, most of them involved the taking of collective land and the condemnation of housing on state-owned land, indicating government enforcement issues (among others). The comments of the lawyers on the judgments indicated that “administration according to law” is still a long term goal, particularly in western China, as the cases revealed instances of local governments:

  1. condemning or taking land and housing without obtaining approval;
  2. taking land or housing in excess of administrative authority;
  3. taking land or housing first, then obtaining approval;
  4. failing to compensate real estate owners or land use rights holders;
  5. failing to follow required procedures;
  6. demonstrating poor awareness of law, including procedural and evidentiary requirements;
  7. failing to protect the rights of related persons;
  8. failing to comply with open government regulations.

This data is consistent with what I had understood from other sources. One informed commentator mentioned that circuit courts are reluctant to order the retrial of administrative cases. He attributed it to “holistic” thinking on the part of judges (my term–considering factors other than those relating to the case), particularly social stability, the need to uphold the prestige of government, etc.

However, in addition to judgments and rulings, circuit courts use other ways of guiding local courts, and indirectly, local governments.

 How the circuit courts guide the lower courts

Doing some further digging, I found that circuit courts use their judgments and rulings in other more traditional ways to guide the lower courts.  Among those are:

Circuit Courts and Elite Law Firms

Another impact of the circuit courts is to attract some of the elite Beijing or Shanghai law firms to establish branches in circuit court cities.  Tian Tong Law Firm appears to be one of the first, but I’ve also noticed that some of the other big Chinese law firms have followed Tian Tong’s lead. The impact on lawyer career paths remains to be seen, but it is likely to improve the level of litigation practice in some locations.

Circuit Courts and Chinese law students

Finally, having a circuit court nearby has an unrecognized benefit for Chinese law students, many of whom are educated in a very traditional way, with little experience in thinking through legal problems in a comprehensive way or are unused to using their research skills analytically.  It also enables the circuit courts to have greater intellectual support, without expanding their headcount.  From my conversations with law students who have interned in circuit courts, the experience has given them the opportunity to undertake thorough analysis on new issues and to have their work reviewed carefully by highly qualified and experienced mentor judges or judge’s assistants.  It has also given some law students an appreciation of the demands of working “in the system” rather than the more relaxed environment of a university, as several of my students found when they didn’t realize that they needed to inform their supervisors ahead of time about taking leave from their internships to return to school!

 

Supreme People’s Court’s New Vision for the Chinese courts

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Publicity related to the document analyzed below

The month of April saw the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issue many judicial policy documents, consistent with the commitment made in January 2020 to Party leadership to better serve the Party and state.

To the outside observer, a document issued on 1 April appears to signal the way that the Chinese judicial system will develop in the post-19th Chinese Communist Party (Party) Congress Fourth Plenum New Era.  The document is entitled Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on Thoroughly Implementing the Spirit of the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress to Advance the Modernization of the Judicial System and Judicial Capacity (最高人民法院关于人民法院贯彻落实党的十九届四中全会精神推进审判体系和审判能力现代化的意见) (Implementing the 4th Plenum of 19th Party Congress Opinions). It implements “Implementing Opinions on Comprehensively Deepening Reform in the Political-Legal Field” (the text of this January 2019 document 关于政法领域全面深化改革的实施意见 has not been issued publicly) and “The Fifth Five-Year Reform Outline of the People’s Court (2019-2023) and obviously, the Decision of the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress (4th Plenum Decision). The fact that the first document has not been issued publicly means that outside observers can identify its implications only through summaries in the press and implementing documents. The Party’s regulations on transparency (explained here) do not cover documents of this sort.

The Implementing the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress Opinion is a framework document in which the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) identifies principles and goals for the Chinese judicial system and judicial capacity after the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress. This blogpost will identify some of them and their link to the 4th Plenum, with related comments in italics. I expect that the SPC will issue specific judicial policy documents and judicial interpretations, as appropriate, to implement specific measures.

New Era Governance

The document needs to be seen as part of the larger picture for China’s governance set out in the 4th Plenum Decision.  Section 1 states that  “modernization of the judicial system and judicial capacity is an important part of the modernization of the national governance system and governance capability” and is needed, among other matters, to provide judicial services and guarantees for societal and economic development. One aspect of the importance of its judicial services is the fact that there were 28 million cases in the Chinese courts in 2018, most of them civil and commercial.

Political correctness

Several sections relate to political correctness.  This is linked to the clear requirement in the 4th Plenum Decision,  under the topic “perfecting the comprehensive leadership of the Party  (健全党的全面领导制度.)”  The 4th Plenum Decision also requires implementing the ideological responsibility system integrating socialist core values into law and social governance. This document, therefore, contains corresponding provisions.

Party leadership

Consistent with last year’s National People’s Congress report and other documents, this document states that the most important goal is to uphold and implement the Party’s absolute leadership of the courts and persist in putting the Party’s political construction first. It restates tasks for the courts, some of which were earlier flagged on this blog:

  • effectively implementing the Party’s leadership in all areas and aspects of the work of the people’s courts and ensuring the independent and fair exercise of judicial power under the leadership of the Party.  Related language is found in the 4th Plenum Decision. This requirement is found in the latest judicial reform plan and elsewhere, including judicial training (as discussed here);
  • Improve the system for implementing major decisions of the Party Center (完善党中央重大决策落实机制) (found in the 4th Plenum Decision and documents thereafter);
  • strictly implementing the [Party] system of reporting and seeking approval for major matters [also known as requests for instructions](严格落实重大事项请示报告制度)(the Party regulations on reporting and seeking approval for major matters) (mentioned here);
  • strengthening improvements from political inspection (see my blogpost on the inspection of the SPC) and judicial inspection (强化政治巡视和司法巡查整改) (discussed in my forthcoming article) (related content found in the 4th Plenum Decision. Judicial inspection is an old institution repurposed in the new era);
  • implementing the Party’s reporting and inspection system (督察落实情况报告制度, mentioned in the 4th Plenum report and thereafter).

As mentioned in a recent blogpost, this means implementing Party principles concerning the appointment of personnel, particularly those in a leadership position. These trends are linked to broader policies related to civil servants (this recent academic paper by Holly Snape has good insights).

Socialist Core Values and the Ideological Responsibility System

Section 5 focuses on socialist core values and the ideological responsibility system, both of which the 4th Plenum Decision stressed.

  • On the ideological responsibility system, this (authoritative) article (the author was then at the Party’s Central Compilation and Translation Bureau), unfortunately behind the publisher’s high paywall), sets forth an authoritative explanation of this concept in Xi Jinping New Era Governance that some of us need. The author defines the ideological responsibility system as follows:  it “is part of the political reforms and aimed at maintaining and improving the loyalty of the Bureaucracy, as well as maintaining their ideological unification…Under the current Xi administration, the CCP wants its cadres to be politically reliable, professional and competent, morally self-regulated, and preferably trusted by the people…
  • Resolutely prevent and oppose the eroding influence of Western mistaken thinking (坚决防范抵制西方错误思潮侵蚀影响).  This phrase has evolved from the one used several years ago and mentioned on this blog: “resolutely opposing erosion by the mistaken Western rule of law viewpoint” (坚决抵制西方错误法治观点侵蚀).  Related language appears in the 4th Plenum Decision: have a clear-cut stand opposing various types of erroneous views (旗帜鲜明反对和抵制各种错误观点 ). This observer surmises that this phrase appeared in the 2019 Party document mentioned above. This does not create obstacles to Chinese judges continuing to consider useful “Western” legal concepts and mechanisms and the SPC continuing to have exchanges and cooperation projects with major “Western” jurisdictions.
  • Implement socialist core values in the work of the courts. This has multiple aspects and continues an ongoing theme, including in judicial interpretations–see my 2018 blogpost). Some high-level conferences organized by the Case Research Institute of the National Judicial College have been on the subject of promoting socialist core values through cases.

Practically oriented

The more practically oriented sections (4, 6-8) reveal priority areas of SPC leadership concern. Those particularly relate to economic development, social stability, judicial reform, and technological upgrading, all topics found in the 4th Plenum Decision., while the section on public health emergency management relates to Party decisions and Xi Jinping speeches during the Covid pandemic.

These sections mention short, medium, and long-term areas of concern and development.

Section 4 of the document lists some of the priority matters relating to economic development facing the SPC and the lower courts, many of them mentioned in this year’s judicial interpretation list or recently announced judicial reforms. A curated version (translation is modified Google translate):

  •  Improve risk monitoring and the early warning mechanism in financial trials,  properly hearing financial disputes, and actively preventing and resolving financial risks (therefore we have seen the establishment of the Shanghai Financial Court and specialized financial tribunals in certain major cities. More detailed observations on this will come in the future);
  • fully implement the environmental public interest litigation system, improve the environmental remediation system, improve the environmental protection injunction system, improve the jurisdiction provisions in environmental cases. (The 4th Plenum Decision had a section on environmental protection and a July 2019 press conference linked to the fifth anniversary of SPC’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division mentioned these measures.)
  • Use evaluation indicators such as “enforcing contracts” and “handling bankruptcy”,  to improve trial management, mechanism, quality, and efficiency to create a stable, fair, transparent, and predictable legal business environment. (This is linked again to the 4th Plenum Decision and China’s ranking on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business scorecard).
  • Intensify the review of the legality of administrative actions, strengthen the substantive resolution of administrative disputes (also linked to the strengthening of administration by law in the 4th Plenum Decision, therefore also on the 2020 judicial interpretation agenda).
  • Strengthen the judicial protection of property rights. See earlier blogposts on this.
  • Formulate judicial interpretations for cases of infringement of trade secrets, and continuously improve the level of judicial protection of intellectual property rights (IPR). (Improving trade secrets protection is mentioned in the 4th Plenum Decision. Also see Mark Cohen’s recent blogpost on this).
  • Formulate judicial interpretations of punitive damages for intellectual property rights, promote the establishment of a tort damages compensation system that reflects the market value of IPR (IPR is stressed in the 4th Plenum Decision and punitive damages in IPR cases is mentioned. Also see Mark Cohen’s blog on this.  This also relates to evidentiary issues in IPR cases).
  • Mediation and diversified dispute resolution (including giving non-litigation methods of dispute resolution priority, improving the separation of disputes and the creation of one-stop dispute resolution and litigation service that is efficient and low cost) is mentioned in this document as well.  It is unclear what this means for the development of a commercial mediation system in China.  Local courts have been working on better cooperation with institutions that can mediate specialized disputes, such as the Shanghai Financial Court’s arrangements with the Shanghai Stock Exchange and other institutions. The provisions here derive from language in the 4th Plenum Decision on improving an effective system in the new situation for the correct handling of internal contradictions among the people (完善正确处理新形势下人民内部矛盾有效机制) as well as the Fengqiao Experience. Xi Jinping has mentioned the Fengqiao Experience since 2013, if not earlier. The phrase about internal contradictions appears to derive from the 1959 Mao essay, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.
  • Promote capacity building for foreign-related commercial and maritime trials, equally protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese and foreign parties in accordance with law, improve the diversified dispute resolution mechanism for international commercial disputes, serve the joint construction of the “Belt and Road” and the construction of free trade pilot zones and free trade ports ( The 4th Plenum Decision promotes a high-quality Belt & Road Initiative, so these measures implement the 4th Plenum Decision. Also, see my earlier blogpost on this.  To better improve diversified dispute resolution in cross-border cases, China needs to work on institutional arrangements enabling it to ratify the Singapore Mediation Convention. Those are many and complex, as I had a chance to learn in December, 2019. One matter that would assist foreign parties litigating in the Chinese courts (and Chinese parties litigating outside of China) would be for China to accede to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents.  The SPC’s new evidence rules reduce the scope of documents that a foreign litigant (or domestic litigant providing foreign evidence) must notarize and legalize, but it is a troublesome and expensive process.
  • Improve the adjudication mechanism involving Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, build a centralized and professional trial system, explore and improve the diversified settlement mechanism for [civil/commercial] disputes involving Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. (The centralized system seems to be analogous to foreign-related cases. The intent is to have more competent judges consider these. Another issue is parallel proceedings in these cross-border cases. These issues deserve further analysis.)
  • Deepen the international judicial exchange and cooperation mechanism, participate in the reform of the global governance system and formulate rules of international law, and contribute more Chinese wisdom to the maintenance of the multilateral trading system and the international rule of law. (See my earlier blogpost on this).

Public health emergency management

Section 6 relates to the role of the courts in the public health emergency management system, in the short and long terms.  It mentions the courts providing judicial services to the joint prevention and control system, preventing mass events, and group prevention and control (群防群治工作机制, an old system to which Xi Jinping has given new meaning during the pandemic. That section mentions shorter-term issues, such as punishing the manufacturing and sale of fakes during the pandemic and longer-term issues, such as the courts being involved in improving the legal system in the area of public health.

Judicial Reform

Section 7 highlights some of the tasks in the current judicial reform plan. Those include:

  • Deepening the judicial responsibility system, for judges hearing cases solely or in a collegial panel, the members of a judicial committee, and the supervision of judicial power.  As mentioned on this blog several times, judges are concerned about the scope of the judicial responsibility system, and recent cases that have appeared in the Chinese press would only amplify those concerns. I have more on this in a forthcoming book chapter.
  • Improving the disciplinary mechanism for judges. The forthcoming book chapter is on this. The SPC is working on related regulations.
  • Promoting the improvement of the policies relating to the selection of judges level by level. The controls on the number of “quota judges,” judges with the title of “judge,” in many courts, means that some number of qualified personnel have become judges assistants. It has created a fair amount of frustration.  Another issue is that the new policies mean it takes longer for judges to be promoted, but at the moment, most judges need to retire at 60, so that the pool of judges eligible to be promoted eventually to the SPC will shrink. We can expect related policies issued in the medium term.
  • Improving the working mechanism of the circuit courts and promote the Supreme People’s Court’s Intellectual Property Court (SPCIPC) and the China International Commercial Court (CICC). Promote the strengthening of the organization system of intellectual property courts, and improve the specialized trial system so that it complies with the principles for the judicial protection of IPR. (It is understood that the circuit courts are hearing most SPC cases.  But it still leaves unanswered what the role of the SPC in hearing cases is.  Should it best focus on considering a smaller number of cases more thoroughly, as other supreme courts do? The SPCIPC and CICC both have captured SPC leadership attention (and the attention of the outside world). It is clear that the SPC has provided much more support to the SPCIPC than the CICC (most obviously the SPCIPC operates full time, while the CICC does not). China’s IPR enforcement system is a topic of worldwide concern (the Phase 1 Trade Agreement and the United States Trade Representative Office’s recent 301 Report both evidence this), so it is likely that this means the SPC leadership will focus more on intellectual property issues.
  • Deeply promote the reform of the trial-centered criminal justice system (this is a continuation of reforms initiated in the previous round of judicial reforms).  This topic requires a separate analysis, to consider the impact of the National Supervision Commission, among other issues.
  • Improve and deepen the judicial transparency mechanism including promoting the transparency of judgment documents, court hearings, trial process information, and execution information. See my earlier blogpost and Mark Cohen’s more recent one on his concerns in the area of intellectual property law.  Professor He Haibo has done important empirical work on judicial transparency.

Technology

Section 8 relates to technology and implementing the courts’ five-year plan on informatization (人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划).  It mentions promoting AI, big data, cloud computing, blockchain, and 5G. Litigants should know that the SPC is promoting online case filing, litigation, mediation, judicial blockchain, and the mobile micro-court.  A reality check is needed for China’s online litigation publicity.  One is provided by a popular Wechat article published last month “A month of online court hearings, judges and lawyers have all gone crazy” 云庭审上线一个月,法官律师都疯了Technology is an important area of SPC leadership concern, as it sees it as an area in which China can take the lead.

Take-aways?

What is the impact of this vision and program for the Chinese courts, for litigants (in China or elsewhere), and for others, including judiciaries in other countries and jurisdictions. Is this a “China model” for courts, as raised by some? It does not appear to be so, but rather an outline for the courts to be conveyed within China, rooted in the Chinese political, cultural, and social environment of 2020, which will change along with Party priorities and events.  Some aspects described above are common to judiciaries around the world, such as the trend towards greater online justice.  Will it deliver the results it promises?

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Many thanks to certain anonymous readers for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this blogpost. They are not responsible for any errors or “erroneous views.”

 

Supreme People’s Court’s 2020 judicial interpretation agenda

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On 17 March 2020, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s General Office issued a document (English translation here) setting out a list of 49 judicial interpretation projects for which the SPC judicial  committee gave project approval.  This document sets out the responsibilities of various divisions and offices of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) in undertaking an important part of the SPC’s work, promulgating judicial interpretations for 2020. As discussed in two blogposts in 2018 and two blogposts in 2019, the SPC has a yearly plan for drafting judicial interpretations, as set out in its 2007 regulations on judicial interpretation work. The plan is analogous to the legislative plans of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and its Standing Committee.

Judicial interpretations are binding on the SPC itself and the lower courts, and fill in some of the interstices of Chinese law (further explained here).  One of my articles in the production pipeline provides more details about the drafting process in one area of law.  It is one of the more controversial powers of the SPC, where the gap between the views of the academics, lawyers and those inside the system is particularly large.  I have my views on it as well, but that is a topic for another day and perhaps another article.

“Project approval” is an initial procedure used by regulatory authorities of all types, Party and state, to approve projects. For the SPC, it reflects one of the “planned economy” aspects of the way it operates. This is the third year that the SPC has made this list public, and it is a concrete step forward in increasing the SPC’s transparency. I’m grateful to Chinalawtranslate.com for translating the list so quickly. Of those projects, 38  with an end of 2020 deadline and 11 have a deadline set for the first half of 2021.   Some brief comments (some longer than others) follow below. Please see my previous blogposts commenting on the 2018 and 2019 agendas. Mark Cohen of Berkeley Law School (and Chinaipr.com) has already commented on the projects in the area of intellectual property law, so for those I will link to his comments.

As I commented previously, close observation reveals that some interpretations were listed previously, indicating that drafts were not ready for approval last year. Some of the reasons for slippage are likely to be:

  • the issues turn out to be more complicated than anticipated (substantively, procedurally or institutionally);
  • judges have less time to work on judicial interpretation drafting, with an increased caseload and document study;
  • many experienced SPC judges have been dispatched to circuit courts, leaving fewer at headquarters to work on judicial interpretations; and
  • timing may also be a factor. The SPC wants judicial interpretations to be in place for some time, and if the greater environment is not conducive for issuing the interpretation, or additional issues are seen, it will be postponed.

If an SPC division or office is listed as responsible, it means it is on its work agenda for that year.  (I surmise) the head (or heads) of the related responsible divisions or offices need to provide an explanation for slippage.

The 2007 SPC regulations on judicial interpretation work do not require drafts to be made public, but comments may be solicited from society if related to the interests of the general public (masses) or if it is a major difficult issue,  as decided by the executive vice president or president of the SPC, after an initial review by the SPC vice president in charge of that particular area of law (涉及人民群众切身利益或者重大疑难问题的司法解释,经分管院领导审批后报常务副院长或者院长决定,可以向社会公开征求意见). This procedure provides yet another glimpse into the bureaucratic nature (官本位) of the SPC.

Type 1 (to be completed before the end of 2020)

1. Interpretation of Several Issues on the Application of Law in Cases of Pre-trial Preservation of Assets. Responsibility: Case Filing Division. The deadline for this has been postponed for several years in a row. It was included in the 2019 and 2018 lists. This interpretation will provide more detailed rules for pre-filing injunctions, for non-intellectual property (IP) cases.

2. Provisions on Several Issues Relating to Preventing and Punishing Fake, Malicious, and Frivolous Litigation (关于防范和惩治虚假诉讼、恶意诉讼及无理缠诉若干问题的规定).  Responsibility of the Case Filing Division, Research Office. Again, it previously had a deadline of 2019. The Research Office has been added as a responsible party.  The Research Office is a unique institution at the SPC–further comments on that at some later date.

3. Decision on Revising the “SPC and SPP Interpretation on the Application of Law in Handling Cases of Criminal Endangerment of Food Safety,” Responsibility of the 1st Criminal Division, and similarly previously had a 2018 and 2019 deadline.

4. SPC, SPP Interpretation on Several Issues on the Application of Law in Handling Cases of Criminal Corruption (2). Responsibility of the #2 Criminal Division

5. SPC and SPP Interpretation on Several Issues on the Application of Law in Handling Cases of Criminal Dereliction of Duty (2) Responsibility of the #2 Criminal Division.  Previously with an end of 2019 deadline.  For those wishing to understand some of the issues delaying this interpretation, see this recent article (in Chinese) by Professor He Jiahong of Renmin University Law School.

6. Decision on Revising the “SPC Interpretation on the Specific Application of Law in Criminal Cases of Money Laundering” (New Item) Responsibility of the #3 Criminal Division. I surmise that this is directly linked to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) mutual evaluation report of China, issued in 2019.

7. Interpretation on Specific Issues on the Application of Law in Handling Criminal Cases of Loan Fraud (New Item). Responsibility: #3 Criminal Division.  This means that lower court judges frequently encounter issues with this.

8. Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Handling Criminal Cases of Endangering Tax Collection and Management: Responsibility: #4 Criminal Division

9. Interpretation of Several Issues on the Application of Law in Cases of Administrative Crimes (New Item)

To be handled by: 4th Criminal Division

10. Interpretation of Several Issues on the Application of Law for Restricting Commutation during the Reprieve Period for a Suspended Death Sentence. Responsibility: #5 Criminal Division

11. Interpretation of Several Issues on the Application of Law in Hearing Cases of Objections to Enforcement: Responsibility: #1 Civil Division.

12. Decision to Revise the “SPC Provisions on Several Issues on the Application of Law in Hearing Civil Cases of Private Lending (New Item) Responsibility: 1st Civil Division. Likely this needs to be amended to incorporate new policies regarding “professional” lenders(see the related SPC policy document Opinions on Several Issues Regarding the Handling of Criminal Cases of Illegal Lending translated here on Chinalawtranslate.com).

13. Interpretation on Several Issues on the Application of Law in Handling Cases of the Acquisition, Management and Disposition of Non-performing Assets by Financial Asset Management Companies

To be handled by: 2nd Civil Division

14. Provisions on Transformation of Preservation Measures for Debtors’ Assets after Acceptance of Bankruptcy Applications (New Item) Responsibility: 2nd Civil Division. Likely linked to the policy of encouraging certain enforcement cases to be transferred to the bankruptcy division before all assets are dissipated, mentioned in this blogpost.

15. Interpretation on Several Issues of Applicable Law in Hearing Cases of Disputes Over Security (New Item) Responsibility: 2nd Civil Division. This refers to disputes over guarantees, pledges, mortgages, and other types of security over assets, likely incorporating new principles (this article discusses the draft) set out in the SPC’s 2019 Conference Summary on Civil and Commercial Work.

16. Provisions on Evidence in Intellectual Property Rights Proceedings Responsibility: #3rd Civil Division, #1 Civil Division, Research Office, Intellectual Property Court.  Mark Cohen’s comments seen here.

17. Interpretation of Several Issues on the Application of Law in Patent Authorization Confirmation Cases Responsibility: 3rd Civil Division, Intellectual Property Court. Mark Cohen’s comments seen here.

18. Interpretation of Several Questions on the Application of Law in Hearing Cases of Disputes regarding Infringement of Trade Secrets: #3 Civil Division, #1 Criminal Division, Intellectual Property Court. Mark Cohen’s comments seen here.

19. Provisions on Several Issues on the Application of Law in Cases of Disputes over Pharmaceutical Patent Linkage(New Item) be handled by: 3rd Civil Division, Case Filing Division, Intellectual Property Court. Mark Cohen’s comments seen here.

20. Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Hearing Disputes over Ship Crews’ Labor Service Contracts Responsibility: #4 Civil Division

21. Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Hearing Cases of Disputes over Forestry Rights. Responsibility: Environmental Division

22. Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Hearing Environmental Tort Disputes (2)(New Item)  Responsibility: Environmental Division

23. Provisions on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Hearing Administrative Cases of Compensation for Rural Collective Land Expropriation (New Item) Responsibility: Administrative Division.  There are many cases on this.

24. Provisions on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Hearing Cases of Administrative Compensation. Responsibility: Administrative Division

25. Provisions on Several Issues on the Application of Law in Cases of Hearing Civil Controversies during Administrative Litigation.Responsibility: Administrative Division

26. Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Hearing Retrials of Cases Involving Disputes over Apparent Agency. Responsibility: Trial Supervision Division

27. Interpretation on Several Issues Concerning the Application of Law in Handling Cases of Share Equity Enforcement. Responsibility: Enforcement Bureau

28. Decision on Amending the “Supreme People’s Court’s Several Provisions on Publishing the List of Information on Judgment Defaulters”(New Item) Responsibility: Enforcement Bureau.  I surmise that some of the issues published in responses to Zhou Qiang’s mailbox will be incorporated.  Jeremy Daum is likely to have further comments on this draft interpretation.

29. Decision on Amending the “SPC’s Several Provisions on Restricting High Consumption and Related Consumption of Persons Subject to Enforcement”(New Item) Responsibility: Enforcement Bureau. Jeremy Daum is likely to have further comments on this draft interpretation.

30. Interpretation of Several Issues on the Application of Law in Handling Cases Connecting Civil and Criminal Matters

To be handled by: Research Office

31. Interpretation of Several Issues Related to the Application of the “P.R.C. Civil Code” (1) (New Item) Responsibility: Research Office. I surmise this will be a major project of the SPC.

32. Interpretation on the Application of the “P.R.C. Criminal Procedure Law”. Responsibility of the Research Office. Subject of my forthcoming article.

33. Decision Regarding Several Issues on Judicial Technology Work. Responsibility: Research Office, Trial Management Office, Judicial Equipment Administration Bureau

34. Provisions on Several Issues Regarding the People’s Courts’ Forensic Evaluations. Responsibility: Research Office, Trial Management Office, Judicial Equipment Administration Bureau

35. Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Labor Dispute Cases Involving Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan Compatriots (New Item) Responsibility: Research Office. The Research Office has departments focusing on Hong Kong and Macao and Taiwan related issues. I surmise the #1 Civil Division will also be involved, as one of their responsibilities is labor issues.

36. Provisions on Several Issues Concerning the People’s Court’s Disclosure of Trial Processes Online。 Responsibility: Trial Management Office

37. Provisions on the Application of Law in Hearing Cases of Civil Disputes Arising from Monopolistic Conduct (2)(New Item)

To be handled by: Intellectual Property Court, #3 Civil Division

38. Work on Cleaning up Judicial Interpretations Related to Civil Code Responsibility: Research Office and Relevant Divisions. Likely to be a big task, determining which existing judicial interpretations having provisions inconsistent with the Civil Code (and the principles in the forthcoming judicial interpretation).

Type 2 (To be completed in the first half of 2021)

1. Provisions on Several Issues Regarding the Specific Application of Law in Hearing Cases of National Defense Patent Disputes (New Item) Responsibility: #3 Civil Division, Intellectual Property Court.  Likely to be because of the policies related to Civil and Military Integration (Chinese article here), English analysis of related issues, seen here. I surmise the Legal Department of the Central Military Commission

2. Interpretation of Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law on Punitive Damages for Intellectual Property Infringements: Responsibility: 3# Civil Division, Intellectual Property Court.

3. Interpretation of Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Hearing Civil Cases of Unfair Competition(New Item)

To be handled by: 3rd Civil Division, Intellectual Property Court. Mark Cohen’s comments seen here.

4. Provisions Regarding Several Issues in the Trial Procedures for Administrative Cases. Responsibility: Administrative Division

5. Provisions on Several Issues Regarding the Review of Normative Documents below the Rules Level as Part of Administrative Litigation. Responsibility: Administrative Division.

6. Provisions on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Hearing Administrative Cases Involving Higher Education(New Item) Responsibility: Administrative Division.  There are many cases in this area.

7. Provisions on Standards for Changing Judgments in Retrial of Criminal Cases(New Item) Responsibility: Trial Supervision Division. Related research has been undertaken for some time, as described in my forthcoming article.

8. Interpretation on How to Determine “Heinous Circumstances” as Used in the First Paragraph of Article 50 of the Criminal Law [Involving limits on commutation of suspended death sentences](New Item).Responsibility: Trial Supervision Division

9. Provisions on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Hearing Cases of Third Party Opposition. Responsibility: Research Office

10. Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Hearing Disputes over Personal Information Rights. Responsibility: Research Office

11. Provisions on Issues of the Specific Application of Law in Hearing Cases of Disputes over the Rights in New Varieties of Plants(New Item) To be handled by: Intellectual Property Court, 3rd Civil Division. Mark Cohen’s comments seen here.

 

 

 

 

 

Lawsuits against foreign countries in the Chinese courts

In March 2020, three Chinese lawyers filed civil lawsuits against (variously) the United States (US) government, President Trump, and other US government departments, attracting a great deal of attention on Chinese social media. The case that has attracted the most attention is the one in Wuhan, but according to Wechat articles, two different Beijing lawyers have also filed cases. Reports of these lawsuits are now making their way into English language media.

These lawsuits involve the issue of sovereign or state immunity of foreign governments, foreign embassies/consulates in China and their diplomatic staff, international institutions, and certain other persons and entities.  China’s position is absolute sovereign or state immunity– which means that states, diplomatic institutions and staff, as well as international institutions) are immune from suit and enforcement (unless they waive immunity). These issues have been discussed by practitioners and academics for quite a few years. (There have been academic discussions about China changing its position on state immunity and China has signed, but not ratified the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property, which adopts qualified immunity (not yet in force). I will not further discuss this issue as the law is quite clear.

What this blogpost will discuss is what others have not: the procedure (and the document in which the procedure is set out) by which a Chinese court decides whether to accept these cases.   This bureaucratic procedure gives greater insights into how the Chinese courts operate.

The procedure is set out in the 2007 Notice of the Supreme People’s Court on the Relevant Issues concerning the People’s Courts Acceptance of Civil Cases Involving Privileges and Immunities (the Notice) (最高人民法院关于人民法院受理涉及特权与豁免的民事案件有关问题的通知). The SPC issued the notice to the lower courts, including the military courts.

The Notice is intended to provide a clear standard to the lower courts when they encounter a case involving issues of state immunity. The system described below is one of the exceptions to the registration case filing system.

The notice itself (as I have written before about other types of judicial guidance documents) has an uncertain formal status under Chinese law, although as a practical matter it is binding on the lower courts. The core part of the notice follows:

To strictly enforce the provisions of the Civil Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China and the relevant international conventions that China has acceded to and ensure the correct acceptance of civil cases involving privileges and immunities, this court has decided to establish a reporting system for cases involving privilege and immunity accepted by the people’s courts, and a notice is hereby issued as follows:

For a civil case filed with the people’s court where the defendant or third party is any of the following subjects that enjoys privilege or immunity in China, before deciding to accept it, the people’s court shall submit it to the higher people’s court with jurisdiction for examination; the higher people’s court agreeing on the acceptance shall submit its examination opinions to the Supreme People’s Court. Before the Supreme People’s Court makes a reply, no acceptance shall be made.) 保障正确受理涉及特权与豁免的民事案件,我院决定对人民法院受理的涉及特权与豁免的案件建立报告制度,特做如下通知:人民法院应在决定受理之前,报请本辖区高级人民法院审查;高级人民法院同意受理的,应当将其审查意见报最高人民法院。在最高人民法院答复前,一律暂不受理。

The entities listed include:

  • foreign countries;
  • foreign embassies and consulates in China and their staffs;
  • offices of the United Nations (constituent organizations) in China and their staff;
  • analogous organizations.

Judging by the number of page views (12,500) of the Notice in a recent Wechat article, many legal professionals (likely including judges) were unaware that the Notice existed.

The number of cases filed in China against foreign countries, diplomatic entities or persons is unknown.  One database I checked contained a case (with an English translation, that will be discussed below), and a case database has a case involving the International Red Cross, but a more litigious Chinese public means that cases likely have been filed, but I am unable to determine how many.

Explanation:

  1.  Under the Notice, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) (most certainly with the concurrence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), although it is not so stated), has established an approval system for accepting civil cases involving the privileges and immunities of foreign governments, international organizations, etc.  This is one of several types of cases (of which I am aware) for which the SPC has an approval system.  Other types include cases involving the refusal to enforce foreign (foreign-related, and Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau) arbitration awards (and related issues) and death penalty cases (the 死刑复核 system, although the nature of the review and approval are different in those cases).
  2. The court having jurisdiction over the case (generally an intermediate court), reports the case under consideration to its superior higher people’s court for review (request for instructions 请示).  If the higher people’s court concurs with the lower court’s decision to accept the case, it must report the matter to the SPC for review, and the lower court must not accept the case before the SPC has replied. According to other SPC guidance, the judicial committee of the higher court must discuss the issue before it is reported to the SPC.  This is illustrated in a reply by the SPC’s reply in a 2009 case, the Reply of the Supreme People’s Court to the Request for Instructions on Issues concerning Immunities in the Case of Disputes over a House Lease Contract between Li Xiaobo and the Regional Delegation for East Asia of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
  3.  The matter would be processed by the SPC’s Case Filing Division and then forwarded to the #4 Civil Division (the one considering cross-border civil and commercial cases). From the 2009 case, it is clear that the #4 Civil Division is the SPC division that replies to these requests for instructions. I would further surmise that in certain difficult cases, the SPC would consult with the MFA.
  4. I would surmise that in practice, the courts that may see these cases (Beijing’s Chaoyang District and one or more of the Shanghai courts) are familiar with these issues and reject them without seeking instructions.

What does this show about the Chinese courts?

First, the Chinese courts understand there to be a single correct view on certain issues.  This is seen more widely, with references in many documents to unifying judicial approaches to issues.

More importantly, it is one small illustration of the bureaucratic, hierarchical nature and operation (官本位) of the Chinese court system.  For important issues, such as those involving the death penalty, compliance with the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention), and issues involving state immunity and the immunity of international organizations, the SPC’s view is that a high degree of control is needed. It is clear that the SPC’s understanding is that lower court judges are unlikely to be familiar with this technical but important issue.

Why is this issue important? As I wrote last year (about the China International Commercial Court), there are no small matters in foreign affairs (外事无小事)( Zhou Enlai’s saying). Both domestically and internationally, foreign-related matters, because they involve relations with other countries and the prestige of the Chinese state, are sensitive and important.

 

Controlling Judicial Headcount in the New Era

Screenshot 2020-03-19 at 4.32.02 PMIn the middle of March 2020, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Party Group convened a meeting (pictured above) to discuss the topic of “strengthen the awareness of the system, maintain the authority of the system, make stricter the management of the system, build a tougher court team, and work hard to build a model organization on which the Party Center can rely and that satisfies the masses (强化制度意识,维护制度权威,严格制度管理,打造过硬法院队伍,努力建设让党中央放心、让人民群众满意的模范机关).  Part of this phrase appeared in several of my blogposts in the past year (not surprisingly), and also can be seen across used by other Party and state institutions in 2019 (not surprisingly).  Although the discussion at the meeting centered around two topics–judicial headcount (bianzhi 编制) and selecting leaders (领导干部选拔任用, nomenklatura)–this short blogpost will focus on judicial headcount (bianzhi).

Chinese law, unlike legislation in many countries (see German legislation, for example), does not state clearly how many judges are on its highest court. It is also unclear how many persons work in the operational divisions of the SPC (the ones that decide cases) vs. the administrative (general, 综合部门) of the SPC.  As I wrote in an earlier blogpost, it is unclear how many judges in the SPC have been “borrowed” from the lower courts.  And as I wrote earlier about the SPC judicial committee, it appears that likely that the Central Staffing Commission regulates the number of persons who can be SPC vice presidents. I surmised that Justices Hu Yunteng, Liu Guixiang, Pei Xianding, and He Xiaorong were given the title of  “专委“ (full-time members of the judicial committee) to give them a bureaucratic rank equivalent to being an SPC vice president, with attendant privileges. The bianzhi system supplies the reason.

The bianzhi system provides insights into the thinking of the Chinese political leadership about how it views legal institutions, including the courts. It appears to treat the SPC as just another Party/state institution whose functions, internal institutions, and personnel the Party must set (the jargon in Chinese is the “three sets”(“三定”)(职能配置、内设机构和人员编制). It also shows the bureaucratic nature (官本位) of the SPC.  The bianzhi system illustrates that the SPC has a different role in the Chinese political system from the supreme courts of other major jurisdictions. This discussion and other ongoing discussions within the SPC on its “three sets” plan illustrates how the Party is reshaping legal institutions in the New Era. The Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) has already been reshaped. This is part of the post-18th Party Congress (and 19th Party Congress) reshaping of Party and state institutions, to ensure the correct implementation of Party leadership.

The bianzhi system

The bianzhi system is a system for creating and eliminating Party/government/state-owned enterprise/institutional posts by identifying the necessary functions the system needs to fulfill. Those in the SPC are part of the government (政务) civil service/Party/government) system.  The bianzhi system is administered by the Central Staffing Commission. The Central Staffing Commission has an office (常设办事机构) that administers staffing matters, and it, in turn, is administered by the Party’s Organization Department.  Those whose posts are within the bianzhi system have civil service benefits and are said to “eat imperial grain.” (More scholarship on the bianzhi system can be found here and here). I should mention, however, that since 1982 the bianzhi system has given those in the political-legal institutions special status and special (专项) bianzhi. In 2015, the Central Staffing Commission issued a document on reforming the treatment of political-legal staff, including judges, which I mentioned in my 2019 article on transparency.

As to why the SPC Party Group discussed bianzhi in March, 2020, it is linked to new regulations on bianzhi work issued by the political leadership in August, 2019 (中国共产党机构编制工作条例) and apparently ongoing work on reshaping the internal institutions of the SPC, linked to those new regulations. (For those interested in cross-straits comparisons, please see analogous legislation from Taiwan.

In 2018, the SPC and the Central Staffing Commission issued regulations on the bianzhi of the lower courts, and some of the same principles in those regulations can be expected to applied when the SPC draws up its own “three-set” plan.  Those regulations were intended to control the number of internal institutions within a court, allocate more personnel to operational divisions, and standardize the functions and titles of internal institutions across provinces and nationally.  From my informal discussions with leaders in some busy local courts, they say that relying on bianzhi staff does not give them enough personnel to run their court, and contract staff are needed.

The principles for bianzhi work, as highlighted in the 2019 regulations are: 1) Upholding Party leadership over bianzhi work, the Party shall exercise centralized and unified leadership over bianzhi work, upholding and protecting General Secretary Xi Jinping as the core…( 坚持党管机构编制。坚持党对机构编制工作的集中统一领导,坚决维护习近平总书记党中央的核心); high quality in coordination with efficiency; the binding nature (like steel) of bianzhi (坚持机构编制刚性约束); and bianzhi must be slim and healthy.

The press report only vaguely hints on what the reshaping of the SPC will look like. President Zhou Qiang mentions a “trial centered” internal institutional model and personnel model, strengthening internal responsibility and operational matters, to ensure that the people’s courts can fulfill the demands of their responsibilities according to law.  Whether this means that more headcount will be allocated to the operational divisions of the SPC rather than the General Office and other administrative offices is unclear.  Whether it means that some of the smaller divisions of the SPC will shrink further is unclear. And whether it means that fewer people will be “borrowed,” I have my grave doubts.

Another unknown is whether the SPC’s “three sets” plan will be made available to the general public.  My guess is no (some approved plans are posted on the Central Staffing Commission’s website), but we are likely to see President Zhou Qiang issue a press release or discuss it at a news conference, as Chief Procurator Zhang Jun did last year, but not for some time.

A fundamental question not raised by the reports, but perhaps was in the minds of the participants in the meeting, is whether the bianzhi system, implementing the above principles, is consistent with some of the  SPC’s policy goals. One that comes to mind is being able to accommodate changes in where personnel is needed–a policy of rigidly enforcing bianzhi restrictions would be unhelpful.  After all, SPC leaders need to be “problem-oriented” (坚持问题导向), that is address relevant practical issues facing the court system as well as being politically correct, so that may mean that headcount needs to shift among divisions from time to time.

 

Educating Chinese Judges for New Challenges in the New Era

National Judges' College
National Judges’ College

One of the many documents issued late last year in the rush for year-end accomplishments (成就)is the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC’s) latest Five Year Court Training Plan Outline for 2019-2023 (New Training Plan Outline) (2019—2023年全国法院教育培训规划).  The question this blogpost will explore is what is new and what has changed in the post-19th Party Congress New Era. As shown below, it is one small example of the impact of the 19th Party Congress on China’s legal and governance system. Competing obligations mean that this blogpost can only provide a few highlights and will focus on training for judges rather than support personnel, although the New Training Plan Outline covers all types of court personnel.

Other objective factors that have changed in the New Era are the number of cases in the courts (the majority of which are civil and commercial cases) and the average number of cases assigned to judges.  The numbers released to the public can only provide a general indication, as senior judges in a court (court presidents, vice presidents, and heads of divisions) are required to handle a small number of cases, which means in actual fact a greater burden on front-line judges, who constitute the majority of judges. The provinces and areas with the most developed economies tend to have the most number of cases.

This blog discussed the earlier plan almost five years ago.  The outside observer is handicapped by limited transparency about what the National Judicial College (NJC) actually does, although insights into the forthcoming curriculum can be found.  Previous versions of the NJC website had some course outlines, but those vanished in one of the website upgrades. In comparison, for example, the Australian National Judicial College publishes the National Judicial Curriculum and the German Judges Academy also has quite detailed information (to the extent this observer can understand it using a combination of high school German + Google translate).

The NJC, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a separate institutional entity (事业法人) under the SPC, in charge of court training, primarily of judges, but also for other supporting staff. It is closely linked with the SPC’s Political Department (in charge of cadres). It has also hosted some training courses jointly (this was on administrative litigation) with the National Prosecutors College. Fortunately, the NJC website has posted screenshots of lectures (many by outstanding SPC judges) in its cloud classroom, although unfortunately, the lectures themselves are inaccessible.  I surmise that any teaching this spring will be at least initially online, as in other Chinese higher educational institutions. As of 30 March, this has provided to be correct, as the NJC website now features reports on training judicial trainers and provincial branches of the NJC providing training online.

What is new?

Consistent with what I wrote in this blog about Zhou Qiang’s report to the NPC in March of last year (2019) (and other 2019 blogposts), what is different about the New Court Training Plan Outline is the greater emphasis on political issues and Party leadership, although these were evident in the previous plan. The first sentence mentions Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) and “forging a high-quality court team (队伍) that the Party Center can rely upon and the masses are satisfied with.”  It mentions creating a revolutionalized,  regularized, specialized and professionalized team (革命化、正规化、专业化、职业化). As explained in an earlier blogpost, “revolutionized” signals absolute Party leadership. The top two goals for training are deepening education in Xi Jinping thought (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想学习教育更加深入) and further solidifying education with a Party nature (党性教育更加扎实).

What do Chinese judges need in the New Era?

The economic and social changes in China raise the competency bar for judges.  A more litigious and rights conscious public, the increasingly complex economy and a greater number of cross-border transactions and interactions, (not to mention coronavirus related issues) as well as a smaller number of judges to hear more cases means that judicial training is an important part of preparing Chinese judges for the New Era. Post 19th Party Congress changes in Party policy mean that competency in Party matters is increasingly significant.

The training plan

The training plan is linked to the 5th Five Year Judicial Reform Plan Outline, the Communist Party Central Committee’s five year training plan for national cadres, a special document for outstanding young cadres (关于适应新时代要求大力发现培养选拔优秀年轻干部的意见), the Court’s regulations on judicial training (to be amended),  as well the Court’s 2013 policy document on creating a new judicial team (队伍) in the new situation. Team (队伍 (or work team) derives from “classical” Party terminology (as Stanley Lubman highlighted in a 2014 article)).

The plan does not incorporate training for foreign judges, which the NJC delivers to judges from Belt & Road Initiative jurisdictions and other countries.

Content

The Training Plan stresses ideological, ethical, and professional training, for judges and other judicial personnel. Ideological training is listed first. Judicial training is to focus on active and practical methods, including the case method (no less than 30%), moot courts, and other interactive methods.  Even in the New Era, the intellectual influence of exchange and training programs with offshore counterparts (many of those in the NJC leadership had studied abroad) is apparent from the more interactive methods required.

Who’s being trained

The training requirements depend on the seniority of the judicial personnel

  • Court leadership: the focus is on their political education, as well as administration. The SPC will run a special training session on the Xi Jinping New Era thought for a large group of court leaders, with newly appointed ones required to participate in training within a year of appointment. In the next five years, they must participate in a certain minimum number of hours of Party school, cadre education, or judicial training.
  • The plan also calls for providing different types of training depending on court needs–off-site vs. on-site training, web-based training, circuit teaching (some of the younger SPC judges are sent to courts in western provinces to deliver training).
  • Special training program for new judges: the judicial training program (apparently drawing from the practice in Taiwan and Japan) for new judges highlighted almost five years ago still has not been put in place. The new plan calls for research into implementing measures for training for newly appointed judges and organizing training for a group that qualifies to take part in unified pre-service training) (研究制定法官职前培训实施办法, 组织符合条件的人员参加统一职前培训).

How will the Plan be implemented?

As I wrote in December, one of the little-discussed aspects of being in a leadership role in the SPC in the New Era ensuring that policies, actions, initiatives, and other decisions hit the target of being politically correct (post 19th Party Congress and post 19th Party Congress 4th Plenum) while being “problem-oriented” (坚持问题导向) that is, addressing relevant practical issues facing the court system.  As mentioned then, it is true for the leadership of the NJC as well as other SPC divisions and institutions, as can be seen from one document.

The NJC very usefully (for the outside observer, at least) posted a notice soliciting proposals (from qualified individuals and institutions) for judicial training in 2020 under the new plan. The guide to the proposals sets out the desired content, which must not only be politically correct (a given), but also creative (new training methods or viewpoints), and relevant–focusing on the new and difficult issues facing the courts. The solicitation lists 66 topics in seven categories:

  1. Ideological related training is listed first, of course, with six subtopics which include: Xi Jinping new ideology and strategy for ruling the country by law (listed first); enhancing socialist core values in judgments (see my earlier blogpost on a related topic);  political discipline rules as derived from the Party charter, regulations, and discipline.
  2. Professionalism: (four subtopics)–professional ethics and judicial values; judicial work-style and the standardization of judicial acts; anti-corruption issues and countermeasures; outstanding Chinese traditional legal culture and socialist justice (unclear whether this is meant to solicit critical views of Chinese traditional legal culture);
  3. Judicial capacity: this one has twenty-three subtopics, with a good portion also to be found in other jurisdictions: civil, commercial, administrative and criminal justice values and judgment formation; judgment writing and courtroom control; difficult financial cases; while other reflect Chinese characteristics: what to consider when hearing difficult and complicated cases involving the public (涉众型) (these are either criminal or civil cases); protecting property rights and preventing mistaken cases; intellectual property trials and serving the innovative strategy; dealing with zombie enterprises.
  4.  General courses: (eight subtopics)again, a mixture of courses seen elsewhere, and ones with Chinese characteristics: guiding the media; mediation techniques; blockchain, AI and the courts.
  5.  Case study courses: (13 subtopics)-most of the topics are ones found elsewhere in judicial academies, such as financial crimes, juvenile justice, and corporate disputes, but others reflect the New Era, such Xi Jinping New Era thought cases and case pedagogy,  cases promoting and applying the “Fengqiao Experience“; and sweeping black and eliminating evil cases.
  6. Discussion courses: Criminal, civil, and administrative law courses.
  7. Judicial reform: only six topics here, including implementing the judicial responsibility system; establishing intelligent courts; separating simple from complicated cases; administrative litigation reform, and promoting a trial based criminal justice system.

 

 

A blog discussing China's highest court