Supreme People’s Court’s 2020 judicial interpretation agenda

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 2.21.48 PM

On 17 March 2020, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s General Office issued a document 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.

 

 

Supreme People’s Court wields the Criminal Law “Big Stick” in the Anti-Coronavirus Battle

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Press conference at the Central-Political Legal Commission announcing the Opinions

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 subordinates at the SPC, the lower courts and other related authorities that provide appropriate political signals.  Some guidance is politically more important than others. In recent days (early February 2020), the SPC has done so through the following documents:

This blogpost will give a quick introduction to the first document.  Its importance can be seen from the photo above, of the press conference at the Central Political-Legal Commission on 10 February, at which the Punishing Crimes and Violations of Obstruction Opinions was released and explained to select members of the press. That document was issued with the participation of the Commission on Comprehensive Governance of the Country by Law (Comprehensive Governance Commission, further explained here), Party Central Political-Legal Committee, SPC, Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP), Ministry of Public Security (MPS), and Ministry of Justice (MOJ). Fu Zhenghua, Minister of Justice and deputy head of the Comprehensive Governance Commission spoke first. Representatives from the other institutions also spoke.

The National Health Commission, SPC, SPP, and MPS issued the second document.

Both of them guide those in the criminal justice system to properly wield the “Big Stick” of the criminal law (and related administrative offenses) in the anti-coronavirus battle. The first document sends signals to the political leadership that the political-legal institutions are doing their part to fulfill the objectives that General Secretary Xi Jinping set in his 3 February speech

It is necessary to maintain a high-pressure situation, severely crackdown on illegal and criminal activities that disrupt social order, such as using the epidemic to drive up prices, hoarding, and looting, and severely crack down on the production and sale of counterfeit drugs, medical equipment, and medical and health materials. It is necessary to pay close attention to and resolve promptly all kinds of emerging problems, and to prevent all kinds of contradictions from overlapping and forming a chain reaction. (要保持严打高压态势,依法严厉打击利用疫情哄抬物价、囤积居奇、趁火打劫等扰乱社会秩序的违法犯罪行为,严厉打击制售假劣药品、医疗器械、医用卫生材料等违法犯罪行为。对各种苗头性问题,要密切关注、及时化解,严防各类矛盾交织叠加、形成连锁反应。)

What these documents are

The Punishing Crimes and Violations of Obstruction Opinions and the Ensuring Positive Medical Order are intended to provide guidance on certain violations of the criminal law and other related administrative offenses.  They do not create new legal rules but signal to the lower criminal justice institutions how the relevant criminal (and public security administration penalty) laws should be applied in the politically sensitive anti-coronavirus battle.  As a technical matter, both documents are classified as judicial document/judicial regulatory documents /judicial normative documents/judicial policy documents (司法文件, 司法规范性文件, 司法指导性文件, 司法正常性文件)(which I have written about previously).

As I have mentioned before, the SPC editors of a collection of those documents commented that “although judicial guidance documents are not judicial interpretations and cannot be cited in a court judgment document as the basis of a judgment, it is generally recognized that they have an important guiding impact on the trial and enforcement work of the courts at every level.” Titles included in the collection include “Opinions” (意见), “Decisions” (决定), Summaries” (纪要), “Notifications” (通知) Speeches (讲话), etc..

Some local high courts are starting to issue complimentary local guidance, with more detailed provisions, with the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court one of the early movers.

Section 1

The document is divided into several sections.  The first one, analogous to the opinion I analyzed recently, gives the political background, calling for the raising of the readers’ political stance, the strengthening of their “four consciousnesses,” the upholding of “four self-confidences,” and the implementation of the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important instructions and Party central policies and arrangements.

Section 2

The second section of the Punishing Crimes and Violations of Obstruction Opinions (which appears to have been primarily drafted by the SPC, judging by the document reference 法发〔2020〕7号, indicating it is from the SPC), is the substantive part of the document. It is further divided into 10 subsections, nine of which describes a particular type of crime that is to be strictly punished according to law. They include:

  • crimes of resisting epidemic prevention and control measures; violence against medical personnel,
  • making or selling fake protective goods, supplies, or medicines;
  • fabricating or spreading rumors etc.

The first nine subsections describe one or more illegal acts that may occur. One example is subsection three, on the production or sale of shoddy prevention and protection goods or supplies or the production or sale of fake or shoddy medicines used in preventing the coronavirus. The Opinions state that where the requirements of the Criminal Law are met, the act should be punished as the crimes of production and sale of shoddy goods or medicines.  So it is giving prosecutors and judges a steer on how the Criminal Law should be applied but does not in itself create new law.

Subsection 10 gives guidance on how the law is to be applied. If the acts listed in subsections 1-9 do not constitute a crime (based on existing criteria), the public security authorities are to impose public security administrative punishments under the Public Security Administration Penalties Law.  The Opinions point to the following provisions:

false information disrupting public order; disrupting order at a unit or public venue; provocation; refusing to implement decisions and orders in an emergency; obstructing the performance of public affairs; breaking through police lines or instruments; striking others; intentional harm, insulting others, fraud, illegally digging or gathering gravel near railways, stealing or destroying public facilities near roads, destroying railway facilities and equipment, intentionally destroying property, looting public or property, and so forth; or the relevant departments are to give administrative punishments.

Importantly, when crimes or violations of the Public Security Administration Penalties Law occur during the period of epidemic prevention and control, it should be considered as an aggravating factor )(for punishment purposes). The stated purpose is to deter bad conduct  “to lawfully embody the requirements of the crackdown policy, to forcefully punish and deter violations and crimes, to preserve the authority of the law, to preserve social order, and to preserve the security of the people’s lives and their physical health.”

For those in the criminal justice charged with enforcing these provisions, they need to refer to relevant judicial interpretations and other guidance (or in the case of public security officials, their regulations and other relevant documents)–the Opinions do not set out the elements of the relevant crimes.

Since this document was issued, some of the professional Wechat accounts on criminal law issues have published authoritative commentary pointing out practical problems with the legislation (law and judicial interpretations). The deputy head of the SPP’s research office published this (on the crime of obstructing contagious disease efforts), while a local procurator (nationally recognized) wrote this on several of the crimes (including refusal to comply with quarantine or leaving quarantine without permission). Judges and prosecutors (procurators) are concerned about making “mistakes,” as the responsibility system imposes expansive responsibility (described by two judges as “the sword of Damocles” over judges’ heads).

Section 3

The third section relates to the relationship among the institutions involved, principles to be followed and gives apparently mixed signals which need to be understood together.

  • Promptly investigate cases;
  • Strengthen communication and coordination;
  • Safeguard procedural rights;
  • Strengthen publicity and education;
  • Emphasize safety in handling cases.

The first is directed to the public security authorities, directing them to promptly investigate cases but also be civil, while the last subsection concerns the personal safety of those in the criminal justice system. The second subsection encourages the criminal justice authorities to communicate and coordinate better but cautions the public security organs to pay attention to the comments and recommendations by the procuratorate. It requires the authorities to focus on public opinion guidance in cases that have caught the attention of the public.  Subsection three is one that contains apparently mixed signals, on the one hand emphasizing that defendants have the right to legal counsel, but at the same time,  all levels of judicial administrative organs should strengthen guidance and oversight of lawyers’ defense representation. The fourth subsection illustrates some ongoing techniques of the Chinese justice system, in using typical/model cases to educate the public and deter them from criminal or illegal behavior, and voluntarily comply with the law and the authorities. The document says explicitly: “the broader public should be guided to obey discipline and law, to not believe and spread rumors, and to lawfully support and cooperate with epidemic control work.”

Supreme People’s Court updates its Belt & Road policies

Screen Shot 2019-12-29 at 9.15.50 PMAt a press conference on 27 December (2019) the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC) #4 Civil Division (the division focusing on cross-border commercial issues) announced it had issued three documents: a judicial interpretation and two judicial policy documents. The documents are connected directly or indirectly to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and improving China’s foreign investment environment.

  1. Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of the “People’s Republic of China Foreign Investment Law” (FIL Interpretation) (最高人民法院关于适用〈中华人民共和国外商投资法〉若干问题的解释);
  2. Opinion on providing services and guarantees for the Belt & Road (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); and
  3. Opinion on providing services and guarantees for Construction of the Lingang area of the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone (Lingang FTZ Opinion) (关于人民法院为中国(上海)自由贸易试验区临港新片区建设提供司法服务和保障的意见).

The two Opinions update two of the SPC’s two major policy documents on cross-border issues: the 2015 Opinion on Providing Services and Guarantees for the Belt & Road (BRI Opinion, and Opinion on Providing Guarantees for the Building of Pilot Free Trade Zones (FTZ Opinion). Policy documents do not have the force of law. They are examples of how the SPC supports the Party and government by issuing documents to support important strategies or initiatives (serving the greater situation (服务大局). In the New Era, the SPC has issued over dozen policy documents that provide “judicial services and guarantees” for major government strategies or initiatives, many more than before.  These Opinions are intended to harmonize the two earlier policy documents with post 19th Party Congress developments and priorities, including those mentioned in the Fourth Plenum Decision. I had previously reviewed the two earlier documents in detail.  My analysis of the Pilot FTZ Opinion can be found here and I have previously written and spoken about the BRI Opinion.  This blogpost draws on correspondence I had recently with Professor Vivienne Bathof the University of Sydney, but I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.  This blogpost discusses BRI Opinion #2.

2.  Belt & Road Opinion #2

This document is longer than the other two put together and has much more substantive and political content. Comments on the first section will focus on the political issues, while comments on the rest of the document will discuss the other content in the document:

  • political signaling on discrete issues;
  • judicial policy changes;
  • signaling to various audiences;
  • instructions and guidance to the lower courts;
  • highlighting future possible changes to SPC positions on legal issues;
  • promoting or supporting certain government initiatives within the courts;
  • reiterating basic policies.

New requirements and tasks (Section 1)

In keeping with post 19th Party Congress trends and the spirit of the 2019 Political-Legal  Work conference, BRI Opinion #2 has more politically oriented content and references than the 2015 BRI Opinion. As it must be harmonized with the latest Party and government policy, it includes the latest judicial policy jargon, such as “improving the business environment” and “creating an international, law-based and convenient business environment with stability, fairness, transparency, and predictability.”

The first section includes a long paragraph on working principles. For the casual reader, the principles are an odd hotpot of political, substantive, procedural, and administrative matters but in keeping with its role in the document. It is all about political signaling. To the person unfamiliar with these documents, it gives the reader the impression that if she put her chopsticks in one place in the hotpot, she would pull up support for international arbitration and if in another, support for constructing litigation service centers.

Policy changes and signaling (section 2)

This section contains seven apparently unconnected provisions. They are linked by their political and practical importance: judicial cooperation in criminal law; protecting the right of domestic and cross-border parties; supporting multilateralism; supporting the development of international logistics; supporting opening up in the financial sector; supporting the development of information technology, intellectual property, and green development. This section is a combination of signaling to the political authorities and the lower courts.

One notable provision is on judicial cooperation in the area of criminal law. Article 4 mentions the Beijing Initiative for the Clean Silk Road, and zero tolerance for corruption.  Doing something about cross-border corruption offenses is not a matter primarily of the SPC, as this analysis notes and has greater implications for state-owned enterprises (SOEs). This provision calls for the people’s courts to work with the judicial organs of other countries and regions along the “Belt and Road” to build jointly a judicial anti-terrorism mechanism, and curb the spreading of terrorism.  The link to the SPC is that we can anticipate that some staff from the SPC would be involved in negotiating regional or bilateral arrangements relevant to anti-terrorism (along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Public Security Ministry). In an indirect way, it illustrates how the SPC works with other Party and government departments on legal issues, one of the distinctive functions of the SPC that rarely receives much attention.

On signaling to the lower courts, in addition to the section on financial cases, discussed in the previous blogpost, Article 6 is a reminder to the lower courts to apply the relevant rules of determining contract validity and liabilities in civil and commercial cases involving free trade agreements or cooperation documents signed between China and other countries. In any case, it is their obligation in applying relevant law.  Perhaps the SPC has issued the reminder because lower courts have failed to do too often.

Although Article 11 (on environmental protection) has received attention from a prominent environmental lawyer who saw the inclusion of cross-border environmental public interest litigation in the Opinion as ground-breaking, knowledgeable persons suggested it is a merely a reminder to local courts that they can take such cases provided current legal requirements are met, such as jurisdiction over the defendant, location of the pollution, and the social organization meeting specified requirements.

Specific policy (Section 3)

Section 3 contains signals on changes to specific judicial policies, reminders to the lower courts and also political signals, including highlighting SPC accomplishments. Article 13 signals to the lower courts some new policy on contract interpretation. It addresses situations that commonly arise when one party alleges fraud or collusion to avoid contract liability. The SPC reminds lower courts that evidence should be reviewed carefully, and the evidentiary standard should be beyond a reasonable doubt(根据排除合理怀疑的证据规则严格认定欺诈、恶意串通).  Article 13 directs courts to apply foreign law if the choice of foreign law would uphold contract validity.

This section has quite a few reminders to the lower courts to do what they should already be doing, such as: actively applying international conventions applicable to China; respecting international practices and international commercial rules; fully respecting parties’ governing law choice and explaining how they determined it; taking a restrictive approach towards declaring contracts invalid. Governing law is a sore spot in certain maritime matters, where the Chinese courts in a number of cases have set aside parties’ choice of law for a failure to have an actual connection.

Extending the influence of Chinese law abroad is a policy that received new impetus in the November, 2019 Decision of the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Central Committee, and therefore it is found in Article 20 and again in Article 21 (in the following section).  Linked to this is language on increasing the prestige of the Chinese courts and the China International Commercial Court in particular. The language echoes and extends the 4th Plenum of the 18th Party Central Committee and BRI #1 Opinion, by calling on the people’s courts to extend the influence of Chinese law, publish typical cases tried by Chinese courts in multiple languages, lay a solid foundation for courts and arbitration institutions to correctly understand and apply Chinese laws, and strengthen the understanding and trust of international businesses of Chinese law. From the fact that the SPC envisions Chinese courts as having a role in assisting foreign courts and arbitration institutions to “correctly understand and apply Chinese law” shows that the SPC has a distinctive understanding of the role of a court.

On related accomplishments, one relates to typical cases in foreign languages and the other to the creation of the foreign law ascertainment platform. In 2019, the SPC published typical cases on cross-border issues in English, by publishing a pair of books on China Foreign-Related Commercial Cases and Maritime Cases (in China). It has also published a book of Chinese cases translated into English through Springer. On foreign law ascertainment, the accomplishment is the SPC having established a bilingual foreign law ascertainment platform, that assembles in one platform the available resources for ascertaining foreign law and a number of cases that involve ascertaining foreign law. There has been discussion in China as to whether courts should take such an active role in ascertaining foreign law, but the SPC has made a policy decision that it should.

International Commercial Court and One-Stop Dispute Resolution (Sections 4 and 5)

The BRI Opinion #2 contains several provisions related to the China International Commercial Court (CICC), with some mention of its expert committee.  Article 23 mentions working with international commercial courts outside of China to establish various types of exchanges and cooperation, including training judges. It is unclear whether this a reference to increasing cooperation under the Standing International Forum of Commercial Courts or other future initiatives.

These two sections also signals to the lower courts policy changes and policies to be stressed. One policy to be noted is implementing the policy of mediating first (贯彻调解优先原则), which is already incorporated into the CICC rules.  Some of the difficulties in mediating cross-border disputes involving state-owned enterprises were discussed in this earlier blogpost and at the workshop on implementing the Singapore Mediation Convention that I attended in December (2019).

Some new developments underway are mentioned in this section, linking to the central government’s policy of supporting Hong Kong’s role as an international dispute resolution center. Article 34 calls for support for increased cooperation with the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre and other Hong Kong-based arbitration institutions, and appropriately involving Hong Kong-based institutions in CICC’s one-stop model. Article 35 mentions supporting offshore arbitration institutions being able to hear cases in China. (a development underway in recent months).

An important practical issue is raised in Article 31, which mentions improving the mechanism of coordinating cross-border bankruptcy (insolvency), and exploring (探索) applying the systems of the principal bankruptcy procedures and the center of the debtor’s main interests. This is likely linked to domestic development of bankruptcy law and the recognition that with BRI and thousands of Chinese companies investing abroad, some number will (or have) gone into bankruptcy (insolvency) proceedings. “Improving” and “exploring” mean that they are on the agenda of the SPC. It appears that the first related development occurred in Hong Kong in January 2020, when Judge Jonathan Harris granted recognition and assistance to mainland liquidators of CEFC (description of the case and link to judgment found here).  He concluded his judgment by stating” the extent to which greater assistance should be provided to Mainland administrators in the future will have to be decided on a case by case basis and the development of recognition is likely to be influenced by the extent to which the court is satisfied that the Mainland, like Hong Kong, promotes a unitary approach to transnational insolvencies.”

As I discussed in a recent blogpost and earlier, the SPC is seeking to use the CICC and its decisions (judgments/rulings) to guide the lower courts and to pilot reforms that are replicable (a Chinese judicial reform concept), as stated in Article 22 and 25: “the role of cases in determining rules and guiding behavior…and the role of the CICC in providing models and guidance shall be developed.  (发挥国际商事法庭示范引领作用…发挥好案例的规则确定 和行为指引作用).

Article 24 concerns presumptive reciprocity and mentions gradually promote reciprocity between commercial courts. This may signal that the judicial interpretation on enforcement of foreign court judgments is further delayed and that the SPC is taking a gradual approach by working towards mutual recognition and enforcement of international commercial court judgments, which would involve a smaller group of foreign judgments.

Themes that are not new in this section include supporting parties’ right to choose an appropriate dispute resolution forum.  It can be imagined that the #4 Civil Division judges considered that this basic principle needed repeating. Another ongoing theme, with more political coloration, is encouraging BRI dispute resolution, including investor-state dispute resolution to be heard in China. This is mentioned explicitly in Article 28, which lists measures “so that more international commercial disputes can be efficiently resolved in China.”  This is not new, but is part of a push that this blog noted as early as 2016, to move the locus of China-related dispute resolution from London and other centers in Europe (or elsewhere) to China, where Chinese parties will encounter a more familiar dispute resolution system.

Article 32 mentions investment dispute resolution, and supporting “relevant departments in improving international investment dispute resolution mechanisms and organizations, respecting the dispute resolution clauses in bilateral and multilateral investment agreements, and resolving international investment disputes in a fair and efficient manner.”  This appears to be an acknowledgment that the SPC is in discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other institutions on dealing with difficult issues related to enforcing international investment dispute arbitration awards in China (discussed here).

Personnel & Institutional Matters

The concluding section includes a notice in Article 37 to the lower courts that they shall “strengthen and improve the mechanism of coordination and guidance, and step up communication and cooperation with the relevant entities and departments.” This is a theme seen in many of the opinions issued by the SPC and reflects one of the many functions of the Chinese courts.

As discussed in the preceding blogpost, references in Article 38 and 39 to exchanges and training send signals within the SPC and its institutions, as well as lower courts about the types of programs that may be promoted, permitted or explored. It is likely that the National Judges College, its provincial branches, and its partners will continue to train foreign judges, as has expanded greatly in recent years. It appears that there could be greater possibilities for Chinese judges to go on exchange with other countries than has been possible in recent years. From my own contacts and experience with It may also provide the basis for a local court or division of the SPC to apply for funding to hold a legal roundtable or host an international exchange.

Concluding remarks

This Opinion is typical of New Era SPC policy documents providing guarantees and support for specific Party and government strategies and initiatives.  For a reader from outside the Chinese government system (体制), it takes knowledge of a constellation of related policies and practices to decode. This blogpost has been able to identify some of them.

BRI Opinion #2 has a great deal of content, not all discussed in this blogpost. Some have practical importance for practitioners in China and elsewhere.  But a larger question to consider, that likely was not in minds of the drafters, is whether this type of policy-oriented document is useful in reassuring foreign governments, foreign state-owned companies, and commercial entities that their dispute is best heard in China?  From my discussions with practitioners in various parts of the world, they may not be aware that BRI Opinion #2 even exists.

 

 

 

 

How are Supreme People’s Court Opinions structured?

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27 December SPC Press conference:from left, Li Guangyu (spokesperson); Justice Luo Dongchuan (vice president); Judge Wang Shumei (head of #4 Civil Division); Gao Xiaoli (deputy head, #4 Civil Division)

When the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issues an “opinion” (意见), it is not issuing a judgment or ruling.  It is issuing a policy document, without the force of law.  In the New Era, the SPC has issued over dozen policy documents that provide “judicial services and guarantees” for major government strategies or initiatives, many more than before. They are examples of how the SPC supports the Party and government by issuing policy documents to support important strategies or initiatives (serving the greater situation (服务大局). What few, if any have written about is the structure of these opinions that support important strategies or initiatives as they relate to civil and commercial law issues. Understanding the structure is key to understanding the documents. Understanding opinions is important for understanding current issues in the courts and the future direction of judicial policy.

This blogpost uses the two opinions announced at the 27 December 2019 press conference pictured above, at which Justice Luo Dongchuan and Judges Wang Shumei and Gao Xiaoli (head and deputy head of the #4 Civil Division) introduced the two opinions (and a judicial interpretation). A subsequent blogpost will highlight what is new in these three documents. All three are connected directly or indirectly to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and improving China’s foreign investment environment. The two opinions are:

  1. Opinion on providing services and guarantees for the Belt & Road (2) (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); and
  2. Opinion on Providing Services and Guarantees for Construction of the Lingang area of the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone (Lingang FTZ Opinion) (关于人民法院为中国(上海)自由贸易试验区临港新片区建设提供司法服务和保障的意见).

The Opinions update two of the SPC’s two major recent policy documents on cross-border issues: the 2015 Opinion on Providing Services and Guarantees for the Belt & Road (BRI Opinion, and Opinion on Providing Guarantees for the Building of Pilot Free Trade Zones (FTZ Opinion).

The BRI Opinion #2 and Lingang FTZ Opinion are intended to harmonize the two earlier policy documents with post 19th Party Congress developments and priorities, including those mentioned in the  2019 19th Party Central Committee Fourth Plenum Decision. I had previously reviewed the BRI Opinion and FTZ Opinions in detail.  My analysis of the Pilot FTZ Opinion can be found here and I have previously written and spoken about the BRI Opinion.

Lower courts may issue documents that supplement the SPC’s policy documents, as is true with these Opinions.  This is a subject that I have written about on this blog and elsewhere before. The Shanghai Higher People’s Court has already issued a guidance document that provides related services and guarantees, with important content.

The two Opinions also link to three different events or matters–the promulgation of the Foreign Investment Law; the Second Belt & Road Forum for International Cooperation; and Xi Jinping’s visit to Shanghai and establishment of the Lingang Special Area of the Shanghai FTZ.

Structure of these Opinions

The structure of the two opinions is typical for SPC civil and commercial opinions “providing judicial services and guarantees” for major government strategies and initiatives.  Opinions often (but not always) start out with a first section with titles analogous to the section titles of these two Opinions:

I. Comprehensively grasping the new requirements and new tasks in serving the “Belt and Road” Initiative

I. Enhance understanding and get aligned with the mission of offering judicial services and guarantees to the New Area

A sample of the language of the first section is quoted below, from the second paragraph of the BRI Opinion #2:

Keeping committed to the concept of further providing judicial services and
guarantees by the people’s courts for the “Belt and Road” Initiative: The people’s courts shall firmly take the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as the guideline; study and fulfill the spirit of the19th CPC National Congress and the Second, Third, and Fourth Plenary Sessions of the 19th CPC Central Committee, as well as the essence of the key speech of General Secretary Xi Jinping on the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation; strengthen consciousness of the need to maintain political integrity, think in big-picture terms, follow the leadership core, and keep in alignment…

The purpose of this initial section is two-fold. The first is to notify the lower courts of the political goals, background, and principles of the Opinion. The second to signal to the political-legal hierarchy that the policies that the SPC sets out in the body of the opinion are harmonized with the latest Party/government policies.

There are no hard and fast rules concerning the body of opinions, as analogous sections may occur in different order.  It may depend on the drafters and the topic involved.

The second section of the BRI Opinion has its counterpart in the third section of the Lingang FTZ Opinion:

II. Further performing the role of judicial trials, and serving and guaranteeing the joint construction of the “Belt and Road” with high quality in all aspects

III. Strengthen judicial trial function and maintain an institutional regime in the New Area focusing on investments/trade liberalization

These sections are meant to notify the lower courts about current relevant judicial policy, and implicitly inform them of any changes from previous policy and what the lower courts must do in support of that policy goal. The policies are likely to be linked to current Party/government policy.  From the BRI Opinion #2:

The people’s courts shall support the opening-up policy in the financial sector; the exemplary role (示范作用) of financial courts shall be maximized; eligible courts shall be encouraged to build special trial teams for financial cases; the application of law in foreign-related financial cases shall be further regulated and standardized;…valuable experiences of foreign countries in efficiently hearing financial cases shall be drawn upon…

Article 10, in Section III of the Lingang FTZ Opinion calls for

closer ties and communication mechanisms with the financial regulatory authorities shall be built to facilitate the construction of an integrated and efficient financial management system, in a bid for a better environment for doing business, for prevention of financial risks and for better national financial security.

In support of the opening-up policy in the financial sector, the SPC is promoting the role of financial courts (currently Shanghai, others to follow) in providing new mechanisms or methods in hearing cases or in their operations.  That is visible from the Shanghai Financial Court’s innovations in class actions in the sphere of securities law claims (claims against issuers, underwriters, directors and management, control parties, etc. for false and misleading disclosure upon initial issuance or in periodic reporting).  The Shenzhen intermediate court has established a special trial team for financial cases but not a separate court. From Article 10 of the Lingang FTZ Opinion, it can be anticipated that the Shanghai Financial Court has or will establish special communication channels with the financial regulators.

The titles of the third section of the BRI Opinion #2 is:

III . Further improving the application of law in cases involving the Belt and Road Initiative, and building a stronger rule-based business environment that is governed by law

From BRI Opinion #2:

13. The people’s courts shall vigorously carry forward the contract spirit and the good faith principle, and determine the acts of fraud and malicious collusion based on the rules of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. If, in a civil or commercial case involving the construction, operation, purchasing, or bidding process of a project, there is a discrepancy on contract validity between the laws of the relevant countries, the people’s courts shall apply the law that holds the contract valid without damaging the honest party or benefiting the dishonest one, and promote mutual trust and benefits between the participants in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Each article in the third section of the BRI Opinion #2 focuses on a specific policy that the SPC wants the lower courts to promote.  In article 13, the SPC is seeking to control the tendency of lower courts to find a contract invalid because of allegations of fraud or malicious collusion, likely made by a Chinese litigant seeking to avoid contractual liability.  The Lingang FTZ Opinion does not have an exact counterpart to section III of the BRI Opinion #2, but has articles that focus on specific policies to be promoted, such as “properly handling cross-border bankruptcy cases….”

The title of the final section of BRI Opinion # 2 is:

VI. Further strengthening the organizational structure and team building to coordinate efforts to serve and guarantee the Belt and Road Initiative.

The last section relates to institutional and personnel matters. Take the following paragraph in the BRI Opinion #2 as an example:

39. The role of international exchange and research platforms such as international forums, legal roundtables..shall be further strengthened, and the exchanges and cooperation with the judicial systems of other countries shall be conducted. Training and studying programs for foreign judges shall be supported, and foreign legal service providers and think-tanks for the Initiative shall be invited to China to exchange views with Chinese counterparts so as to promote the formation of a diverse and interactive platform for legal exchanges….

Content in the last paragraph of the Lingang FTZ Opinion has some analogous provisions:

Establish a study training program and talent cultivation mechanism in line with international standards…Efforts shall be made to…(2) further expand international judicial communication channels, organize international judicial forums….

These provisions send signals within the SPC and its institutions, as well as lower courts about the types of programs that may be promoted, permitted or explored.  It is likely that the National Judges College, its provincial branches, and its partners will continue to train foreign judges, as has expanded greatly in recent years.  It appears that there could be greater possibilities for Chinese judges to go on exchange with other countries than has been possible in recent years.   It may also provide the basis for a local court or division of the SPC to apply for funding to hold a legal roundtable or host an international exchange. For the Lingang FTZ Opinion, it gives the Shanghai courts priority in organizing international programs and establishing programs to send outstanding young judges focusing on cross-border commercial issues on educational programs either in China or abroad.

The official report states that the SPC Party Group approved the two Opinions.  It appears from my previous research that pre-19th Party Congress, SPC policy documents did not necessarily require SPC Party Group approval. I surmise since the Party Political-Legal Work Regulations were promulgated in January 2019, it has now become a requirement, because Article 15 requires Party Groups/Committees to be responsible for setting major policies and directions.

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My thanks to a knowledgeable person for triggering my thinking about this and for insightful comments on an earlier draft.