Among the many developments flagged in Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s 2018 report to the National People’s Congress is that the SPC will establish an international commercial tribunal (court)(最 高人民法院国际商事审判庭), as approved by the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms. The timing is unknown. The international commercial tribunal (this post will use the term “court”) as is understood clearly, must fit political and technical requirements. This blogpost will look at those, particularly the technical ones, as those are the ones that have escaped the attention of most commentators outside of China.
Although many articles have been published in the media, both in and out of China after the public announcement to the press about the international commercial court in January, 2018, most of them have little detail on the issues. Some contain uninformed statements, such as the one that quotes an insider at the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade mentioning the use for dispute resolution of “the common law of the United States and European countries” (send the insider back to law school please!).
In the past three months, Judge Gao Xiaoli, deputy head of the SPC’s #4 civil division (photo above), and at least one other person at the SPC has released some information about the court, all of which seems to have eluded international discussions. For those who are not aficionados of Chinese foreign-related dispute resolution, Judge Gao (who often appears at UNCITRAL or international arbitration related conferences or seminars) outside as well as inside mainland China, is a formidable presence in the courtroom. Thanks to the SPC’s streaming of court hearings, it is now possible to see that from any corner of the world. She is also an impressive speaker. Judge Gao is representative of the judges engaged in technical legal work at the SPC, with a PhD in law from one of China’s leading law schools and experience studying abroad.
On the political requirements, there are at least two, both previously highlighted in this blog. The more general one was highlighted one year ago–the establishment of the international commercial court relates to a sentence in the Fourth Plenum Decision:
Vigorously participate in the formulation of international norms, promote the handling of foreign-related economic and social affairs according to the law, strengthen our country’s discourse power and influence in international legal affairs, use legal methods to safeguard our country’s sovereignty, security, and development interests.
More specifically, it appears to be the civil and commercial counterpart to the efforts noted on this blog two years ago (concerning dispute resolution in maritime cases), part of a push 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.
The other political requirement relates to the need to serve major government strategies, the BRI/OBOR one in particular, discussed in this blogpost. President Zhou Qiang’s 2018 NPC report, as his 2016 report (and presumably 2017 report) contain the phrase “provided service for the country’s major strategies.” As a central government institution, the SPC must do its part to support national major strategies. Since BRI/OBOR has been initiated, President Zhou Qiang’s report has mentioned BRI/OBOR as one of those major strategies for which the SPC has provided service.
The sources that previous commentators missed include the following:
- press interview with Judge Gao in February, 2018 (the most detailed and useful, Wechat version here);
- article published in Legal Daily in February, 2018 by the SPC’s China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence post-doctoral student Liao Yuyi;
- speech by Judge Gao and others at a conference in November 2017.
In the press interview, Judge Gao reviews what the SPC has done so far in this area, including several developments previously highlighted on this blog:
- SPC’s One Belt One Road (BRI/OBOR) policy document;
- SPC’s OBOR/BRI model/typical cases (see above link and translations by the Stanford Guiding Cases project found here);
- SPC’s judicial interpretation on demand guarantees, that blogpost explains that with so many Chinese companies focusing on infrastructure projects overseas, Chinese banks have issued billions of dollars in demand guarantees.
The SPC is looking at three types of investment and trade disputes:
- state-state disputes (for China, generally WTO);
- investor-state disputes (ICSID and other institutions, generally using UNCITRAL rules (note that CIETAC and the Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration (SCIA) also have amended their rules to be able to take investor-state disputes, with SCIA using the UNCITRAL rules;
- disputes between commercial parties.
Judge Gao mentioned that they at the SPC, too have noticed the worldwide trend of other jurisdictions establishing courts to hear investor-state disputes, citing Canada among them and that they are exploring whether the Chinese courts can do so as well. However, she notes that when China acceded to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention), it made a commercial reservation, and the SPC judicial interpretation concerning the New York Convention excluded investor-state disputes, so that currently it is not possible to enforce investor-state awards through the New York Convention. Judge Gao says they are considering solutions to this issue.
Definition of OBOR/BRI disputes
Although none of the authors have mentioned this (nor have I, until now), one unrecognized issues in discussing OBOR/BRI disputes is a definitional one–what is a OBOR/BRI related dispute? It seems that in court practice, the definition is broad, including cases between Chinese contractors and their demand guarantee issuing banks, as well as cross border cases involving Chinese and parties located in OBOR countries. In my research (including a discrete inquiry with a knowledgeable person), a formal definition is lacking.
Judicial cooperation/enforcement issues
As this earlier blogpost mentioned, enforcement of foreign court judgments is on the SPC’s agenda. As Judge Gao recognizes, there needs to be a structure for judgments of this international commercial court to be enforced outside of China. She mentions (as has this blog), that China is actively participating in negotiations on the Hague Convention on the Recognition & Enforcement of Foreign Judgments, and is studying ratification of the Hague Convention on the Choice of Courts Agreements. She flags also (as has this blog) that the SPC is drafting a judicial interpretation on the recognition and enforcement of foreign civil & commercial judgments.
Practice in other jurisdictions
Judge Gao mentions that the SPC is looking at the international commercial courts in several jurisdictions, including Dubai and Singapore (as mentioned in the earlier blogpost), but also Abu Dhabi, London’s Commercial Court (it appears that someone at the SPC has read this Financial Times article on foreign litigants there), and notes that the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium are all establishing international commercial courts that use English.
Challenges for the Chinese courts
Judge Gao forthrightly flags a list of issues (my comments in italics) that the SPC faces in establishing an international commercial court. It is likely that she and her colleagues are aware of the additional issues raised as well.
- judges; she notes that Dubai and Singapore have foreign judges on their international commercial courts, but currently China’s Judges’ Law and People’s Court Organizational Law (being amended) present obstacles to having foreign judges, and without them, the court will not be international and will not be internationally credible (literally, be internationally influential) (但是如果不引进外籍专业性人才参与国际商事法庭的建设，则缺乏国际性，缺乏影响力). My earlier blogpost mentioned the nationality issue. Would qualified foreign judges (or those from Hong Kong) be willing to join the international commercial court? Judge Gao does not mention that the group of Chinese judges qualified to hear these cases is not that large, and they are overloaded with cases, judicial interpretation/other guidance drafting, and other work. Could highly qualified Chinese lawyers be appointed to this court? It is unclear, and relates to issues of how they would fit into the rigid structure of the judiciary, highlighted here.
- choice of law; she mentions that parties have freedom concerning choice of law in China, so that would not be a problem. However, relating to choice of court clauses, Professor Vivienne Bath’s research on parallel proceedings in China (previously mentioned on this blog) shows that Chinese courts do not recognize the validity of those clauses when the choice “lacks an actual connection with the dispute” because of provisions in the Civil Procedure Law.
- procedure; she queries whether there can be some breakthroughs in civil procedure in this area. Foreign lawyers are likely to query whether this could mean better discovery of documents. More importantly, what is not mentioned is that China’s failure to have acceded to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents will also be a major obstacle for the international commercial court. Under current Civil Procedure legislation, notarization and legalization of documents is often required. The first step is when a party files suit or when a foreign party responds. Additionally, in litigation, evidence from a foreign country often must be notarized and legalized. Notarization and legalization costs time and money and a great deal of effort. At an academic conference in 2017, experts from the institutions involved discussed how to proceed on this.
- language; Judge Gao notes that the Civil Procedure Law puts obstacles in the way of the international commercial court hearing cases in English. Note that the pool of Chinese judges able to hear cases in English is not large, and would even further require recruiting judges from outside China’s judicial system.
- counsel; She mentions the issue of having foreign lawyers handle cases is also an obstacle for the international commercial court, because China’s Civil Procedure Law currently does not permit it.
- transparency; Judge Gao notes that Chinese judicial transparency and informatization has made great strides, so should be useful to the international commercial court. However, Judge Gao and her colleagues could usefully look at the type of information accessible to both the parties and general public (and the level of detail in judgments) in other international commercial courts.
- enforcement; Judge Gao raises the issue of recognition and enforcement of judgments, discussed above.
Where does the SPC go from here?
The article by the post-doctoral student Liao Yuxi suggested that the SPC may want to request the NPC Standing Committee authorize it to suspend some of the problematic provisions of the Civil Procedure Law that Judge Gao flagged above, such as the use of language, and the qualification of judges. However many of the other issues cannot be resolved so easily, such as international enforcement and the requirement of notarization and legalization of evidence.
As for when we can expect to see some rules relating to the international commercial court, and whether drafts will be circulated for public (or even soft consultation), those are all unclear. What is clear is that many complicated legal issues face Judge Gao and her colleagues.