Soft and Hard Law Arrangements & Other Agreements Between the Mainland Authorities and the SAR Governments

1st Joint conference meeting on the Hong Kong BRI Arrangement

If you have never heard of hard and soft law  Arrangements (安排) and other agreements between Mainland authorities and the Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) governments, do not be surprised.  The classification is my own and I see it as useful to capture the types of Arrangements and other soft law agreements that have been signed between certain Mainland authorities and the Hong Kong SAR and the Macau SAR, as well as Arrangements between the two SARs. This blogpost highlights several of the more important soft law Arrangements and other agreements between the mainland authorities and the SAR governments.  

This classification harmonizes with the analysis of Professor Wang Heng of the University of New South Wales concerning Belt & Road Initiative Agreements.  

Definition of Arrangements

Although I have written previously about Arrangements between the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) Government, I have not seen an official definition of “Arrangement.”     It appears to be used as a form of agreement between certain Mainland authorities  (intended to include institutions such as the Supreme People’s Court and the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress as well as ministries and commissions under the State Council ( and it seems some counterparts at the provincial level) and the government of the Hong Kong or Macau SAR.  Some are between the two SARs. I have not seen an equivalent to the Law on the Procedure for the Conclusion of Treaties.  Perhaps guidance exists internally. I surmise (from my blogpost on the recent SPC Arrangement) that the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office supervises Arrangements.

What I had not realized until recently that Arrangements are far more numerous and cover a broader range of areas than most legal professionals outside of China (including me) are generally aware of.   Both types of Arrangements can include affiliated measures, such as joint [steering] conferences 联席会议 (related to one of my recent posts ) and yearly implementation measures, such as agreed areas for cooperation.   

Hard and Soft Law Arrangements

 The “Hard Law Arrangements” often have content that is somewhat analogous to a treaty between sovereigns-that is, they have normative content, while the “Soft Law Arrangements” have more soft law content, some more analogous to the ones Professor Wang Heng discussed in the BRI content, while others have language found in domestic Chinese government documents.  I will borrow the definition that Professor Wang Heng uses in his article: soft law refers to quasi-legal obligations or law-like promises that are not legally binding but may affect state behavior.  His definition draws on earlier work, such as that of my colleague Professor Francis Snyder.  (My colleague has a forthcoming book chapter on soft law.)

Professor Wang Heng describes Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) primary agreements (soft law agreements) as largely emphasizing project development rather than rule development. This is also seen to some extent with “soft law Arrangements.” 

“Hard Law” Arrangements

“Hard Law Arrangements” and other “hard law” agreements between mainland authorities and the Hong Kong and Macau SARS are well-known, so this section only mentions a few of the most prominent: 

Professor Henry Gao noted in an article that during the negotiations leading to the conclusion of the CEPAs, it had been suggested that they should be called free trade agreements (FTAs) but they were named  “Closer Economic Partnership Arrangements” instead. He commented that in substance, the two CEPAs are no different from the other FTAs around the world.

For those interested, the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) has a webpage that consolidates the related Macau supplemental agreements.

  •  Dispute Resolution Arrangements

Hong Kong’s Ministry of Justice has a webpage (available in multiple languages) with links to arbitration-related Arrangements as well as recognition and enforcement of civil and commercial judgments Arrangements.  The webpage also links to Arrangements involving other Hong Kong SAR government departments. It appears that some agreements mentioned on that webpage may be soft law documents, but I have not seen the full text of some of these documents and so cannot confirm.

An Arrangement on the Mutual Recognition and Enforcement of Arbitral Awards between the Supreme People’s Court and the Macau SAR Government also exists.

Many other hard law Arrangements have been signed, but I have not seen a single repository of these documents. It is my hope that the Hong Kong Government can do so.

Soft Law Arrangements and Other Soft Law Agreements

It appears that less attention has been paid to soft law Arrangements and other soft law agreements.  There are also memoranda of understanding (MOU), with analogous usage to those in BRI projects. A number of the important ones are highlighted below.

  • July, 2017 National Development and Reform Commission, People’s Government of Guangdong Province, Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Government of the Macao Special Administrative Region Framework Agreement  on Deepening Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Cooperation in the
    Development of the Greater Bay Area Greater Bay Area (GBA Framework Agreement)

This Framework Agreement is a soft law agreement that links hard and soft law content. In discussing BRI soft law agreements, Professor Wang Heng mentions Project-Linked Agreements and Mechanism-Creating Agreements and mentions that some combine both. The GBA Framework Agreement mentions some of the above hard law Arrangements, with a great deal of new soft law content aimed at promoting the development of the GBA.  It flags what was then forthcoming BRI Arrangements. Among the goals cited:

deepen co-operation between the Bay Area and related countries and regions in… legal and dispute resolution services… and to build an important support area for pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative.for Hong Kong…

establish a centre for international legal and dispute resolution services in the Asia-Pacific Region…

This is the document that attracted my interest in “soft law Arrangements.”  Several articles relate to developing Hong Kong’s role in dispute resolution, such as:

2.To support Hong Kong in developing high value-added maritime services, including…maritime law and dispute resolution,

26. To support Hong Kong in establishing itself as a centre for international legal and dispute resolution services in the Asia-Pacific region to provide relevant services for the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Hong Kong BRI  Arrangement links to Article 34 of the SPC’s 2019  Opinion On Further Providing Judicial Services and Guarantees by the People’s Courts for the “Belt and Road” Initiative (BRI Opinion #2). That article contains language about supporting the Hong Kong SAR to develop as a regional legal service and dispute resolution center and Hong Kong playing a more important role in jointly developing the BRI:

The development of the regional legal service and dispute resolution center of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (“Hong Kong SAR”) shall be further supported, the cooperation between arbitration institutions in Hong Kong such as Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre and arbitration institutions in the Mainland, the arbitration institutions in the Hong Kong SAR shall be introduced to the construction of the “one-stop” dispute resolution platform of international commercial courts… and the Hong Kong SAR shall play a more important role in the joint development of the “Belt and Road” Initiative. 进一步支持香港特别行政区区域法 律服务和纠纷解决中心的建设,支持 香港国际仲裁中心等仲裁机构与内地 仲裁机构的合作,在国际商事法庭 “一站式”纠纷解决平台建设中适当 引入香港特别行政区仲裁机构…不断发挥 香港特别行政区在共建“一带一路” 中的重要作用。

The Arrangement establishes a joint conference mechanism (that features in a number of Arrangements) comprising responsible officials from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council and other relevant departments as well as senior representatives of the HKSAR.  The SPC has participated in at least two of these meetings, but from the reports on the meetings, does not appear to be a joint conference member institution.

The  Hong Kong BRI Arrangement could be linked to the 2019 Arrangement Concerning Mutual Assistance in Court-ordered Interim Measures in Aid of Arbitral Proceedings by the Courts of the Mainland and of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the 2020 Supplemental Arrangement Concerning Mutual Enforcement of Arbitral Awards between the Mainland and the Hong Kong SAR. Although  BRI Opinion #2 explicitly restates the Chinese government’s desire that more international commercial disputes (including BRI ones) be resolved in China, this clause is also a recognition that the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre is often selected in contracts between Chinese companies and foreign companies, including in BRI disputes, as evidenced in Professor Matthew Erie‘s recently published article.

Under the Arrangement, the two sides have agreed, in related documents, upon major areas of work and in 2020, allocation of responsibilities and have established an annual joint conference. It is unclear whether a similar set of documents exist for the Hong Kong BRI Arrangement.

The Macau and Hong Kong BRI Arrangements are quite different from one another and deserve further analysis. Under the Macau BRI Arrangement, for example, the Macau SAR Government undertakes to be a platform for liaison with Lusophone countries.

It is unclear why there is no courtesy English translation of this Arrangement (as there is for the Hong Kong BRI Arrangement). The content of this Arrangement provides insights into plans for Hong Kong and the Mainland to cooperate in the area of science and technology, but time does not permit further analysis.

A final comment is that it appears to be difficult to locate the full text of some of the soft law Arrangements reported.

More to Come?

I surmise that the Hong Kong and Macau SARs’ futures will involve more hard and soft law Arrangements and other agreements with the Mainland.  The topic of these agreements deserves closer attention. I hope that someone with an interest, the time, and the language skills can take this research forward. 

 

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