Supreme People’s Court Issues New Guidance on Cross-Border Commercial & Procedural Legal Issues

In January 2022, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued a Conference Summary [also translated as “Meeting Minutes”] of the National Symposium on Foreign-Related Commercial and Maritime Trial Work (Foreign-Related Commercial  & Maritime Law Conference Summary (全国涉外商事海事审判工作座谈会会议纪要).  From unauthorized versions released, it can be seen that it was another SPC year-end accomplishment.  Although this document is not a judicial interpretation and cannot be cited in Chinese court judgments, it is crucially important for legal professionals outside of China dealing with cross-border commercial issues involving China and for Chinese legal professionals focusing on cross-border commercial issues involving the rest of the world.

The conference summary has  111 provisions.  The focus is on legal issues because the target audience of domestic judges understands the political framing.  The conference summary applies to foreign-related cases and to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan-related cases by reference (see Article 111,  set out at the end of this post).  They are in the following categories:

  • foreign-related commercial (涉外商事部分), the longest:
  • Maritime (海事部分); 
  • Judicial review of arbitration (仲裁司法审查部分).

This blogpost will explain why the conference summary was issued, its legal and policy basis, and why it addressed those particular issues and will leave the majority of the content of the conference summary for the experts in practice and academia.

Why this conference summary?

The conference summary (meeting minutes) is based on a national conference on foreign-related commercial and maritime trial work held in Nanjing in June of last year and the issues that the SPC would have heard raised by lower court judges.

When asked the question of why this conference summary was issued, an SPC judge is likely to say “to resolve difficult issues in practice and unify judgment standards.” But a fuller answer to this question for a larger audience requires further details. 

As to why a conference summary and not rely on “case law” with Chinese characteristics, including China International Commercial Court cases, SPC cases, and various types of typical or SPC selected cases as “soft precedents,” the answer is that the SPC is issuing this conference summary to guide lower court judges (and possibly judges in other divisions of the SPC) practically and efficiently and for some additional reasons.  The simple answer is that “case law” is not effective enough to practically guide lower court judges.  If it were, the SPC would not have issued this document. I have seen a number of academic articles (in English) that illustrate a misunderstanding of what the SPC is doing.   

Additionally, I surmise that at the Nanjing conference, behind closed doors, SPC judges heard about inconsistent approaches or requirements from lower court judges.  I surmise they also heard from lower court judges uncertainty in the approach that they should take concerning issues where the law is unclear.   The judicial evaluation system values deciding cases correctly. Moreover, the most recent SPC policy focuses on unifying the application of law. Its leadership has established a leading small group to that end.  So for all these reasons, lower court judges would look to the SPC for clarification.   What is contained in the conference summary is the SPC’s current consensus on major cross-border commercial, maritime, and arbitration review-related issues, based on their further research and consideration.

In the busiest courts where many of these cases arise, judges are under enormous pressure to decide cases timely and accurately, especially after the recent changes to the jurisdiction of lower courts under the reorientation of the four levels of the people’s courts and the issuance of other documents changing the jurisdiction of the lower courts in commercial cases.  “Codifying” the principles from cases and issues considered by the SPC in the form of a conference summary is the most useful and efficient form of guidance for lower court judges. As mentioned here, although conference summaries are not judicial interpretations and cannot be cited in a court judgment document as the basis of a judgment, they provide important guidance to the work of the courts concerning issues about which existing law and judicial interpretations are unclear.  Judges will rely on its provisions to decide cases.

The legal basis for the conference summary derives from the SPC’s authority under Article 10 of the Organic Law of the People’s Courts to supervise the lower courts. 

As for an answer to the question of why not issue a judicial interpretation–time, fluidity, and attenuated basis for some of the conference summary’s provisions do not permit a judicial interpretation to be issued.  One example of the attenuated basis and fluidity is Article 100,  which”codifies” the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court decision in the Brentwood case (discussed here).   It establishes welcome certainty to the enforceability of arbitral awards made by overseas arbitration institutions arbitrations seated in Mainland China.  It provides that such awards are regarded as foreign-related arbitral awards (rather than foreign awards) in Mainland China.  It is likely to be helpful to the overseas arbitration institutions that are considering establishing case management offices in China, as is now possible under Shanghai and Beijing regulations.   As mentioned before, the Arbitration Law being revised, the current draft addresses the issue, and the SPC is likely to issue a comprehensive judicial interpretation thereafter.  

Moreover, for some of the procedural provisions, such as those relating to the recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments, it gives the SPC a chance to pilot its guidance, before formalizing it in the form of a judicial interpretation.   A recent Wechat article (with further details) flags that in 2021, three foreign judgments and nine Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan judgments were recognized and enforced.  Likely more applications were made but not decided.

Other provisions consolidate existing guidance in a form that is easier for the lower courts to grasp quickly.  Article 22, on obtaining an opinion on foreign or international law from a China International Commercial Court (CICC) expert committee expert, for example, repeats what is to be found in CICC guidance.  The same can be said about Article 11, on the topic of electronic service of process, promoted in several Belt & Road-related SPC Opinions.  It should be noted that China maintains its traditional approach to service of process from foreign jurisdictions.

It appears that some clauses reflect a change in the negotiating position of Chinese financial institutions, in contrast to “back in the day. ” Article 2, on the topic of asymmetric jurisdiction clauses, states that Chinese courts will uphold them unless they violate Chinese rules on exclusive jurisdiction or relate to the interests of consumers or workers.   (For those with no background on these clauses, according to Herbert Smith Freehills: “asymmetric jurisdiction clauses are common in the financial sector, and typically require one party to bring proceedings in one jurisdiction only, while the other (usually the financial institution) may choose to bring proceedings in other jurisdictions.”  From this position, I surmise that Chinese banks use asymmetric jurisdiction clauses as well.

Articles 18-20 address a few of the ongoing issues related to the application of international conventions and treaties in the Chinese courts. Article 18 answers the question of what a court should do if the relevant treaty or convention is silent or China has made a reservation on that issue.  The answer is to use the Law on the Laws Applicable to Foreign-Related Civil Relations to determine the applicable law.  Article 20 focuses on what a Chinese court should do if it is applying Chinese law if Chinese law has conflicting positions and China has acceded to a relevant treaty or convention.  A report on a recent workshop involving the SPC, the Beijing #4 Intermediate People’s Court, and academics from the China Academy of Social Sciences and other institutions flags some of the many other unresolved issues.

Article 30 addresses an important question for Chinese and foreign banks, suppliers to Chinese EPC contractors, and project owners, particularly in Belt & Road jurisdictions–how easily can a Chinese court stop payment on a demand (independent) guarantee?  The answer is, strictly according to the provisions of the relevant judicial interpretation. Article 30 provides that when a court hears an application to stop payment on the basis of fraud (which can be filed as a preliminary matter or during the course of litigation or arbitration),  it must examine the independent letter of guarantee stop payment application submitted by the parties in according to Article 14 of the (updated) Provisions on Several Issues Concerning the Hearing of Independent Letter of Guarantee Dispute Cases, and conduct a preliminary substantive examination on whether there are fraudulent grounds for stop payment in accordance with the provisions of Article 12 and set out its finding of facts and reasoning as required by  Article 16.

The Bigger Picture

This conference summary is another form of SPC soft law. It harmonizes the decisions of the Chinese courts to be consistent with SPC policy (or said another way, strengthens the firm guiding hand of the SPC). 

This document reflects the awareness of its drafters, the judges of the #4 Civil Division of the SPC, that the issues that come before the Chinese courts far outpace the infrastructure of Chinese foreign-related commercial law. Given the larger trends I described in my brief article last fall, we can expect the SPC to continue to play an important role in developing China’s body of law related to cross-border commercial matters.

_____________________________________

111.【涉港澳台案件参照适用本纪要】涉及香港特别行政区、澳门特别行政区和台湾地区的商事海事纠纷案件,相关司法解释未作规定的,参照本纪要关于涉外商事海事纠纷案件的规定处理)。111. [The application by reference of this conference summary to cases involving Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan]. As for commercial and maritime cases involving the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Macao Special Administrative Region and Taiwan, which are not otherwise stipulated in relevant judicial interpretations, shall be handled with reference to the provisions of this conference summary on foreign-related commercial and maritime cases.

Dean Jiang Huiling on Chinese Judicial Reform

On 7 January 2022, Dean of Tongji University’s School of Law and Professor Jiang Huiling gave a guest lecture in my School of Transnational Law class.  We were honored to hear Dean Jiang provide his unique perspective and insights on over 20 years of Chinese judicial reform and his insights on future developments. He has been involved with Chinese judicial reform starting from the first plan in 1999 (see also more about his background here).  This blogpost summarizes his presentation. I have inserted my occasional comments in italics. If a point is not more fully elaborated, it means he did not do so.

He spoke on the following six topics:

1. Brief History of Chinese Judicial Reform
2. How Judicial Reform Actions  Are Taken
3. From the 4th to the 5th Judicial Reform Plan
4. Strategic Move: From Judicial Reform to “Zhengfa” (政法) Reform
5. Technical Measures: Rule of Law
6. Future Direction

1. Brief History

Dean Jiang went briskly through the history of judicial reform, commenting that in the first judicial reform plan, the focus was on raising public and professional awareness about the judiciary。 The second one, in which the Central Government greatly supported the SPC to undertake work mechanism (工作机制) reforms, not touching on structural reforms such as the status of judicial personnel. He noted that there was great progress during the second judicial reform plan. He called the third judicial reform plan a test before the New Era, and said that a decision had been taken to de-localize the judiciary and change the status of the judges and prosecutors, but at the end, there wasn’t internal confidence that the legal profession and society would accept such changes.  He called the fourth judicial reform plan a structural, systematic, and radical change to the judicial system, especially the decision that judges would not be treated as ordinary civil servants.  Dean Jiang characterized the fifth judicial reform plan as comprehensive and supplementary, and part of the Zhengfa reforms (as he further explained in the latter part of his presentation).

What were the lessons learned?

  • Right (科学) concept of the judicial system (universal and with Chinese characteristics)–that the legal profession and the leading party accepted the value of the rule of law and the importance of the judiciary;
  • Theoretical preparation–although he thought scholars had not done enough;
  • Consensus for change–the judiciary is regarded as and is a bureaucracy–there is that consensus among both court leaders, who are legal professionals and with a Party role, and ordinary judges, who are legal professionals;
  • Common achievements of human civilization–that means learning from other countries–China had done so not only in science and technology but also in law and democracy. Chinese judicial  reformers had benefited from the open policy–he himself was an example; and
  • Critical role of strong leadership–legal professionals could not initiate fundamental changes themselves–it needed court and political leadership to do so–he quoted General Secretary Xi Jinping on the ability to do what could not have been done before.

2. How Judicial Reform Actions are Taken

Dean Jiang rapidly made the following six points:

  1. Judicial awareness and enlightenment;
  2. Negative case matters;
  3. Reform for branches and reform for all (parochialism);
  4. Top-down design and comprehensive reform–the court system is part of the political system and reform has to be done by the Central Government;
  5.  Coordination with other departments–in China, unlike in other countries, some matters require coordination with other departments, such as the Ministry of Finance;
  6. A group of devoted experts–both within the judiciary and among academics.

3. From the 4th to the 5th Judicial Reform Plan

Dean Jiang mentioned that the two plans are connected, but that significant differences exist in the value or orientation of the two plans. The fourth one made radical (revolutionary) changes to the judicial system. The fifth one is a new phase, and comes after the completion of the fourth one, which made the following fundamental changes:

  1. Structural changes–delocalizing the judicial system
  2. Status of the judges and prosecutors
  3. Changes to the internal operation of the judiciary
  4. Improvements to the guarantees for judges and prosecutors.

Although these reforms are not completed, these were the focus of their work in the judicial reform office of the SPC and of the Central Government.

The 4th judicial reform plan focused on the following:

1. Separation of administrative region and judicial jurisdiction area–delocalization, as Xi Jinping said, the judicial power is a central power, uniform application of law, so that the law is not applied in favor of one locality;
2. Judiciary-centered litigation system–“in the real world in China, the judiciary does not always have the final say”–and in the past the public security and prosecutors had the final say rather than the judges. The reform to have personnel and financing of courts at the provincial level is part of this reform;
3. Optimization of internal power allocation–as a court is a bureaucracy with different entities with different functions, and the leaders have different functions from ordinary judges;
4. Operation of hearing and adjudicatory power
5. Judicial transparency;
6. Judicial personnel–this is basic but very important; and
7. Independence of the court–this is basic but very important.

The 5th judicial reform plan:

  1. Party’s leadership 
  2. Work for the country’s overall task and situationsubject of one of my forthcoming articles
  3. Litigation service–treat litigants properly and give them judicial services– the courts have public funds to pay for legal representation if people do not meet the standard for legal aid
  4. Judicial transparency–“always on the way”
  5. Responsibility-based judicial operation
  6. Court’s organization and function–reforms in that area (he referred to the recent repositioning of the four levels of the court system, among others)
  7. Procedural system
  8. Enforcement reform
  9. Court personnel system reform–better training of judges
  10. Smart court–using technology

The bolding above reflects his stress on those points in his presentation.

Dean Jiang mentioned that the Central Government put the court system into a bigger picture, but that the prior reforms were needed to make the judicial system more professional.  It is for this reason that the Central Government mentions the phrase “judicial reform” much less than before.

The bigger picture is involving the court system more in the development of the whole country. This reflects a change in China’s overall policy, and we Chinese legal professionals need to understand this.

Comparing the 4th and 5th Reform Plans:

  • Similar, but different;
  • Duplicated, but deepening and supplementary;
  • To those unfinished tasks, less emphasis

He said these should be seen in the context of the national plan for achieving the rule of law, and from 2035, China will have achieved rule of law and be a modernized, democratic country–the second 15-year plan will be about rule of law.  He thinks that the timing is insufficient.

4. Strategic Move: From Judicial Reform to “Zhengfa” (政法) Reform

1. Before 2012, judicial work mechanism reform
2. From 2013,Judicial system reform
3. From 2017,Comprehensive supplementary reform of the judicial system
4. From 2019, Promoting Comprehensive
Reform in Zhengfa Area
5. From 2020,Xi Jinping rule of law thoughts

On point 4 above, that relates to a comprehensive document adopted in 2019 [Implementing Opinion On the Comprehensive Deepening Reforms of the Political-Legal Sector 关于政法领域全面深化改革的实施意见, not publicly available but mentioned previously on this blog], of which judicial reform plays only a small part.  From 2020, Xi Jinping rule of law thoughts plays an important guiding role in the role of law. He said all law students and legal professionals should read it because it will have an important impact on the building of rule of law in China.

Structure of the new arrangement:

  • Breadth: From the judiciary to other related areas
  • Depth: From judicial system reform to broader systematic innovation–the latter means is moving from judicial system reform to areas previously little discussed, such as Party leadership and the role of the Political-Legal Commission, and the relationship between the Party and the law.
  • Goal: From fair, efficient, and authoritative judicial system to modernization of Zhengfa work system and capability—that is, that the judicial system is to be part of a modernized governance system and governance capability [国家治理体系和治理能力现代化–from the Decision of the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress]. That is the goal for the next 30 years. It means the rule of law in the future will have a major part to play as part of modernized governance, and the courts will have an even more important role to play in supporting this modernized state governance (this is in my draft article). It may not be apparent from the English words, but it is a change.
  • Method: From branch-driven to Central Committee-driven–how to get there? He says this wording is not quite accurate as the 4th Judicial Reform Plan was also Central Committee driven, but because the Central Government put the project of the rule of law into the modernization of state governance, it has a different method for treating reform in the legal area, but he thinks that change of method is only an improvement.
  • Nature: Chinese style and self-owned brand–when you read English language literature on building a fair and independent judicial system from abroad you will see many common points. In the current arrangement–in the Zhengfa reforms, Chinese characteristics have a great deal of weight and also in the reconstruction of the legal system. Although China has learned a great deal from other countries, China has to go on its own way, since it has its own history, political situation and historical stage and there is a change in the international situation. China has changed its position in the world. He is getting accustomed to this new way of judicial reform and it will be more difficult for foreigners to understand it.

The change of emphasis can be seen from the VIP (very important research projects of 2021), which are all more general than before:

No. 67. Practice and Experiences of the Party Comprehensively Promote Law-based governance
No. 68. Socialist Legal Theory with Chinese Characteristics
No. 69. Spirit of Socialist Rule of Law
No. 70. Constitution-centered Socialist Legal System with Chinese Characteristics
No. 71. Promoting Comprehensive
Reform in Zhengfa Area

Dean Jiang described the 2019 document mentioned above as containing the following areas of reform.

Seven Areas of Zhengfa Reform:

  1. Party’s leadership of the Zhengfa work–that is the Chinese situation
  2. Deepening reforms of Zhengfa institutions–not only the courts and the prosecutors, but changing the overall structure of Zhengfa institutions
  3. Deepening reform of systems of law implementation–we combined  Legislative Affairs Office (of the State Council 法制办) into the Ministry of Justice [MOJ]–that’s an important change
  4. Deepening reform of social governance system–the Zhengfa Wei important for social governance–one of the most popular words is “governance“–how to support social stability, social development; innovative spirit, people’s lives;
  5.  Public Zhengfa service system–public legal service is part of Zhengfa service–all the political-legal organs will work together to provide efficient high-quality services for the people-人民为中心–Xi Jinping says all our work needs to be people-centered;
  6. Zhengfa profession management reform–no major change here
  7. Application of IT technology–no major change here–continued application of IT in the Zhengfa area

These are seven areas of Zhengfa reform, based on the prior judicial reforms, but now going to a new stage. Governance is a crucial word.

5. Technical Measures

This is what he has devoted his life to before.

  • Law is a profession, and the judicial system is the carrier of law and justice.
  • Law is also science of law.
  • Rule of law is one of the most technical way of state governance.
  • Rule of law will have no efficacy without the joint efforts of other institutions.

He listed 10 legal issues for consideration for reference and research, as these are the most important topics:

  1. Structural reform: local judicial power, or central judicial power–at the present time, the Central Government cannot manage all those 200,000+ judges and prosecutors, and at first stage, the provincial level is taking that over, but he is not sure of the final judicial model
  2.  Organizational reform: bureaucratic or judicial, especially the internal organs–this is a more technical reform, including internal and external organs, different tiers of the court and branches of the judiciary, including the procuracy;
  3. Functions of the four tiers of court:  their role and function–cylinder, or cone (his metaphor of 20 years ago)–should the SPC concentrate on judicial interpretations and a small number of cases, and does not need 400 judges–this relates to the pilot program of late last year on the repositioning of the four levels of the Chinese court; the local courts will focus on factual issues;
  4.  Personnel reform: Profession, or ordinary public servant–this is still an ongoing issue, and in his view, some continental European countries have not resolved this issue either. Although there are improvements, judges and prosecutors feel that it is not sufficient, given their new role in society, and the importance of their work. He agrees, having been a former judge.
  5.  Procedural reform: Court-centered litigation system, fair trial, simplification of procedure–how to make things fairer, and given the more than 10% annual increase in cases, a big burden on judges in particular, how to simplify procedure. This links to the recent amendments to the Civil Procedure Law, which focuses on simplification of procedures and giving online procedures the same status as offline.
  6.  Adjudication committee: advisory, or adjudication–there is a great deal of discussion about it–it is the highest decision-making body in a court (see this blogpost).
  7. Judicial responsibility system: The hearing officer makes the decision, and decision-maker takes the responsibility–司法责任制–this is another tricky one–this is required by the Central Government, a step forward towards the rule of law, instead of having a judge’s boss approve his decision (because the court is bureaucracy)–for China, this is a step towards the rule of law, but there is still a long way to go.
  8.  Supervision over “four types of cases”–that means for most cases, judges take responsibility for their cases, but for difficult, controversial, and possibly having an impact on social stability–because junior judges have different capacities from the more senior–for those four types of cases, the court president and senior court leaders are involved to oversee or supervise (see translation of guidance here, commentary to come)–he has not found useful academic papers on this point;
  9.  ADR (Diversified dispute resolution): this is a traditional topic–optimizing the allocation of resources of dispute resolution
  10. Judicial administration: local government loses its administrative power, but what internal administration;
  11. Judicial democracy: lay judge system–different from common law jury (but China can learn from the common law jury–having them focus on factual rather legal issues)–the law has changed, but academic work is insufficient.
  12. Judicial transparency–this is an old issue, to make the judiciary more transparent to the parties and the public.

These are the major issues in the next five years. These technical legal issues are very interesting and need legal scholars to look at them to support the Zhengfa reforms.

6. Future Direction

  1. Xi Jinping rule of law thoughts–inevitable guideline–some of political and strategic, but it provides some guidelines for basic principles;
  2.  Rule of law-driven first;
  3. Politics driven and guarantee–politics should be a consideration but it should not be unbalanced.  Political role of the rule of law-leading the legislative institutions.  Guarantee means guaranteeing the executive implementation of law, supporting the judiciary, and being a model of a law-abiding citizen; This will be very important in putting judicial reform forward;
  4. To complete those halfway reforms–judicial personnel reforms;
  5.  More rethought and theoretical guide–scholars criticize the judiciary for having an insufficient theoretical basis;
  6.  Dealing with the other judicial civilizations–we never stopped, especially in technical areas, and for our legal professionals, that has never stopped. We need to work together for all of humanity.

Supreme People’s Court Monitor 2019-2021 Year-end Reports

Screenshot 2018-12-07 at 5.48.29 PM
The Monitor as “Fargo North” Decoder

The Supreme People’s Court Monitor published 35 posts in 2019, 26 posts in 2020, and 26 in 2021, with about 34,000  page views each year,  primarily from:

  • United States;
  • (Mainland) China;
  • Hong Kong SAR;
  • United Kingdom.

Germany, Australia and Singapore trailed the others by a significant margin. Mainland China was in second place in 2019.  In 2020 and 2021, the Monitor had almost the same number of views from mainland China and Hong Kong.  I wish I knew the distribution of my readers in mainland China–whether they are working in the System (体制), or are academics, students, or lawyers. I was very pleased to meet some readers when I spoke in November 2019 at the Fourth Qianhai Legal Intelligence Forum, (a conference held annually in Shenzhen, supported by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)).

Why did I do less blogging in 2020  and 2021 as compared to 2019? Perhaps it can be attributed to competing professional obligations–including writing several academic-style articles and one academic blogpost.  Fortunately, 2021 saw the academic blogpost and three long articles emerge from the academic publishing machine.  I have yet to see the third long article (book chapter), which has been published. I presume that one is stuck in a warehouse, awaiting the resumption of flights from the rest of the world to Hong Kong.

One draft academic article, in which I have invested too much time,  is back on the back burner after two perceptive readers pointed out what I was feeling, that it had gone down too many research rabbit holes (掉进无底洞).   I now know that an SPC document will be issued soon that I presume will change some of the article’s content, so it is just as well that the draft is back on a slow simmer. I’m instead following the advice of one reader to spin off parts of the draft into separate articles. One will soon be ready for the editorial sausage machine.  A second one, on a topic separate from the “rabbit hole” article,  is affected by documents issued to implement the recent reforms to the four levels of the Chinese courts as well as the Civil Procedure Law amendments.  When I return to that “rabbit hole” article, it will benefit from what I have learned in researching the one that I expect can enter the editorial sausage machine soon.

In the New Era (and the Covid-19 Era), it is an even greater challenge to decode for readers outside of mainland China SPC developments insightfully in under 1500 words.  I hope I have gone some way to meeting that target.  I sometimes have my doubts.

Since the blog was founded almost nine years ago:

Page views: 233, 109
Jurisdictions: 200? (per WordPress)
Posts: 323

Most followers use Twitter to follow the Monitor. Although Twitter is not accessible in mainland China without a VPN, 16% of the Monitor’s Twitter followers are based there.

A special thank you to my anonymous “peer reviewers”, who have given forthright (in one case very blunt), insightful and helpful comments on draft blogposts.

Supreme People’s Court’s 2021 Year-End Accomplishments

Photo from the “look back meeting” described below

Apologies to readers for the long gap between posts–I have been focusing on yet another academic article and am finding that even so-called “short articles” take much longer than anticipated, especially when the topic reveals more and more complexities than were apparent when I submitted the abstract to the journal months ago.

So instead of any involved analysis, I’ll list some of the year-end (from December) accomplishments of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) with some brief notes. Another aspect of the SPC being a cross between a Party-state organ and a court is that it needs to meet year-end goals and submit year-end reports. The SPC’s judicial reform leading group recently discussed and approved its year-end report (最高人民法院司法改革领导小组2021年工作总结报告).  The judicial reform leading group is headed by President Zhou Qiang. Other members include Justices He Rong, Ma Shizhong (head of the Political Department), He Xiaorong, and Shen Liang. The Judicial Reform Office presumably drafted by the report. It is likely a constituent part of the SPC’s year-end report to go to the Party leadership, before the annual Central Political-Legal Work Conference.

Another aspect of the SPC being a cross between a Party-state organ and a court is that it is inspected by Party inspection groups and is a focal point of campaigns on the education and rectification of political-legal organs.

Among the SPC’s year-end accomplishments are the following.  For the avoidance of doubt, judicial interpretations, judicial documents, and typical cases are all means by which the SPC guides the lower courts. I will have more to say about this topic in the unfinished academic article mentioned above.

Judicial interpretations

  1. Online Mediation Rules of the People’s Courts (人民法院在线调解规则).  Online mediation is an important focus of the SPC, as could be seen from this white paper on Diversified Dispute Resolution from early 2021 and from other efforts of the SPC to promote resolving disputes at their source, as consistent with the deployment of the Party Center (党中央关于“将非诉讼纠纷解决机制挺在前面”的重大部署要求.  The responsible person of the SPC’s Case Filing Division (presumably the head) pointed out that these rules “had created an online diversified dispute resolution model with Chinese characteristics that differed from ADR or ODR” )形成了有别于ADR和ODR的中国特色在线多元纠纷解决模式). His statement appears designed to be more politically correct than accurate. It is clear that the SPC follows government policy in using “diversified dispute resolution” rather than “alternative dispute resolution,” (ADR)  but the English language abbreviation”ODR,” according to my research, is intended to be a general term to capture all sorts of online dispute resolution and not meant to promote one particular model of online dispute resolution. The underlying implication is that “ODR” reflects a “Western” approach. However other (mainland) Chinese government departments use “ODR” without issue.  Additionally, the Hong Kong government uses the term “ODR” to refer to its online dispute resolution platform, eBRAM.
  2. Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) on Several Issues Concerning the Application of Law in Handling Criminal Cases Endangering Food Safety (最高人民法院 最高人民检察院关于办理危害食品安全刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释). As a joint judicial interpretation, it was approved by the judicial (adjudication) committee of the SPC first and next by the Procuratorial Committee of the SPP.
  3. Several Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on the Application of Prohibition Order Preservation Measures in Eco-environmental Infringement Cases(最高人民法院关于生态环境侵权案件适用禁止令保全措施的若干规定) –relating to injunctions to stop environmental pollution, either before or after a party has filed suit.  We can expect more and more SPC interpretations and documents related to environmental pollution.
  4. Relevant Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on Issues concerning Applications for Verification of Arbitration Cases under Judicial Review 最高人民法院关于仲裁司法审查案件报核问题的有关规定. This decision by the SPC updates the 2017 provisions of the same name, adding one article and a clause in another. The new Article 3  requires higher people’s courts to submit draft rulings in judicial review of arbitration matters in domestic arbitration (non-foreign, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan-related) if the higher court intends to concur with a lower court ruling that the arbitral award violated social public interest.   The new second clause of Article 4 requires the higher people’s court to submit the matter to the SPC within 15 days.
  5. Several Provisions on the Compulsory Enforcement by People’s Court of Company Shareholding (最高人民法院关于人民法院强制执行股权若干问题的规定). This appeared on the 2019 judicial interpretation agenda, so it has slipped by two years. The provisions apply to enforcing judgments or rulings against shareholder equity in either limited liability companies or companies limited by shares, but not including companies limited by shares that are listed.
  6. Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court on Several Issues Concerning the Application of Law in the Trial of Disputes over Compensation for Personal Injury in Railway Transport
    最高人民法院关于审理铁路运输人身损害赔偿纠纷案件适用法律若干问题的解释  This interpretation concerns persons injured in railway transport accidents, excluding accidents on passenger trains.

On the “coming attractions” discussed in some earlier blogposts, the SPC’s judicial committee (adjudication committee) spent many hours on 30 December 2021 discussing the draft judicial interpretation of the General Part of the Civil Code.  When I wrote last about the draft of the General Part, I noted that Judge Guo Feng, deputy head of the Research Office,  mentioned that the General Part (1) interpretation is scheduled to be submitted to the SPC’s judicial (adjudication) committee before year-end.  That means that Judge Guo (and likely one or more of the principal drafters) were in the room to discuss the draft article by article.  The judicial committee finally decided to approve the draft “in principle.”  Approval in principle” (原则通过), as discussed here, is not mentioned by the SPC’s 2007 regulations on judicial interpretations but is one of the SPC’s long-established practices. It means that the judicial committee has approved it, subject to some “minor” amendments. Minor amendments are more than typographical errors and relate to specific substantive matters.  So it is likely that after the SPC amends the provisions that the judicial committee  considered needed more work, a quasi-final draft will go back to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC LAC)’s Legislative Affairs Commission  because SPC guidance provides that “liaison with the NPCSC LAC must be timely, and after major revisions to the judicial interpretation draft after consulting with the NPC LAC, the view of the NPCSC LAC  should be solicited again.”  I expect that the draft of the General Part judicial interpretation will be finalized before the National People’s Congress meeting, so that the report can mention this accomplishment.

As I have mentioned many times in the course of 2021, we do not know what was on the SPC’s 2021 judicial interpretation agenda. Those of us outside the System can only hope that the 2022 agenda will be released and that the judicial reform agenda will continue to be released.

Judicial documents (incomplete list)

  1. Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Justice on Providing Legal Aid for Defendants in Death Penalty Review Cases 最高人民法院 司法部关于为死刑复核案件被告人依法提供法律援助的规定.  These are joint regulations issued by the two institutions and therefore are classified as “judicial documents,” as discussed here.  These provisions establish a mechanism for the Ministry of Justice to appoint legal aid lawyers to defendants whose cases are being submitted to the SPC for death penalty review.  If a defendant appoints his or her own lawyer), then the legal aid lawyer stops providing services.
  2. Provisions on Judges’ Disciplinary Work Procedures (for Trial Implementation)《法官惩戒工作程序规定(试行).  I will follow up with analysis at some point as I published a book chapter on judicial discipline at the beginning of 2021.  These provisions do not change the conclusion in my chapter.
  3. Opinions on Strengthening the Substantive Trial of Sentence Reduction and Parole Cases (关于加强减刑、假释案件实质化审理的意见).  This is another multiple institution document, intended to tighten up procedures for sentence reduction and parole cases.  They are in part a response to a 2020 tragedy in Beijing, in which a prisoner whose sentence was commuted killed one man and injured two more.  The incident further revealed that the corruption discussed in this 2015 blogpost continues to exist.
  4. Notice of the Supreme People’s Court on Studying and Implementing the “Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Amending the Civil Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China.”最高人民法院关于认真学习贯彻《全国人民代表大会常务委员会关于修改〈中华人民共和国民事诉讼法〉的决定》的通知.  This notice and the amended Civil Procedure Law are of practical importance to tens of thousands of Chinese judges and litigants in the Chinese courts, individuals and entities, domestic and foreign.  The notice signals that the SPC is working on amendments to the Civil Procedure Law judicial interpretation (the previous version plus commentary was published in two volumes). This reform relates to the reorienting of four levels of the courts, will increase the number of cases heard with one judge, promotes mediation and smart courts.
  5. and  6. Two Judicial Services and Safeguards Opinions, one on  Providing Judicial Services and Safeguards for Promoting the Development of the West in the New Era and Forming a New Pattern and  Opinions on Providing Judicial Services and Safeguards for Promoting the High-quality Development of the Central Region in the New Era(最高人民法院关于为新时代推进西部大开发形成新格局提供司法服务和保障的意见( and 关于为新时代推动中部地区高质量发展提供司法服务和保障的意见.  Related to these two is a document from November 2021– Conference Summary of the Work Promotion Meeting Serving and Safeguarding Ecological Protection and High-quality Development of the Yellow River Basin.最高人民法院服务保障黄河流域生态保护和高质量发展工作推进会会议纪要.  That document in turn relates to a  2020Judicial Services and Safeguards Opinion. These are part of a large number of documents providing judicial services and safeguards for Party Center strategies and initiatives, particularly related to regional integration.  The article I have temporarily set aside to write this blogpost discusses the purposes and impacts of these documents.  I have previously written about these documents often, such as these quick analyses of their structure and purposes.  Both  Opinions link to Party Center-State Council documents. More analysis to come when I am able to finish the last five pages of the “short academic article” mentioned above.

Reshaping the judiciary

In the fall of 2021, the Party Center launched the second round of the rectification and education of national political-legal organs, with a leading group leading and an office assisting in implementing the campaign. The SPC was one of the focal points (along with other central organs). Just before Christmas, the SPC held a “looking back” meeting to discuss what was revealed and progress made in response.  The SPC established a leading small group and office to handle matters properly.  (For those interested in further details, please see this webpage.) President Zhou Qiang noted in his work report that the SPC has effectively rectified a batch of stubborn diseases (one of the targets of this inspection) and resolutely eliminated a batch of black sheep (literally, a group of horses that harm the masses) (一批害群之马).  The same phrasing is reported from the Ministry of Justice and other political-legal institutions at both the central and local levels. Related to  the rectification and education campaign are several new SPC opinions. Those include one strengthening the judicial responsibility system, and creating a new court team  关于在加快推进司法责任体系改革和建设中进一步加强人民法院队伍建设的意见 and another on enforcement.  The SPC has issued another related opinion found here, on the “four types of cases.”   Perhaps unrelated to stubborn diseases and black sheep is decisions by some SPC judges to continue their careers elsewhere.

Finally

I wish all readers a happy and healthy new year, both “Western” and Chinese.  I also hope that this year brings us, located in and out of mainland China, opportunities to gather together to discuss legal developments in China from different perspectives quietly, without rancor or blame, but with mutual respect.

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I would like to express my appreciation to two anonymous peer reviewers of a previous draft of this blogpost. Special thanks to the person who caught a significant error in the draft.