Since the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress, and especially since President Xi Jinping spoke about the need for China to train foreign-related legal personnel (涉外法治人才), the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) press, SPC leadership, and others important to the SPC leadership, such as Shen Deyong, former executive vice president of the SPC and current leaders of the CPPCC have reiterated the importance of “foreign-related legal personnel” to China and the people’s courts. Training “foreign-related legal personnel” is incorporated into the Party’s Plan for Building the Rule of Law (2020-2025), an indication of its importance. Shen Deyong criticized the way that “foreign-related legal personnel” is used within government institutions– “team is too small, their numbers are too few, they are scattered and the market is chaotic.””涉外法律服务人才队伍建设还存在一些问题和不足，主要呈现队伍“小”、人才“少”、分布“散”、市场“乱”的特点. I would add to the issues that he flagged that policies directed towards attracting “foreign-related legal personnel” to the courts inevitably encounter the special characteristics of the courts’ personnel system as it has evolved since the quota judge reform was implemented, both the training system and especially career advancement from judges assistant to quota judge.
As readers of this blog know, the Chinese courts need “foreign-related legal personnel” in many areas. Those include working on cross-border cases across a broad range of procedural and substantive areas, undertaking research related to cross-border judicial policy and cross-border legal issues that have an impact on the judiciary, as well as working on a range of issues related to the SPC’s and lower courts’ interactions with the outside world.
Law students apply to become judges assistants after graduation for a variety of reasons. Some become further interested after internships (see this blogpost on SPC interns–a version with more data may appear later). Other law school graduates are motivated by presentations by outstanding judges at their law school (SPC Judge Gao Xiaoli’s 2015 talk at the Peking University School of Transnational Law earned her many new fans), while still others recognized that a job “in the system” would resolve their hukou problems and enable them to live in Beijing, Shanghai, or other major cities. Yet others are motivated to use their education in the service of the public. I can say with authority that law graduates with knowledge of transnational law, fluency in English (and other foreign languages) are working as legal assistants in courts all over China. Recruitment of legal assistants is a local matter, so the #4 Civil Division of the SPC (in charge of foreign commercial matters) and likely the Political Department of the SPC (in charge of personnel) lacks statistics on the number of “foreign-related legal personnel” working in the local courts.
Special characteristics of the courts’ personnel system
I write about the judiciary’s personnel system with some trepidation as I am well aware that my knowledge of the regulatory system is incomplete. (Some of the relevant regulations cited in analyses of the personnel reforms are not accessible to those outside the court system.) On the issue of placement of junior “foreign-related legal personnel,” I have not heard from either knowledgeable persons, former students, or other junior personnel in the Chinese court system that specific policies have been implemented within the court system (the Political Department of the SPC is responsible at the national level, and locally, political departments of local courts are responsible) to channel judges assistants recruited from China’s law schools with transnational training and experience into roles in which their academic background can be used and their “foreign-related” legal skills can be developed. In the absence of specific policy, too many local court leaders appear to see the young people with a transnational legal background and experience merely as workers that can be put to work in the national judicial machine (司法民工). Judges assistants from higher courts are sometimes sent down to the local level to work for two years, in line with young cadre development policy.
If the three documents cited above have language about training, it seems likely that a training plan is somewhere in the approval pipeline. My guess is that this is yet another matter that requires coordination among multiple institutions within the SPC, including the #4 Civil Division–the ones asking for the training to be done, with the Political Division and the National Judges College. As I wrote last year, a new national court training plan (2019—2023年全国法院教育培训规划)) is underway. As senior leadership has called for cultivating “foreign-related legal personnel,” it seems likely that the SPC will eventually issue (perhaps not publicly) a training plan for judges handling all sorts of foreign-related issues, both civil-commercial and criminal.
Another issue for foreign-related legal personnel in the courts is career advancement for judges assistants. As I mentioned in passing in an earlier blogpost, career advancement from judges assistant to quota judge has slowed. Specific promotion criteria are set locally. Local studies have been done on the role of the judges assistant but have not surmounted the language barrier (see this one from one of the Chongqing Intermediate People’s Courts) that provide specific data and specific analysis deriving from local conditions. From my observations, fixed quotas on the number of judges in a court can mean a talented, educated judges assistant in one court may wait significantly longer than a similarly qualified person in another court to become a judge.
Unless the SPC can evolve better national policy directed towards a career for “foreign-related legal personnel,” some of them will leave, disappointed with the failure of the judicial system to use their talents, despite the official publicity. There will be many companies and law firms, some dealing with the issues I described previously, that will value them.
On 29 July, I spoke briefly at an American Society of International Law webinar entitled “Charting the New Frontiers of International Dispute Resolution in the Asia-Pacific.” The post below is the (slightly edited) text of my comments on the China International Commercial Court (CICC). I have made some of the same points in earlier blogposts and this version includes those links.
Thank you for this opportunity to provide my thoughts on the CICC. As some people know, I am on the CICC’s international expert committee, but nothing I have to say should be attributed to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) or the China International Commercial Court (CICC). I’m not going to comment on the numerous articles I have seen either in both English and Chinese but instead focus my remarks on what I understand the focus of the work of the CICC to be now, suggest some reasons, and identify some trends.
The CICC has thus far accepted 18 cases in the three years since it was established. Although I have never seen official confirmation of this, it appears that when the CICC was approved, it was approved as a part-time court. It can be seen from the biographical description of each judge that each of them has at least one other full-time responsibility additional to being a CICC judge. Some of the judges have two other full-time responsibilities. The Intellectual Property Court of the SPC, is instead is a full-time court—it is unclear whether they have additional headcount. I have not seen a discussion of why one was approved as a part-time court and the other a full-time court—perhaps the leadership decided that the Intellectual Property Court was the one that would make a more important national and international impact, given the critical importance of intellectual property at this stage at China’s development and the range of intellectual property law issues in contention between China and certain of its trading partners.
Based on the type of cases that the CICC has accepted and the language in the end 2019 2nd Belt & Road Opinion and the 2020 Open Economy document, my understanding that the short-medium focus of the CICC is to be a model or guide for China’s lower courts in unifying “foreign-related” substantive and procedural law —it is currently domestically focused, rather than focusing on hearing large numbers of foreign-related cases.
So far, most of the cases that the CICC has accepted have been referred from the lower courts. The CICC will take the cases if it meets its criteria and it can see that the case involves issues regarding which existing law and judicial interpretations are unclear and that involve issues that frequently arise in practice. This can be seen in Articles 22 and 25 of BRI Opinion #2 “and the role of the CICC in providing models and guidance shall be developed… the role of cases in determining rules and guiding behavior shall be leveraged (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). Therefore the CICC has accepted and decided at least 5 cases related to arbitration—filling in gaps in Chinese arbitration law and judicial interpretations—and has accepted two more related to demand guarantees/standby letter of credit fraud disputes. It has also issued a judgment on an issue related to product liability.
A second and it seems underappreciated aspect (outside of China) of the role of the CICC is in providing “models and guidance”– 示范引领作用– to guide the lower courts and to pilot reforms that are replicable (a Chinese judicial reform concept), as stated in Article 22 and 25 of BRI Opinion #2. That can be seen from reports on certain local courts:
The Beijing #4 Intermediate Court—promoting one-stop diversified dispute resolution (多元化解纷纠纷中心), with links to local arbitration (CIETAC & the Beijing Arbitration Commission) & mediation organizations, the goal being for this court to come up with new ideas in international commercial dispute resolution to focus on Beijing’s advantages;
Haikou/Hainan also—the SPC’s policy document supporting the Hainan Free Trade Port mentions an international commercial court, although it seems to be less developed.
I would like to mention also that it is possible that whatever guidance is developed may also draw on the memoranda concluded and other best practices discussed at the Standing Forum of International Commercial Courts, of which the SPC is a member.
From what I can see from these local initiatives, the themes may include:
promoting mediation (also in line with SPC policy on mediation taking priority);
Centralizing case acceptance;
Addressing additional arbitration-related issues;
Possibly considering rules regarding more complex commercial disputes.
From my own research and discussions with some local judges, it appears to be early days to see any further guidance coming out of these local courts.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the CICC eventually developing further rules, for example, related to mediation, drawing on the work of the lower courts, as this is a pattern I have seen before in other areas of law with the SPC because it appears CICC regulatory infrastructure is less fully developed in comparison with other commercial courts in other jurisdictions. Experience from the lower courts could accelerate matters in part.
I surmise that either the CICC or local “international commercial courts” will eventually provide greater legal infrastructure related to what I call “invisible BRI disputes”–the increasing number of cases between two Chinese companies involving projects overseas, particularly in the area of construction engineering, often heard in the Chinese courts—that involve issues such as how to:
find and apply foreign law;
provide information and expertise about foreign technical standards; and
improve the role of expert witnesses (with the necessary expertise) in construction engineering disputes.
These types of disputes raise several of many areas of law that need further work as Chinese companies operate internationally but want to have related disputes heard at home, and China seeks to progress domestic and foreign-related legislation. I surmise that the Beijing #4 Intermediate Court will eventually come up with some guidance through its collaboration with the Beijing Arbitration Commission and other institutions.
Turning to the expert committee…the expert committee is an institution different from a user committee in jurisdictions such as US, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya etc. where they are often required by law and are primarily focused on incorporating input from users, including those practicing lawyers in evolving court rules. I note that Taiwan involved a user committee in working on its new commercial & intellectual property court. Court rules in China are entirely within the authority of the SPC, and lower courts in practice issue them as well, and there is no compulsory requirement in Chinese legislation for incorporating public input in the course of drafting court rules. The CICC expert committee and other Chinese court expert committees (such as that established by the Beijing Financial Court appear to be established to enable courts to access expertise among the experts on a flexible basis, and it appears intentionally not involving lawyers practicing in China. The link between the role of the expert committee members and the subject matter competence is weaker than with user committees, and thus far the few formal meetings of the entire expert committee have included speeches making general statements about international commercial dispute resolution in contrast to the more technically focused user committees in the jurisdictions I have mentioned.
From the BRI documents mentioned above that the SPC has issued, it appears that the SPC is still trying to determine a proper role for the expert committee (at least on the foreign side) as I don’t believe the roles mentioned in CICC regulations have turned out to fit with the SPC’s actual needs and the varied backgrounds of the experts. I’ve been in touch with several foreign members of the expert committee, none of whom has been approached by the CICC individually to provide expertise. One of many issues (as I’ve written about before) is that mediation outside China is considered to be its own type of expertise, different from arbitration (an area in which a number of experts are well known). Another question is whether the expert committee is made known internally within the SPC as a platform through which others in the SPC can access foreign expertise.
For all these reasons—the limited time that CICC judges have to devote to specific CICC matters, the focus on progressing Chinese substantive & procedural law through CICC decisions, the possible use of the lower courts to assist the CICC to evolve international commercial rules appropriate for China, and the flexible use of the expert committees–in the short to medium term I see the work of the CICC as more domestically focused, as the SPC does its part to progress Chinese domestic and foreign-related legislation, or as the current slogan has it “统筹推进国内法治和涉外法治.”
I am very honored to have been the first keynote speaker of the webinar “Deals and Disputes: China, Hong Kong, and Commercial Law” held on May 18-21 (2021). The webinar was organized by the University of Pittsburgh, with its School of Law’s Center for International Legal Education working together with its Asian Studies Center. Many thanks to Professors Ronald Brand and James Cook for the kind invitation. For those who missed it, the recording of my presentation is now available on the Youtube channel of the Center for International Legal Education.
I spoke on the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and the Development of Chinese International Commercial Law (as I defined it). My presentation synthesizes many points that I have made separately on this blog and should be useful to students or others seeking to understand several aspects of the work of the SPC. Many thanks to Professor Pamela Bookman and Mary Buck Young for taking the time to make insightful comments on earlier drafts of my Powerpoint slides. Special thanks to (one of) my research assistants, Yuan Ye, for his work in transforming SPC statistics into a more understandable form and translating them into English.
The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issues a range of documents as part of its authority to supervise the lower courts. The significance and authority of these documents is confusing to many, both in and out of China, in the world of practice, in academia, and in government, and of course among Chinese law students and graduates.
They are an illustration of how documents continue to be an important tool for Chinese governance, a fact it appears is often forgotten outside of China. “In current Chinese political life, governing the country by documents objectively exists” ( “在现实中国政治生活中，文件治国是一种客观存在”), from this 2017 article by Zhang Xuebo of the Central Party School’s Politics and Law Department.
This blogpost provides an updated consolidated (partial) guide through the forest of SPC judicial documents, drawing on my past research and analysis, not including judicial interpretations (司法解释). I will return to this topic in the future and will discuss judicial interpretations in a separate blogpost. I have a special interest in judicial documents, because they drew me into researching the SPC in the early 1990s.
The seven categories of documents below are classified as judicial documents or “judicial normative documents” (司法文件 or 司法规范性文件 and sometimes judicial policy documents” (司法政策性文件). The SPC’s website lists some of them. As I’ve written before, this fuzzy use of terminology is not unusual. An (authoritative) follower has proposed using the English translation “judicial regulatory document” for 司法规范性文件. An attentive reader can discover from reviewing the documents on the website that this blogpost is not comprehensive.I will have more to say about all of these documents in the fullness of time, when I have an opportunity to explore the forest. The SPC issues many other documents as well, covering personnel and administrative matters, but this blogpost focuses on those with normative provisions.
SPC judicial documents are partially governed by 2012 regulations on the handling of SPC official documents (人民法院公文处理办法), which leave much unsaid and unexplained. It seems likely that additional guidance exists, whether in the form of bureaucratic custom or internal guidelines. Many, but not all, are the SPC’s special versions of Party/government documents.
It is one of the special features of the SPC that so much time and effort is allocated to different types of “soft law,” likely linked to other features of the Chinese legal system.
Partial catalogue of SPC judicial documents
1.Opinions (意见)–In my view, the SPC issues several types of Opinions. I have not yet done detailed research into these different types of documents and have not seen detailed analysis in Chinese (or English). What I’m setting forth below is my tentative analysis. I’m likely to discover more categories of Opinions as I do further research.
Opinion Type 1: An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that addresses a range of matters. The Services and Guarantees Opinions appear to fall into this category. These documents create and transmit to the lower courts new judicial policy, update previous judicial policy, establish new legal guidance that may be eventually crystallized in judicial interpretations and direct the lower courts, but cannot be cited in judicial judgments or rulings. They are generally linked to an important Party or state strategy or initiative. This post has a summary of what opinions are, while another one focuses on how they are structured. I have often written about this type of Opinion. The ones labeled “Guiding Opinions” are intended to push policy forward, but others may do as well. Sometimes the SPC issues illustrative “model/exemplary/typical cases to clarify certain points to the lower courts (and the legal community) , such as the Opinion providing Services and Guarantees [Safeguards] to the Yellow River Basin, for which the SPC issued illustrative cases.
Opinion Type 2: An Opinion issued solely by the SPC, that consolidates rules or guidance found in disparate documents and adds some new rules, focused on one particular topic, relating to litigants. The April, 2020, Opinions on Promoting Lawful and Efficient Trials of Bankruptcy Cases is a good example.It incorporates a provision from the Minutes of the National Court Work Conference on Bankruptcy Trials, for example, regarding consolidating bankruptcy cases of affiliated enterprises.
Opinion Type 3: An Opinion also issued solely by the SPC, that sets out in normative form Party policy/judicial reforms, may be the framework for further normative opinions, and eventually crystalized in law. An example is the 2015 Opinions on Improving the Judicial Responsibility System of People’s Courts. The first line clearly links the document to Party decisions–“for the purpose of implementing the general deployment of the Party Center on deepening the reform of the judicial system….(为贯彻中央关于深化司法体制改革的总体部署). It is linked to several normative Opinions and the judicial responsibility system has been incorporated into the People’s Court Law.
Opinion Type 4: the SPC is one of several issuing institutions. They do not create new legal rules but harmonize legal positions among institutions and for the courts, and clarify how the law should be applied. They also cannot be cited as the basis for a judgment or ruling. These are particularly common in the area of criminal law, and are often related to the latest campaign or focus of the authorities. The 2019 Opinions on Several Issues Regarding the Handling of Criminal Cases of Illegal Lending, (最高人民法院 最高人民检察院 公安部 司法部印发《关于办理非法放贷刑事案件若干问题的意见》的通知) part of the Special Campaign to Crack Down on Underworld Forces (扫黑除恶专项斗争) is a good example. One aspect of the ongoing campaign, which began in early 2018, is to use the criminal justice and regulatory authorities to crack down on “routing loans” (套路贷), an offense not defined by the criminal law. This 2019 Opinion harmonizes the understanding among the criminal justice authorities to punish those providing “routing loans.” Article 1 describes certain types of lending activity that can be punished under the crime of illegal business operations (Criminal Law article 225(4)). (See more here).
2. Conference summary/meeting minutes（会议纪要): the SPC uses specialized court conferences as a way of transmitting central legal policy, unifying or harmonizing court practices in accordance with that policy, and obtaining an overview of court practices and problems. Although conference summaries do not have the status of a judicial interpretation, the lower courts will generally decide cases according to its provisions. “Harmonizing court practice” means in Chinese judicial parlance that judges are applying the law similarly.” A recent example is the 9th National Courts’ Civil and Commercial Trial Work Conference Summary. The document itself has a very useful explanation: “the Conference Minutes [Summary], which are not judicial interpretations, cannot be cited as a basis for adjudication. For first instance and second instance pending cases after the Conference Minutes have been issued, people’s courts may reason according to the relevant provisions of the Conference Minutes when specifically analyzing the reasons for the application of law in the “The court is of the view” section of adjudicative instruments.” This post has a summary of what conference summaries are.
3. Professional judges meeting summary (法官会议纪要): I have not yet written a blogpost focused on these. although I have mentioned them from time to time. I have several published collections of these in my library. The SPC circuit courts appear to have led the way on publishing these as a way of “unifying judicial practice” but the #2 Civil Division (focusing on commercial issues) has published a collection as well.
4. Response or reply (复函 or 答复） These are responses or replies to requests for instructions or approvals. SPC, like other Party and state organs, handles requests for instructions (qingshi 请示). Although proposals have been published to either incorporate the practice into procedural law or abolish it, the practice lives on at all court levels, including the SPC. If the issue raised is considered important enough, the reply will be approved as a judicial interpretation. There are apparently fewer requests for instructions than ten or twenty years ago. I surmise more are submitted on the criminal issues than civil. One subcategory of these responses are the ones issued by the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, the division focusing on cross-border commercial and maritime issues. These are responses to request from instructions (请示) from provincial-level courts (including the higher courts of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing), as required by the SPC’s Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters. See more here.
5. Notice (通知). Documents transmitting one of the above types of judicial documents are often called notices, but this is meant to call attention to a document entitled “notice” (通知), such as the Notice concerning some questions regarding the centralized handling of judicial review of arbitration cases (关于仲裁司法审件归口办理有关问题的通知), discussed here.
7. Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) The most well-known example is the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding on Taking Joint Disciplinary Actions against Dishonest Persons Subject to Enforcement (对失信被执行人实施联合惩戒的合作备忘录). It appears to be the first time (or at least one of the first times) that a large group of central Party-state institutions has concluded an MOU. The SPC concludes many, only some of which have been made public. The lower courts do so as well. It shows that despite ongoing criticism of “Western” law and legal concepts, the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese government finds it useful to borrow some of them for its own uses. (See more here.)
According to the SPC’s rules on judicial interpretation work, judicial interpretations must be published. As for the judicial documents listed above, not all are published, as there is no requirement to do so. (I have more on this subject in an academic article on judicial transparency). As I have observed on this blog and in the article, the SPC is generally publishing more judicial documents than before. The contrast is clear, when compared to the early 1990’s, when I started to research the SPC. One positive and important example is the the approved judicial interpretation agenda, issued in the form of a notice from the General Office of the SPC. The SPC Gazette and People’s Court Daily are required to publish the interpretations, but for the other documents published, it is hit or miss. The SPC’s official website publishes some, but not all of the ones that can be found in some other sources A problem for those puzzling out these documents is that unfortunately the staff of the SPC’s website does not take the due care they should to ensure that documents are published in the correct classification, so the careful observer will find that misclassifications occur from time to time. Sources other than the SPC’s website may have more of these judicial documents. Some of these judicial documents, such as replies or responses by the #4 Civil Division under the Prior Reporting system for arbitration matters, are published in the division’s own publication, as discussed here.
Two additional comments on data (or lack thereof) and persuasiveness to the lower courts. It is difficult to determine how the number of judicial documents/judicial regulatory documents that the SPC issues compares to the number of judicial interpretations, as it is clear that it is inconvenient for some judicial documents to be made public (and some appear to be classified).
A second comment is on the persuasiveness of these judicial documents to the lower courts. I surmise that some of them are more important to local court leaders than to ordinary judges, but it depends on the nature of the judicial document. It is my understanding that judicial documents with normative provisions (conference summaries or Opinions with normative content) are cited in trial reports (审理报告 or 审查报告), but not in judgments or rulings.Finally, I surmise that SPC decisions are or will become increasingly important as a form of guidance to lower court judges, especially with the formal implementation of the similar case guidance system.
Those with corrections or comments or additions, please use the comment function or email me at email@example.com. Many thanks to certain knowledgeable persons for spending some of their valuable free time commenting on earlier drafts of this blogpost.
On the afternoon of 25 September, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued yet another guiding opinion providing services and guarantees, this one on providing services and guarantees in support of expanding opening to the outside world (Services & Guarantees to the Open Policy Guiding Opinions (Guiding Opinions)) (最高人民法院关于人民法院服务保障进一步扩大对外开放的指导意见). It was approved by the SPC’s Party Group, as was BRI Opinion #2.
Senior legal officials from the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spoke at the SPC press conference, in what this observer views as a cross-institutional show of support for China’s policies of opening to the outside world. At a time that government officials are focused on “dual circulation,” it is a reminder that the opening to the outside world policy remains in place and that one of the SPC’s many responsibilities is to handle those issues properly. The photo is also one illustration of the place of the SPC within China’s system (体制).
SPC Vice President Yang Wanming (杨万明) spoke first at the press conference, with the officials from MOFCOM and MFA adding comments. This signalled to the careful observer that he has assumed the responsibility for overseeing the #4 Civil Division (responsible for foreign-related commercial and maritime matters) from Luo Dongchuan (who has been transferred to Fujian Province to serve as Political Legal Commission Party Secretary).
This brief (17 articles) guiding opinion providing judicial services and guarantees (not a judicial interpretation, see this explanation of what it is) is the latest judicial policy on foreign-related (this blogpost will use the term “cross-border”, to incorporate some Hong Kong-related) legal issues (inbound and outbound) relevant to the Chinese courts, drawing on BRI Opinion #2 (issued end 2019 and BRI Opinion #1) and the June, 2020 guidance on Covid-19 and cross-border commercial issues.
As to what those judicial services and guarantees are, Justice Yang said the following:
Wherever the national strategy is deployed, the judicial services and guarantees of the people’s courts will be there (国家战略部署到哪里，人民法院司法服务和保障就到哪里.)
How does this document relate to other Chinese legislation?
To clarify the relationship between this opinion on the one hand and legislation, judicial interpretations and other types of judicial documents (such as the two BRI Opinions), Justice Yang gave a quick summary in SPC jargon:
While maintaining consistency with existing laws and regulations, judicial interpretations, and judicial policy documents, the Guiding Opinions also strengthen the macro-guidance of the people’s courts’ services and guarantees opening to the outside world from a higher level, and are organically linked to other SPC judicial policy documents for major opening-up decisions, major strategies, and major initiatives, to further improve the system of judicial services and guarantees of the work relating to opening to the outside world与现有法律法规和司法解释、司法政策文件保持一致的同时，从更高层面加强人民法院服务保障对外开放工作的宏观指导，与最高人民法院出台的其他司法服务保障国家对外开放重大决策、重大战略和重大举措的司法政策文件有机衔接，进一步完善了司法服务保障对外开放工作体系。
What is means is:
The Guiding Opinions are intended to be consistent with current law and regulations, SPC judicial interpretations, and SPC judicial policy documents.
It is intended to provide comprehensive guidance and better support government policies on opening to the outside world.
The Guiding Opinions. like many of the documents analyzed on this blog, are written in SPC jargon. Decoding this language poses challenges to those are concerned or who should be concerned about the impact of how the Chinese courts interact with the rest of the world.
Decoding the language, however, enables the careful reader to understand outstanding issues and contemplated reforms or other measures, including possible judicial interpretations.
Summary and comments
This blogpost will summarize and make some brief comments on some of the issues mentioned in each of the six sections of the documents and make a few concluding comments. There are many more issues in this document that should be explored, but I’ve been delayed by a hand injury.
1. Political stance
The first section calls for judges to raise their political stance. This is standard language in the New Era. The first article frames the documents in current political language, including that frequently used in Chinese foreign policy documents and to relevant political documents. Therefore the first article (and elsewhere) refers to multilateralism, equally situated parties, and creating a legalized, internationalized convenient business environment.
The second section focuses on basic principles of foreign-related litigation–of which it sets out three: protecting the equal rights of parties; respecting the intent of the parties; and implementing (judicial) jurisdiction according to law.
The second principle, described in Article 4, includes the right of parties to choose governing law, a court with jurisdiction and arbitration, litigation, or mediation to resolve their disputes. However, as mentioned previously, Chinese law treats choice of arbitration and litigation differently, requiring litigants choosing a (foreign court) to have an actual connection to the foreign court (see Professor Vivienne Bath’s previous scholarship on this), although there isn’t a counterpart position for arbitration. As mentioned previously, the application of foreign law by Chinese courts is a work in process. The SPC has given a great deal of publicity to its platform for the ascertainment of foreign law. which includes determinations of foreign law on a certain issue by certain authorized organizations and opinions given by members of the international expert committee of the China International Commerce Court (CICC). As I wrote close to two years ago, the China International Commercial Court (CICC) rules do not clarify a number of practical questions. Could a court request an advisory opinion from an expert and from a designated ascertainment center, and if so, what relative weight will be attached to each? Presumably, a court would give it greater weight than an opinion from an expert provided by a party.
The third principle, described more fully in Article 5, is linked to protecting China’s judicial sovereignty and repeats the statement that conflicts in jurisdiction and parallel proceedings will be resolved properly (妥善解决). This has appeared in BRI Opinions #1 and #2, but specific measures to resolve parallel proceedings have not yet been noted. Parallel and conflicting proceedings are an ongoing issue (not only between the Chinese courts and other courts outside mainland China) and will be further mentioned below. As Professor Bath discussed, several scenarios are common. One involves situations in which parties had agreed to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of one country, but a party brings proceedings in the courts another country (China), which accepts the case and may issue a judgment before the original court. Another set of cases involves an alleged arbitration agreement which provides for arbitration overseas, but a party brings a case in a Chinese court nonetheless. A variation has recently been noticed by two leading practicing lawyers in China. In that case, an issue that had been pleaded in arbitration proceedings in Hong Kong and reviewed by the relevant Hong Kong court was not given res judicata effect in China. The ruling by the Shijiazhuang court has been reviewed by the SPC under its Prior Review proceedings.
Although parallel proceedings in courts outside of China and in China have previously been noted primarily in maritime law (and anti-suit and anti-anti-suit orders),the parallel/conflicting proceedings issues seem to be moving to the area of Intellectual property (IP) law, likely related to the multi-jurisdiction litigation between Huawei and Conversant concerning standard essential patents, including in the UK Supreme Court and the German courts. What has been noted is one of the SPC’s research topics includes protecting China’s judicial sovereignty (national interests) through anti-suit or anti-anti-suit injunctions. The SPC Intellectual Property Court has issued an anti-suit injunction order against Conversant and the Wuhan Intermediate Court issued an anti-suit injunction order against Intel Digital (the linked article has a summary of the facts in the Wuhan case, but reserve judgment on the author’s comments on the authority of Chinese courts to issue these order).
3. Modernizing China’s foreign-related and maritime litigation systems
This third section contains four articles: application of law; fully develop the advantages of service and guarantees to cross-border trade and investment; promote the integration with the internet of foreign-related litigation; and develop diversified dispute resolution related to international commercial dispute resolution. Many of the provisions in this section repeat provisions in the BRI Opinions #1 and #2. What appears to be new is a statement that the SPC will seek to integrate prestigious foreign arbitration and mediation organizations to be part of its one stop mediation/arbitration/litigation mechanism.
4. Increase judicial protections
Article 10 mentions foreign-related administrative litigation issues. They were mentioned briefly in BRI Opinion #2 and once in BRI Opinion #1, here seeing greater stress. Section 11 focuses on cross-border intellectual property issues. It has some important new content. It mentions improving (完善涉外知识产权诉讼制度) foreign-related IP litigation procedures, putting into judicial policy previous statements by former Vice President Luo Dongchuan about the need for special IP litigation rules. It again mentions researching and responding to parallel international litigation relating to intellectual property rights and becoming a preferred place for settling IP disputes. From comments made by several leading experts in a recent webinar the Chinese courts are an important jurisdiction in IP litigation. It is unclear whether the use of anti-suit (or anti-anti-suit )injunctions by the Chinese courts will be the way that litigants are encouraged to turn to the Chinese courts to settle their global IP disputes. According to comments by several persons with expertise in Chinese IP law and related commercial issues, a number of factors are leading to the Chinese IP courts becoming an important forum for the resolution of IP disputes. Related to this, see the analysis by Doug Clark, partner in the IP law firm Rouse in this article, in which he says that the Chinese courts are looking to take on the role of setting global FRAND rates. Also see related blogposts on Mark Cohen’s blog, Chinaipr.com. These issues are complex and important.
5. Prevent and resolve major risks
This section has only two articles. Article 13 focuses on perfecting risk control mechanisms for major cases and firmly establishing an overall national security concept. These phrases are not unique to the SPC, but reflect language in Party documents, with the “overall national security concept” attributed to Xi Jinping. This article also calls on courts to coordinate the overall international and domestic situations, adhere to bottom-line thinking and risk awareness, understand the domestic and international situation and risks and challenges facing China’s opening up. The final phrase in this article calls on courts to resolutely defend our (China’s) judicial sovereignty and national security. So it seems that the concept of “judicial sovereignty” (used several times in this document) is being used to protect China’s national sovereignty.
The second one (Article 14), on guaranteeing state security and economic and social order gives a different priority to possible cross-border criminal law issues from either BRI Opinion. Neither BRI Opinion mentioned infiltration (渗透), espionage (间谍), sabotage, subversion (渗透颠覆破坏). Infiltration and espionage are mentioned immediately after the article heading. (the sentence is: “thoroughly participate in the struggle against infiltration, espionage, separatism, terrorism, and cults, by strictly combatting crimes of infiltration, subversion, and sabotage, and crimes of espionage, violent terrorism, ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and other crimes that endanger national security” 深入参与反渗透反间谍反分裂反恐怖反邪教斗争，严厉打击各种渗透颠覆破坏、间谍、暴力恐怖、民族分裂、宗教极端等危害国家安全的犯罪. (Many thanks to Chinalawtranslate.com for this translation). Other concerns, such as violent terrorism, ethnic separatism, religious extremism have been seen previously in the other two BRI documents. and article 14 again stresses criminal justice cooperation between China and the rest of the world. The reason for the change in priorities is unclear. What signal does this send to the international commercial and judicial world (international community) that infiltration, espionage, sabotage and subversion are being mentioned?
6. Increasing judicial cooperation, increase the international influence of the Chinese judiciary
These three articles address judicial cooperation, judicial exchanges, and training of judges who can handle foreign-related cases.
Article 15 concerns judicial assistance treaties, encouraging Chinese judges to participate in the negotiation of bilateral and multilateral judicial assistance treaties.
Article 16, on judicial exchanges, including highlighting exchanges with the principal international legal organizations, also summarizes ongoing SPC practices in developing exchanges with BRI judiciaries, although it is not so specified.
Article 17 calls for the better training, recruitment and promotion of persons who can deal with specialized legal issues such as cross-border finance, environmental protection, maritime law, intellectual property. Measures include joint programs with universities, exchanges with international organizations and international commercial courts, with the objective of having judges who are able to participate in the drafting or amendment of relevant international rules [a glimpse into a judiciary certain special functions] and the creation of a group of Chinese judges with an international perspective. This appears to be directed to law schools and senior personnel in the lower courts and likely involved concurrence by the SPC’s International Cooperation Bureau. As has been mentioned in earlier blogposts, the career progression for legal professionals to become judges has slowed because of the personnel reforms in the previous round of judicial reforms, under which young professionals work as judges assistants for a number of years before applying (and passing relevant examinations)to become a judge. From my observations, fixed quotas on the number of judges in a court can mean a talented, educated judges assistant in one court may wait significantly longer than a similarly qualified person in another court to become a judge.
A few concluding comments
Perhaps it is not realized that multiple documents conveying many of the same messages, with references that need decoding, may not convey the intended message to the international business community that the Chinese courts welcome and will treat fairly foreign commercial litigants, and that Chinese law is stable, transparent and predictable.
The Guiding Opinions call for increasing publicity about and the international influence of Chinese justice, and international confidence in Chinese law, through translating guiding and typical (exemplary/model) cases into foreign languages. This echoes language in BRI Opinion #2. The international community outside of China may or may not consider those sources to be primary ones in forming a view about the Chinese courts. In my view, it is more likely that the international community will look to decisions and rulings of the Chinese courts in several categories of cases: enforcement or other proceedings involving foreign (and Hong Kong) arbitral awards; parallel or competing proceedings, whether with other courts or with international arbitration; difficult commercial ones, particularly involving Chinese state-owned enterprises, or other Chinese national champions and issues related to intellectual property, particularly as it relates to “cutting-edge” technology. This observer surmises that the international judicial community will also look for a spirit of mutual respect for foreign courts and their jurisdiction.
The Guiding Opinions repeats language about Chinese courts participating in the formulation of international rules, an ongoing theme since the 2014 4th Plenum of the 18th Party Congress decision. One example is the constructive role of the SPC negotiator as a member of the Chinese delegation that participated in the drafting of the Hague Judgments Convention. But what the international community will also look for is China’s capacity to harmonize its legislation to be able to ratify the international conventions whose drafting it participates in.
The introduction to Guiding Opinions notes that comments were sought from many sources. It is unclear whether the views of international users of the Chinese court system were solicited. Other developments in which the international community may display an interest are the creation of additional institutions within the Chinese judiciary to enable the Chinese judiciary to better understand the needs of（domestic and international) users.
Many thanks to several highly knowledgeable readers who commented on earlier drafts of this blogpost.
The month of April saw the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issue many judicial policy documents, consistent with the commitment made in January 2020 to Party leadership to better serve the Party and state.
To the outside observer, a document issued on 1 April appears to signal the way that the Chinese judicial system will develop in the post-19th Chinese Communist Party (Party) Congress Fourth Plenum New Era. The document is entitled Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on Thoroughly Implementing the Spirit of the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress to Advance the Modernization of the Judicial System and Judicial Capacity (最高人民法院关于人民法院贯彻落实党的十九届四中全会精神推进审判体系和审判能力现代化的意见) (Implementing the 4th Plenum of 19th Party Congress Opinions). It implements “Implementing Opinions on Comprehensively Deepening Reform in the Political-Legal Field” (the text of this January 2019 document 关于政法领域全面深化改革的实施意见 has not been issued publicly) and “The Fifth Five-Year Reform Outline of the People’s Court (2019-2023) and obviously, the Decision of the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress (4th Plenum Decision). The fact that the first document has not been issued publicly means that outside observers can identify its implications only through summaries in the press and implementing documents. The Party’s regulations on transparency (explained here) do not cover documents of this sort.
The Implementing the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress Opinion is a framework document in which the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) identifies principles and goals for the Chinese judicial system and judicial capacity after the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Congress. This blogpost will identify some of them and their link to the 4th Plenum, with related comments in italics. I expect that the SPC will issue specific judicial policy documents and judicial interpretations, as appropriate, to implement specific measures.
New Era Governance
The document needs to be seen as part of the larger picture for China’s governance set out in the 4th Plenum Decision. Section 1 states that “modernization of the judicial system and judicial capacity is an important part of the modernization of the national governance system and governance capability” and is needed, among other matters, to provide judicial services and guarantees for societal and economic development. One aspect of the importance of its judicial services is the fact that there were 28 million cases in the Chinese courts in 2018, most of them civil and commercial.
Several sections relate to political correctness. This is linked to the clear requirement in the 4th Plenum Decision, under the topic “perfecting the comprehensive leadership of the Party (健全党的全面领导制度.)” The 4th Plenum Decision also requires implementing the ideological responsibility system integrating socialist core values into law and social governance. This document, therefore, contains corresponding provisions.
Consistent with last year’s National People’s Congress report and other documents, this document states that the most important goal is to uphold and implement the Party’s absolute leadership of the courts and persist in putting the Party’s political construction first. It restates tasks for the courts, some of which were earlier flagged on this blog:
effectively implementing the Party’s leadership in all areas and aspects of the work of the people’s courts and ensuring the independent and fair exercise of judicial power under the leadership of the Party. Related language is found in the 4th Plenum Decision. This requirement is found in the latest judicial reform plan and elsewhere, including judicial training (as discussed here);
Improve the system for implementing major decisions of the Party Center (完善党中央重大决策落实机制) (found in the 4th Plenum Decision and documents thereafter);
strengthening improvements from political inspection (see my blogpost on the inspection of the SPC) and judicial inspection (强化政治巡视和司法巡查整改) (discussed in my forthcoming article) (related content found in the 4th Plenum Decision. Judicial inspection is an old institution repurposed in the new era);
implementing the Party’s reporting and inspection system (督察落实情况报告制度, mentioned in the 4th Plenum report and thereafter).
As mentioned in a recent blogpost, this means implementing Party principles concerning the appointment of personnel, particularly those in a leadership position. These trends are linked to broader policies related to civil servants (this recent academic paper by Holly Snape has good insights).
Socialist Core Values and the Ideological Responsibility System
Section 5 focuses on socialist core values and the ideological responsibility system, both of which the 4th Plenum Decision stressed.
On the ideological responsibility system, this(authoritative) article (the author was then at the Party’s Central Compilation and Translation Bureau), unfortunately behind the publisher’s high paywall), sets forth an authoritative explanation of this concept in Xi Jinping New Era Governance that some of us need. The author defines the ideological responsibility system as follows: it “is part of the political reforms and aimed at maintaining and improving the loyalty of the Bureaucracy, as well as maintaining their ideological unification…Under the current Xi administration, the CCP wants its cadres to be politically reliable, professional and competent, morally self-regulated, and preferably trusted by the people…“
Resolutely prevent and oppose the eroding influence of Western mistaken thinking (坚决防范抵制西方错误思潮侵蚀影响). This phrase has evolved from the one used several years ago and mentioned on this blog: “resolutely opposing erosion by the mistaken Western rule of law viewpoint” (坚决抵制西方错误法治观点侵蚀). Related language appears in the 4th Plenum Decision: have a clear-cut stand opposing various types of erroneous views (旗帜鲜明反对和抵制各种错误观点 ). This observer surmises that this phrase appeared in the 2019 Party document mentioned above. This does not create obstacles to Chinese judges continuing to consider useful “Western” legal concepts and mechanisms and the SPC continuing to have exchanges and cooperation projects with major “Western” jurisdictions.
Implement socialist core values in the work of the courts. This has multiple aspects and continues an ongoing theme, including in judicial interpretations–see my 2018 blogpost). Some high-level conferences organized by the Case Research Institute of the National Judicial College have been on the subject of promoting socialist core values through cases.
The more practically oriented sections (4, 6-8) reveal priority areas of SPC leadership concern. Those particularly relate to economic development, social stability, judicial reform, and technological upgrading, all topics found in the 4th Plenum Decision., while the section on public health emergency management relates to Party decisions and Xi Jinping speeches during the Covid pandemic.
These sections mention short, medium, and long-term areas of concern and development.
Section 4 of the document lists some of the priority matters relating to economic development facing the SPC and the lower courts, many of them mentioned in this year’s judicial interpretation list or recently announced judicial reforms. A curated version (translation is modified Google translate):
Improve risk monitoring and the early warning mechanism in financial trials, properly hearing financial disputes, and actively preventing and resolving financial risks (therefore we have seen the establishment of the Shanghai Financial Court and specialized financial tribunals in certain major cities. More detailed observations on this will come in the future);
fully implement the environmental public interest litigation system, improve the environmental remediation system, improve the environmental protection injunction system, improve the jurisdiction provisions in environmental cases. (The 4th Plenum Decision had a section on environmental protection and a July 2019 press conference linked to the fifth anniversary of SPC’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division mentioned these measures.)
Use evaluation indicators such as “enforcing contracts” and “handling bankruptcy”, to improve trial management, mechanism, quality, and efficiency to create a stable, fair, transparent, and predictable legal business environment. (This is linked again to the 4th Plenum Decision and China’s ranking on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business scorecard).
Intensify the review of the legality of administrative actions, strengthen the substantive resolution of administrative disputes (also linked to the strengthening of administration by law in the 4th Plenum Decision, therefore also on the 2020 judicial interpretation agenda).
Strengthen the judicial protection of property rights. See earlier blogposts on this.
Formulate judicial interpretations for cases of infringement of trade secrets, and continuously improve the level of judicial protection of intellectual property rights (IPR). (Improving trade secrets protection is mentioned in the 4th Plenum Decision. Also see Mark Cohen’s recent blogpost on this).
Formulate judicial interpretations of punitive damages for intellectual property rights, promote the establishment of a tort damages compensation system that reflects the market value of IPR (IPR is stressed in the 4th Plenum Decision and punitive damages in IPR cases is mentioned. Also see Mark Cohen’s blog on this. This also relates to evidentiary issues in IPR cases).
Mediation and diversified dispute resolution (including giving non-litigation methods of dispute resolution priority, improving the separation of disputes and the creation of one-stop dispute resolution and litigation service that is efficient and low cost) is mentioned in this document as well. It is unclear what this means for the development of a commercial mediation system in China. Local courts have been working on better cooperation with institutions that can mediate specialized disputes, such as the Shanghai Financial Court’s arrangements with the Shanghai Stock Exchange and other institutions. The provisions here derive from language in the 4th Plenum Decision on improving an effective system in the new situation for the correct handling of internal contradictions among the people (完善正确处理新形势下人民内部矛盾有效机制) as well as the Fengqiao Experience. Xi Jinping has mentioned the Fengqiao Experience since 2013, if not earlier. The phrase about internal contradictions appears to derive from the 1959 Mao essay, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People.
Promote capacity building for foreign-related commercial and maritime trials, equally protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese and foreign parties in accordance with law, improve the diversified dispute resolution mechanism for international commercial disputes, serve the joint construction of the “Belt and Road” and the construction of free trade pilot zones and free trade ports ( The 4th Plenum Decision promotes a high-quality Belt & Road Initiative, so these measures implement the 4th Plenum Decision. Also, see my earlier blogpost on this. To better improve diversified dispute resolution in cross-border cases, China needs to work on institutional arrangements enabling it to ratify the Singapore Mediation Convention. Those are many and complex, as I had a chance to learn in December, 2019. One matter that would assist foreign parties litigating in the Chinese courts (and Chinese parties litigating outside of China) would be for China to accede to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents. The SPC’s new evidence rules reduce the scope of documents that a foreign litigant (or domestic litigant providing foreign evidence) must notarize and legalize, but it is a troublesome and expensive process.
Improve the adjudication mechanism involving Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, build a centralized and professional trial system, explore and improve the diversified settlement mechanism for [civil/commercial] disputes involving Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. (The centralized system seems to be analogous to foreign-related cases. The intent is to have more competent judges consider these. Another issue is parallel proceedings in these cross-border cases. These issues deserve further analysis.)
Deepen the international judicial exchange and cooperation mechanism, participate in the reform of the global governance system and formulate rules of international law, and contribute more Chinese wisdom to the maintenance of the multilateral trading system and the international rule of law. (See my earlier blogpost on this).
Public health emergency management
Section 6 relates to the role of the courts in the public health emergency management system, in the short and long terms. It mentions the courts providing judicial services to the joint prevention and control system, preventing mass events, and group prevention and control (群防群治工作机制, an old system to which Xi Jinping has given new meaning during the pandemic. That section mentions shorter-term issues, such as punishing the manufacturing and sale of fakes during the pandemic and longer-term issues, such as the courts being involved in improving the legal system in the area of public health.
Section 7 highlights some of the tasks in the current judicial reform plan. Those include:
Deepening the judicial responsibility system, for judges hearing cases solely or in a collegial panel, the members of a judicial committee, and the supervision of judicial power. As mentioned on this blog several times, judges are concerned about the scope of the judicial responsibility system, and recent cases that have appeared in the Chinese press would only amplify those concerns. I have more on this in a forthcoming book chapter.
Improving the disciplinary mechanism for judges. The forthcoming book chapter is on this. The SPC is working on related regulations.
Promoting the improvement of the policies relating to the selection of judges level by level. The controls on the number of “quota judges,” judges with the title of “judge,” in many courts, means that some number of qualified personnel have become judges assistants. It has created a fair amount of frustration. Another issue is that the new policies mean it takes longer for judges to be promoted, but at the moment, most judges need to retire at 60, so that the pool of judges eligible to be promoted eventually to the SPC will shrink. We can expect related policies issued in the medium term.
Improving the working mechanism of the circuit courts and promote the Supreme People’s Court’s Intellectual Property Court (SPCIPC) and the China International Commercial Court (CICC). Promote the strengthening of the organization system of intellectual property courts, and improve the specialized trial system so that it complies with the principles for the judicial protection of IPR. (It is understood that the circuit courts are hearing most SPC cases. But it still leaves unanswered what the role of the SPC in hearing cases is. Should it best focus on considering a smaller number of cases more thoroughly, as other supreme courts do? The SPCIPC and CICC both have captured SPC leadership attention (and the attention of the outside world). It is clear that the SPC has provided much more support to the SPCIPC than the CICC (most obviously the SPCIPC operates full time, while the CICC does not). China’s IPR enforcement system is a topic of worldwide concern (the Phase 1 Trade Agreement and the United States Trade Representative Office’s recent 301 Report both evidence this), so it is likely that this means the SPC leadership will focus more on intellectual property issues.
Deeply promote the reform of the trial-centered criminal justice system (this is a continuation of reforms initiated in the previous round of judicial reforms). This topic requires a separate analysis, to consider the impact of the National Supervision Commission, among other issues.
Improve and deepen the judicial transparency mechanism including promoting the transparency of judgment documents, court hearings, trial process information, and execution information. See my earlier blogpost and Mark Cohen’s more recent one on his concerns in the area of intellectual property law. Professor He Haibo has done important empirical work on judicial transparency.
Section 8 relates to technology and implementing the courts’ five-year plan on informatization (人民法院信息化建设五年发展规划). It mentions promoting AI, big data, cloud computing, blockchain, and 5G. Litigants should know that the SPC is promoting online case filing, litigation, mediation, judicial blockchain, and the mobile micro-court. A reality check is needed for China’s online litigation publicity. One is provided by a popular Wechat article published last month “A month of online court hearings, judges and lawyers have all gone crazy” 云庭审上线一个月，法官律师都疯了” Technology is an important area of SPC leadership concern, as it sees it as an area in which China can take the lead.
What is the impact of this vision and program for the Chinese courts, for litigants (in China or elsewhere), and for others, including judiciaries in other countries and jurisdictions. Is this a “China model” for courts, as raised by some? It does not appear to be so, but rather an outline for the courts to be conveyed within China, rooted in the Chinese political, cultural, and social environment of 2020, which will change along with Party priorities and events. Some aspects described above are common to judiciaries around the world, such as the trend towards greater online justice. Will it deliver the results it promises?
Many thanks to certain anonymous readers for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this blogpost. They are not responsible for any errors or “erroneous views.”
The CICC has been in operation a short time…What is clear from its operations so far is that it is carefully choosing its cases, only selecting cases that will have an impact on the development of relevant Chinese law. What seems evident from the initial rulings, at least, is that the judgments and rulings of the CICC are likely to be significant for lower court judges and members of the legal community as “soft precedents,” authoritative decisions….
It is an excerpt from a brief article that I am setting out below as I wrote it in English (I have added (Chinalawtranslate.com’s) translation of excerpts from certain documents) and Chinese translation (many thanks to a knowledgeable person who took a break from year-end case closing to do this elegant translation).
I am honored to have this opportunity to comment on some of the first rulings and judgments of the China International Commercial Court (CICC). This brief commentary will address the significance of CICC judgments and rulings and the CICC arbitration-related rulings.
The CICC has been in operation a short time and it is early days to provide a more detailed analysis of its operations. What is clear from its operations so far is that it is carefully choosing its cases, only selecting cases that will have an impact on the development of relevant Chinese law. What seems evident from the initial rulings, at least, is that the judgments and rulings of the CICC are likely to be significant for lower court judges and members of the legal community as “soft precedents,” authoritative decisions that are highly persuasive although not binding on the lower courts. Authoritative commentators in China and abroad have noted that the arbitration rulings fill a gap in Chinese arbitration law. The rulings are also consistent with the position taken by courts in some major jurisdictions that also find that the parties expressed their intent to arbitrate any dispute although their contract was never finalized. In the view of this commentator, they are part of China developing its own case guidance system, highlighted in item #26 of the 5th Judicial Reform Outline, in particular the phrase “Improve working mechanisms for mandatory searches and reporting of analogous cases and new types of cases” “完善类案和新类型案件强制检索报告工作机制” . It was previously mentioned in Opinions on Putting a Judicial Responsibility System in Place and Improving Mechanisms for Trial Oversight and Management (Provisional) –“on the foundation of improving working mechanisms such as consulting similar cases and judgment guidance a mechanism is to be established requiring the search of similar cases and relevant cases, to ensure a uniform judgment standard for similar cases, and the uniform application of law “最高人民法院关于落实司法责任制完善审判监督管理机制的意见（试行）, (六) 在完善类案参考、裁判指引等工作机制基础上，建立类案及关联案件强制检索机制，确保类案裁判标准统一、法律适用统一 .
Moreover, thus far, five judges formed the members of the collegial panel, all of whom are the Chinese court’s most outstanding specialists on cross-border issues, including the judicial review of arbitration. This indicates the importance to which the Supreme People’s Court attaches to CICC cases.
In this commentator’s view, addition to CICC cases, other cases decided by or selected by the Supreme People’s Court would be classified as such. For example, cases decided by the Supreme People’s Court Intellectual Property Rights Court 最高人民法院知识产权法庭 would also be allocated to the category that I call “Supreme People’s Court soft precedents.” Other Supreme People’s Court soft precedents would include cases in the Supreme People’s Court Gazette 最高人民法院公报案件, cases in the trial guides published by the various operational divisions 各个业务庭发表的审判业务指导丛书选的案件，and cases of the specialized judges committees of the SPC operational divisions 和各个业务庭专业法官会议案件。
In my view, cases decided by the collegial panels of the Supreme People’s Court are also persuasive, but not as persuasive as Supreme People’s Court cases in the categories described above. Supreme People’s Court circuit court cases are very persuasive to the courts within their jurisdiction. This case law is needed to supplement law and judicial interpretations and guide the lower courts correctly, as many new issues come before the courts before the legislative organs have time to amend legislation. I see China evolving its own case law, looking to traditional law and foreign jurisdictions for reference, but settling upon rules that fit China’s special situation, that may include some of the points I mention above. CICC decisions, whether rulings or judgments, will send important signals to the market, and are likely to be significant worldwide, as there is a documented increase in international arbitration cases where either the contract in dispute is governed by Chinese law or Chinese law is relevant in various ways.
In recent days, I had the opportunity to meet with Zhang Yongjian, chief of the #1 China International Commercial Court (CICC) who provided some updates about the cases accepted by that court. In addition to the three rulings (posted on the CICC website) that the #1 CICC had issued, he mentioned that a ruling in one of the cases was forthcoming, as was a judgment in another. He mentioned that in considering some of the cases, certain members of the expert committee have provided expert opinions, as is authorized by the CICC rules. Additionally, the #1 CICC has accepted a sixth case, filed directly with the court. Zhang Yongjian mentioned the issues in that case relate to entrusted/nominee shareholding. The other cases accepted thus far are ones that had been referred by lower courts.
A brief notice appeared on the China International Commercial Court (CICC)’s websiteson 9 August, announcing that the Office of the International Commercial Expert Committee (Expert Committee) of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) (国际商事专家委员会办公室) had been renamed the Coordination and Guidance Office (协调指导办公室) for the CICC from 21st June 2019. The main duties of the Office are described as directing and coordinating construction, adjudication management and external exchange (负责指导协调国际商事法庭建设、审判管理、对外交流; 负责国际商事专家委员日常工作等) of the CICC, and also in charge of the routine work of members of the Expert Committee. I surmise that these functions are meant to convey that the office will not only support activities related to the Expert Committee but also be responsible for a variety of matters, such as coordinating the drafting of rules and the wide variety of administrative matters that go along with any administrative entity in China, particularly one that deals with foreigners. The notice also announced that from 23rd July 2019, Ms. Long Fei, who has a Ph.D. from China University of Political Science and Law, has been appointed as the Deputy Director (Person in Charge) of the Coordination and Guidance Office. She had formerly been the Director of Department of Guidance Service, Judicial Reform Office of the SPC. She brings to the new role many years of work on diversified dispute resolution related issues.
The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) is gradually building the infrastructure for the China International Commercial Court (CICC). An important part of it was put into place in December 2018, when the SPC issued the Procedural Rules for the China International Commercial Court of the Supreme People’s Court (For Trial Implementation) (CICC Procedural Rules). Other rules are yet to be issued. From the Chinese original of the CICC Procedural Rules, they were issued by the SPC’s General Office 最高人民法院办公厅关于印发《最高人民法院国际商事法庭程序规则（试行）》的通知 (document number (法办发〔2018〕13号). The SPC’s judicial committee discussed the draft CICC Procedural Rules in late October, indicating the importance that the SPC leadership attaches to the CICC. However, the SPC did not issue the CICC Procedural Rules as a judicial interpretation.
As to why they were issued with the indication “For Trial Implementation” and by the SPC’s General Office rather than as a judicial interpretation, the Monitor has her theories (readers are welcome to propose alternative explanations). As for why “For Trial Implementation,” it is likely that the SPC intends to further amend the CICC Procedural Rules once it has greater experience using the rules and has more reaction from counsel that has litigated before the CICC and the market generally. As to why the SPC issued the CICC Procedural Rules as a General Office normative document rather than a judicial interpretation, it may be surmised that it is linked to the SPC practice of issuing judicial interpretations when judicial policy has stabilized (this practice is discussed in another article in the academic article production pipeline), and the judicial interpretation can be in place for a relatively long period. Additionally, issuing the CICC Procedural Rules as a judicial interpretation would involve more formalities and scrutiny under the 2007 SPC rules on judicial interpretation work.
As this blog (and other commentators have mentioned), the drafters of the China International Commercial Court rules had to draft carefully to remain within the constraints of existing law and judicial interpretations, as judicial normative documents (司法规范性文件) of which this is an example, may not conflict with either source of law. The CICC Procedural Rules reflect a number of themes seen in SPC cross-border matters:
A few specific comments and general comments follow below.
Article 8 lists the documents that a plaintiff needs to provide when filing suit, highlighting the new and old in Chinese cross-border dispute resolution. The old is the documentary requirements that a foreign (offshore) plaintiff and his/her foreign agent must provide. Because China has not yet acceded to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents, an offshore plaintiff must provide notarized/certified and legalized versions of corporate or individual identification documents,
As to what is new, requiring a plaintiff to submit a Pretrial Diversionary Procedures Questionnaire (in addition to a statement of claim and other such documents) is a type of document that is often required by courts in other jurisdictions and reflects background research that the drafters had done on other jurisdictions.
Article 17 and 18, Pre-trial Mediation: Article 17 relates to a case management conference called by the Case Management Office of the relevant CICC rather than the judge assigned to the case, as set out the SICC Practice Directions (and other international commercial courts). The institution of a case management conference appears to be a concept borrowed from outside of China. It is to be convened within seven working days from the date of the service of the plaintiff’s documents on the defendant. In other jurisdictions, however, case management conferences are generally scheduled after the defendant has served his documents on the plaintiff. Query whether an exchange of documents would be more conducive to effective mediation.
Article 17 mentions that the time limit for mediation should generally not exceed twenty working days. This deadline puts pressure on the mediators and parties to come to an agreement quickly. It appears “generally should not exceed” language contains flexibility so that if parties are in negotiations, the deadline could be extended. As to what occurs in practice, Danny McFadden, Managing Director of the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) Asia Pacific, well-known as a mediator (and trainer in mediation) )and former interim UN Director of Mediation) commented that in his experience: “When parties are keen to hold a mediation it can be administered and take place within a matter of days. However on average, from when CEDR is initially contacted by the parties/lawyers, the mediator and date of the mediation is agreed, mediation documents are exchanged and to the end of the actual mediation, it takes 5 to 6 weeks.”。
Under the CICC Procedural Rules, mediation will be conducted by one or more members of the CICC Expert Committee or one of the Chinese mediation institutions designated by the CICC. The case management conference is to be held online (assuming the videolink from the CICC will be good enough). The resulting memorandum is then issued by the Case Management Office. Under the SICC Practice Directions (and rules of some of the other international commercial courts), the case memorandum is prepared by the parties. It is not mentioned in the CICC Procedural Rules whether the parties will have an opportunity to comment on the memorandum.
The section on trial procedures primarily focuses on the pre-trial conference. Article 27 contains a long list of items that should be included in the pre-trial conference (indicating the drafters of the CICC Procedural Rules made reference to the practices of other international commercial courts.) Either the entire collegial panel or a single judge may convene the pre-trial conference, which may be held either online or in person.
Article 31 sets out the procedure under which the collegial panel can request one or more member of the International Commercial Expert Committee (Expert Committee) provide an expert opinion on international treaties, international commercial rules, or foreign law.
Trial procedures, therefore, will follow those set out in the Civil Procedure Law.
A few (and not comprehensive) general comments follow below.
Challenges for the CICC
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. For the CICC judges, particularly the leaders, this imposes particular pressure to handle these disputes in a way that is acceptable to SPC leadership and to the outside world.
CICC judges have many other cases to deal with–As may be apparent from the previous blogpost on the CICC, the CICC is not a full-time job for any of the judges involved. That means that judges need to deal with possibly complex international commercial cases on a part-time basis.
Limitations of Chinese substantive law–To the extent that the CICC needs to apply Chinese substantive law, that also presents a challenge. As CICC Judge (and deputy head of the #1 Circuit Court) Zhang Yongjian mentioned almost three years ago: “there are numerous types of foreign-related cases, with many difficult cases. On the one hand, there are many legislative “blank spaces.” 涉外案件类型多样化，疑难案件层出不穷.一方面，会出现更多的立法空白.” Chinese contract law (even with related judicial interpretations) is considered by Chinese legal professionals to lack insufficient detail（see comments here, for example。
Piloting new rules and procedures–The CICC also presents the SPC with opportunities to pilot new rules and procedures in cross-border cases and to make appropriate reference to foreign beneficial experience. (For the avoidance of doubt, the Monitor is not advocating that the SPC import foreign law wholesale (照搬外国法).) This earlier blogpost mentions my encounter several years ago with a senior Beijing academic who made this accusation against some SPC personnel).
One important area that would be beneficial for the CICC to focus on is discovery procedures. CICC judges are aware of US lawyers and overly broad requests for documents in discovery, but they should be able to find an appropriate solution that fits Chinese reality, perhaps using the pre-trial case management conference as a forum to require parties to provide documents and other evidence to opposing counsel. Without some sort of discovery, foreign plaintiffs may be reluctant to use the CICC as a forum.
I plan to come back to the topic of the CICC from time to time, as more information about CICC cases becomes available (and as I have my own personal experience with CICC operations),
The author is a member of the CICC’s Expert Committee but her views do not represent the committee, the CICC, or the SPC.