Supreme People’s Court’s new policy document on opening to the outside world

SPC Press conference announcing the policy document

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 readers of this blog could anticipate, this opinion is harmonized with the latest international and domestic developments and the latest guidance from Xi Jinping.  According to the official commentary, it is intended to be guidance for judges engaging in cross-border cases for the foreseeable future, and appears to further develop the principles related to cross-border issues in the 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.  

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:

  1. The Guiding Opinions are intended to be consistent with current law and regulations, SPC judicial interpretations, and SPC judicial policy documents.
  2. The Guiding Opinions links with previous SPC policy documents (such as BRI Opinions #1 & #2, the FTZ Opinions, the Lingang Opinions, Diversified Dispute Resolution Opinions, etc.)(see more below);
  3. 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 stanceThis 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 article calls for the courts to provide services and guarantees for ten crucial national strategies and policies: promoting the BRI; pilot free trade zone construction [enhancement]; Hainan Free Trade Port construction; construction of the Greater Bay area; Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area development; Yangtze River basin development; Shenzhen model city for socialist development; China-Shanghai Cooperation Organization local economic cooperation demonstration zone; Great Maritime Power construction. 自由贸易试验区建设、海南自由贸易港建设、粤港澳大湾区建设、京津冀协同发展、长江三角洲区域一体化发展、长江经济带发展、深圳中国特色社会主义先行示范区建设、中国-上海合作组织地方经贸合作示范区建设、海洋强国建设。This second article also calls for new mechanisms for hearing cases, and improving the application of law, to create a transparent stable predictable legalized business environment. The list of ten national strategies and policies is a signal to the leadership and to the lower courts, but for those of us far outside the System,  it signals to us that these are the most important current policies related to foreign-related judicial policy. It also appears that the national strategies linked to the opening policy evolves over time.

2.  Basic principles of foreign-related litigation

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 JinpingThis 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.

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Many thanks to several highly knowledgeable readers who commented on earlier drafts of this blogpost.

CICC Expert Committee Office Renamed

A brief notice appeared on the China International Commercial Court (CICC)’s websites on 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.