Category Archives: Environmental law

How the Supreme People’s Court serves major government strategies

serve the people
serve the people

In the past year, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has issued several policy documents that contain the same phrase: serve the nation’s major strategy (服务国家重大战略).  When SPC President Zhou Qiang gave his report to the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March, 2016, one section addressed this topic.

Provided service for the country’s major strategies.  Issued opinions on the people’s courts providing judicial service and protection for the construction of One Belt, One Road, the development of coordinated development of Beijing-Tianjin, and Hebei, and the development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt, appropriately tried related cases, promoted the coordinated development of geographic areas.


What, if anything, does serving the country’s major strategies mean for the Chinese courts?  This blogpost briefly looks at one of the policy documents cited by President Zhou Qiang to find out.

What are the documents?

The titles of these three are similar:

  1. Opinion of the SPC on Providing Judicial Services and Guarantees for One Belt One Road (OBOR Opinion)最高人民法院关于人民法院为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的若干意见;
  2. Opinion of the SPC on Providing Judicial Services and Guarantees for the Development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt (最高人民法院关于为长江经济带发展提供司法服务和保障的意见)(8 March 2016 )(Yangtze River Opinion); and
  3. Opinion of the SPC on Providing Judicial Services and Guarantees for the Coordinated Development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region 最高人民法院关于为京津冀协同发展提供司法服务和保障的意见 (18 February 2016)(Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei Opinion) .

What are the country’s major strategies?

A Rand Corporation report set out a definition of the fundamental purposes of China’s national strategy:

the fundamental purposes of China’s national strategy (guojia zhanlue) (1) to safeguard China’s national territory and sovereignty, (2) to guide national construction and social development, (3) to strengthen national power, and (4) to ensure continued national prosperity….China’s national strategic objectives (guojia zhanlue mubiao) constitute those fundamental strategic principles, concepts, and priorities guiding not only foreign and defense policy but also critical domestic realms concerned with national construction and internal order. These objectives include the attainment of great power status in the economic, technological, social, and military realms…, and the development or maintenance of capabilities to defend against any internal or external threats to China’s political stability, social order, national sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei Opinion

It was drafted to support the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei regional integration plan because the economic integration plan will “inevitably produce a large number of legal disputes, particularly trans-regional legal disputes.” The SPC research office seems to have taken the lead on drafting it, because its head appeared at the press conference to explain it.

The Opinion stresses the following types of cases, in the following order:

  • Criminal law: punish crimes that may effect social stability and regional integration: intellectual property rights infringement; embezzling corporate funds, illegal fund raising;  market manipulation etc. (the priority crimes);
  • Commercial law: priority cases include those involving company relocation; regional logistics centers; relocation of regional markets, including leases, labor disputes; reorganization or bankruptcy of companies with outdated technology; construction of industrial parks and promotion of companies with high quality technology;
  •  Cases involving people’s livelihood, particularly those involving public services, education, medical and health; social protections; promoting entrepreneurship, equal education, etc.
  • Cases involving financial innovation and safety: those include private lending, internet financing, protecting the rights and interests of creditors and financial consumers;
  • Expanding the protection of intellectual property:
  • Environmental cases: focus on environmental civil/commercial and administrative cases;
  • Focus on administrative cases related to regional development; and
  • Focus on major projects and construction projects related to regional integration.

The Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei Opinion also establishes greater coordination among the three courts, including a mechanism chaired by the SPC, exchange of judges, and calls for work on centralization of certain types of cases in certain court.

The Opinion calls for the lower courts to focus on the overall regional integration plan and promote the use of “diversified dispute resolution,” and pre-filing mediation, especially in policy-oriented, sensitive cases, where the local Party Committee, government, and other departments must be relied upon to resolve issues.  ( 特别是对于政策性、敏感性强的案件,要紧紧依靠当地党委、政府及有关部门依法解决).

(The phrase “policy-oriented, sensitive case” was helpfully described by another judge as it is a concept used often within the Chinese judiciary.  Although it is a not a formal legal term, it refers to the following categories of cases: those that affect a larger group of people than the parties involved; involve issues of widespread concern; require the adjustment of certain long-term government policies; and have political implications. Those include cases involving a large number of people, special groups (such as migrant workers, well-known enterprises, offshore entities), ones that can cause social conflict, including bankruptcy, labor disputes caused by restructuring, employee relocation compensation cases, land acquisition and resettlement compensation. Cases involving political, ethnic and religious issues are also included.)

Policy documents serving major government strategies

As a central government institution, the Court must do its part to support national major strategies. To inform the lower courts of the priority issues, projects, and matters, the SPC issues policy documents, which are the court system’s version of policy documents issued by other Party and state organs. Each of the three national major strategies raises a set of legal issues.  Some of those legal issues are relevant to the function of the courts in hearing cases, while others relate to the function of the SPC as a “quasi-legislator,” as when it issues judicial interpretations.  They often relate to forthcoming initiatives or sometimes long-term issues for the SPC, as in the case of the OBOR Opinion.  However, these documents also signal that some issues, projects, and matters are more important than others, and ultimately does not contribute to public trust in the judiciary.

Some thanks in order

My thanks to a Hong Kong solicitor for criticizing the Hong Kong courts for lacking the “spirit of service” during a recent symposium on the mainland (bringing this issue to my attention) and a (mainland) academic for expressing to me his doubts that the SPC’s OBOR Document had any significance whatsoever.

Why the Supreme People’s Court is harnessing the NGO “genie”

Obstacles to public interest litigation-filing suit & obtaining evidence

Many China observers were surprised to learn that in early January, 2015, the Supreme People’s Court (Court) issued an interpretation on enabling civil society organizations to sue polluters on behalf of the public, when most commentators take the view that those organizations are controlled more tightly than before.  The Court issued it after years of work, analysis, and low numbers of environmental lawsuits (highlighted in my earlier blogpost), particularly public interest ones.

This blogpost explains:

  • what the Interpretation does;
  • what its background is;
  • why the Court is enabling environmental NGOs to file suit; and
  • An assessment of its implications.

This blogpost should be read with Barbara Finamore’s blogpost, How China’s Top Court is Encouraging More Lawsuits Against Polluters.

What the interpretation does

The interpretation, entitled “Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of Law in Public Interest Environmental Civil Litigation (Interpretation) (Chinese original found here and translated here). The Interpretation (like many other Court interpretations) combines court procedural rules with additional rules on liability and other legal standards to put in place a framework for Chinese environmental NGOs to file public interest environmental cases against polluters. It supplements Article 58 of the Environmental Protection Law (amended in 2014) and the 2012 Civil Procedure Law, because neither law had sufficient legal rules to guide local NGOs in bringing and local courts in accepting, hearing, and deciding these lawsuits.

A draft of the Interpretation had been issued for public comment on 1 October and the final draft reflects comments from the public.  Both domestic and international organizations commented on the draft.

The Interpretation authorizes environmental NGOs with a five year track record that are legally registered with the local NGO regulator, the Ministry of Civil Affairs or its local counterpart, to sue polluters on behalf of the public, and to seek the equivalent of a permanent injunction, compensation, orders to clean up the pollution, or an apology, among other measures. A Ministry of Civil Affairs official recently estimated that about 700 environmental groups met current qualifications.

The highlights:

  • Broad definition of environmental NGOs that can file suit. At the press conference announcing the Interpretation, the Court spokesman said that a broad definition was adopted so that it would be flexible enough to accommodate additional types of approved non-profit groups.  This may be have been done to accommodate contemplated reforms to non-profit institutions;
  • Provisions permitting an NGO to seek a court within a provincial boundary but outside the locality of the polluter to hear the case. Because local courts are locally funded, they are often reluctant to hear or decide cases that cause result in judgments against companies that are often substantial contributors to local tax bases. An NGO is also allowed to sue polluters outside of its own locality. This was also highlighted in the same press conference.
  • The Interpretation enables injured private parties to piggyback on the NGO’s case, also highlighted by the Court spokesman.
  • Several provisions to require court oversight when NGO settles the lawsuit, to guard against intimidation by the polluter, which may be allied with local government.
  • The damages the polluter pays are paid into a pool of money, which is used to compensate those harmed.
  • If the defendant polluter refuses to provide information about pollution discharge, the court can presume that the plaintiff’s assertions have been established.
  • Several provisions are designed to reduce the costs of litigation to the NGO.
  • The litigation must not be profit making for the NGO.

The Court spokesman described these cases as “a new type”, difficult to try and enforce, and ones that attract a great deal of public attention,  but given the high degree of public concern, in January, 2015, China’s People’s Court Daily identified the Court’s environmental legal policies, as being the SPC’s top judicial policy initiative in 2014.

Some background

The Interpretation reflects years of work within China by local legal experts, local environmental NGOs, as well as the technical support of international organizations such as the United Nations Development Program, the Asian Development Bank, and other China-based foreign NGOs, and universities. The structure established by the Interpretation reflects concepts adapted from US law and other foreign legal systems, but reflects Chinese legal, political and societal realities.

The Court worked with the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA), which regulates NGOs, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in establishing a policy framework for implementation, which set out in the document issued with the Interpretation, the Notice of the Supreme People’s Court, Ministry of Civil Affairs, and Ministry of Environmental Protection on Implementing the System of Environmental Public-interest Civil Litigation (Chinese original here).

The Third and Fourth Plenum decisions both highlighted establishing compensation systems for those responsible for creating ecological or environmental damage, and the Court’s policy document on environmental issues, issued in June, 2014, signaled the importance to the government of public interest environmental litigation.

Track record of Chinese courts on environmental litigation

About 170 courts have now established environmental divisions, but according to Court studies, most have heard relatively few cases. Public interest environmental litigation was piloted in provinces as diverse as economically developed Jiangsu Province and the less developed southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou.  These cases have been analyzed  both in Chinese and English.The pilot projects highlighted some of the underlying issues, which include local protectionism, lack of specific provisions on these cases, lack of training, and lack of coordination between the environmental protection authorities and the courts. An additional issue is also the performance indicators (now being reformed) of the courts, which incentivizes judges to avoid taking risks.

From 2000 to 2013, only about 50 environmental public interest lawsuits were heard in China, most of which were filed by government agencies, according to a report by the state-sponsored All-China Environmental Federation. NGOs have attempted to file environmental public interest cases for many years, but have generally been refused by the courts. For example, although the All-China Environmental Federation filed eight lawsuits in 2013, but none were accepted.

Model cases before the Interpretation was issued

In the last few months, several public interest environmental cases have received a great deal of attention, including:

  • A case decided at the end of 2014 involving by a semi-official NGO in Jiangsu Province, where the Taizhou City Environmental Protection Association (the chairman, Tian Jun, is also the head of Taizhou’s environmental protection bureau) against six chemical companies that had polluted local rivers resulting in a 16 milllion RMB compensation against the polluters.
  • A case filed in December, 2014 in a county court in Chongqing by Chongqing Green Volunteers Association against a Hubei mining company.

Rationale for harnessing the NGO “genie”

[public interest litigation] compensate my losses!
The Chinese government recognizes that the degradation of the environment in China, along with the harm suffered by hundreds of millions of people from air, water, and soil pollution is a social and political problem, and the system, without involving NGOs, was unable to address the problem, and that it is preferable to resolve environmental problems by bringing environmental disputes into the courtroom, rather than having demonstrations against polluters.

The joint policy document issued by the Court, MCA and MEP seeks to overcome local government hostility to environmental NGOs.  Local governments had often been often unfriendly to environmental NGOs. The head of the Chongqing Green Volunteers Association was quoted in 2012 as saying “I annoyed a lot of government officials and businessmen. They hired gangsters to beat me up,” he says of the early days of his work. “After hearing this news, many of my environmental activist friends were too frightened and they left me – one after another. I was feeling very helpless.”


The predictions in the Chinese legal press are that the Interpretation will eventually lead to more litigation, despite local protectionism and the technical demands on NGOs preparing to bring these lawsuits.

  • On January 1, 2015, the day that the new Environmental Protection Law went into effect, the environmental NGOs Friends of Nature and Fujian Green Home, with the support of lawyers from the environmental law center at China University of Politics and Law, , filed an environmental public interest suit to counter damage to a woodland area by mining activities in Nanping, Fujian province; the case was subsequently officially accepted
  • On January 4, 2015 with the support of funding from the Alibaba Foundation, NRDC’s partner organization Friends of Nature officially launched an “Environmental Public Interest Litigation Support Fund.”
  • On January 13, 2015 the All-China Environmental Federation filed two lawsuits in Shandong’s Dongying Intermediate People’s Court against polluters in Zhejiang and Shandong provinces, which were accepted.
  • Based on my own contacts, other environmental NGOs are reviewing their activities to consider whether they have an appropriate case.






Supreme People’s Court’s environmental public interest litigation regulations

543296On the afternoon of 6 January, the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) issued its first judicial interpretation of the year (法释〔2015〕1号), its long-anticipated environmental public interest litigation interpretation at a press conference, at which  officials from the Ministry of Civil Affairs and Ministry of Environmental Protection, as well as the Court’s spokesman appeared.

1. Resources

The text of the interpretation is found here, with a translation available here (many thanks to the team at Chinalawtranslate).  as well as a notice jointly issued by the Court, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs (the translation of the notice (now in progress, is available here).   The Court published the text of the press conference, the video of which is available on the national court website.

2.  A Head’s Up

Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council and I are drafting commentary on the interpretation in tandem.  My blogpost will summarize the highlights of the  interpretation, the legal and policy background, as well as my assessment of what can be expected. A draft of the interpretation was issued for public comment in October.  From the brief summary of the major differences available here, it is clear that the public comment period provided very useful input.

The Supreme People’s Court Observer and China’s National Climate Change Plan 2014-2020

From the NRDC website
(From the NRDC website)

The Supreme People’s Court Observer recently worked with Barbara Finamore, Senior Attorney and Asia Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in analyzing an crucial development concerning China’s climate change plans,  the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)’s  National Climate Change Plan for 2014-2020 (National Climate Change Plan).  (For those readers who are not familiar with the NRDC, it is one of the US’s leading non-governmental environmental organizations and has worked with Chinese government, academic, and non-profit organizations for about 20 years.

The National Climate Change Plan,  approved by the State Council, was issued in late September but released in early November. Among the many goals identified by the NDRC are the development and expansion of climate change-related policy and legislation. It is likely that the Chinese courts will need to handle climate change-related litigation some time in the future.

The National Climate Change Plan also encourages Chinese entities to cooperate with international organizations (including the World Bank and Asian Development Bank) and foreign countries in considering foreign experience that can be adapted to the situation in China.  It is likely that climate change innovations that are successful in China will be promoted  overseas.

Our blogpost, where we analyze the latest climate change developments in  their international and domestic Chinese context, is linked here. Thank you Barbara, for giving me this opportunity!

Comments on China’s model for environmental public interest litigation?

Public interest litigation--compensate my losses!
Public interest litigation–compensate me!

If you want to review and comment on China’s model for environmental public interest litigation, now you have your chance.  On 1 October the Supreme People’s Court (Court) issued its regulations on environmental public interest litigation for public comment. The Court had highlighted the importance of these regulations in its  July, 2014 policy document on environmental and natural resource tribunals.  The Environmental Protection Law, amended earlier this year, gives the legislative framework for the regulations (a quick summary of the amendments can be found here).

The comment period is 1 month.  The draft was published on the Court’s official website and is linked here.  The notice requests that comments be accompanied by an explanation, and be submitted either on paper or electronically.  The mailing address in Chinese is: 北京市东城区东交民巷27号,最高人民法院环境资源审判庭,邮编100745. The English address is: Environmental and Natural Resources Division, The Supreme People’s Court, No. 27, Dong Jiao Min Xiang, Dongcheng District, Beijing 100745.  The email address for comments is: