Category Archives: Expert Committee

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

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

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

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

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

Why this conference summary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bigger Picture

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

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

_____________________________________

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

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

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The Monitor as “Fargo North” Decoder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since the blog was founded almost nine years ago:

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

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

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

Brief comments on the China International Commercial Court

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.

In my view, the fact that the CICC is not a full-time court—means that the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, which provides leadership for the  CICC, must be strategic about what the CICC does.  Based on the language in some of the recent SPC documents,  particularly the September 2020 policy document on the Open Economy, I surmise that the #4 Civil Division is considering the best way forward with the CICC, as there is this language–“promote the construction of the CICC” (推进最高人民法院国际商事法庭建设). Additionally, the SPC has designated two senior Chinese academics (Shan Wenhua of Xian Jiaotong University and Liu Xiaohong of the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law), who are expert committee members to provide research on this topic.

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:

  1. 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;
  2. The Suzhou International Commercial Court (approved by the SPC, and involving cooperation with the Singapore government through the China-Suzhou Suzhou Industrial Park );
  3. 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:

  1. promoting mediation (also in line with SPC policy on mediation taking priority);
  2. Centralizing case acceptance;
  3. Addressing additional arbitration-related issues;
  4. 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:

  1. find and apply foreign law;
  2. provide information and expertise about foreign technical standards; and
  3. 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.”

 

Supreme People’s Court updates its Belt & Road policies

Screen Shot 2019-12-29 at 9.15.50 PMAt a press conference on 27 December (2019) the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC) #4 Civil Division (the division focusing on cross-border commercial issues) announced it had issued three documents: a judicial interpretation and two judicial policy documents. The documents are connected directly or indirectly to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and improving China’s foreign investment environment.

  1. Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding the Application of the “People’s Republic of China Foreign Investment Law” (FIL Interpretation) (最高人民法院关于适用〈中华人民共和国外商投资法〉若干问题的解释);
  2. Opinion on providing services and guarantees for the Belt & Road (BRI Opinion #2) (关于人民法院进一步为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的意见); and
  3. Opinion on providing services and guarantees for Construction of the Lingang area of the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone (Lingang FTZ Opinion) (关于人民法院为中国(上海)自由贸易试验区临港新片区建设提供司法服务和保障的意见).

The two Opinions update two of the SPC’s two major policy documents on cross-border issues: the 2015 Opinion on Providing Services and Guarantees for the Belt & Road (BRI Opinion, and Opinion on Providing Guarantees for the Building of Pilot Free Trade Zones (FTZ Opinion). Policy documents do not have the force of law. They are examples of how the SPC supports the Party and government by issuing documents to support important strategies or initiatives (serving the greater situation (服务大局). In the New Era, the SPC has issued over dozen policy documents that provide “judicial services and guarantees” for major government strategies or initiatives, many more than before.  These Opinions are intended to harmonize the two earlier policy documents with post 19th Party Congress developments and priorities, including those mentioned in the Fourth Plenum Decision. I had previously reviewed the two earlier documents in detail.  My analysis of the Pilot FTZ Opinion can be found here and I have previously written and spoken about the BRI Opinion.  This blogpost draws on correspondence I had recently with Professor Vivienne Bathof the University of Sydney, but I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.  This blogpost discusses BRI Opinion #2.

2.  Belt & Road Opinion #2

This document is longer than the other two put together and has much more substantive and political content. Comments on the first section will focus on the political issues, while comments on the rest of the document will discuss the other content in the document:

  • political signaling on discrete issues;
  • judicial policy changes;
  • signaling to various audiences;
  • instructions and guidance to the lower courts;
  • highlighting future possible changes to SPC positions on legal issues;
  • promoting or supporting certain government initiatives within the courts;
  • reiterating basic policies.

New requirements and tasks (Section 1)

In keeping with post 19th Party Congress trends and the spirit of the 2019 Political-Legal  Work conference, BRI Opinion #2 has more politically oriented content and references than the 2015 BRI Opinion. As it must be harmonized with the latest Party and government policy, it includes the latest judicial policy jargon, such as “improving the business environment” and “creating an international, law-based and convenient business environment with stability, fairness, transparency, and predictability.”

The first section includes a long paragraph on working principles. For the casual reader, the principles are an odd hotpot of political, substantive, procedural, and administrative matters but in keeping with its role in the document. It is all about political signaling. To the person unfamiliar with these documents, it gives the reader the impression that if she put her chopsticks in one place in the hotpot, she would pull up support for international arbitration and if in another, support for constructing litigation service centers.

Policy changes and signaling (section 2)

This section contains seven apparently unconnected provisions. They are linked by their political and practical importance: judicial cooperation in criminal law; protecting the right of domestic and cross-border parties; supporting multilateralism; supporting the development of international logistics; supporting opening up in the financial sector; supporting the development of information technology, intellectual property, and green development. This section is a combination of signaling to the political authorities and the lower courts.

One notable provision is on judicial cooperation in the area of criminal law. Article 4 mentions the Beijing Initiative for the Clean Silk Road, and zero tolerance for corruption.  Doing something about cross-border corruption offenses is not a matter primarily of the SPC, as this analysis notes and has greater implications for state-owned enterprises (SOEs). This provision calls for the people’s courts to work with the judicial organs of other countries and regions along the “Belt and Road” to build jointly a judicial anti-terrorism mechanism, and curb the spreading of terrorism.  The link to the SPC is that we can anticipate that some staff from the SPC would be involved in negotiating regional or bilateral arrangements relevant to anti-terrorism (along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Public Security Ministry). In an indirect way, it illustrates how the SPC works with other Party and government departments on legal issues, one of the distinctive functions of the SPC that rarely receives much attention.

On signaling to the lower courts, in addition to the section on financial cases, discussed in the previous blogpost, Article 6 is a reminder to the lower courts to apply the relevant rules of determining contract validity and liabilities in civil and commercial cases involving free trade agreements or cooperation documents signed between China and other countries. In any case, it is their obligation in applying relevant law.  Perhaps the SPC has issued the reminder because lower courts have failed to do too often.

Although Article 11 (on environmental protection) has received attention from a prominent environmental lawyer who saw the inclusion of cross-border environmental public interest litigation in the Opinion as ground-breaking, knowledgeable persons suggested it is a merely a reminder to local courts that they can take such cases provided current legal requirements are met, such as jurisdiction over the defendant, location of the pollution, and the social organization meeting specified requirements.

Specific policy (Section 3)

Section 3 contains signals on changes to specific judicial policies, reminders to the lower courts and also political signals, including highlighting SPC accomplishments. Article 13 signals to the lower courts some new policy on contract interpretation. It addresses situations that commonly arise when one party alleges fraud or collusion to avoid contract liability. The SPC reminds lower courts that evidence should be reviewed carefully, and the evidentiary standard should be beyond a reasonable doubt(根据排除合理怀疑的证据规则严格认定欺诈、恶意串通).  Article 13 directs courts to apply foreign law if the choice of foreign law would uphold contract validity.

This section has quite a few reminders to the lower courts to do what they should already be doing, such as: actively applying international conventions applicable to China; respecting international practices and international commercial rules; fully respecting parties’ governing law choice and explaining how they determined it; taking a restrictive approach towards declaring contracts invalid. Governing law is a sore spot in certain maritime matters, where the Chinese courts in a number of cases have set aside parties’ choice of law for a failure to have an actual connection.

Extending the influence of Chinese law abroad is a policy that received new impetus in the November, 2019 Decision of the 4th Plenum of the 19th Party Central Committee, and therefore it is found in Article 20 and again in Article 21 (in the following section).  Linked to this is language on increasing the prestige of the Chinese courts and the China International Commercial Court in particular. The language echoes and extends the 4th Plenum of the 18th Party Central Committee and BRI #1 Opinion, by calling on the people’s courts to extend the influence of Chinese law, publish typical cases tried by Chinese courts in multiple languages, lay a solid foundation for courts and arbitration institutions to correctly understand and apply Chinese laws, and strengthen the understanding and trust of international businesses of Chinese law. From the fact that the SPC envisions Chinese courts as having a role in assisting foreign courts and arbitration institutions to “correctly understand and apply Chinese law” shows that the SPC has a distinctive understanding of the role of a court.

On related accomplishments, one relates to typical cases in foreign languages and the other to the creation of the foreign law ascertainment platform. In 2019, the SPC published typical cases on cross-border issues in English, by publishing a pair of books on China Foreign-Related Commercial Cases and Maritime Cases (in China). It has also published a book of Chinese cases translated into English through Springer. On foreign law ascertainment, the accomplishment is the SPC having established a bilingual foreign law ascertainment platform, that assembles in one platform the available resources for ascertaining foreign law and a number of cases that involve ascertaining foreign law. There has been discussion in China as to whether courts should take such an active role in ascertaining foreign law, but the SPC has made a policy decision that it should.

International Commercial Court and One-Stop Dispute Resolution (Sections 4 and 5)

The BRI Opinion #2 contains several provisions related to the China International Commercial Court (CICC), with some mention of its expert committee.  Article 23 mentions working with international commercial courts outside of China to establish various types of exchanges and cooperation, including training judges. It is unclear whether this a reference to increasing cooperation under the Standing International Forum of Commercial Courts or other future initiatives.

These two sections also signals to the lower courts policy changes and policies to be stressed. One policy to be noted is implementing the policy of mediating first (贯彻调解优先原则), which is already incorporated into the CICC rules.  Some of the difficulties in mediating cross-border disputes involving state-owned enterprises were discussed in this earlier blogpost and at the workshop on implementing the Singapore Mediation Convention that I attended in December (2019).

Some new developments underway are mentioned in this section, linking to the central government’s policy of supporting Hong Kong’s role as an international dispute resolution center. Article 34 calls for support for increased cooperation with the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre and other Hong Kong-based arbitration institutions, and appropriately involving Hong Kong-based institutions in CICC’s one-stop model. Article 35 mentions supporting offshore arbitration institutions being able to hear cases in China. (a development underway in recent months).

An important practical issue is raised in Article 31, which mentions improving the mechanism of coordinating cross-border bankruptcy (insolvency), and exploring (探索) applying the systems of the principal bankruptcy procedures and the center of the debtor’s main interests. This is likely linked to domestic development of bankruptcy law and the recognition that with BRI and thousands of Chinese companies investing abroad, some number will (or have) gone into bankruptcy (insolvency) proceedings. “Improving” and “exploring” mean that they are on the agenda of the SPC. It appears that the first related development occurred in Hong Kong in January 2020, when Judge Jonathan Harris granted recognition and assistance to mainland liquidators of CEFC (description of the case and link to judgment found here).  He concluded his judgment by stating” the extent to which greater assistance should be provided to Mainland administrators in the future will have to be decided on a case by case basis and the development of recognition is likely to be influenced by the extent to which the court is satisfied that the Mainland, like Hong Kong, promotes a unitary approach to transnational insolvencies.”

As I discussed in a recent blogpost and earlier, the SPC is seeking to use the CICC and its decisions (judgments/rulings) to guide the lower courts and to pilot reforms that are replicable (a Chinese judicial reform concept), as stated in Article 22 and 25: “the role of cases in determining rules and guiding behavior…and the role of the CICC in providing models and guidance shall be developed.  (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).

Article 24 concerns presumptive reciprocity and mentions gradually promote reciprocity between commercial courts. This may signal that the judicial interpretation on enforcement of foreign court judgments is further delayed and that the SPC is taking a gradual approach by working towards mutual recognition and enforcement of international commercial court judgments, which would involve a smaller group of foreign judgments.

Themes that are not new in this section include supporting parties’ right to choose an appropriate dispute resolution forum.  It can be imagined that the #4 Civil Division judges considered that this basic principle needed repeating. Another ongoing theme, with more political coloration, is encouraging BRI dispute resolution, including investor-state dispute resolution to be heard in China. This is mentioned explicitly in Article 28, which lists measures “so that more international commercial disputes can be efficiently resolved in China.”  This is not new, but is part of a push that this blog noted as early as 2016, to move the locus of China-related dispute resolution from London and other centers in Europe (or elsewhere) to China, where Chinese parties will encounter a more familiar dispute resolution system.

Article 32 mentions investment dispute resolution, and supporting “relevant departments in improving international investment dispute resolution mechanisms and organizations, respecting the dispute resolution clauses in bilateral and multilateral investment agreements, and resolving international investment disputes in a fair and efficient manner.”  This appears to be an acknowledgment that the SPC is in discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other institutions on dealing with difficult issues related to enforcing international investment dispute arbitration awards in China (discussed here).

Personnel & Institutional Matters

The concluding section includes a notice in Article 37 to the lower courts that they shall “strengthen and improve the mechanism of coordination and guidance, and step up communication and cooperation with the relevant entities and departments.” This is a theme seen in many of the opinions issued by the SPC and reflects one of the many functions of the Chinese courts.

As discussed in the preceding blogpost, references in Article 38 and 39 to exchanges and training send signals within the SPC and its institutions, as well as lower courts about the types of programs that may be promoted, permitted or explored. It is likely that the National Judges College, its provincial branches, and its partners will continue to train foreign judges, as has expanded greatly in recent years. It appears that there could be greater possibilities for Chinese judges to go on exchange with other countries than has been possible in recent years. From my own contacts and experience with It may also provide the basis for a local court or division of the SPC to apply for funding to hold a legal roundtable or host an international exchange.

Concluding remarks

This Opinion is typical of New Era SPC policy documents providing guarantees and support for specific Party and government strategies and initiatives.  For a reader from outside the Chinese government system (体制), it takes knowledge of a constellation of related policies and practices to decode. This blogpost has been able to identify some of them.

BRI Opinion #2 has a great deal of content, not all discussed in this blogpost. Some have practical importance for practitioners in China and elsewhere.  But a larger question to consider, that likely was not in minds of the drafters, is whether this type of policy-oriented document is useful in reassuring foreign governments, foreign state-owned companies, and commercial entities that their dispute is best heard in China?  From my discussions with practitioners in various parts of the world, they may not be aware that BRI Opinion #2 even exists.

 

 

 

 

How are Supreme People’s Court Opinions structured?

Screen Shot 2019-12-29 at 9.15.50 PM
27 December SPC Press conference:from left, Li Guangyu (spokesperson); Justice Luo Dongchuan (vice president); Judge Wang Shumei (head of #4 Civil Division); Gao Xiaoli (deputy head, #4 Civil Division)

When the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issues an “opinion” (意见), it is not issuing a judgment or ruling.  It is issuing a policy document, without the force of law.  In the New Era, the SPC has issued over dozen policy documents that provide “judicial services and guarantees” for major government strategies or initiatives, many more than before. They are examples of how the SPC supports the Party and government by issuing policy documents to support important strategies or initiatives (serving the greater situation (服务大局). What few, if any have written about is the structure of these opinions that support important strategies or initiatives as they relate to civil and commercial law issues. Understanding the structure is key to understanding the documents. Understanding opinions is important for understanding current issues in the courts and the future direction of judicial policy.

This blogpost uses the two opinions announced at the 27 December 2019 press conference pictured above, at which Justice Luo Dongchuan and Judges Wang Shumei and Gao Xiaoli (head and deputy head of the #4 Civil Division) introduced the two opinions (and a judicial interpretation). A subsequent blogpost will highlight what is new in these three documents. All three are connected directly or indirectly to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and improving China’s foreign investment environment. The two opinions are:

  1. Opinion on providing services and guarantees for the Belt & Road (2) (BRI Opinion #2) (关于人民法院进一步为“一带一路”建设提供司法服务和保障的意见); and
  2. Opinion on Providing Services and Guarantees for Construction of the Lingang area of the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone (Lingang FTZ Opinion) (关于人民法院为中国(上海)自由贸易试验区临港新片区建设提供司法服务和保障的意见).

The Opinions update two of the SPC’s two major recent policy documents on cross-border issues: the 2015 Opinion on Providing Services and Guarantees for the Belt & Road (BRI Opinion, and Opinion on Providing Guarantees for the Building of Pilot Free Trade Zones (FTZ Opinion).

The BRI Opinion #2 and Lingang FTZ Opinion are intended to harmonize the two earlier policy documents with post 19th Party Congress developments and priorities, including those mentioned in the  2019 19th Party Central Committee Fourth Plenum Decision. I had previously reviewed the BRI Opinion and FTZ Opinions in detail.  My analysis of the Pilot FTZ Opinion can be found here and I have previously written and spoken about the BRI Opinion.

Lower courts may issue documents that supplement the SPC’s policy documents, as is true with these Opinions.  This is a subject that I have written about on this blog and elsewhere before. The Shanghai Higher People’s Court has already issued a guidance document that provides related services and guarantees, with important content.

The two Opinions also link to three different events or matters–the promulgation of the Foreign Investment Law; the Second Belt & Road Forum for International Cooperation; and Xi Jinping’s visit to Shanghai and establishment of the Lingang Special Area of the Shanghai FTZ.

Structure of these Opinions

The structure of the two opinions is typical for SPC civil and commercial opinions “providing judicial services and guarantees” for major government strategies and initiatives.  Opinions often (but not always) start out with a first section with titles analogous to the section titles of these two Opinions:

I. Comprehensively grasping the new requirements and new tasks in serving the “Belt and Road” Initiative

I. Enhance understanding and get aligned with the mission of offering judicial services and guarantees to the New Area

A sample of the language of the first section is quoted below, from the second paragraph of the BRI Opinion #2:

Keeping committed to the concept of further providing judicial services and
guarantees by the people’s courts for the “Belt and Road” Initiative: The people’s courts shall firmly take the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as the guideline; study and fulfill the spirit of the 19th CPC National Congress and the Second, Third, and Fourth Plenary Sessions of the 19th CPC Central Committee, as well as the essence of the key speech of General Secretary Xi Jinping on the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation; strengthen consciousness of the need to maintain political integrity, think in big-picture terms, follow the leadership core, and keep in alignment…

The purpose of this initial section is two-fold. The first is to notify the lower courts of the political goals, background, and principles of the Opinion. The second to signal to the political-legal hierarchy that the policies that the SPC sets out in the body of the opinion are harmonized with the latest Party/government policies.

There are no hard and fast rules concerning the body of opinions, as analogous sections may occur in different order.  It may depend on the drafters and the topic involved.

The second section of the BRI Opinion has its counterpart in the third section of the Lingang FTZ Opinion:

II. Further performing the role of judicial trials, and serving and guaranteeing the joint construction of the “Belt and Road” with high quality in all aspects

III. Strengthen judicial trial function and maintain an institutional regime in the New Area focusing on investments/trade liberalization

These sections are meant to notify the lower courts about current relevant judicial policy, and implicitly inform them of any changes from previous policy and what the lower courts must do in support of that policy goal. The policies are likely to be linked to current Party/government policy.  From the BRI Opinion #2:

The people’s courts shall support the opening-up policy in the financial sector; the exemplary role (示范作用) of financial courts shall be maximized; eligible courts shall be encouraged to build special trial teams for financial cases; the application of law in foreign-related financial cases shall be further regulated and standardized;…valuable experiences of foreign countries in efficiently hearing financial cases shall be drawn upon…

Article 10, in Section III of the Lingang FTZ Opinion calls for

closer ties and communication mechanisms with the financial regulatory authorities shall be built to facilitate the construction of an integrated and efficient financial management system, in a bid for a better environment for doing business, for prevention of financial risks and for better national financial security.

In support of the opening-up policy in the financial sector, the SPC is promoting the role of financial courts (currently Shanghai, others to follow) in providing new mechanisms or methods in hearing cases or in their operations.  That is visible from the Shanghai Financial Court’s innovations in class actions in the sphere of securities law claims (claims against issuers, underwriters, directors and management, control parties, etc. for false and misleading disclosure upon initial issuance or in periodic reporting).  The Shenzhen intermediate court has established a special trial team for financial cases but not a separate court. From Article 10 of the Lingang FTZ Opinion, it can be anticipated that the Shanghai Financial Court has or will establish special communication channels with the financial regulators.

The titles of the third section of the BRI Opinion #2 is:

III . Further improving the application of law in cases involving the Belt and Road Initiative, and building a stronger rule-based business environment that is governed by law

From BRI Opinion #2:

13. The people’s courts shall vigorously carry forward the contract spirit and the good faith principle, and determine the acts of fraud and malicious collusion based on the rules of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. If, in a civil or commercial case involving the construction, operation, purchasing, or bidding process of a project, there is a discrepancy on contract validity between the laws of the relevant countries, the people’s courts shall apply the law that holds the contract valid without damaging the honest party or benefiting the dishonest one, and promote mutual trust and benefits between the participants in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Each article in the third section of the BRI Opinion #2 focuses on a specific policy that the SPC wants the lower courts to promote.  In article 13, the SPC is seeking to control the tendency of lower courts to find a contract invalid because of allegations of fraud or malicious collusion, likely made by a Chinese litigant seeking to avoid contractual liability.  The Lingang FTZ Opinion does not have an exact counterpart to section III of the BRI Opinion #2, but has articles that focus on specific policies to be promoted, such as “properly handling cross-border bankruptcy cases….”

The title of the final section of BRI Opinion # 2 is:

VI. Further strengthening the organizational structure and team building to coordinate efforts to serve and guarantee the Belt and Road Initiative.

The last section relates to institutional and personnel matters. Take the following paragraph in the BRI Opinion #2 as an example:

39. The role of international exchange and research platforms such as international forums, legal roundtables..shall be further strengthened, and the exchanges and cooperation with the judicial systems of other countries shall be conducted. Training and studying programs for foreign judges shall be supported, and foreign legal service providers and think-tanks for the Initiative shall be invited to China to exchange views with Chinese counterparts so as to promote the formation of a diverse and interactive platform for legal exchanges….

Content in the last paragraph of the Lingang FTZ Opinion has some analogous provisions:

Establish a study training program and talent cultivation mechanism in line with international standards…Efforts shall be made to…(2) further expand international judicial communication channels, organize international judicial forums….

These provisions send signals within the SPC and its institutions, as well as lower courts about the types of programs that may be promoted, permitted or explored.  It is likely that the National Judges College, its provincial branches, and its partners will continue to train foreign judges, as has expanded greatly in recent years.  It appears that there could be greater possibilities for Chinese judges to go on exchange with other countries than has been possible in recent years.   It may also provide the basis for a local court or division of the SPC to apply for funding to hold a legal roundtable or host an international exchange. For the Lingang FTZ Opinion, it gives the Shanghai courts priority in organizing international programs and establishing programs to send outstanding young judges focusing on cross-border commercial issues on educational programs either in China or abroad.

The official report states that the SPC Party Group approved the two Opinions.  It appears from my previous research that pre-19th Party Congress, SPC policy documents did not necessarily require SPC Party Group approval. I surmise since the Party Political-Legal Work Regulations were promulgated in January 2019, it has now become a requirement, because Article 15 requires Party Groups/Committees to be responsible for setting major policies and directions.

______________________________

My thanks to a knowledgeable person for triggering my thinking about this and for insightful comments on an earlier draft.

Supreme People’s Court Monitor at the Supreme People’s Court (III)

I am prefacing this blogpost with a statement that nothing in it (or future blogposts, for that matter) represents the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), the China International Commercial Court (CICC), or the  International Commercial Expert Committee (Expert Committee).

On the afternoon of 21 August, Professor Liu Jingdong of the International Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (pictured below) and I spoke at the SPC, invited by the #4 Civil Division.  Ms. Long Fei, Deputy Director (Person in Charge) of the CICC Coordination and Guidance Office. chaired the proceedings and Judge Wang Shumei, head of the #4 Civil Division, gave concluding remarks.  Professor Liu had previously been a guazhi scholar (seconded/temporarily assigned) in the #4 Civil Division (appointed as a deputy division chief, as is the practice). He felt the event was a reunion with his former colleagues.  This was the first event to involve lectures by CICC Expert Committee members to judges and other staff at the SPC, including several members of the CICC.  I trust that other Expert Committee members will have the same opportunity in the future.  I am grateful to all those involved in making all the arrangements needed for the event to take place and to all of those who took time away from dealing with difficult cases and other work to listen to and interact with Professor Liu and me.

 

The audience of about 40 people (pictured below) included Hu Shihao, head of the Judicial Reform Office, Li Xiao, deputy director of the Research Office, Judge Guo Zaiyu (of the CICC), and many others, including a group of students interning in the #4 Civil Division (seated in the back row).  After the formal part of the lecture (and a question and answer session), I was very happy to be able to take a few minutes to share with the students some of my thoughts about takeaways from their internships.

I spoke about the impact of the Belt and Road on the Chinese courts (about which I have previously spoken), market reaction outside of China to the CICC, and some modest suggestions relating to the Expert Committee.  I gave my presentation in Chinese, as I knew some in the audience would have difficulty understanding English, although my “foreigner’s Chinese” (洋式中文) may have been a challenge to understand. Professor Liu spoke on the “legalization” of the Belt & Road”  (the subject of his 2017 article in 政法论坛). One of my suggestions was that this not be a one-off event. The official report on the event (in People’s Court Daily), is also on the Chinese version of the CICC website.

 

 

 

Supreme People’s Court Monitor 2018 Year-end Report

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

In 2018, the Supreme People’s Court Monitor published 25 posts and had almost 39,009 page views, from 146 jurisdictions, primarily from:

  • United States;
  • (mainland) China;
  • Hong Kong;
  • United Kingdom.

with Germany, Australia and Singapore trailing. Mainland China is in second place for the first time.

Why did I do less blogging when compared to 2017, when I published 41 posts?  Perhaps it can be attributed to competing professional obligations–including writing several academic-style articles (all in the production pipeline), and the significant effort required to unpack SPC documents and initiatives in under 1500 words.  Perhaps also attributable to failing to realize that the “perfect is the enemy of the good.” The many developments in 2018 have left me with a large backlog of documents and issues to discuss.

In 2018, the work of the Monitor resulted in several official and semi-official honors (listed in chronological order):

  1. in June, the honor (and the challenge) of giving lecture #19 (in Chinese) as part of the lecture series (大讲堂) sponsored by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence, as reported in this earlier blogpost. It was the last lecture that Judge Jiang Huiling chaired before he was transferred from the Institute to the National Judicial College and I’m not aware that another lecture has been held since he was transferred.  I am very grateful to Judge Jiang (for his invitation and comments) and the two commentators, Professor Hou Meng, now of Renmin University Law School, and Huang Bin, senior editor of Journal of Law Application, for their thoughtful comments;
  2. In August, the honor of being selected to the China International Commercial Court’s International Expert Committee (Expert Committee), and the challenge of giving an eight-minute speech with substantive content that struck the right tone at the first meeting of the Expert Committee.  As reported in this earlier blogpost, the attendees at that first meeting included senior officials from within the SPC and related institutions, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce.
  3. In November, speaking at the third annual UK-China Rule of Law Roundtable, sponsored by the Great Britain China Centre (GBCC) (an introduction to GBCC is found here) and the China Law Society (CLS). The Roundtable focused on international commercial dispute resolution (CDR) Fortunately, GBCC takes an inclusive approach to its high-powered and congenial delegations. The delegation included a number of us with other than UK passports.

Since the blog was founded almost six years ago:

Page views: 108,990
Jurisdictions: 183
Posts: 212

Most followers use Twitter to follow the Monitor. Although Twitter is not accessible in mainland China without a VPN, 21% of the Monitor’s Twitter followers are based there.

Thank you to:

  • the many judges and other staff members currently or formerly affiliated with the SPC (and its institutions) and local courts, who helped me understand how the SPC and lower courts operate and nuances of life in the Chinese court system in countless ways;
  • my colleagues and students at the School of Transnational Law, Peking University (Shenzhen);
  • my fellow bloggers Jeremy Daum (Chinalawtranslate.com), Wei Changhao (npcobserver.com, Mark Cohen (Chinaipr.com), and Eugene Fidell (globalmjreform.blogspot.com);
  • the law schools and other institutions around the world, that have listed my blog as a Chinese law resource;
  • law and political science professors who have recommended the Monitor to students and many others in other institutions who have provided support in various ways;
  • journalists and scholars writing about the Chinese judiciary who have cited the Monitor;
  • organizers of conferences and other events in Beijing, Changsha, Shanghai, Washington, DC and New York.

A special thank you to those who had the fortitude to read drafts of articles and blogposts and give frank comments.

 

China International Commercial Court & the Supreme People’s Court Monitor

IMG_3582I am prefacing this blogpost with a statement that nothing in it (or future blogposts, for that matter) represents the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), the China International Commercial Court (CICC), or its newly established International Commercial Expert Committee (Expert Committee).

As can be seen from the above photo taken in the SPC, with President Zhou Qiang, Vice President Luo Dongchuan and others, I was among the first group of experts appointed to the CICC’s International Commercial Expert Committee. Former World Trade Organization Appellate Judge Zhang Yuejiao and I were the only two women who attended the initial meeting on 26 August.  I’ll set out some comments on the Expert Committee and the initial meeting.

The Expert Committee is the first official SPC committee that includes foreigners and others from outside of mainland China, and it may be the first of its nature within the Chinese justice (司法) system.  The Expert Committee was established as a way to involve foreigners in the CICC.  As I wrote earlier this year, unlike Singapore or Dubai, because of the restrictions of Chinese law, the CICC could not invite foreign judges to serve on the court.  Among the 32 experts appointed to the Expert Committee include many leading specialists in international arbitration and dispute resolution, including judges, arbitrators, scholars and practitioners from inside and outside China.  The detailed rules on how the CICC and the Expert Committee will operate (and interact) are still being drafted.  The provisions on the establishment of the CICC anticipate that the experts on the Expert Committee will be able to mediate disputes and provide opinions on foreign law, among other functions.

The initial meeting was held on a Sunday morning, likely to accommodate President Zhou Qiang’s schedule or that of the other senior officials who attended the meeting.  SPC  newly appointed Vice President Luo Dongchuan chaired the proceedings.  Future events will reveal his relationship, if any with the CICC.  He had previously headed the SPC’s #4 Civil Division and was most recently the head of Xinjiang’s Supervision Commission. The senior officials who attended from outside the SPC included Mr. Xu Hong, head of the Department of Treaties and Law of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), several officials from the Department of Treaties and Law of the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), as well as representatives from China’s major arbitration institutions.  A large group of officials from the SPC also attended, seated in the row behind the experts.  The CICC judges sat separately.  President Zhou Qiang presented all the experts present with their letters of appointment, followed by speeches by officials from MFA and MOFCOM, and several of the most prominent experts on the Expert Committee, including Huang Jin, President of the China University of Political Science and Law, Sir William Blair, former High Court judge and judge in charge of the Commercial  Court in London, and Rimsky Yuen, former Hong Kong Secretary for Justice.

The remaining two hours of the meeting consisted of brief presentations by some of the SPC judges involved and several experts, while other experts provided comments.  Both Judge Zhang Yuejiao and I spoke.  My brief presentation was on “the CICC: An Important Step in the Internationalization of the Chinese Courts.”  I raised a few of the legal issues that I had raised in earlier blogposts.  I concluded by reminding the attendees that the CICC could be a great opportunity to train a new generation of Chinese international judicial personnel, and that I was looking forward to the CICC giving a chance to some of my students at the Peking University School of Transnational Law to intern there!