Judicial services & guarantees to aid China’s economy

Justice He Xiaorong at the press conference

I am going to experiment with a shorter format, starting with this blogpost.

On 22 July, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held a news conference with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) to announce their latest policy document providing judicial services and guarantees to accelerate the socialist market system in the New Era (为加快完善社会主义市场经济体制提供司法保障).  Justice He Xiaorong appears to be the SPC senior official in charge of the #1 Civil Division. From his appearance at the press conference, Zheng Xuelin, the head of the #1 Civil Division, must have taken the lead in drafting this document, but the subject matter reflects input from many divisions of the SPC, although none of them are mentioned. Wang Renfei, head of the NDRC’s Division of Economic Reform, also appeared at the press conference.  It is linked to a May, 2020 document of the Central Committee and State Council on improving the market economy in the New Era.

These policy documents that provide judicial services and guarantees are one of the hallmarks of the SPC in the New Era, as General Secretary Xi Jinping has called on the SPC to provide judicial services and guarantees to the important policy initiatives and strategies of the Party and state. Since Xi Jinping became General Secretary, at the annual Central Political-Legal Work Conference, he has given instructions to the political-legal institutions that the judicial organs provide “judicial services and guarantees” for major Party and government policies. For that reason, the SPC has increased the number of policy documents in which it has provided services and guarantees to the work of the Party and state. Consistent with Xi Jinping’s instructions, Party leadership, in the most recent inspection of the SPC, requested that the SPC strengthen its “services and guarantees” to the work of the Party and state.   This latest policy document has 29 articles, covering the topics of:

  • judicial protection of market entities, especially small entities;
  • judicial protection of property rights;
  • establishing a fair, just, and orderly competitive market system;
  • a legalized business environment suitable for high-quality economic development;
  • judicial protection of people’s livelihood;
  • improve foreign-related guarantees; and
  • one-stop diversified dispute resolution with Chinese characteristics.

There are a few new provisions, but most of the provisions are a repackaging of current or previous issues, many of which had been mentioned in a recent SPC New Era policy document and discussed on this blog. Some, while not new, send welcome signals.  The careful reader can pull out of the bureaucratic language of this document ongoing issues facing the Chinese courts and even some initiatives not previously mentioned.  An unscientific selection below follows:

  1. Judicial protection of market entities

This section repeats principles or raises issues such as:

  • parties being treated equally; protecting the individual and property rights of entrepreneurs (an ongoing issue–see this 2016 blogpost);
  • Absorb and transform beneficial international/foreign experience –this document uses the language “beneficial experience from legal systems with mature market entities” (吸收借鉴国际成熟市场主体法律制度的有益经验). This phrase is repeated elsewhere in the document. As I wrote in 2017–“a careful review of official statements, publications, and actions by the SPC and its affiliated institutions, as well as research by individual SPC judges [and teams of SPC judges] shows an intense interest in how the rest of the world deals with some of the challenges facing the Chinese judiciary coupled with a recognition that any possible foreign model or provision will need to fit the political, cultural, economic, and institutional reality of China, and that certain poisonous ideas must not be transplanted.”  This continues to be true (given the gaping holes in Chinese legislation, as seen from the perspective of Chinese judges), including a careful review of relevant US law.
  • Abuses by senior leaders in SOEs, causing loss of state assets (and likely benefiting private pockets), as seen in this phrase: “further clarify the relationship between state-owned property owners and agents, properly handle cases of loss of state-owned assets due to insider control, related transactions, and illegal guarantees by legal representatives, and pursue directors in accordance with the law. Supervisors and senior managers violate their legal responsibilities and obligations of loyalty and diligence. Promote state-owned enterprises to improve their internal supervision systems and internal control mechanisms, standardize  the positioning of powers and responsibilities and exercise methods, and improve the modern corporate system with Chinese characteristics.”
  • Improve the protection for small investors (relates to ongoing initiatives by the Shanghai Financial Court) and is connected with the most recent conference summary on bond disputes (全国法院审理债券纠纷案件座谈会纪要).  It mentions a forthcoming judicial interpretation on group securities litigation, apparently mentioned for the first time (及时出台证券纠纷代表人诉讼司法解释).  The Shanghai Financial Court has issued pilot regulations that will be considered by the SPC.
  • Exiting the market, the goal to be applicable to all sorts of legal and natural persons (signaling further developments relating to individual bankruptcy), establishing a better cooperative mechanism with government on bankruptcy (not new).

2. Judicial protection of property rights

Many of these have been discussed on this blog previously:

Better protection for property rights of private enterprises (discussed two years ago at the beginning of the anti-organized crime campaign).  It again mentions prevent the abuse of public power to infringe private property rights such as illegally sealing up, seizing, and freezing property rights of private enterprises;

Improving the hearing of cases involving land and real property condemnation (as this blogpost discussed, an underlying problem is the failure of related government departments to comply with legal requirements);

One article (#11) is devoted to improving intellectual property rights protection, but it does not flag anything not previously mentioned.

3.  Establishing a competitive market system

Article 12 re-emphasizes a concept basic to a market (oriented) economy–respect for the voluntariness and spirit of contract (尊重合同自愿和契约精神).

One provision in this section has attracted the greatest amount of attention–reducing the allowable interest rate for private lending, signaling a reversal of the provisions in the 2015 interpretation on private lending, which the document states will be amended soon.  The other provision that is repeated here (first mentioned three years ago), is stopping SOEs from using their easy access to bank capital to on-lend funds on the private market, for greater profit than their core businesses 规范、遏制国有企业贷款通道业务,引导其回归实体经济).

This section signals that the SPC will be working on more detailed provisions on taking security as a result of the Civil Code (进一步研究细化让与担保的制度规则和裁判标准).

4. legalized business environment suitable for high-quality economic development

Among the provisions mentioned here is better coordination between the financial regulators and the courts  (and legal oversight by the courts) (主动加强与金融监管机构的沟通协调,支持、促进金融监管机构依法履职,加强金融风险行政处置与司法审判的衔接,协助做好金融风险预警预防和化解工作).

5. judicial protection of people’s livelihood

This section mentions improving judicial protection for the consumer, better personal data protection, and improving protections for workers in new types of enterprises (i.e., working under algorithms).

6. Foreign-related commercial issues

Two new bits of information in this section are: the mention of exploring the establishment of a judicial review system for international investment arbitration (探索建立健全国际投资仲裁领域的司法审查机制 and issuing guidance on the recognition and enforcement of foreign commercial arbitration awards (适时出台涉外国民商事判决承认与执行的规范指引). This may evidence an expected increase in foreign arbitral awards sought to be enforced in China, in light of the (expected) increased number of Belt and Road Initiative related disputes.

7. One-stop diversified dispute resolution

This section repeats many of the current buzzwords (as discussed in my May blogpost), such as “resolving disputes from the source,” the “Fengqiao Experience,” giving mediation priority, and linking litigation with mediation.  However, as mentioned in earlier blogposts, some aspects of better mediation of disputes requires deeper reforms, such as changing incentives or evaluation of SOE executives.

Financial disputes in the Chinese courts

The details on the total number of financial disputes in the Chinese courts in 2018 are unknown (perhaps to be revealed in Supreme People’s Court President Zhou Qiang’s upcoming report to the National People’s Congress), but several recent white papers by Shanghai courts provide a glimpse into some of the issues in 2017 and 2018 (and in Pudong, with further historical data).  Local Shanghai judges comment that the caseload is likely to increase in in 2019.  Those white papers are a bilingual white paper on financial dispute resolution, published by the Shanghai Higher People’s Court late in 2018, and two white papers by the Pudong District Court, one on consumer financial cases and the other surveying the past 10 years of financial cases (full text of this report has escaped me, per my earlier blogpost).

Some of the facts and figures from Shanghai are:

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Financial cases accepted & closed, Pudong New Area Court, 20008-2018

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financial consumer protection cases in Pudong, 2014-2017 (accepted & closed)

There were many fewer second instance (appeal) cases. One of the many reasons is that court performance indicators discourage appeals.

Screenshot 2019-02-16 at 7.01.12 PM

According to the Shanghai Higher People’s Court, the largest proportion of cases were credit card disputes (149,609) year-on-year growth of 52% (83% of financial disputes); 16,528 financial loan contract disputes, (9.2%) up 14.5% year-on-year;4,319 financial lease  disputes (1.6%), with the year-on-year growth of 45.17%; 2,927 insurance disputes, up by 30.6%;and 1,246 securities and futures disputes.  Credit card cases are not under the jurisdiction of the new financial court and the judges attributed the increase in disputes in the large increase in the number of credit cards issued.

On P2P cases, those rose from 315 in 2015 to 663 in 2016 and 1508 in 2017.  I surmise that those numbers are likely to have gone up in 2018.

The Shanghai Financial Court reported that they accepted 1897 cases during calendar year 2018.

In their report, the higher people’s court judges noted that in 2017, a total of 49 bond defaults occurred, of which 29 were public bonds and 20 were private bonds, of which 11 ended up in litigation, all of which were actions brought by institutional investors against bond issuers. Some bondholders sued the issuers for anticipatory repudiation and required the issuers to pay principal and interest, raising new issues for the courts. The judges noted that with the economic “deleveraging” policy, market liquidity will tighten further,  which they predicted will further trigger bond default disputes.

Tao Xiuming, a law firm partner and member of ICC China, who contributed to a 2016 study that the ICC issued on financial institutions and international arbitration. wrote (with several colleagues) a chapter on financial dispute resolution in the Beijing Arbitration Commission’s Commercial Dispute Resolution in China: An Annual Review and Preview (2018) (2018)  (for some reason the book does not seem to be on the publisher’s website).  He commented that not only was 2017 the starting year for tighter financial risk control, it also coincided with a marked increase in the number of defaults and bankruptcies, leading to many disputes and that the government’s change in national macroeconomic policy has an impact on the adjudication of financial disputes.
Tao noted that to facilitate the Central Government’s macro policy on tighter control on financial risks, the Supreme People’s Court issued Several Opinions on Further Strengthening Financial Trials and that “the Chinese courts can and will adapt to the ever-changing macroeconomic policies to align to the activities of modern commerce.” He does not mention the reason is that the courts must serve the greater situation (服务大局), as emphasized by the latest judicial reform plan.

Some quick thoughts on Shanghai’s financial court

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Financial cases (accepted/closed) in the Shanghai courts, 2010-16, 2017 cases totaled 179,000

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a story on the proposed Shanghai financial court, which was approved on 27 April.  The topic of the Shanghai financial court deserves a greater drill down than media reports are able to provide.  Some quick thoughts follow on the proposal and what it means for Chinese court reform:

  1. Shenzhen was actually the first Chinese court to establish a specialized financial trial institution (a tribunal, 法庭) in December, 2017 at the Qianhai Court, but presumably because the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has greater flexibility in experimenting with new institutions in Qianhai, the SPC did not need to obtain approval from the National People’s Congress to establish it. The Shanghai financial court will be established as an additional intermediate court in Shanghai and the first financial court.
  2. The concept of a financial court in Shanghai has been mooted in Shanghai for almost 10 years (not two years, as stated in this press report), with Lv Hongbing, chair of the Grandall Law Firm (Deputy
    Director of the All China Lawyers’ Association) Gui Minjie, former chair of the Shanghai Stock Exchange among its proponents.
  3. Although President Zhou Qiang mentioned the need to bolster the international influence of Chinese justice in finance, Belt & Road, and the goal of establishing Shanghai as an international financial center by 2020, a white paper (from which the charts in this post are taken) issued by the Shanghai courts in 2017 indicates that three quarters of Shanghai’s financial cases in 2016 involved bank cards.  According to my informal discussions with lawyers in the market, more sophisticated financial institutions/funds often include arbitration clauses in their contracts, as can be seen from reports on arbitral enforcement actions in China.
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76.51% bank card disputes; 15.27% financial loan disputes;3.14% finance leasing disputes; 2.37% insurance disputes; 1.65% securities/futures disputes; 1.06% others

4.  The proposal is linked to last year’s financial work conference and the SPC policy document (关于进一步加强金融审判工作的若干意见, Some opinions concerning the further strengthening of financial trial work) to implement it, which called for work on establishing specialized financial institutions within the courts (the reporter who wrote it “is unlikely that other parts of China will have specialised financial courts” was likely unaware of this. This is part of the increasing professionalization and specialization of the Chinese courts.  Point 28 of the SPC policy document stated:

28.  According to the special characteristics of financial cases, explore the establishment of specialized financial trial institutions. According to the location of finacial institutions and the numbers of financial cases, in areas where financial cases are relatively concentrated, select some courts to establish financial divisions (tribunals), explore implementing centralized jurisdiction of financial cases.  In other intermediate courts where there are a relatively large number of financial cases, according to the case situation, more specialized financial tribunals or financial collegiate panels may be established.

28 . 根据金融案件特点,探索建立专业化的金融审判机构。根据金融机构分布和金融案件数量情况,在金融案件相对集中的地区选择部分法院设立金融审判庭,探索实行金融案件集中管辖。在其他金融案件较多的中级人民法院,可以根据案件情况设立专业化的金融审判庭或者金融审判合议庭。

5.   Also indicating that the SPC looks to foreign jurisdictions when establishing Chinese institutions, in his statement to the NPC Standing Committee, President Zhou Qiang explicitly mentioned financial dispute resolution in the United States, United Kingdom,  UAE (Dubai), and Kazakhstan (从世界范围来看,英美等发达国家和阿联酋、哈萨克斯坦等新兴市场国家均建立了专门的金融司法体系).

6. The proposal is linked to the SPC’s diversified dispute resolution policies, particularly in strengthening links between stock exchange and other financial institution dispute resolution and the courts.

7. Judges for the court are to be selected from existing judges in Shanghai and possibly from the legal profession.  As I wrote late last year and last month, recruiting lawyers and other legal professionals to the judiciary mentioned as one of the judicial reforms, has proved to be more difficult than it would otherwise appear to an outsider.  It is unclear what the turnover of middle ranking judges with expertise in the financial sector in Shanghai is, although they would fit the profile of judges who leave the judiciary. The court may be able to retain judges with expertise who might have otherwise decided to leave, because there will be additional promotions available as court president, vice president, etc.

8.  In his statement to the NPC Standing Committee, President Zhou Qiang mentions that the new financial court will have centralized jurisdiction over financial disputes (civil, commercial and administrative, not criminal), foreshadowed in the SPC policy document mentioned above and describes the court’s jurisdiction in some detail. The NPC Standing Committee decision states that the SPC will issue a detailed document on the jurisdiction of the Shanghai financial court, that the financial court will hear civil, commercial and administrative financial cases previously heard by the city’s intermediate court and that appeals will be to the Shanghai Higher People’s Court.