The China International Commercial Court & the development of case law with Chinese characteristics

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Article in 30 December edition of People’s Court Daily

On 30 December 2019, I was quoted in an article that appeared in Supreme People’s Court (SPC) media (see the screenshot above).

“中国国际商事法庭的运作时间不长,但从迄今为止的运作中可以清楚看到,其受理案件非常慎重,会选择对中国相关法律发展产生影响的案件。”最高人民法院国际商事专家委员、北京大学国际法学院常驻知名学者Susan Finder表示,从首批案件的裁判文书可以明显看出,中国国际商事法庭的判决和裁定对于下级法院的法官和法律界人士来说,可能是重要的“软先例”,即权威性的裁判。

The CICC has been in operation a short time…What is clear from its operations so far is that it is carefully choosing its cases, only selecting cases that will have an impact on the development of relevant Chinese law. What seems evident from the initial rulings, at least, is that the judgments and rulings of the CICC are likely to be significant for lower court judges and members of the legal community as “soft precedents,” authoritative decisions….

It is an excerpt from a brief article that I am setting out below as I wrote it in English (I have added (Chinalawtranslate.com’s) translation of excerpts from certain documents) and Chinese translation (many thanks to a knowledgeable person who took a break from year-end case closing to do this elegant translation).

I am honored to have this opportunity to comment on some of the first rulings and judgments of the China International Commercial Court (CICC). This brief commentary will address the significance of CICC judgments and rulings and the CICC arbitration-related rulings.

The CICC has been in operation a short time and it is early days to provide a more detailed analysis of its operations. What is clear from its operations so far is that it is carefully choosing its cases, only selecting cases that will have an impact on the development of relevant Chinese law. What seems evident from the initial rulings, at least, is that the judgments and rulings of the CICC are likely to be significant for lower court judges and members of the legal community as “soft precedents,”  authoritative decisions that are highly persuasive although not binding on the lower courts. Authoritative commentators in China and abroad have noted that the arbitration rulings fill a gap in Chinese arbitration law. The rulings are also consistent with the position taken by courts in some major jurisdictions that also find that the parties expressed their intent to arbitrate any dispute although their contract was never finalized. In the view of this commentator, they are part of China developing its own case guidance system, highlighted in item #26 of the 5th Judicial Reform Outline, in particular the phrase “Improve working mechanisms for mandatory searches and reporting of analogous cases and new types of cases” “完善类案和新类型案件强制检索报告工作机制” . It was previously mentioned in Opinions on Putting a Judicial Responsibility System in Place and Improving Mechanisms for Trial Oversight and Management (Provisional) –“on the foundation of improving working mechanisms such as consulting similar cases and judgment guidance a mechanism is to be established requiring the search of similar cases and relevant cases, to ensure a uniform judgment standard for similar cases, and the uniform application of law “最高人民法院关于落实司法责任制完善审判监督管理机制的意见(试行), (六) 在完善类案参考、裁判指引等工作机制基础上,建立类案及关联案件强制检索机制,确保类案裁判标准统一、法律适用统一 .

Moreover, thus far, five judges formed the members of the collegial panel, all of whom are the Chinese court’s most outstanding specialists on cross-border issues, including the judicial review of arbitration. This indicates the importance to which the Supreme People’s Court attaches to CICC cases.

In this commentator’s view, addition to CICC cases, other cases decided by or selected by the Supreme People’s Court would be classified as such. For example, cases decided by the Supreme People’s Court Intellectual Property Rights Court 最高人民法院知识产权法庭 would also be allocated to the category that I call “Supreme People’s Court soft precedents.” Other Supreme People’s Court soft precedents would include cases in the Supreme People’s Court Gazette 最高人民法院公报案件,  cases in the trial guides published by the various operational divisions 各个业务庭发表的审判业务指导丛书选的案件,and cases of the specialized judges committees of the SPC operational divisions 和各个业务庭专业法官会议案件。

In my view, cases decided by the collegial panels of the Supreme People’s Court are also persuasive, but not as persuasive as Supreme People’s Court cases in the categories described above. Supreme People’s Court circuit court cases are very persuasive to the courts within their jurisdiction. This case law is needed to supplement law and judicial interpretations and guide the lower courts correctly, as many new issues come before the courts before the legislative organs have time to amend legislation. I see China evolving its own case law, looking to traditional law and foreign jurisdictions for reference, but settling upon rules that fit China’s special situation, that may include some of the points I mention above. CICC decisions, whether rulings or judgments, will send important signals to the market, and are likely to be significant worldwide, as there is a documented increase in international arbitration cases where either the contract in dispute is governed by Chinese law or Chinese law is relevant in various ways.

The Chinese version:

中国国际商事法庭与有中国特色判例法的发展

我很荣幸有这个机会就中国国际商事法院(CICC)的首批裁定和判决发表意见。本短评将侧重中国国际商事法庭的判决和裁定以及仲裁司法审查裁定的重要性。

中国国际商事法庭的运作时间不长,对其运作进行更详细的分析还为时过早。 但从其迄今为止的运作中可以清楚看到的是,中国国际商事法庭选择其受理的案件非常慎重,只选择会对中国相关法律发展产生影响的案件。 至少从首批裁定可以明显看出,中国国际商事法庭的判决和裁定对于下级法院的法官和法律界人士来说,可能是重要的“软先例”,即权威性的裁判,虽然对下级法院没有约束力,但具有很强的说服力。 国内外权威专家均指出,这批裁定填补了中国仲裁法的一项空白。 这些裁定也与一些主要法域法院的立场保持了一致,也即尽管双方当事人的合同并未最后敲定,但双方都表示有意将争议提交仲裁。 在本文作者看来,这些裁判构成中国发展自己的案例指导制度的一部分,正如第五个司法改革纲要第26项所强调的,特别是“完善类案和新类型案件强制检索报告工作机制” 。 此前,最高人民法院关于落实司法责任制完善审判监督管理机制的意见(试行)曾提及“(六) 在完善类案参考、裁判指引等工作机制基础上,建立类案及关联案件强制检索机制,确保类案裁判标准统一、法律适用统一 。”

此外,到目前为止,合议庭均由五名法官组成,全部都是中国法院在跨境问题(包括仲裁司法审查)方面最杰出的专家。 由此可见最高人民法院对国际商事法庭案件的重视程度。

本文作者认为,除国际商事法庭案件外,最高人民法院审理或选取的其他案件也将被归入此类案例。例如,最高人民法院知识产权法庭判决的案件,也可归为所说的“最高人民法院软判例”,最高人民法院其他软判例还包括最高人民法院公报案例、各个业务庭发表的审判业务指导丛书选的案例和各个业务庭专业法官会议案例。我认为,最高人民法院合议庭判决的案件也具有说服力,但是没有上述几类案例的说服力强。 最高人民法院巡回法庭案例对其辖区内的法院具有很强的说服力。 由于立法机关往往来不及修改立法,许多新问题就摆在了法院面前,因此需要以判例来补充法律和司法解释以正确指导下级法院。 我看到中国正在发展自己的判例法,参考传统法律和外国司法管辖区的做法,但最终确定适合中国特殊国情的规则,这可能包括上文提到的一些要点。 国际商事法庭的裁判,无论是裁定还是判决,都将向市场发出重要信号,而且很可能在全球范围内产生重大影响,因为已有相关文件显示,争议合同适用中国法,或者中国法在不同方面予以适用的国际仲裁案件不断在增加。

Happy New Year!

First US President (-elect) to litigate in Chinese court

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Donald Trump vs. PRC Trademark Review & Adjudication Board

President-elect Donald Trump is a person of many firsts. It is well known that he is litigious (involved in at least 3500 lawsuits in the US federal and state courts).  What is not known outside of China is that he is the first person to be elected president of the United States who has sued in the Chinese courts (and lost).  The image above is of the judgment of the Beijing Higher People’s Court (the official version in SPC case database linked here, but also available here), upholding a decision by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court (up to 52,000+ pageviews). The Beijing Intermediate People’s Court reviewed Trump’s challenge of a ruling of the PRC Trademark Review & Adjudication Board (TRAB) on the use of the TRUMP trademark. He is one of many in the foreign business community who have been losers in China’s first to file trademark system (summarized here).

Before getting to the legal issues, a note about Trump’s name. In this case his name is translated as唐纳 川普 (his last name is the contraction for Sichuan Putonghua).  It is the translation used colloquially in China, but the official media translates his name as 唐纳德·特朗普.

Trump’s 2006 Chinese trademark application was made to the Trademark Bureau on 7 December 2006 in class 37 (Building construction; repair; installation services), while individual Dong Wei applied for the TRUMP trademark on 24 November 2006 in a subclass of class 37, for building construction supervision.

On 30 November 2009, the Trademark Bureau rejected Trump’s trademark application as it related to hotel, residential, and commercial real estate construction information.  Trump sought reconsideration of the Trademark Bureau’s decision by TRAB. TRAB upheld the Trademark Bureau’s ruling in its 2014 decision (评字(2014)第2758号)

Will this case mean that the new administration is more or less interested in continuing judicial exchanges with the Supreme People’s Court, such as the U.S.-China Judicial Dialogue in Support of Reform and Economic Growth ?

 

Supreme People’s Court’s new document protecting private enterprise

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The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) recently published a policy document on protecting private (民间) enterprise, although the document itself was approved almost two months previously.  It is linked to State Council and Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform policy documents of earlier this year.  The State Council policy document admitted that private companies have trouble receiving “national treatment (“难以享受同等“国民待遇”). The SPC policy document further relates to a 2014 SPC policy document on private (non-public (非公有制) enterprise.  It conveys the following messages:

  • Too many lower courts are invalidating contracts because contracts have not received government approval, instead of applying the Contract Law on this point properly;
  • Too many lower courts are causing private investors to lose ownership of their companies, particularly those that are affiliated (挂靠) with government (the affiliation system was a way for entrepreneurs to avoid restrictions on private business by affiliating their operations with government).
  • Courts are preventing private investors from transferring their shareholding;
  • Courts are not sufficiently protecting the rights of private investors  who take a minority stake with other investors (especially state-owned ones). As this blogpost pointed out, it is not unusual for majority/controlling investors to engage in illegal, unfair, and abusive acts, such as abusive related company translations, creating fraudulent or defective board resolutions, failing to distribute profits, failing to keep other shareholders informed (the SPC’s judicial interpretation on this issue has not yet been issued);
  • Courts are failing to distinguish between corporate and personal/family assets, requiring private investors to repay corporate debts with their personal assets;
  • Courts are failing to uphold lending contracts between companies, although a 2015 SPC judicial interpretation confirmed their validity (under certain conditions);
  •  Courts are failing to protect the ownership rights, intellectual property rights, and operational rights of private companies, and prevent the “illegal seizure” of private property.
  • Courts are failing to uphold the rights of private enterprises to invest abroad.
  • On labor issues, courts should seek to balance the interests of the workers with the continued survival of companies, and seek to reduce labor costs.  Especially for small and medium enterprises (this earlier blogpost highlighted how often private companies are sued in Guangdong in labor cases), courts should seek to resolve disputes through conciliation. For companies in trouble, courts should use measures such as taking security to prevent employers from maliciously harming worker’s interests.

Commentary in People’s Court Daily had this to say:

Private entrepreneurs face hidden obstacles and difficulties, both from the legal system and in practice.  There are hidden inequalities in their legal status, particularly when they are facing monopoly [duopoly] state owned enterprises (SOEs), given huge power of the SOEs. Second, the investment environment for private companies is unstable. Government policies and measures often change, such as when government signs basic infrastructure contracts with private companies, but then government changes the related urban plan.  Third, private entrepreneurs in the past have failed to receive equal legal protection, because of judicial local protectionism and inconsistencies in judicial decision-making.

A prominent legal blogger suggested that local courts frequently abuse their authority to seal up or freeze business assets of private companies, causing significant losses.

Comments

The Chinese government is promoting public private partnerships (PPP) but has not been able to attract substantial interest in the projects for a number of reasons, including regulatory risk. Private investors are also concerned that the local courts will not protect their rights in the event of a dispute.

Statistics released by the Chinese government earlier this fall reveal that overseas investment by Chinese private enterprise in 2015 surpassed investment by state-owned enterprises, accounting for 65% of outbound investment, with observers disagreeing on the extent to which it represents capital flight. The failure of private investors “to feel justice in every case” (linked to the lack of autonomy of Chinese courts hearing cases involving the rights of private entrepreneurs) will lead them to invest less in the Chinese economy, and diversify even more assets to jurisdictions more protective of private property interests.  Those other jurisdictions will benefit from an inflow of capital and entrepreneurial spirit.

On labor issues, the SPC has indicated what current government policy is and what the courts need to do to implement it. It is unclear whether these policies will be effective in reducing labor unrest.

 

 

 

 

A model copyright infringement case–“A Bite of China”

A Bite of China (rts CCTV International)

A Bite of China (© CCTV International)

The blogpost below was kindly provided by a former Chinese judge, Jianwei “Jerry” Fang, who practices with a New York-based law firm in Hong Kong.

The Bite of China case

As announced in a press conference on 30 April 2014, the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) has started to issue model cases(典型案例) on a monthly basis to guide the lower courts. On June 23, 2014, the Court issued five model cases decided by lower courts, which included one criminal, two civil and two administrative cases. Among those, the civil case concerning copyright infringement, CCTV International vs. Shanghai TuDou Network Technology Co., Ltd. (news report linked here and case description here), has been closely watched by and is of particular interest to practitioners, especially  intellectual property lawyers.

Facts:

A Bite of China (舌尖上的中国) is a documentary series on Chinese food produced by China Central Television Station (“CCTV”) that is very famous in China. The series was first broadcast in May 2012 and became a very popular and well-known show in China. CCTV granted the copyright of the documentary series to CCTV International Network Co. Ltd. (“CCTV International”). However, it was found that within a week of the original broadcasting, the show had appeared on the website of TuDou.com, the famous video portal operated by Shanghai TuDou Network Technology Co., Ltd. (“TuDou Network”). After securing the evidence with help from the notary office, CCTV International sued TuDou Network for damages and reasonable costs of RMB 850,000.

Issues:

Is TuDou Network liable for providing storage of the copyrighted video on its site, and if so, how should damages be determined?

Courts:

First instance case heard by Shanghai Minhang District People’s Court; Appeal case heard by Shanghai First Intermediate People’s Court.

Ruling:

The defendant is liable and ordered to pay damages of RMB 240,000 and reasonable costs of RMB 8,000.

Reasoning:

The documentary series is in the category of cinematographic works and works created by a process analogous to cinematography, and is therefore protected by the PRC Copyright Law. The defendant provided an online on-demand link to the show without proper authorization from the copyright owner, which is a typical infringement of copyright though internet broadcasting and therefore he bears liability for infringement. While the defendant argued that the video was uploaded by an internet user, the courts found that the defendant failed to provide evidence to support its argument. The courts reasoned that because that the portal is required to control and manage the information and identity of the uploader, the website has the burden of proof. Since the defendant had deleted the original uploading information on its own, it should bear the adverse legal consequences.

Of note:

This case is a typical copyright infringement through internet sharing. In assessing the damages, the courts considered the copyright type, social recognition of the video, the nature of the infringement action, as well as the internet portal’s operational size, business model and influences, among other factors. The damages of RMB 240,000 can help to compensate the copyright owner, and force internet video portal operators to discipline themselves and manage their business. This case shows the trends of increased protection of intellectual properties, and serves as a warning to other internet video copyright infringers.

Comments:

As the Supreme People’s Court Observer has noted in earlier blogposts, the Court has recently started to publish more systematically model cases as an important supplement to legislation, judicial interpretations and guiding cases (指导案例, but long before this, had been publishing model cases in the Gazette of the Supreme People’s Court (最高人民法院公报).

While model cases are not binding on judges deciding subsequent cases, they will likely influence the decision of judges considering cases of similar type and with similar facts. Most Chinese judges I know would agree with this view. Back in 2006 when I was a junior judge at a trial court in Zhejiang, I wrote an article discussing the possibility of judicial precedent in China in the Chinese academic journal Public Administration & Law (2006-1). In my view, since I left the court to study and to work in private practice, the Chinese judiciary has made a lot of improvement and progress, which I applaud.