Lawsuits against foreign countries in the Chinese courts

In March 2020, three Chinese lawyers filed civil lawsuits against (variously) the United States (US) government, President Trump, and other US government departments, attracting a great deal of attention on Chinese social media. The case that has attracted the most attention is the one in Wuhan, but according to Wechat articles, two different Beijing lawyers have also filed cases. Reports of these lawsuits are now making their way into English language media.

These lawsuits involve the issue of sovereign or state immunity of foreign governments, foreign embassies/consulates in China and their diplomatic staff, international institutions, and certain other persons and entities.  China’s position is absolute sovereign or state immunity– which means that states, diplomatic institutions and staff, as well as international institutions) are immune from suit and enforcement (unless they waive immunity). These issues have been discussed by practitioners and academics for quite a few years. (There have been academic discussions about China changing its position on state immunity and China has signed, but not ratified the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property, which adopts qualified immunity (not yet in force). I will not further discuss this issue as the law is quite clear.

What this blogpost will discuss is what others have not: the procedure (and the document in which the procedure is set out) by which a Chinese court decides whether to accept these cases.   This bureaucratic procedure gives greater insights into how the Chinese courts operate.

The procedure is set out in the 2007 Notice of the Supreme People’s Court on the Relevant Issues concerning the People’s Courts Acceptance of Civil Cases Involving Privileges and Immunities (the Notice) (最高人民法院关于人民法院受理涉及特权与豁免的民事案件有关问题的通知). The SPC issued the notice to the lower courts, including the military courts.

The Notice is intended to provide a clear standard to the lower courts when they encounter a case involving issues of state immunity. The system described below is one of the exceptions to the registration case filing system.

The notice itself (as I have written before about other types of judicial guidance documents) has an uncertain formal status under Chinese law, although as a practical matter it is binding on the lower courts. The core part of the notice follows:

To strictly enforce the provisions of the Civil Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China and the relevant international conventions that China has acceded to and ensure the correct acceptance of civil cases involving privileges and immunities, this court has decided to establish a reporting system for cases involving privilege and immunity accepted by the people’s courts, and a notice is hereby issued as follows:

For a civil case filed with the people’s court where the defendant or third party is any of the following subjects that enjoys privilege or immunity in China, before deciding to accept it, the people’s court shall submit it to the higher people’s court with jurisdiction for examination; the higher people’s court agreeing on the acceptance shall submit its examination opinions to the Supreme People’s Court. Before the Supreme People’s Court makes a reply, no acceptance shall be made.) 保障正确受理涉及特权与豁免的民事案件,我院决定对人民法院受理的涉及特权与豁免的案件建立报告制度,特做如下通知:人民法院应在决定受理之前,报请本辖区高级人民法院审查;高级人民法院同意受理的,应当将其审查意见报最高人民法院。在最高人民法院答复前,一律暂不受理。

The entities listed include:

  • foreign countries;
  • foreign embassies and consulates in China and their staffs;
  • offices of the United Nations (constituent organizations) in China and their staff;
  • analogous organizations.

Judging by the number of page views (12,500) of the Notice in a recent Wechat article, many legal professionals (likely including judges) were unaware that the Notice existed.

The number of cases filed in China against foreign countries, diplomatic entities or persons is unknown.  One database I checked contained a case (with an English translation, that will be discussed below), and a case database has a case involving the International Red Cross, but a more litigious Chinese public means that cases likely have been filed, but I am unable to determine how many.

Explanation:

  1.  Under the Notice, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) (most certainly with the concurrence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), although it is not so stated), has established an approval system for accepting civil cases involving the privileges and immunities of foreign governments, international organizations, etc.  This is one of several types of cases (of which I am aware) for which the SPC has an approval system.  Other types include cases involving the refusal to enforce foreign (foreign-related, and Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau) arbitration awards (and related issues) and death penalty cases (the 死刑复核 system, although the nature of the review and approval are different in those cases).
  2. The court having jurisdiction over the case (generally an intermediate court), reports the case under consideration to its superior higher people’s court for review (request for instructions 请示).  If the higher people’s court concurs with the lower court’s decision to accept the case, it must report the matter to the SPC for review, and the lower court must not accept the case before the SPC has replied. According to other SPC guidance, the judicial committee of the higher court must discuss the issue before it is reported to the SPC.  This is illustrated in a reply by the SPC’s reply in a 2009 case, the Reply of the Supreme People’s Court to the Request for Instructions on Issues concerning Immunities in the Case of Disputes over a House Lease Contract between Li Xiaobo and the Regional Delegation for East Asia of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
  3.  The matter would be processed by the SPC’s Case Filing Division and then forwarded to the #4 Civil Division (the one considering cross-border civil and commercial cases). From the 2009 case, it is clear that the #4 Civil Division is the SPC division that replies to these requests for instructions. I would further surmise that in certain difficult cases, the SPC would consult with the MFA.
  4. I would surmise that in practice, the courts that may see these cases (Beijing’s Chaoyang District and one or more of the Shanghai courts) are familiar with these issues and reject them without seeking instructions.

What does this show about the Chinese courts?

First, the Chinese courts understand there to be a single correct view on certain issues.  This is seen more widely, with references in many documents to unifying judicial approaches to issues.

More importantly, it is one small illustration of the bureaucratic, hierarchical nature and operation (官本位) of the Chinese court system.  For important issues, such as those involving the death penalty, compliance with the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention), and issues involving state immunity and the immunity of international organizations, the SPC’s view is that a high degree of control is needed. It is clear that the SPC’s understanding is that lower court judges are unlikely to be familiar with this technical but important issue.

Why is this issue important? As I wrote last year (about the China International Commercial Court), there are no small matters in foreign affairs (外事无小事)( Zhou Enlai’s saying). Both domestically and internationally, foreign-related matters, because they involve relations with other countries and the prestige of the Chinese state, are sensitive and important.

 

SPC Updates its Guidance on Judicial (Adjudication) Committees

2016 meeting of SPC judicial committee, to which NPC, CPCC representatives, and certain experts were invited

On 22 September the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) updated its guidance to the lower courts on judicial committees (关于健全完善人民法院审判委员会工作机制的意见). (also translated as “adjudication committees”) (审判委员会). For those new to this blog, these committees are made up of certain senior members of a court, and they have special decision-making authority, as detailed below. They decide cases that are too difficult or important for an individual judge or judicial panel to decide, to ensure the optimal substantive result (as seen from the institutional perspective of the courts).

The document is a policy document (explained here), as indicated by its document number 法发〔2019〕20号). Lower courts (and the specialized courts) can issue further detailed guidance, have in the past and will do so.  In 2010 the SPC issued guidance on judicial committees (2010 guidance), which I analyzed in this article, Reforming-judicial-committees.  The article includes some insights from a number of judges with whom I spoke at the time.  Reforming judicial committees has been on the SPC’s agenda since the prior round of judicial reforms, as my 2014 blogpost discusses. I predicted that reform would occur “in the medium term.”  There are is a great deal of writing about judicial committees in English and especially in Chinese.  My 2014 blogpost links to some of the English language research, and other insights about how judicial committees work can be found in Embedded Courts, the prize-winning book by NG Kwai Hang and He Xin.

The broad consensus on judicial committee reform can be seen in Articles 36-39 of the Organic Law of the People’s Courts, as amended in 2018 (2018 People’s Courts Law), but the 2019 guidance sets out more detailed rules.

This blogpost will highlight some of the issues that come to mind in a quick review.

A quick list of what is new follows:

  • There are some changes in the format of SPC Opinions (意见) so that it is usual for them to begin with a list of basic principles.
  • As to be expected, Party leadership and related principles are listed at the top of both the 2019 and 2010 guidance.  Both stress upholding Party leadership of the work of the people’s courts, with the 2019 guidance referring to “upholding the Party’s absolute leadership over the work of the people’s courts.”  This should not at all be surprising, as the phrase has been used repeatedly since the 2019 Political-Legal Work Conference. The Party Regulations on Political-Legal Work use the phrase “Party’s absolute leadership.” As I mentioned earlier this year, Li Ling (of the University of Vienna) sees this as indicating a complete and unambivalent severance from the judicial independence framework.
  • On membership of judicial committees, The 2018 People’s Courts Law and the new guidance retain the old system of having the court president and vice-presidents, but no longer requires division heads (庭长) to be members, but refers to “experienced”(资深) judges and to the possibility of having full-time members.  The  SPC already does this.  Justices Hu Yunteng, Liu Guixiang, Pei Xianding, and He Xiaorong are full-time members of the judicial committee, which gives them a bureaucratic rank equivalent to being an SPC vice president, with attendant privileges. It is likely that the Central Staffing Commission regulates the number of persons who can be SPC vice presidents.  Judging by the SPC website, some SPC judicial committee members are not SPC Party Group members, although of course there is some overlap.
  • Another innovation in the 2018 People’s Courts Law, repeated in the 2019 guidance, is having specialized judicial committees, to focus on more specialized issues, and to deal with the problem of having non-specialist judges making decisions on issues regarding which they are not familiar.  This provision consolidates ongoing practice in both the SPC and lower courts  My understanding is that the Shenzhen Intermediate Court was one of the earlier courts to establish specialist judicial committees.  The roots of this innovation lie in the 2004-2008 Second Judicial Reform Five Year Plan Outline. (This also illustrates the time it takes for some judicial reforms to be adopted.)
  • On the functions of judicial committees, new language mentions “sensitive, major, and difficult cases such as those involving national security, diplomacy, or social stability.”  That language is new as compared to the 2010 guidance.  It is not new to the SPC, as it appears in the SPC’s 2017 judicial responsibility regulations, about which I wrote.  I surmise that this is just spelling out what had been the general practice.   Most of the other functions are consistent with previous guidance.
  • The operational language is more detailed than before and gives a glimpse into the bureaucratic nature of the Chinese court system ( a collegial panel or single judge who thinks a case should go to the judicial committee  “submit an application and report it up to the court president for approval level by level; and where an application is not submitted, but the court president finds it necessary, they may request that the adjudication committee deliberate and make a decision. The language enabling a court president to designate a case for judicial committee discussion likely represents a consolidation of practice, rather than something new.
  • Other procedures in the operational section are new, reflecting the new institution of the professional judges committee and much more specific requirements concerning the content of the report that the judges are required to prepare for the judicial committee, including arguments by both/all parties, prosecution/defense counsel and a clear listing of the issues on the application of law that require discussion and decision by the adjudication committee, the opinions of the professional (presiding) judges meeting. In a clear signal about how the SPC sees the importance of case research, it also requires judges preparing these reports to search for similar or related cases.
  • The 2019 guidance requires judicial committee members with a conflict to recuse themselves  (the language is unclear about whether a party can apply to do that).  This is new, and reflects many years of criticism of the failure to have a recusal mechanism.
  • The 2019 guidance also imposes a quorum requirement on judicial committee meetings, both the plenary and specialized committee meetings. Certain outsiders (people’s congress delegates, scholars, etc) may attend, as well as the chief procurator at the same level or his delegate (this latter provision is not new).
  • Decisions are made by at least half of the members attending and dissenting opinions must be recorded in the case file. It does not mention that dissenting opinions will be mentioned in the judgment issued to the parties and the public. As before, the decision of the judicial committee is binding on the judge or judges who heard the case (principle of democratic centralism).
  •  The 2018 People’s Court Law and new guidance require the decision and reasoning in cases discussed by the adjudication committee to be disclosed in the judgment documents unless the law provides otherwise, so a significant step forward in judicial committee transparency.  The lack of judicial committee transparency had been criticized for many years.
  • Judicial committees at all levels of the courts are now required to create an audio or visual recording of the entire process of judicial committee meetings and keep them confidential. Judicial committee proceedings are required to be incorporated in a court’s caseflow management system. It is not clear from the guidance who or which entity would have access.
  • Those not involved in judicial committee proceedings (outside leaders, senior judges not involved) are forbidden from involving themselves in judicial committee proceedings.  If this didn’t happen in practice, it wouldn’t have been included in this guidance.
  • Similarly, the language in the 2019 rules on judicial committee members and other maintaining confidentiality and work discipline, and not leaking trial work secrets (I discuss this in my article published earlier this year.  If this didn’t happen in practice, it wouldn’t have been included in this guidance.

Although for many years proposals have been made to abolish the judicial committee, I have rarely heard anyone who has worked in the Chinese judicial system agree with that proposal.  It seems more likely that the SPC thinking is maintaining the judicial committee system is appropriate for China at this time, given the level of professionalism nationwide, the need to share/avoid responsibility for making difficult decisions, and the greater political environment.  This guidance appears to be designed to deal with some of the abuses of the judicial committee system, have greater (but not complete) transparency, incorporate new court institutions, and generally improve how the committees operate.