Rooting the Singapore Mediation Convention in Chinese soil

tree planting in Fujian ©xinhua

The signing of the  UN Convention on Enforcement of Mediated Settlement Agreements (Singapore Mediation Convention) in early August by the United States, China, and 44 other countries is one of the significant events for international commercial lawyers, although it has been lost in the roar of more major geopolitical events.  Signing the convention appears to have been a last-minute decision by the government of the People’s Republic of China, as this post by Zhong Lun partner Sun Wei in the third week of July does not give a clear signal as to whether China would sign. In several events at which I spoke or attended this month, the topic of the Singapore Mediation Convention came up.  So I’d like to draw on the wisdom of others (and add some of my own thoughts) to talk about the challenges to be faced in rooting the Singapore Convention in [mainland] Chinese soil.

I’ll note that Professors Peter Corne and Matthew Erie have written about the same topic recently for the well-regarded blog Opinio Juris about the background and some of the challenges that China faces in implementing the Singapore Mediation Convention.  I appreciate their link to my March, 2019 blogpost on the closed-door workshop held at the International Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on the Singapore Convention. They have written in detail about the lack of commercial mediation legislation, inconsistencies between the Convention and domestic PRC law, and the lack of private-sector or other robust mediation centers.  I’ll add to the analysis several (generally unrecognized) factors:

  • taking a more flexible approach to mediation legislation;
  • changing state-owned enterprise (SOE) and SOE senior manager metrics and performance indicators to facilitate mediated settlements;
  • convincing senior SPC personnel that settlement agreements (as defined by the Singapore Mediation Convention) are more likely to lessen rather than increase the workload of the courts (this has been flagged by Sun Wei in one of his posts);
  • having persons committed to making change within bureaucratic institutions.

Flexible approach to mediation legislation

A number of people have written (and even more have spoken) about the obstacles posed by the lack of a Chinese commercial mediation law or general mediation law.  But perhaps it is best to follow the usual Chinese legislative approach, and test what is needed through [possibly temporary] [State Council] regulations. Once the outlines of what needs to go into a law are clear, drafters can look to China’s own experience, the 2018  UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Mediation and International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation and experience abroad (characterized as beneficial foreign experience).

Implications for SOEs

On changing SOE (and manager) metrics and performance indicators, Professors Jack Coe, Jr. (Pepperdine University School of Law) and Lucy Reed (National University of Singapore(NUS)) made the comments below on investor-state mediation earlier this year in a conference in Hong Kong on investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). Although they were not speaking specifically of China, in my view, the principles are also applicable to China and also apply to settlement agreements of SOEs with commercial entities in other jurisdictions:

Relatedly, governments ought to more fully embrace principles of resource management and prudent stewardship in considering how in a given case mediation might bring an end to a risk-laden dispute, allowing the government officials legitimately to declare victory, and then return to the State’s other business. Additionally, we need to study domestic corruption laws and other municipal disincentives to government settlements with foreign investors. State officials [and senior SOE managers] ought to be free to end disputes without fear of corruption charges later being brought against them, in turn putting the settlement itself at risk.

Professor Lucy Reed discussed a 2016 survey that NUS’ Centre for Investment Law (which she headed) conducted on obstacles to settlement in ISDS (for those who aren’t familiar with her, she is one of the leading international commercial and investment arbitrators):

the top obstacle to settlement in ISDS, by far, is the State’s desire to avoid responsibility for a settlement and to defer decision making to third-party arbitrators. The second greatest obstacle is the political risk involved. The third one is the difficulty of getting budget approval when there is a voluntary settlement instead of an arbitral award. Fourth is,as Jack Coe mentioned, a fear of public criticism, media criticism,
and even allegations of corruption in taking a bribe in order to settle a case with a potentially hated investor. Fifth was the fear of setting a precedent, meaning opening the floodgates to being sued again and again because you make a settlement. Then there are structural inefficiencies; because there are so many agencies involved, it is just hard to get approval.

The survey also looked at what might incentivize governments to invite a mediator to participate. Professor Reed said:

By far the most important factor was the desire to save time and money, so, please remember this one.  Second, obviously, is when the case is known to be weak and might be lost. Third is appreciating the certainty of a settlement, over which they have some control, as compared to the uncertainty of an arbitration decision, which you might win but you also mightlose and lose big. And the fourth factor actually was the desire to preserve a long-term relationship, if the relations are not already fractured as they often are in big investments.

All of these obstacles and incentives have their Chinese characteristics. One incentive, a variation of the fourth factor that Professor Reed identified, is that it enables a Chinese contractor that has a dispute with a host country (or state-owned company) to resolve a dispute (to its satisfaction) without losing its eligibility for future work in that market. This is a real concern for Chinese contractors, who are major players in the international construction/contracting market.

Resolving issues for SOEs is likely to require a commitment by multiple institutions involved in administering SOEs and its managers (State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), the Communist Party’s Organization Department (组织部), and the Ministry of Finance among others. In a mock mediation session (based on an actual case) that was part of a Great Britain China Centre event that I attended this spring, the benefits of mediated settlements in achieving the goals of all parties involved in a BRI project was brought home.  Convincing the SOEs and their regulators will be an important part of making the Singapore Mediation Convention work in China.

Implications of the Singapore Convention for the Chinese courts

As Sun Wei wrote earlier, the Chinese courts are concerned that overworked [I would add, and very studious] Chinese judges will need to deal with a flood of enforcement cases when China ratifies the Convention. He cited data to show that generally parties comply with a mediated settlement and rarely seek compulsory enforcement proceedings. Another major concern of the Chinese courts is that Chinese judges will need to review claims of fraudulent cross-border mediation as well as fraudulent litigation and mediation. But the evidence so far would indicate that the Singapore Mediation Convention would reduce rather increase the workload of the Chinese courts. But the deeper question is the reliability of that data and relevance to China’s legal environment and the legal environment outside of China in which Chinese companies operate. There are more minor issues, such as an additional cause of action (if I understand Chinese civil procedure law correctly), but those aren’t the principal concerns.

Who is committed?

Planting the Singapore Convention in Chinese soil requires work by many related government institutions.  The hard work in determining what needs to be done cannot be done one person (or even a team of people) in one institution, but requires persuasion and appeals to institutional self-interest of multiple institutions, and persons committed to making the Singapore Convention work in their regulatory area.

Many thanks to a knowledgeable person for his thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this blogpost.