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?

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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 the19th 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.

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

China International Commercial Court starts operating

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The author in front of CICC #1,  December 2018

In the last few months of 2018,  the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and China International Commercial Court (CICC) took measures to enable the CICC to start operating, although the CICC was established earlier in 2018.  As SPC President Zhou Qiang reported to the National People’s Congress (NPC)  in March 2018 that the CICC would be established, I expect that he will report to the NPC in March of this year that the SPC established the CICC and it has successfully begun operating. (It is likely that the National Appellate IP Court will merit a place in Zhou Qiang’s report as one of the SPC’s 2018 accomplishments, but see fellow blogger Mark Cohen (and co-authors)’s post on that development). This blogpost will summarize (and provide some commentary on) some of the recent CICC developments.

Those developments included:

  • issuing rules on the international commercial expert committee;
  • personnel measures–designating the heads of the of the #1 and #2 CICCs and the heads of the case management offices in the two offices and appointing seven additional judges;
  • designating several (mainland) Chinese arbitration and mediation institutions to be part of its integrated one-stop dispute resolution;
  • accepting several cases;
  • issuing rules on CICC operations (to be discussed in a following blogpost).

Rules on the international expert committee

On December 5 the SPC General Office issued the working rules of the international commercial expert committee (expert committee) (approved by the SPC judicial committee in late October) (最高人民法院国际商事专家委员会工作规则). The date of the notice of the General Office is 21 November.  It answers some frequently asked questions about the expert committee. My comments are in italics.

What do members of the expert committee do?

1) preside over mediations (Article 3 (1): This was clear from the CICC Provisions.  It remains to be seen how many expert committee members will feel comfortable mediating disputes. It could be that some of the Chinese members will feel more comfortable mediating disputes than the foreign or Hong Kong-based members, as some of those members have long experience as arbitrators in China, where combining mediation and arbitration (med-arb) is usual. A significant number of expert committee members are from jurisdictions where being a mediator and mediating us regarded as separate profession and skill from arbitration and adjudicating.  Articles 9-13 describe the mechanics for doing so.

(2) provide an advisory opinion on specialized legal issues such as those relating to international treaties, international commercial rules, finding and applying foreign law [foreign and greater China jurisdictions] relating cases heard by the CICC and the People’s Courts at all levels (Article 3 (2): This contains a surprising expansion of the role of the experts on the committee by authorizing Chinese courts at various levels to request an expert committee member to provide an advisory opinion on international legal, international commercial and foreign law issues. A note on terminology–the English version on the CICC website uses “foreign law” while the Chinese original uses the term  “域外 ” (extraterritorial), intended to include the jurisdictions of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as well as the law of foreign jurisdictions.  This blogpost will use the term “foreign law” as meaning “域外 ” extraterritorial law.

The fact that expert committee members have been so authorized indicates that ascertaining (determining) foreign law is a significant practical problem for Chinese judges.  I previously mentioned in this 2017 blogpost that Judge Zhang Yongjian listed ascertaining foreign law(he uses the term 外国法·) as one of many problems confronting Chinese judges hearing cross-border issues. Several articles on the Chinese version of the CICC website (plus one on the English version (by CICC Judge Gao Xiaoli) discuss this problem.  Judge Gao gently pokes fun at some Chinese scholars who fail to understand relevant judicial interpretations on ascertaining foreign law. The CICC website lists the methods available to a Chinese court in ascertaining foreign law. Among the alternatives include designating one of four authorized centers to provide an expert opinion on foreign law.  Articles 14-15 describe some of the mechanics by which one or more expert committee experts can provide an advisory opinion.

Under Article 15, a litigant may request through the CICC’s Expert Office that the expert appear in court to explain his or her opinion.  It is up to the expert to decide whether to appear. Presumably, expenses involved, including travel and translation, would be the responsibility of the requesting party.

The rules do not clarify a number of practical questions related to this. Could a court request an advisory opinion from an expert and from a designated discernment center, and if so, what relative weight will be attached to each?  Presumably, a court would give it greater weight than an opinion from an expert provided by a party.  It is unclear whether experts can charge for these services. Another concern for experts could be liability, and the standard for an opinion found to be negligently made.  Additionally, for the many foreign experts on the committee who do not know Chinese, it is unclear who will be responsible for translation.  Presumably, the court that requested the opinion or the International Expert Committee office (see 6 (2), which states that the office provides services to experts. Perhaps the forthcoming Code of Ethics of the Expert Members will address these questions.

(3) provide advice and suggestions on the development of the International Commercial Court; (4) provide advice and suggestions on the formulation of judicial interpretations and judicial policies of the Supreme People’s Court; (5) Other matters entrusted by the International Commercial Court; The first two provisions set out a formal structure for foreigners to provide advice, suggestions, and comments on judicial interpretations, judicial policy and other developments to the SPC, a first. Article 18 anticipates that the Expert Office will direct requests for comments or advice on specific draft judicial interpretations, policies, etc. to one or more experts, as the CICC considers useful rather than expert committee members being informed about ongoing developments.  However, it does enable expert committee members to make suggestions or proposals on their own initiative.  

Personnel developments

The last few months have seen a number of CICC personnel developments, including the appointment of seven additional judges. In early November, Judge Zhang Yongjian, deputy head of the #1 Circuit Court and head of the #4 Civil Division, was appointed as head of the #1 CICC and Judge Zhang Ming, deputy head of the #6 Circuit Court, was appointed head of the #2 CICC.

Judges Xi Xiangyang and Ding Guangyu, presiding judges on the #1 and #6 Circuit Courts respectively, and CICC judges, were at the same time appointed heads of the case management offices of the two courts.

Judge Song Jianli has been appointed the head of the CICC Expert Office.

The additional seven judges are:

  1. Wang Shumei (deputy head of the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, specializing in maritime law);
  2. Wei Wenchao, who has had a number of roles at the SPC, most recently as deputy head of the #5 Circuit Court. He had previously served as deputy head of the Environmental and Natural Resources Division;
  3. Song Jianli, head of the Experts Office, who studied at Southampton Institute (now Solent University) (in addition to his studies in China), and was a visiting scholar at Cambridge, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Max Planck Institute of Comparative and International Law, and has primarily worked in the SPC’s #4 Civil Division;
  4. Zhang Xuemei, of the SPC #2 Civil Division (domestic commercial issues);
  5. Yu Xiaohan, also of the #4 Civil Division, and like Wang Shumei, a maritime law specialist;
  6. Ding Guangyu, who studied at the University of Manchester and has had a number of roles at the SPC, including at the China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence, and in the #4 Civil Division;
  7. Guo Zaiyu, who spent many years at the Hubei Higher People’s Court before transferring to the SPC’s #4 Civil Division.

It is clear from these announcements that at this time, the CICC is a part-time responsibility for the judges involved, who have their ongoing responsibilities at the SPC, either at one of the Circuit Courts, the new Intellectual Property Court, or SPC headquarters.  And some senior people, such as Judge Zhang Yongjian, have triple administrative roles.

One-stop diversified dispute resolution mechanism

As an earlier blogpost flagged, the institutions clearly intended to be part of the one-stop diversified dispute resolution mechanism were the leading Chinese arbitration and mediation institutions handling foreign-related matters.  Most of these institutions sent senior representatives to attend the first meeting of the experts committee, so I was not surprised to see the following institutions listed:

  1. China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC);
  2. Shanghai International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission;
  3. the Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration (SCIA);
  4. Beijing Arbitration Commission;
  5. China Maritime Arbitration Commission;
  6. the Mediation Center of China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT); and
  7. Shanghai Commercial Mediation Center.

SCIA has an arrangement with the Hong Kong Mediation Centre since 2014 by which Mediation Centre settlements may be enforced in mainland China through a consent award issued by SCIA.

First cases

At the end of December 2018, the CICC accepted several cases, all of which can be categorized as general international commercial disputes, with none specifically related to Belt & Road projects.  The disputes include: an unjust enrichment dispute involving Fujifilm and several Chinese companies, a product liability dispute involving Italian pharmaceutical company called Bruschettini (which sells its products through Sinco Pharmaceuticals Ltd., a Hong Kong-listed company), several disputes related to Thailand’s Red Bull (from this report, I surmise that the case was referred by the Beijing Higher People’s Court), and several disputes involving the validity of arbitration clauses, including one involving China Travel Service (Hong Kong) and one of its hotels.   ____________________________

The author is a member of the international commercial expert committee but her views do not represent the committee, the CICC, or the SPC.

 

Update on China’s international commercial court

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Judge Gao Xiaoli

Among the many developments flagged in Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Zhou Qiang’s 2018 report to the National People’s Congress is that the SPC will establish an international commercial tribunal (court)(最 高人民法院国际商事审判庭), as approved by the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms. The timing is unknown. The international commercial tribunal (this post will use the term “court”) as is understood clearly, must fit political and technical requirements. This blogpost will look at those, particularly the technical ones, as those are the ones that have escaped the attention of most commentators outside of China.

Background

Although many  articles have been published in the media, both in and out of China after the public announcement to the press about the international commercial court in January, 2018, most of them have little detail on the issues. Some contain uninformed statements, such as the one that quotes an insider at the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade mentioning the use for dispute resolution of “the common law of the United States and European countries” (send the insider back to law school please!).

In the past three months, Judge Gao Xiaoli, deputy head of the SPC’s #4 civil division (photo above), and at least one other person at the SPC has released some information about the court, all of which seems to have eluded international discussions. For those who are not aficionados of Chinese foreign-related dispute resolution, Judge Gao (who often appears at UNCITRAL or international arbitration related conferences or seminars) outside as well as inside mainland China, is a formidable presence in the courtroom. Thanks to the SPC’s streaming of court hearings, it is now possible to see that from any corner of the world.  She is also an impressive speaker. Judge Gao is representative of the judges engaged in technical legal work at the SPC, with a PhD in law from one of China’s leading law schools and experience studying abroad.

Political requirements

On the political requirements, there are at least two, both previously highlighted in this blog.  The more general one was highlighted one year ago–the establishment of the international commercial court relates to a sentence in the Fourth Plenum Decision:

Vigorously participate in the formulation of international norms, promote the handling of foreign-related economic and social affairs according to the law, strengthen our country’s discourse power and influence in international legal affairs, use legal methods to safeguard our country’s sovereignty, security, and development interests.

More specifically, it appears to be the civil and commercial counterpart to the efforts noted on this blog two years ago (concerning dispute resolution in maritime cases),  part of a push 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.

The other political requirement relates to the need to serve major government strategies, the BRI/OBOR one in particular, discussed in this blogpost.  President Zhou Qiang’s 2018 NPC report, as his 2016 report (and presumably 2017 report) contain the phrase “provided service for the country’s major strategies.” As a central government institution, the SPC must do its part to support national major strategies. Since BRI/OBOR has been initiated, President Zhou Qiang’s report has mentioned  BRI/OBOR as one of those major strategies for which the SPC has provided service.

Technical requirements

Further background

The sources that previous commentators missed include the following:

In the press interview, Judge Gao reviews what the SPC has done so far in this area, including several developments previously highlighted on this blog:

  • SPC’s One Belt One Road (BRI/OBOR) policy document;
  • SPC’s OBOR/BRI model/typical cases (see above link and translations by the Stanford Guiding Cases project found here);
  • SPC’s judicial interpretation on demand guarantees, that blogpost explains that with so many Chinese companies focusing on infrastructure projects overseas, Chinese banks have issued billions of dollars in demand guarantees.

 Technical issues

The SPC is looking at three types of investment and trade disputes:

  • state-state disputes (for China, generally WTO);
  • investor-state disputes (ICSID and other institutions, generally using UNCITRAL rules (note that CIETAC and the Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration (SCIA) also have amended their rules to be able to take investor-state disputes, with SCIA using the UNCITRAL rules;
  • disputes between commercial parties.

Judge Gao mentioned that they at the SPC, too have noticed the worldwide trend of other jurisdictions establishing courts to hear investor-state disputes, citing Canada among them and that they are exploring whether the Chinese courts can do so as well.  However, she notes that when China acceded to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention), it made a commercial reservation, and the SPC judicial interpretation concerning the New York Convention excluded investor-state disputes, so that currently it is not possible to enforce investor-state awards through the New York Convention. Judge Gao says they are considering solutions to this issue.

Commercial disputes

Definition of OBOR/BRI disputes

Although none of the authors have mentioned this (nor have I, until now), one unrecognized issues in discussing OBOR/BRI disputes is a definitional one–what is a OBOR/BRI related dispute?  It seems that in court practice, the definition is broad, including cases between Chinese contractors and their demand guarantee issuing banks, as well as cross border cases involving Chinese and parties located in OBOR countries.  In my research (including a discrete inquiry with a knowledgeable person), a formal definition is lacking.

Judicial cooperation/enforcement issues

As this earlier blogpost mentioned, enforcement of foreign court judgments is on the SPC’s agenda.  As Judge Gao recognizes, there needs to be a structure for judgments of this international commercial court to be enforced outside of China.  She mentions (as has this blog), that China is actively participating in negotiations on the Hague Convention on the Recognition & Enforcement of Foreign Judgments, and is studying ratification of the Hague Convention on the Choice of Courts Agreements.  She flags also (as has this blog) that the SPC is drafting a judicial interpretation on the recognition and enforcement of foreign civil & commercial judgments.

Practice in other jurisdictions

Judge Gao mentions that the SPC is looking at the international commercial courts in several jurisdictions, including Dubai and Singapore (as mentioned in the earlier blogpost), but also Abu Dhabi, London’s Commercial Court (it appears that someone at the SPC has read this Financial Times article on foreign litigants there), and notes that the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium are all establishing international commercial courts that use English.

Challenges for the Chinese courts

Judge Gao forthrightly flags a list of issues (my comments in italics) that the SPC faces in establishing an international commercial court. It is likely that she and her colleagues are aware of the additional issues raised as well.

  • judges; she notes that Dubai and Singapore have foreign judges on their international commercial courts, but currently China’s Judges’ Law and People’s Court Organizational Law (being amended) present obstacles to having foreign judges, and without them, the court will not be international and will not be internationally credible (literally, be internationally influential) (但是如果不引进外籍专业性人才参与国际商事法庭的建设,则缺乏国际性,缺乏影响力). My earlier blogpost mentioned the nationality issue. Would qualified foreign judges (or those from Hong Kong) be willing to join the international commercial court? Judge Gao does not mention that the group of Chinese judges qualified to hear these cases is not that large, and they are overloaded with cases, judicial interpretation/other guidance drafting, and other work. Could highly qualified Chinese lawyers be appointed to this court?  It is unclear, and relates to issues of how they would fit into the rigid structure of the judiciary, highlighted here.
  • choice of law; she mentions that parties have freedom concerning choice of law in China, so that would not be a problem.  However, relating to choice of court clauses, Professor Vivienne Bath’s research on parallel proceedings in China (previously mentioned on this blog) shows that Chinese courts do not recognize the validity of those clauses when the choice “lacks an actual connection with the dispute” because of provisions in the Civil Procedure Law.
  • procedure; she queries whether there can be some breakthroughs in civil procedure in this area.  Foreign lawyers are likely to query whether this could mean better discovery of documents. More importantly, what is not mentioned is that China’s failure to have acceded to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents will also be a major obstacle for the international commercial court. Under current Civil Procedure legislation,  notarization and legalization of documents is often required. The first step is when a party files suit or when a foreign party responds. Additionally, in litigation, evidence from a foreign country often must be notarized and legalized. Notarization and legalization costs time and money and a great deal of effort. At an academic conference in 2017, experts from the institutions involved discussed how to proceed on this.
  • language; Judge Gao notes that the Civil Procedure Law puts obstacles in the way of the international commercial court hearing cases in English.  Note that the pool of Chinese judges able to hear cases in English is not large, and would even further require recruiting judges from outside China’s judicial system.
  • counsel; She mentions the issue of having foreign lawyers handle cases is also an obstacle for the international commercial court, because China’s Civil Procedure Law currently does not permit it.
  • transparency; Judge Gao notes that Chinese judicial transparency and informatization has made great strides, so should be useful to the international commercial court.  However, Judge Gao and her colleagues could usefully look at the type of information accessible to both the parties and general public (and the level of detail in judgments) in other international commercial courts.
  • enforcement; Judge Gao raises the issue of recognition and enforcement of judgments, discussed above.

Where does the SPC go from here?

The article by the post-doctoral student Liao Yuxi suggested that the SPC may want to request the NPC Standing Committee authorize it to suspend some of the problematic provisions of the Civil Procedure Law that Judge Gao flagged above, such as the use of language, and the qualification of judges.  However many of the other issues cannot be resolved so easily, such as international enforcement and the requirement of notarization and legalization of evidence.

As for when we can expect to see some rules relating to the international commercial court, and whether drafts will be circulated for public (or even soft consultation), those are all unclear.  What is clear is that many complicated legal issues face Judge Gao and her colleagues.

 

 

 

 

 

SPC reveals new Belt & Road-related initiatives

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Judge Liu Guixiang (SPC judicial committee member & head of #1 Circuit Court) speaking at conference

In late September (2017), the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held a Belt & Road judicial conference with senior judges from 16 jurisdictions in the desert oasis of Dunhuang, famed for its Buddhist caves.  As is its custom at its international conferences, the SPC released some information concerning previously unknown cross-border related initiatives, both of which have implications for the international business and legal communities.  The English language reports of the conference (in China Daily and related media outlets)  missed the implications.  A brief article in one of the SPC’s Wechat accounts reveals that:

  • SPC is drafting a judicial interpretation on the recognition and enforcement of foreign civil & commercial judgments (关于承认和执行外国法院民商事判决若干问题的规定);
  • SPC is considering establishing a Belt & Road International Commercial Court (literally “Tribunal”) (“一带一路”国际商事法庭). (chief of the SPC’s #4 Civil Division, Judge Zhang Yongjian, must have been speaking of this when he was interviewed during the 2017 National People’s Congress meeting).

Enforcing foreign civil judgments

A recent decision by a Wuhan court to enforce a California default judgment has received worldwide attention, both professional and academic. with some noting nothing had really changed and Professor Donald Clarke correctly wondering whether an instruction had come from on high.  With this news from Judge Liu, it is clear that the Wuhan decision is part of the Chinese courts’ rethink of its approach to recognizing and enforcing foreign court judgments.

Judge Liu revealed that the judicial interpretation will set out details regarding the meaning of “reciprocity” and standards for applying it (明确互惠原则具体适用的标准).  In another recent article, an SPC judge considered the matter of reciprocity in more detail.  Among the issues she mentioned were: 1) China not being a party to the Hague Convention on the Choice of Courts (this obstacle has been removed as China signed the Convention on 12 September 2017 (this article has a good overview); 2) China should actively participate in the drafting of the Hague Convention on the Recognition & Enforcement of Foreign Judgments (this seems to be happening, as this blog has reported).  The SPC judge recognized that the current Chinese position has significant limitations and can lead to a great deal of parallel litigation (see Professor Vivienne Bath‘s scholarship on this).  The SPC judge also suggested that the standards set out in mutual judicial assistance agreements could be useful in drafting standards for reviewing the recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments.

Belt & Road Commercial Court

Judge Liu also mentioned that the SPC would establish a Belt & Road dispute resolution mechanism and that the SPC was considering a Belt & Road commercial tribunal, to provide the parties of OBOR countries with fair, efficient, and low-cost one-stop legal services.  It is clear from discrete developments that the SPC is looking to Singapore’s International Commercial Court and the Dubai’s International Finance Centre Courts (DIFC).  One of those discrete developments is the cooperation agreement that the Shanghai Higher People’s Court and Dubai International Finance Centre Court signed in October 2016 (reported here), which must have required the concurrence of the SPC. The other discrete development is the memorandum of understanding on legal and judicial cooperation between the SPC and Singapore Supreme Court, signed in August 2017, relating to mutual recognition and enforcement of monetary judgments, judicial training for judges, and the Belt & Road initiative.

The details of the SPC’s  Belt & Road commercial court (tribunal) are yet unclear.  Both the DIFC and Singapore International Commercial Court have a panel of international judges, but a similar institution in China would be inconsistent with Chinese legislation.  The SPC is clearly interested in promoting mediation to resolve Belt & Road disputes. This interest is visible from the September 2017 International Mediation conference in Hangzhou, at which Judge Long Fei, director of one of the sections in the SPC’s Judicial Reform Office, spoke on the benefits of international commercial mediation.

Perhaps the SPC envisions an institution analogous to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and plans to cooperate more on resolving Belt & Road commercial disputes with UNCITRAL and other international organizations.  We will need to see how this further develops.

It is also unclear whether the SPC will issue a draft judicial interpretation or draft regulations on the Belt & Road dispute resolution center for public comment.  Although President Zhou Qiang and Executive Vice President Shen Deyong speak of the benefits of judicial transparency, it seems the benefits of public participation in judicial interpretation drafting /rule-making have yet to be fully realized.