At 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.
- 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);
- 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
- 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.
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.