Judicial services & guarantees to aid China’s economy

Justice He Xiaorong at the press conference

I am going to experiment with a shorter format, starting with this blogpost.

On 22 July, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held a news conference with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) to announce their latest policy document providing judicial services and guarantees to accelerate the socialist market system in the New Era (为加快完善社会主义市场经济体制提供司法保障).  Justice He Xiaorong appears to be the SPC senior official in charge of the #1 Civil Division. From his appearance at the press conference, Zheng Xuelin, the head of the #1 Civil Division, must have taken the lead in drafting this document, but the subject matter reflects input from many divisions of the SPC, although none of them are mentioned. Wang Renfei, head of the NDRC’s Division of Economic Reform, also appeared at the press conference.  It is linked to a May, 2020 document of the Central Committee and State Council on improving the market economy in the New Era.

These policy documents that provide judicial services and guarantees are one of the hallmarks of the SPC in the New Era, as General Secretary Xi Jinping has called on the SPC to provide judicial services and guarantees to the important policy initiatives and strategies of the Party and state. Since Xi Jinping became General Secretary, at the annual Central Political-Legal Work Conference, he has given instructions to the political-legal institutions that the judicial organs provide “judicial services and guarantees” for major Party and government policies. For that reason, the SPC has increased the number of policy documents in which it has provided services and guarantees to the work of the Party and state. Consistent with Xi Jinping’s instructions, Party leadership, in the most recent inspection of the SPC, requested that the SPC strengthen its “services and guarantees” to the work of the Party and state.   This latest policy document has 29 articles, covering the topics of:

  • judicial protection of market entities, especially small entities;
  • judicial protection of property rights;
  • establishing a fair, just, and orderly competitive market system;
  • a legalized business environment suitable for high-quality economic development;
  • judicial protection of people’s livelihood;
  • improve foreign-related guarantees; and
  • one-stop diversified dispute resolution with Chinese characteristics.

There are a few new provisions, but most of the provisions are a repackaging of current or previous issues, many of which had been mentioned in a recent SPC New Era policy document and discussed on this blog. Some, while not new, send welcome signals.  The careful reader can pull out of the bureaucratic language of this document ongoing issues facing the Chinese courts and even some initiatives not previously mentioned.  An unscientific selection below follows:

  1. Judicial protection of market entities

This section repeats principles or raises issues such as:

  • parties being treated equally; protecting the individual and property rights of entrepreneurs (an ongoing issue–see this 2016 blogpost);
  • Absorb and transform beneficial international/foreign experience –this document uses the language “beneficial experience from legal systems with mature market entities” (吸收借鉴国际成熟市场主体法律制度的有益经验). This phrase is repeated elsewhere in the document. As I wrote in 2017–“a careful review of official statements, publications, and actions by the SPC and its affiliated institutions, as well as research by individual SPC judges [and teams of SPC judges] shows an intense interest in how the rest of the world deals with some of the challenges facing the Chinese judiciary coupled with a recognition that any possible foreign model or provision will need to fit the political, cultural, economic, and institutional reality of China, and that certain poisonous ideas must not be transplanted.”  This continues to be true (given the gaping holes in Chinese legislation, as seen from the perspective of Chinese judges), including a careful review of relevant US law.
  • Abuses by senior leaders in SOEs, causing loss of state assets (and likely benefiting private pockets), as seen in this phrase: “further clarify the relationship between state-owned property owners and agents, properly handle cases of loss of state-owned assets due to insider control, related transactions, and illegal guarantees by legal representatives, and pursue directors in accordance with the law. Supervisors and senior managers violate their legal responsibilities and obligations of loyalty and diligence. Promote state-owned enterprises to improve their internal supervision systems and internal control mechanisms, standardize  the positioning of powers and responsibilities and exercise methods, and improve the modern corporate system with Chinese characteristics.”
  • Improve the protection for small investors (relates to ongoing initiatives by the Shanghai Financial Court) and is connected with the most recent conference summary on bond disputes (全国法院审理债券纠纷案件座谈会纪要).  It mentions a forthcoming judicial interpretation on group securities litigation, apparently mentioned for the first time (及时出台证券纠纷代表人诉讼司法解释).  The Shanghai Financial Court has issued pilot regulations that will be considered by the SPC.
  • Exiting the market, the goal to be applicable to all sorts of legal and natural persons (signaling further developments relating to individual bankruptcy), establishing a better cooperative mechanism with government on bankruptcy (not new).

2. Judicial protection of property rights

Many of these have been discussed on this blog previously:

Better protection for property rights of private enterprises (discussed two years ago at the beginning of the anti-organized crime campaign).  It again mentions prevent the abuse of public power to infringe private property rights such as illegally sealing up, seizing, and freezing property rights of private enterprises;

Improving the hearing of cases involving land and real property condemnation (as this blogpost discussed, an underlying problem is the failure of related government departments to comply with legal requirements);

One article (#11) is devoted to improving intellectual property rights protection, but it does not flag anything not previously mentioned.

3.  Establishing a competitive market system

Article 12 re-emphasizes a concept basic to a market (oriented) economy–respect for the voluntariness and spirit of contract (尊重合同自愿和契约精神).

One provision in this section has attracted the greatest amount of attention–reducing the allowable interest rate for private lending, signaling a reversal of the provisions in the 2015 interpretation on private lending, which the document states will be amended soon.  The other provision that is repeated here (first mentioned three years ago), is stopping SOEs from using their easy access to bank capital to on-lend funds on the private market, for greater profit than their core businesses 规范、遏制国有企业贷款通道业务,引导其回归实体经济).

This section signals that the SPC will be working on more detailed provisions on taking security as a result of the Civil Code (进一步研究细化让与担保的制度规则和裁判标准).

4. legalized business environment suitable for high-quality economic development

Among the provisions mentioned here is better coordination between the financial regulators and the courts  (and legal oversight by the courts) (主动加强与金融监管机构的沟通协调,支持、促进金融监管机构依法履职,加强金融风险行政处置与司法审判的衔接,协助做好金融风险预警预防和化解工作).

5. judicial protection of people’s livelihood

This section mentions improving judicial protection for the consumer, better personal data protection, and improving protections for workers in new types of enterprises (i.e., working under algorithms).

6. Foreign-related commercial issues

Two new bits of information in this section are: the mention of exploring the establishment of a judicial review system for international investment arbitration (探索建立健全国际投资仲裁领域的司法审查机制 and issuing guidance on the recognition and enforcement of foreign commercial arbitration awards (适时出台涉外国民商事判决承认与执行的规范指引). This may evidence an expected increase in foreign arbitral awards sought to be enforced in China, in light of the (expected) increased number of Belt and Road Initiative related disputes.

7. One-stop diversified dispute resolution

This section repeats many of the current buzzwords (as discussed in my May blogpost), such as “resolving disputes from the source,” the “Fengqiao Experience,” giving mediation priority, and linking litigation with mediation.  However, as mentioned in earlier blogposts, some aspects of better mediation of disputes requires deeper reforms, such as changing incentives or evaluation of SOE executives.

Rooting the Singapore Mediation Convention in Chinese soil

Screenshot 2019-09-01 at 3.15.52 PM

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.