On July 4, 2019, I posted a blog asking for help regarding rumors of delay and higher-level review of IP cases involving foreigners. Here is the follow-up.
Spoiler alert: if you are looking for a smoking gun, you won’t find one.
Jacob Schindler from IAM pointed out that he looked into the issue for his magazine and after speaking to a number of lawyers and patent owners with active assertion campaigns in China, “found no evidence that this is true in any general sense.” Jacob noted that “the most likely explanation for delays faced by some US litigants is even more innocuous. Foreign companies, including US firms, seem to be big fans of the Beijing IP Court. And that has led to a very busy docket.” This perspective that clogged dockets are leading to delays has been cited by many, and a few people noted that the issue had been raised in various meetings or conferences.
Erick Robinson relied on his own experience prosecuting Non-Practicing Entity (NPE) cases, and commented in his blog that he had detected no changes. He further stated that claiming “‘cases can be decided but only upon approval from the Supreme People’s Court’ is obviously alarming, but without proof, this seems to be just more US politicizing of the trade war.” I will return to the issue of the trade war and patents in a future blog.
One well-informed China-resident lawyer informed me that she “heard from a few lawyers that SPC instructed lower courts to suspend adjudicating all US-related cases for at least six months since the end of 2018.” This May, she advised, the SPC lifted the ban and now only supervises “sensitive cases.” For less sensitive matters, lower courts may proceed as they wish. This six month period identified by this lawyer roughly coincides with the period during which I had been hearing this rumor of delay. Others also confirmed that there was high-level supervision.
The counter-factual that there has been no interference in court cases or administrative proceedings is perhaps easier to disprove. Many individuals have indicated concerns about informal interference in proceedings. Courtney Macintosh of Baker & McKenzie noted that “[w]e have been told by local enforcement authorities not to expect any nice treatment cause of trade war, so it is complex and not so straightforward.” The consulting firm Rouse had also observed what they thought was a trade-related impact in the negotiation of licensing deals requiring local government approval, with local governments “falling over” to ensure that they did not appear to be pressuring companies to transfer technology as a condition of investment approval. AmCham China’s 2019 Business Climate Survey for the first time listed “bilateral tension in US-China trade relations” as a top-five business concern (45% of respondents), and also noted that high tech and research-intensive companies were the most likely to feel less welcome than before (54%).
Some individuals suggested that there is no political interference at all in Chinese judicial proceedings. While an extensive analysis of the manner in which politics interferes in adjudication is beyond the scope of this blog, there is considerable literature around how politics influences Chinese court decisions, and there is no indication that IP cases are exempt from such influence.
First of all, as a de jure matter, an SPC decision to delay foreign cases is not inconsistent with Chinese civil procedure law. Chinese courts are authorized to delay foreign civil proceedings, including IP litigation. Section 249 of the Civil Procedure Law provides that “The period for the trial by the people’s court of civil cases involving foreign parties shall not be subject to the restrictions of Articles 149 and 176 of the Law.” Articles 149 and 176 require first and second instances cases to be resolved in six to three months respectively, except when otherwise authorized by supervisory authorities.
Second, the courts themselves recognize that they are not exempt from politics. Prof. Susan Finder’s Supreme People’s Court Monitor recently discussed this in her analysis of a speech by SPC Justice Liu Guixiang. Liu noted that “The People’s Court is first and foremost a political organ. It must put political construction in the first place and clearly talk politics.” The speech noted four principles, including “[t]o uphold the absolute leadership of the party,” and that “judicial independence” of the West must be resolutely resisted.
Academic literature also has shown documented political influences and the data supporting it. Prof. Perenboom’s China’s Long March toward Rule of Law (2002) surveys the many ways that “judicial independence” can be compromised in China’s system (pp. 280-342). Prof. Howson’s article “Judicial Independence in China: Lessons for Global Rule of Law Promotion” notes that Shanghai courts “evidence serious independence limitations” in two areas: acting as the handmaiden of policy implementation in contravention of what the Company Law allows, or directly by blanket rejection of public company/large plaintiff cases. Profs. Xin He and Su Yang looked at how the “have’s” come out ahead in Shanghai court cases and “cast doubt on the party capability theory.” The authors “speculate[d] that the causes of judicial inequality in China lie not only in resource gaps but also in the roots of the law and the nature of the court.”
Denying case acceptance has long been recognized as a political tool of the courts to push off politically sensitive cases, although it may be less frequent in foreign-related cases.
Higher-level supervision is also well documented, in addition to being specifically provided for in the civil procedure law. Such higher-level supervision appeared prominently in the WTO IP enforcement case with China (DS362), when the US side presented a letter from China’s Supreme People’s Court on how to best handle a copyright issue that was then sub judice in Hunan (Exhibit US-60, Letter from the Supreme People’s Court to the Hunan Province Higher People’s Court in Zheng Haijin v Xu Zheng Xiong, 知监字 ). As the Panel Report discusses, this letter was contradicted by a letter of the National Copyright Administration of China to the lower court with the opposite position. Panel Report Sec. 7.51.
Political interference may also originate from the court that hears the case, particularly its adjudication committees (shenpan weiyuanhui). Such committees play an important role in ensuring that cases are consistent with political directives. As the Duihua Foundation points out:
“[Adjudication Committees] are unique to the Chinese judicial system and exist at each of the four levels of China’s court system, from basic-level county courts up to the Supreme People’s Court. The committees meet regularly to discuss important or difficult cases, ‘sum up judicial experience,’ and review other important matters related to case adjudication. Generally, they are composed of the president and vice-presidents of the court, as well as the heads of the court’s tribunals—many of whom are, in effect, administrators rather than working judges.
Committee meetings may be attended by the head of the procuratorate, which has a dual function as prosecuting body and overseer of judicial activity, as well as members of the judicial panel hearing the case under discussion. Court rules encourage submission of written case reports summarizing the facts of the case, major issues of contention, and preliminary opinions on how the case should be handled, but some cases are simply presented orally. Detailed minutes of the committee’s discussions are kept, but they are classified as state secrets and do not become part of the formal trial record.
Among cases that adjudication committees routinely take up are those ‘involving serious threats to national security,’ the death penalty, and ‘important’ matters involving foreigners or persons from Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan, as well as cases with multiple parties (quntixing anjian) that have a major social impact or could easily intensify conflicts. Meetings are held several times per month, and multiple cases are normally discussed at each meeting.” [emphasis supplied]
Such supervision need not be adverse to a foreigner’s interests. Politically sensitive litigants, domestic or foreign, use court supervision to advance their claims, as has been documented in an article by Profs. Feng Yuqing and Xin He.
Chinese behavior overseas may reveal an expectation that political interference or supervision in judicial processes is not unusual. For example, China reported an ersatz JCCT outcome to “give review priority” to a Chinese application on the basis that it believed that the USPTO had given unfair treatment to a patent application by the SOE, IWNCOMM. By contrast, the US outcome sheet does not reflect any such commitment.
In the absence of a “smoking gun” does the data suggest any changes in Chinese disposition of US or foreign patent cases? The databases will not reveal this information until, if at all, next year for this year. Even then, as Prof. Benjamin Liebman and others have pointed out in “Mass Digitization of Chinese Court Decisions: How to Use Text as Data in the Field of Chinese Law”, there is a “need for humility and methodological pluralism among scholars seeking to use large-scale data from Chinese courts. The vast amount of incomplete data now available may frustrate attempts to find quick answers to existing questions…” Finally, even if there were some delays or additional oversight in the handling of foreign-related cases, this may not prove the existence of a new internal directive or prejudice. It may simply be due to existing civil procedures or courts exercising some greater prudence at this moment in time.
We will need to wait and see.
Postscript of July 31, 2019:
Since this blog was posted, I have received two additional emails regarding the impact, if any, of the trade war on foreign-related IP litigation, particularly patent litigation involving Americans.
One well-placed source advised me that if there was any delay in adjudicating foreign IP cases, it would be due to the rapid growth in IP dockets in China and the relative flexibility in timing afforded adjudication of foreign-related IP cases. This explanation is also quite plausible. Overall IP cases did increase by 40.97% to 283,414 accepted cases. Patent cases increased by 35.53% to 21,699. These are huge increases and foreign cases may get delayed as courts adjust to their dockets. See 中国法院知识产权司法保护状况 2018 年）(Intellectual Property Protection by Chinese Courts in 2018).
Another source told me that their client was told that due to the trade war and attendant “sensitivities”, the court would not be issuing its decision at this time. No new timeline was offered.
References to “sensitivity” or “inconvenient time” can be a euphemism for political concerns or they can reflect real-world issues like a clogged docket or a complex case. I can remember once as a government official, I directly asked a Chinese colleague and old friend if the time was “really” inconvenient to meet me, or whether this was simply a way of avoiding conflict. He responded with a long list of other commitments and told me “we look forward to seeing you, but it is really quite busy now.” We both laughed.
Please continue to write in any other observations you may have.