Anti-Suit Injunction Issued in China: Comity, Pragmatism and Rule of Law
1 Anti-suit Injunctions issued in Huawei v Conversant and Xiaomi v Intel Digital
Chinese courts have issued two anti-suit injunctions recently in cross-border patent cases. The first is the Supreme Court’s ruling in Huawei v Conversant, (2019) Zui Gao Fa Zhi Min Zhong 732, 733 and 734 No 1. (here) Huawei, a Chinese telecom giant brought an action on 25 Jan 2018 in Jiangsu Nanjing Intermediate Court requiring determination of FRAND royalty for all Chinese patents held by Conversant that is essential to 2G, 3G and 4G standard (standard essential patent or ‘SEP’). Conversant brought another action in Düsseldorf, Germany on 20 April 2018 claiming Huawei infringed its German patents of the same patent family. On 16 Sept 2019, the Chinese court ordered a relatively low rate pursuant to Chinese standard and Conversant appealed to the Supreme Court on 18 Nov 2019. On 27 Aug 2020, the German Court held Huawei liable and approved the FRAND fee proposed by Conversant, which is 18.3 times of the rate determined by the Chinese court. Pursuant to Huawei’s application, the Chinese Supreme Court restrained Conversant from applying the German court to enforce the German judgment. The reasons include: the enforcement of the Düsseldorf judgment would have a negative impact on the case pending in Chinese court; an injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm to Huawei; the damage to Conversant by granting the injunction is significantly smaller than the damage to Huawei if not granting injunction; injunction will not harm public interest or international comity.
On 9 June 2020, Chinese company Xiaomi brought the proceedings in the Wuhan Intermediate Court requesting the determination of the global FRAND rate for SEPs held by the US company, Inter Digital. On 29 July, Intel Digital sued Xiaomi in Delhi High Court in India for infringement of Indian patents of the same patent family and asking for injunction. The Wuhan Intermediate Court ordered Inter Digital to stop the injunction application in India and prohibited Intel Digital from applying injunctions, applying for the determination of FRAND rate or enforcing junctions already received in any countries. (Xiaomi v Intel Digital (2020) E 01 Zhi Min Chu 169 No 1) The court provides reasons as follows: Inter Digital intentionally brought a conflicting action in India to hamper the Chinese proceedings; the Indian proceedings may lead to judgments irreconcilable to the Chinese one; an anti-suit injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm to Xiaomi’s interests; an anti-suit injunction will not harm Intel Digital’s legitimate interests or public interests.
2 Innovative Judicial ‘Law Making’ to Transplant Foreign Law
These two cases are interesting in that they open the door for the courts to ‘make law’ by providing Chinese legislation innovative interpretation. Chinese law does not explicitly permit the courts to issue anti-suit or anti-arbitration injunctions. Article 100 of the Civil Procedure Law of China permits Chinese courts to order or prohibit the respondent to do, or from doing, certain actions, if the respondent’s behaviour may lead to the difficulty to enforce the judgment or cause other damages to the other party. But this act preservation provision was generally used only in the preservation of property, injunction of infringing actions, or other circumstances where the respondent’s action may directly cause substantive harm to the applicant’s personal or proprietary rights. It was never applied as the equivalent to anti-suit injunctions. The ‘Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on Several Issues concerning the Application of Law in Cases Involving the Review of Act Preservation in Intellectual Property Disputes’ (No. 21  of the Supreme People’s Court) enforced from 1 Jan 2019 did not mention the court’s competence to issue anti-suit injunction. These two judgments provide innovative interpretation to Art 100 by extending act preservation measures to cover anti-suit injunction.
It is important to note that anti-suit injunction is a controversial instrument used to combat the conflict of jurisdiction and forum shopping. It is not issued frequently or lightly. Instead, there is a high threshold to cross. In England, for example, an anti-suit injunction can be ordered only if the foreign proceedings are vexatious or oppressive and England is the natural forum, (Airbus Industrie GIE v Patel  AC 119) or the foreign proceedings would breach a valid exclusive jurisdiction or arbitration clause between the parties. (The “Angelic Grace”,  1 Lloyd’s Rep. 87) In both cases, neither courts justify China is a natural forum. Such justification may be more difficult in disputes concerning foreign patent due to the territoriality of patent. Furthermore, foreign proceedings are not oppressive just because they award higher rate to the parent holder, which is not properly handled either by the Chinese judgments. In the US, anti-suit injunction requires the parties and issues in foreign proceedings are ‘the same’ as the local ones. (E. & J. Gallo Winery v. Andina Licores SA, 446 F. 3d 984 (Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit 2006)) This barrier is difficult to lift in disputes concerning infringement of national patents in the same family. In FRAND cases, the court usually relies on the ‘contractual umbrella over the patent’ to avoid the difficulty brought by the territoriality of patent. (Huawei v Samsung, Case No. 3:16-cv-02787-WHO) Even if a contractual approach is adopted, the court still needs to ascertain the foreign litigation may frustrate a local policy, would be vexatious or oppressive, would threaten the U.S. court’s in rem jurisdiction, or would prejudice other equitable considerations. (Zapata Off-Shore Company v. Unterweser Reederei GMBH, 428 F.2d 888 (United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, 1970))
The Chinese judgments show clear sign of borrowing the common law tests. In particular, the Huawei v Conversant judgment has high similarity with Huawei v Samsung judgment rendered by the California Northern District Court. The problem is the enjoined Düsseldorf judgment awarded FRAND rate instead of an unconditional injunction like the Shenzhen judgment. While enforcing a permanent injunction in the biggest market of Samsung may lead to a forced settlement which would make the US proceedings unnecessary or redundant, enforcing the court determined FRAND rate covering only one state may not have the same effect on the Chinese proceedings. In particular, due to different standards to calculate the FRAND rate, a higher rate covering the German market is not oppressive and would not result in a forced settlement for Chinese FRAND rate. The Wuhan judgment focuses on the vexatious foreign proceedings brought in bad faith and abuse of process. The Wuhan court considers the Indian proceedings was brought to frustrate the pending proceedings before the Wuhan court. The judgment seems to follow the English trait. However, the court did not fully explain how an action purely covering Indian patents and concerning Indian market would affect the Chinese proceedings based on contract. It is also unclear whether Chinese court could award a global FRAND rate as the English court will do. Although in contrast to many other judgments, these two judgments show reasonable quality and laudable efforts of reasoning, reading in details may suggest the courts have learnt more in form instead of substance. The judicial transplant of very unfamiliar common law instruments into Chinese practice seems a little awkward and immature.
3 Comity, Pragmatism and Rule of Law
Anti-suit injunction is a controversial instrument in that it may infringe foreign judicial sovereignty and comity. Even if it is technically directed to the respondent not a foreign court, it makes judgment on the appropriateness of foreign proceedings, which, in normal circumstances, should be judged by the foreign court. No matter how indirect the interference is, an interference is there. Such an approach is fundamentally incompatible with Chinese jurisprudence and diplomatic policy, which emphasise on the principle of sovereign equality and non-interference. China usually considers parallel proceedings tolerable which concern the judicial sovereignty of two countries and each could continue jurisdiction pursuant to their domestic law. (Art 533 of Civil Procedural Law Judicial Interpretation by SPC) Adopting anti-suit injunction to tackle foreign parallel proceedings or related proceedings directly contradicts this provision.
Since Chinese courts would not deviate from the central government’s policy, the two judgments may be a sign to show China is gradually adjusting its international policy from self-restraint to zealous competition, at least in the high-tech area. This is consistent with China’s strategic plan to develop its high-tech industry and a series of reform is adopted to improve IP adjudication. It may imply consideration of diffused reciprocity, i.e. since some foreign courts may issue anti-suit injunction to obstruct Chinese proceedings, Chinese courts should have the same power. It may also reflects China’s increased confidence on its institutions led by its economic power. The transplant of anti-suit injunction cannot be deemed as admiring foreign law, but a pragmatic approach to use any tools available to achieve their aims. Since anti-suit injunctions may interfere a state’s sovereignty, a foreign state may issue ‘anti-anti-suit injunction’ to block it. While injunction wars occur in high-tech cases, the final trump card should be a country’s economic power. Since China is the biggest market for many telecom products, it would be the last market that most companies would give up, which would provide Chinese courts a privilege.
Finally, since anti-suit injunction is not included explicitly in Chinese law, there is no consistent test applying to it. The two judgments have applied different tests following the practice from different common law countries. It is also noted that the lack of relevant training in exercise discretion in issuing anti-suit injunctions or applying precedents leads to uncertainty and some discrepancy. Issuing anti-suit injunction is serious in that it may affect comity and international relation. It thus cannot be adopted randomly or flexibly by mirroring one or two foreign judgments. If China indeed wants to adopt anti-suit injunction, a test guidance should be provided. Anti-suit injunction needs to be issued under the rule of law.