How Chinese Courts Tackle Parallel Proceeding Issues When Offshore Arbitration Proceeding Is Involved?
(The following case comment is written by Chen Zhi, a PhD candidate at the University of Macau?
The parallel proceeding is a long-debated issue in International Private Law, by which parties to one dispute file two or more separate dispute resolution proceedings regarding the same or similar problems. Such parallel proceedings will increase the cost and burdensome of dispute resolution, and probably result in the risk of conflicting judgements, undermining the certainty and integrity of it.
In the field of international civil and commercial litigation, parallel proceeding issue is always subject to domestic civil procedure rules or principles like lis pendens, res judicata and forum non-convenience, while the problem may be complicated when arbitration proceeding is involved. According to the New York Convention, state court which seizes the dispute has an obligation to refer the case to arbitration at the party’s request, except in case the arbitration agreement is void, inoperable or unable to be performed. Nonetheless, the New York Convention does not address the standards for the validity of arbitration agreement nor the scope of judicial review on such agreement. In particular, it is silent on the scenario where the validity of the same arbitration agreement is filed before the judges and arbitrators simultaneously. This problem can be exacerbated when the court seizure of the issue concerning validity of arbitration agreement is not the court in the place of the seat of arbitration, which in principle does not have the power to put final words on this issue.i
Some jurisdictions are inclined to employ an arbitration-friendly approach called prima facies review, by which the court will constrain from conducting a full review on the substantive facts and legal matters of the case before the tribunal decide on the jurisdictional issues, and grant a stay of litigation proceeding accordingly. This approach derives from a widely accepted principle across the world called “competence-competence” which endows the tribunal with the power to decide on its jurisdiction.ii Admittedly, prima facies review is not a corollary of the competence-competence principle. Still, it was instead thought to maximize the utility of competence-competence and enhance the efficiency of arbitration by minimizing the judicial intervention beforehand.
However, some jurisdictions like Mainland China do not employ a prima facies review, and they are reluctant to acknowledge tribunal’s priority in deciding jurisdiction issue, irrespective of the fact that the seat is outside their territories. This article aims to give a brief introduction on the most recent case decided by the Supreme People’s Court (hereinafter as SPC), and discuss how Chinese courts would like to tackle parallel proceeding.
Keep Bright Limited?Appellant?v. SuperAuto Investments Limited and others 2013 Min Zhong Zi No. 3 (hereinafter as Keep Bright Case), decided on 20 December 2018.
Facts and background
The dispute regards four parties, among which two major ones are companies both incorporated in the British Virgin Islands: Keep Bright Limited and SuperAuto Investments Limited (hereinafter as K and S respectively). All parties signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) on 12 April 2006 regarding a complicated transaction which involved two main parts; the first part is the transfer all share of S’s Hong Kong based 100% subsidiary to K, the second part is the transfer of title of a real estate located in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province. The LOI stipulated that it shall be governed by and construed according to the Hong Kong law, while the dispute resolution clause provided that any dispute arises from the LOI can be referred to either arbitration in Hong Kong or litigation in the location of the asset.
Following the conclusion of the contract, both K and S were dissatisfied with the performance of the LOI and commenced separate dispute resolution proceedings. K initiated an arbitration before the Hong Kong International Arbitration Center (HKIAC) in March of 2010, while S filed a lawsuit against H and other parties before the Guangdong Provincial Court in April of the same year. Following two partial awards in 2011 and 2012, the HKIAC tribunal concluded the proceeding through rendering a final award in 2014, and K subsequently sought for enforcement of the awards which was granted by the Hong Kong Court of First Instance in 2015.
The litigation proceeding in Guangdong Court, instead, was still ongoing during the arbitration in Hong Kong, and for this reason, in 2011 K applied for a stay of litigation proceeding due to ongoing arbitration concerning the same matter in Hong Kong before the court, but the latter dismissed such request. The Guangdong Court issued its judgment on August 2012 which was contradictory with the awards given by the HKIAC, by using laws of Mainland China as the governing law by reason of failure to identify relating Hong Kong laws under the choice-of-law clause of LOI. The case was then appealed to the SPC, leaving two main issues to be decided: first, whether the Guangdong Court’s rejection to the stay of proceeding constituted a procedural error, and second, whether the Guangdong Court has wrongfully applied the law of Mainland China instead of the Hong Kong law.
The decision of the SPC
As for the first issue, SPC decided that parallel proceeding phenomenon shall not prejudice the jurisdiction of courts in Mainland China, except in case the arbitration awards rendered offshore has been recognized in China already. Therefore, it is proper for the Guangdong Court to continue litigation proceeding irrespective of the ongoing arbitration in Hong Kong. The SPC also noted in its final decision that H did not raise an objection to jurisdiction before the court based on the arbitration agreement.
As for the second issue, the SPC found that Guangdong Court was in error in the application of law and overturned the substantive part of the Guangdong Court’s decision, making the judgment in line with awards in Hong Kong.
By the above decision of the SPC, it’s clear that courts are in no position to decide on the stay of proceeding despite a pending arbitration outside the territory of Mainland China, with one exception that is the case of arbitration proceeding concluded, recognized and ready to be or already under enforced by Chinese courts. This approach is in line with the stipulation of the SPC’s Judicial Interpretation on Civil Procedural Law in 2015 which tackle parallel proceedings where parties have filed other litigation proceeding before courts other than Mainland China regarding the same or identical dispute. iii Though the Judicial Interpretation does not cover parallel proceeding involving arbitration, the Keep Bright Case reveals that it makes no difference. There is no comity obligation for arbitration.
Moreover, though no objection to jurisdiction was raised in Keep Bright, it is safe to conclude that Chinese courts would likely grant arbitration tribunals the priority to decide on the jurisdiction issue, even when they are not the court in the place as the seat of arbitration, which, per the New York Convention, should have no power to put the final word on the effectiveness of arbitral agreement or award. As per another case ruled in 2019, a court in Hubei Province refused to recognize and enforce a Hong Kong seated arbitral award based on the reason that court in Mainland China had decided otherwise on the jurisdictional issue, by which the recognition of such an award would constitute a breach of public policy.iv
In a nutshell, Chinese courts’ approach to coping with parallel proceeding is far from pro-arbitration, contrary to other arbitration-friendly jurisdictions like England, Singapore, France and Hong Kong SAR. Admittedly, effective negative approach is not a standard fits for all circumstances, and it may cause prejudice to the parties when the enforcement of arbitration agreement is burdensome (in particular, boiler-plate arbitration clauses in consumer agreement which are intendedly designed by the party with more substantial bargain power for circumvention of judicial proceeding). Nonetheless, in the circumstances like the Keep Bright, proceeding with two parallel processes at the same time could be oppressive to the parties’ rights. It could likely create uncertainty through conflicting results (which occurred in Keep Bright itself). With this respect, the negative effective approach seems to be the best approach to keep dispute resolutions cost and time-efficient.
i, As per Article 5.1(a) of New York Convention, which stipulates that validity of arbitration agreement shall be subject to the law chosen by parties, failing which shall be subject to the law of the country where the award was made (arbitration seat), see also Article 6 of New York Convention which said that the enforcing court may stay the enforcement proceeding if the setting aside application is seized by competent court.
ii, For instance, English Court of Appeal stated in landmark Fiona Turst that: “[…]that it is contemplated by the Act that it will, in general, be right for the arbitrators to be the first tribunal to consider whether they have jurisdiction to determine the dispute”. Fiona Trust & Holding Corp v Privalov  EWCA Civ 20, at 34. See also judicial opinions by court of Singapore in Tomolugen Holdings Ltd and another v Silica Investors Ltd and other appeals  SGCA 57 , court of Hong Kong PCCW Global Ltd v Interactive Communications Service Ltd  1 HKLRD 309, and France court in Société Coprodag et autre c Dame Bohin, Cour de Cassation, 10 May 1995 (1995?
iii, See the controversial Article 533 of SPC’s Interpretation on Application of Civil Procedure Law(adopted in 2015) ,which stipulates that: “Where both the courts of the People’s Republic of China and the courts of a foreign country have jurisdiction, the People’s Court may accept a case in which one party files a lawsuit in a foreign court and the other party files a lawsuit in a court of the People’s Republic of China. After the judgment has been rendered, no application by a foreign court or request by a party to the case to the People’s Court for recognition and enforcement of the judgment or ruling made by a foreign court in the case shall be granted, unless otherwise provided in an international treaty to which both parties are parties or to which they are parties. If the judgment or ruling of a foreign court has been recognized by the people’s court, the people’s court shall not accept the case if the parties concerned have filed a lawsuit with the people’s court in respect of the same dispute.”
iv, See the decision of Yichang Intermediate Court on Automotive Gate FZCO’s application for recognition and enforcement of arbitral award in Hong Kong SAR, 2015 E Yi Zhong Min Ren No. 00002, in which the court rejected to enforce a HKIAC award on the basis that the award rendered in 2013 is contradictory with Shijiazhuang Intermediate Court’s ruling on the invalidity of arbitration agreement, which amounted to a breach of public policy in Mainland China, though the ruling was made five year later than the disputed award.