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Can China’s New “Blocking Statute” Combat Foreign Sanctions?

by Jingru Wang, Wuhan University Institute of International Law

  1. Background

A blocking statute is adopted by a country to hinder the extraterritorial application of foreign legislation.[1] For example, the EU adopted Council Regulation No 2271/96 (hereinafter “EU Blocking Statute”) in 1996 to protest the US’s extraterritorial sanctions legislation concerning Cuba, Iran and Libya.[2] Since Donald Trump became the US president, the US government officially defined China as its competitor.[3] Consequently, China has been increasingly targeted by US sanctions. For example, in 2018, the US imposed broad sanctions on China’s Equipment Development Department (EDD), the branch of the military responsible for weapons procurement and its director for violating the US law on sanctions against Russia.[4] In 2020, the US announced new sanctions on Chinese firms for aiding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.[5] A number of “Belt and Road” countries are targeted by US primary sanctions, which means that Chinese entities may face a high risk of secondary sanctions for trading with these countries. In these contexts, Chinese scholars and policy makers explore the feasibility to enact blocking law to counter foreign sanctions.[6] On 9 January 2021, China’s Ministry of Commerce (hereinafter “MOFCOM”) issued “Rules on Counteracting Unjustified Extraterritorial Application of Foreign Legislation and Other Measures” (hereinafter “Chinese Blocking Rules”), which entered into force on the date of the promulgation.[7]

 

  1. Analysis of the Main Content

Competent Authority: Chinese government will establish a “Working Mechanism” led by the MOFCOM and composed of relevant central departments, such as the National Development and Reform Commission. The Working Mechanism will take charge of counteracting unjustified extraterritorial application of foreign legislation and other measures (Art. 4).

Worldwide Removal Order Upheld Against Google

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld, by a 7-2 decision, an injunction issued by lower courts in British Columbia requiring Google, a non-party to the litigation, to globally remove or “de-index” the websites of the defendant so that they do not appear in any search results.  This is the first such decision by Canada’s highest court.

In Google Inc. v Equustek Solutions Inc., 2017 SCC 34 (available here) Equustek sued Datalink for various intellectual property violations relating to the manufacture and sale of a networking device.  Interlocutory orders were made against Datalink but it did not comply and it cut any connections it had to British Columbia (para 7).  It continued its conduct, operating from an unknown location and selling its device over the internet.  After some cooperative efforts with Google (de-indexing specific web pages but not Datalink’s entire websites) were unsuccessful to stop potential customers from finding Datalink’s device, Equustek sought an interlocutory injunction stopping Google from including any parts of Datalink websites in its search results worldwide.  Google acknowledged that it could do this relatively easily (paras 43 and 50) but it resisted the injunction.

The issue of the British Columbia court’s in personam or territorial jurisdiction over Google featured prominently in the lower court decisions, especially that of Justice Fenlon for the British Columbia Supreme Court (available here).  This is an interesting issue in its own right, considering the extent to which a corporation can be present or carry on business in a province in a solely virtual (through the internet) manner (rather than having any physical presence).  There is considerable American law on this issue, including the much-discussed decision in Zippo Manufacturing v Zippo Dot Com Inc., 952 F Supp 119 (WD Pa 1997).  In the Supreme Court of Canada, Google barely raised the question of jurisdiction, leading the court to state that it had not challenged the lower courts’ findings of in personam and territorial jurisdiction (para 37).  So more on that issue will have to wait for another case.

Supreme Court of Canada Allows Courts to Sit Extraterritorially

In Endean v British Columbia, 2016 SCC 42 (available here) the Supreme Court of Canada has held that “In pan-national class action proceedings over which the superior court has subject-matter and personal jurisdiction, a judge of that court has the discretion to hold a hearing outside his or her territory in conjunction with other judges managing related class actions, provided that the judge will not have to resort to the court’s coercive powers in order to convene or conduct the hearing and the hearing is not contrary to the law of the place in which it will be held” (quotation from the court’s summary/headnote).

The qualifications on the holding are important, since some of the earlier lower court decisions had been more expansive in asserting the inherent power of the superior court to sit outside the province (for example beyond the class proceedings context).  I am concerned about any extraterritorial hearings that are not expressly authorized by specific statutory provisions, but I do appreciate the utility (from an efficiency perspective) of the court’s conclusion in the particular context of this dispute.  It remains to be seen if attempts will be made to broaden this holding to other contexts.