On 7 September 2020, the State Council of China published a policy paper on opening up the services sector in Beijing (“Work Plan for Deepening Comprehensive Pilot and New Round of Opening-Up of Services Sectors in Beijing and Building Comprehensive Demonstrative Area of Opening-up of State Services Sectors” or《深化北京市新一轮服务业扩大开放综合试点建设国家服务业扩大开放综合示范区工作方案》). The paper announces that foreign arbitral institutions will be allowed to set up “business organisations in designated area(s) in Beijing”, to “provide arbitration services in relation to civil and commercial disputes arising in the areas of international commerce and investments” and to “support and secure the application and enforcement of interim measures … before and during the arbitration proceedings, such as asset preservation, evidence preservation and action preservation” (emphasis added).
For these purposes, a “foreign arbitral institution” is one that is established outside Mainland China, including in Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan.
The paper does not explain the exact scope of activities that business organisations will be entitled to carry out in Beijing. They might be permitted, for example, to organise arbitration hearings in venues in Beijing, or even to provide case administration services from Beijing. This is one step further from an earlier policy under a 2017 State Council policy paper (“Reply of the State Council in relation to Deepening Reform and Further Opening-up of Services Sectors in Beijing as Comprehensive Pilot” or 《国务院关于深化改革推进北京市服务业扩大开放综合试点工作方案的批复》), which allowed foreign arbitral institutions to “establish representative offices in Beijing” (emphasis added). No foreign arbitral institution has set up offices in Beijing following the 2017 policy.
The State Council of China previously released similar policies in Shanghai’s free trade zone. In 2015, a State Council policy paper allowed foreign arbitral institutions to open representative offices in Shanghai’s free trade zone. Subsequently, HKIAC, SIAC and ICC have opened representative offices in Shanghai. These offices, however, have been limited to liaison activities and have not been permitted to provide case administration services in Mainland China.
In August 2019, a further State Council policy paper stated that foreign arbitral institutions may be permitted to set up business organisations in Shanghai’s extended free trade zone to “conduct arbitration businesses in relation to civil and commercial disputes arising in the areas of international commerce, maritime affairs, investment, etc.” (emphasis added) (see here). It has been reported that several foreign arbitral institutions are in the process of setting up branches in the extended free trade zone under the August 2019 policy paper, although it remains to be seen which types of “arbitration businesses” those branches will be permitted to conduct.
It is worth noting that both the August 2019 Shanghai policy paper and the September 2020 Beijing policy paper mention that foreign arbitral institutions’ branches will be allowed “to support the application and enforcement of interim measures” in Mainland China. Under current Chinese law, parties to arbitration cases must apply to Chinese courts for interim measures; Mainland China-seated arbitral tribunals are not allowed to grant interim relief. However, Chinese courts generally do not accept interim relief applications from parties to arbitrations administered by foreign arbitral institutions (except for cases administered by designated Hong Kong arbitration institutions and seated in Hong Kong, see here), as there is currently no legal ground supporting this. The two policy papers appear to have allowed this possibility, but it remains unclear whether this is the correct interpretation and, if so, how it will be implemented in practice.
The latest Beijing policy paper, following the path of previous policy papers, signals further liberalisation and opening up of commercial arbitration practice in Mainland China. However, under the current Chinese Arbitration Law, foreign arbitral institutions are still not expressly permitted to administer arbitration cases seated in Mainland China.
For this reason, we continue to recommend against providing for arbitration of foreign-related disputes seated in Mainland China administered by an foreign arbitral institution (see here).