On Tuesday 6 September 2022, Björn Ahl, Professor and Chair of Chinese Legal Culture at the University of Cologne and President of the European China Law Studies Association, gave a guest lecture at the Finnish China Law Center. The topic of his presentation was ‘International Law in Chinese Courts’.
The lecture discussed Chinese law and legal scholarship on the domestic effects of international law, application of international law by Chinese courts, Chinese courts’ interpretation of international law and domestic law and Chinese courts’ participation in international norm-making.
The Chinese Constitution does not stipulate the effects of international law within the domestic legal system. However, ordinary legislation and judicial interpretations of the Supreme People’s Court include enabling clauses that mandate the direct application of international law under certain conditions . However, in recent years, provisions that refer to international law were removed from legislation which signals that international treaties have become less relevant for domestic courts. General observations of Chinese scholarship shows that domestic courts display a conservative attitude towards international law and often hesitate to apply treaty provisions.
Professor Ahl went on to examine application of international law by Chinese courts especially in case of IP, human rights, double taxation avoidance and diplomatic and consular treaties, as well as their interpretation of international law. He observed that domestic courts have developed a consistent practice of directly applying over 30 international treaties to disputes about IP, international trade, maritime commerce and international air and rail transport as well as judicial assistance in civil and criminal matters. Chinese courts increasingly rely on the principle of consistent interpretation. However, courts in general do not apply international treaties that constrain executive organs of the State.
Concerning Chinese courts’ participation in international norm-making, Professor Ahl noted that overall party-state policy encourages Chinese state organs to participate actively in the formulation of international norms and to strengthen discourse power and influence in international legal affairs. Domestic court decisions may have the effect of confirming rules of international law or give them a novel interpretation that may trigger protest or acquiescence by other states. Only if domestic court decisions are noticed, persuasive and endorsed by other states, courts, international organizations or codifying bodies, they may exercise certain influence on the complex processes of the development of international law.