The Hong Kong Government has decided to introduce a cross-sector competition law during the 2008-09 legislative session. The Government has published a draft framework for the competition law and is currently seeking public comments on this draft.

The introduction of a competition law is a significant step for an economy to take. Not all competition laws are the same and the most important thing is that the law is designed well to suit the Hong Kong economy.

I. Key features of the draft framework paper

A. Competition rules
There are three core prohibitions commonly found in competition laws around the world. These are a prohibition against horizontal coordinated conduct such as price fixing between competitors; a prohibition on an abuse of unilateral market power (sometimes called an abuse of dominance or otherwise called an abuse of a substantial degree of market power); and a prohibition against anticompetitive mergers.

The competition law would contain two broad prohibitions:

• prohibition against undertakings (individuals, companies or other entities engaged in economic activities) entering into agreements, decisions or concerted practices with the purpose or effect of substantially lessening competition (the “First Conduct Rule”); and

• prohibition against undertakings that possess a substantial degree of market power from abusing that power with the purpose or effect of substantially lessening competition (the “Second Conduct Rule”).

The Public Consultation Paper also raises the possibility of a prohibition against mergers or acquisitions that are likely to substantially lessen competition (the “Merger Rule”) and a clearance process for mergers and acquisitions. If this possibility was not adopted, it would put the Hong Kong competition law out of step with most other competition law regimes around the world.

Also prohibited in some jurisdictions and not in others is certain vertical conduct like resale price maintenance. For example, the competition law on the Mainland contains such a provision. However, in step with recent US case law, Singapore does not prohibit such vertical conduct. The proposed Hong Kong law would follow the latter course.

B. Exemptions and exclusions
One of the issues that is gaining the most interest in the consultation phase is the issue of whether and when should there be exclusions or exemptions from the core competition law rules identified above. Under the Hong Kong proposed Competition Ordinance, conduct would be excluded or exempt from the competition law if it passes one of the following three tests:

• the Economic Benefit Test: essentially an efficiency gains test weighing economic benefits against potential anti-competitive harm;

• the Services of General Economic Interest Test: undertakings would first have to show that (a) they have been “entrusted” by the Government to provide the service in question and (b) the conduct must be a service of general economic interest (i.e. the service must be an essential public service); or

• the Public Policy Test: a test which takes into consideration benefits and broader than economic benefits.

Undertakings would be encouraged to make self-assessments to determine if their conduct fulfills any of the three tests set out above. However, if undertakings wish for clarification as to whether their agreements or conduct are exempt or excluded from the competition law, they may seek the Commission’s guidance or decision.

The Commission will also possess the power to issue Block Exemptions. Block exemptions would exempt categories of agreements from the First Conduct Rule on the basis of the Economic Benefit Test. The Commission must undertake a public inquiry process before issuing a Block Exemption.

C. Two new Government instrumentalities
A Competition Commission (the “Commission”) would be established and would consist of a minimum of seven members appointed by the Executive Council.

Generally speaking, the small and medium enterprise sector around the world is a strong advocate for robust competition laws but this is not so in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong there is apprehension amongst some small businesses that the law may be used by large companies against smaller rivals. If that were the case, it would be quite counterproductive against the achievement of the objective of the law. Nevertheless, one feature of the package has been designed to address that concern.

Although the person selected would not formally represent small business, at least one member of the Commission would be chosen who has experience with small and medium enterprise to ensure that these perspectives are available to the Commission when making decisions.
The functions of the Commission would be to:

• investigate suspected breaches of the law, for which the Commission will have powers to require documents to be produced and parties to answer questions. However, searches of premises will require a magistrate’s order;

• issue orders appropriate to bring breaches of the law to an end or take enforcement litigation; and

• consider applications for guidance or decisions on the applicability of the exemptions to the Conduct Rules where the criteria for granting the exemption requires an economic assessment.
Where serious penalties are to be imposed by the State, or where there is litigation between private parties, matters would be brought before another new instrumentality, the Competition Tribunal. The Tribunal conduct trials, consider evidence and make judgment decisions. The Tribunal would have at least one judicial member would preside over matters but, reflecting that competition law is a complex economic regulatory regime, the Tribunal would also have members sitting on the bench selected for their economic credentials or business credentials who would not necessarily have any formal legal training. Appeals from the Tribunal would be to the Court of Appeal.
D. Private actions by individual plaintiffs and class actions

Persons or entities which have suffered loss or damage arising from breaches of the competition law may litigate to seek an award of damages or a range of other orders. Such actions could be brought after the Commission has taken action and the private plaintiff would not then be required to again prove matters already determined in the Commission. In such “follow-on actions” the private plaintiff would generally only need to prove what damages had flowed from conduct that the Commission or Tribunal had already decided amounted to a breach. However, it would also be possible for the private plaintiff to bring litigation even where the Commission has not taken any action (“stand-alone actions”) but, of course, the private litigant would have to prove all the elements of a contravention and damage.

A credible organization acting in the interests of a defined group affected by anti-competitive conduct is authorised to bring an action on behalf of the group. To guard against potential abuse, a body wishing to bring such an action must have permission of the Competition Tribunal (as described below) and such permission is only granted if the Competition Tribunal considers that the body can fairly and adequately represent the interests of the relevant group.

II. Key issues that the draft paper does not currently address
A. Vertical arrangements

Traditionally, competition law regimes have included a general prohibition against vertical agreements (i.e. supply agreements) that have the purpose or effect of substantially lessening competition. However, the proposed legislation for Hong Kong does not prohibit vertical arrangements between suppliers and distributors of goods and services other than in the context of abuse of substantial market power. The recently adopted Singapore Competition Act takes a similar approach to the Hong Kong proposal.

Common vertical arrangements involve suppliers fixing re-seller price or setting minimum re-sale price for goods and services. Exclusive dealing and tying arrangements are other examples of vertical arrangements. The proposal takes the view that unless a supplier has substantial market power, a vertical agreement is simply a way of influencing the way in which its product is distributed and marketed and that a supplier has no incentive to use a distribution or marketing strategy to make its products less attractive to consumers than its competitors’ goods and services.

That approach is similar to the approach emerging in the US through case law and in the EU through the block exemption and case law. The idea is that where a manufacturer and its distributor(s) lack a substantial degree of market power or lack dominance, there is vigorous competition between that brand of goods and other brands of goods. This “inter-brand” competition is invariably a more vigorous form of competition than “intra-brand” competition would be because the whole supply chain is competing, not just the final distributor. The theory also goes that any “intra-brand” restrictions (i.e. restrictions by the manufacturer upon the distributors of its brand of goods) would only be applied by a manufacturer or its distributor(s) where the restrictions enhance the sales of that brand of product against others – that is, the superior “inter-brand” form of competition.

Turning to how this might apply in Hong Kong, as set out above, while a supplier’s possession of substantial market power is not prohibited, abuse of such power through vertical arrangements is.
Hong Kong has a small economy where more sectors than most economies have only a few sellers. These sectors are neither perfectly competitive nor are the players strong enough to be described as possessing a substantial market power. It remains to be seen whether applying principles developed in very large economies (i.e. a law that relies either on companies being vigorously competitive or have substantial degree of market power) will be sufficient in small economies such as Hong Kong and Singapore (i.e. in which market participants may fall between these extremes).

B. Geographic markets

Hong Kong is a small, open economy. It is also rapidly integrating into the larger Mainland economy, particularly the Pearl River Delta (“PRD”).

The Hong Kong economy’s openness can make it susceptible to trans-border anti-competitive conduct, such as regional or global cartels. But it also can complicate the task of market definition. There maybe many sectors of the Hong Kong economy where the relevant market definition may be larger than Hong Kong, such as the PRD as a whole.

Traditional approaches to market definition can accommodate trans-border markets. Hong Kong’s competition authority may need to work closely with competition authorities in other jurisdictions to address anti-competitive conduct affecting Hong Kong consumers.

C. Intellectual property
At one level competition law and intellectual property law seek the same thing – to enhance economic efficiency. However, the way in which the two bodies of law seek to do so are, to a significant extent, at odds. In particular, intellectual property laws award a short run limited monopoly to encourage innovation and creativity while competition laws seek to prevent monopolies. This has spawned extensive and expensive litigation in established competition law regimes (e.g. the Microsoft cases in which both the US and Europe found Microsoft to have abused its IP rights).

In the US and Europe there are no exceptions or special provisions to the core competition laws provisions for the use of IP rights (although there is extensive informal comfort from the US regulators in non-binding guidelines and the European Commission has issued limited protection through the block exemption process).

Other countries have specific exemptions for IP rights – take for instance Article 55 of China’s Anti-monopoly law. It states:

“This law [that is the Anti-monopoly law] shall not apply to the conduct of operators in exercising their intellectual property rights in accordance with the laws and relevant administrative regulations on intellectual property rights; however, this law shall apply to the conduct of operators to eliminate or restrict market competition by abusing their intellectual property rights.”
There are also special provisions for IP rights in the competition laws of Australia, Canada and Singapore.

The Hong Kong proposal can accommodate both the US approach (that it is possible to argue that a mere use of intellectual property rights would not offend the prohibitions) and also accommodate the European approach which is to provide additional comfort through the Block Exemption process.

D. High level prohibitions or specific guidance
The law would not define key concepts such as what is a ‘market’ or ‘abusive behavior’. There are no “bright line” or “per se rules” (such as an absolute prohibition on price fixing). There are only high level definitions of ‘economic efficiency’ defense or ‘essential public service’.

In long established competition law regimes, clarity is typically found in years of case law precedents. This has its advantages because the law can change over time as different types of anti-competitive conduct are discovered or conduct is identified that is actually pro-competitive but falls foul of prescriptive prohibitions.

In newer competition laws, it is more common for the legislation itself to articulate detailed prohibitions rather than relying on the interpretation of the law by the Court or Tribunal (see for example China’s Anti-monopoly Law which identifies six specific types of abusive conduct and six categories of economic benefit for which exemptions apply).

The course currently mapped out for Hong Kong provides a range of tools to provide certainty to business.

E. Government exemption
The current proposal is to exempt the Government, its instrumentalities and statutory bodies from the application of the law. This is similar (although not identical) to the approach in Singapore.
Competition laws tend to exempt mainline or core Government activities, although they use different approaches. At one level, this can be regarded as necessary: if the police shut down smuggling rackets, it necessarily reduces competition for the supply of the goods that otherwise would be smuggled and if the health authorities require food suppliers to adhere to standards or shut those that fail to meet the standards, competition from sub-standard food suppliers is reduced or eliminated. These actions must continue unhindered.

Turning to governments’ involvement in activities that are more akin to the operation of businesses competition law may be appropriate to apply. However, properly identifying and delineating the separation between the regulatory and commercial activities of government s a detailed time consuming task. In economies in which the Government has extensive business interests this task is a higher priority than in economies in which the Government’s interests are less extensive. In this regard, it is notable that the Hong Kong Government is less involved in business than most other governments (e.g. the Singapore Government).

The approach in other competition laws is not to have a blanket exemption but to assess whether the Government entity is engaged in business or commercial activities, which can be a complex exercise. The Government’s proposal is that the Government and statutory bodies will initially be covered by a broad exemption but that there will be a review to determine whether parts of the Government should, in fact, be subject to the law. This approach has the advantage of not swamping the Commission in the start up phase of the Hong Kong law with a long and detailed task that for the reasons set out above is a lower order priority.

F. Criminal Sanctions

There has been a trend to criminalize certain competition law offences, such as cartel behavior. However, the draft framework paper proposes that the laws:

• not impose criminal sanctions for Conduct Rules; but also

• impose substantial fines of up to 10% of the offending firm’s revenue. The fines which can be imposed by the Commission are limited to HK$10m and if the Commission seeks higher fines it will need to bring proceedings before the Tribunal.

A key issue with respect to these two points together arises from a recent decision of the Court of Final Appeal in the Koon Wing Yee v Insider Dealing Tribunal and Another [2008] 3 HKLRD 372 (the Koon Case) concerning the insider trading provisions of Hong Kong’s Securities Ordinance (as it applied prior to certain amendments). The court found that the Hong Kong’s Basic Law required Hong Kong legislation not to infringe certain human rights found in the constitutionally entrenched Bill of Rights. When the law provides that a substantial penalty may be imposed, the party alleged to have breached the law is entitled to the types of safeguards which apply in criminal proceedings, such as the privilege against self incrimination. This does not make the offenses criminal – for example attracting a prison sentence and resulting in a person having a criminal record. The offences remain civil but the human rights protections are more stringent if the penalties are substantial.

In a related case, the Court of Appeal ruled that questioning of individuals during an investigation by the Securities and Futures Commission (Hong Kong’s security regulator) does not infringe the individual’s right to remain silent or his or her right to a fair trial. A separate question arises as to whether, once collected, the material can be used in a trial where significant penalties may result. If this ruling stands, it will strengthen the Commission’s ability to conduct investigations.

III. Final Comments

Numerous stakeholders have commented on the Government’s proposed legislation since the Competition Policy Review Committee issued its first public discussion document in November 2006. Taking into consideration the various public comments, the Government intends to introduce a Competition Bill in the 2008-2009 legislative session. The likely content of the proposed law as summarized in this article will give businesses an opportunity to comment on the proposals and also provide some lead time to review their business practices, correct potentially infringing conduct and develop best practice guidelines to ensure compliance once the law comes into effect.

*Nick Taylor is a partner of Gilbert+Tobin, a strategic partner of King & Wood since November 2007.
Kenneth Choy is a Partner King & Wood – Hong Kong.