Chinese IPRs and Trade Wars
著作權 or Zhùzuòquán means “copyright” in Mandarin Chinese. Earlier this week, Chinese authorities kicked-off a campaign against online copyright infringement. Is this crackdown a response to increased pressure from foreign investors —and the Trump administration— for China to combat widespread piracy and counterfeiting?
The latest Jianwang Campaign Against Online Copyright Infringement was jointly launched by several government agencies including the National Copyright Administration of China, the Cyberspace Administration, and the Ministry of Public Security. It will target key areas for intellectual property rights (IPRs) including unauthorised republication of news and plagiarism on social media, broadcasting copyrighted content on video sharing apps, and setting up overseas servers to get around territorial restrictions. The campaign, which will last for at least four months, will also push internet service providers to enhance internal supervision systems.
Similar to the crackdown last September, the campaign is seen by many as an attempt to alleviate major concerns among foreign investors, including those in the United States. China’s lack of strong IPRs protection measures “frequently draw complaints from foreign investors and have been a long-standing focus of attention at annual talks with the US and Europe.”
The issue hit headlines again last autumn, when the Office of the United States Trade Representative led an official seven-month investigation into China’s intellectual property theft, under section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. Bolstered by the USTR’s findings that “Chinese theft of American IP currently costs between $225 billion and $600 billion annually”, the Trump Administration imposed retaliatory tariffs on Chinese products in early July.
Considering 200 years of history: is “Chinese culture” to blame for copyright infringement?
According to the 2017 Situation Report on Counterfeiting and Piracy in the European Union, China has long been recognised as the engine of the global counterfeiting and piracy industry. Whereas software piracy rates for the European Union are 28 per cent, analysts at BSA | The Software Alliance believe nearly 70 per cent of computers in China run unlicensed software.
In 2012, an article on Forbes explained that “IP protection will always be an uphill struggle in China and for companies doing business there,” as individual rights –including IPRs– may be at odds with traditional Chinese society. What support does that argument have?
Firstly, it’s important to note that IP is not an indigenous concept in China. Historically speaking, the lack of a strong IP regime can be traced to the early roots of China’s economic system, which emphasised agriculture and generally neglected large-scale commerce. Before the Opium War (1839-1842), foreign powers were unconcerned with the lack of IP protection in China primarily because there was little foreign investment there to protect in the first instance. Furthermore, the main European exports to China at the time were unbranded bulk commodities, and not technological innovations or creative works such as software, film, and music.
During the Chinese Revolution, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party abolished all legal systems in 1949. Throughout the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, China lacked any semblance of a functioning legal system. As per Communist political ideology, “Law” in China during this time was guided by general principles and shifting policies, rather than detailed and constant rules.
When chairman Deng Xiaoping adopted an open-door economic policy in the late 1970s, China’s trading partners were no longer restricted to the USSR and Soviet satellites, but instead now included Western countries. Several years later, the Communist party officially pronounced that the Cultural Revolution had been a grave error, and began to shift its economic and social reforms. To support its burgeoning and rapid economic development, China accordingly began to embrace a formal IPR strategy. When China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, it became bound by the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
Enhancing the protection of intellectual property rights is a matter of overall strategic significance, and it is vital for the development of the socialist market economy.
—Li Keqiang, Premier of the People’s Republic of China
The Wall Street Journal further explains that, incentivised by the influx of foreign technology and media companies wishing to invest in China, IPR protection in the country has been rising steadily for the last decade. In 2006, there were approximately 6,000 copyright lawsuits: in 2016, that number had multiplied nearly 15 times over to 87,000 cases.
If Chinese IP law is increasingly comparable to European and American standards, why then does China continue to attract disapproval?
Although the rate of unlicensed or “pirated” software in China is nearly 70 per cent, the piracy rates in Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Albania, Belarus, Ukraine, Bolivia, Algeria, Botswana, Zimbabwe and many others is much higher. However, because Chinese economy is behemoth, and uses an incredible amount of software, the value of such pirated software is over $6.5 billion.
Secondly, although true that Chinese IPR enforcement is catching up to U.S. and European standards, considerable weakness remains in the high levels of bureaucracy. For example, court decisions might apply on a provincial level rather than nationally, and judges often have different interpretations of the laws.
Of China’s 1.5 billion residents, nearly 600 million live in rural communities. While central authorities may establish the laws and regulations, it is the local authorities tasked to implement those laws and regulations. It is therefore important to note that local protectionism probably constitutes the largest obstacle to cracking down on piracy in China.
Finally, from a sociological perspective, it could be argued that English-language media promotes an inaccurate portrayal of IP piracy as somehow rooted in Chinese culture and Otherness. To be fair, European and American copyright law is also plagued with intense debate and woeful inadequacies surrounding the evolution of online technologies.
IP is a complex area of law, and for a variety of reasons copyright is perhaps one of the most difficult areas to legislate. China still has a long way to come in respect of is IPR regime, a sentiment acknowledged by Beijing. However, the danger of perpetuating snippets and sound bites without adequate context is non-trivial. IPR policy affects United States foreign policy, and incorrect understanding the problem can lead to disruptions in international relations, or even trade wars.
featured image photo of Shanghai: @Usukhbayar Gankhuyag