The IP Theft Nexus in the Houston Consulate Closing

Among the purported reasons for closing the Houston Consulate of the PRC were violations of the Vienna Convention regarding consular affairs and  IP theft. According to various press reports, the spokesperson for the State Department, Morgan Ortagus, stated that “We have directed the closure of PRC Consulate General Houston in order to protect American intellectual property and American’s [sic] private information.” This blog looks at the possibility that the consulate was involved in state-sponsored economic espionage.

This Administration (like Obama’s) has been very frustrated by the degree of state involvement in economic espionage matters coming from China and the lack of any effective traditional tools. For example, neither Obama nor Trump (nor any predecessors) took a WTO case pursuant to Article 39 of the TRIPS Agreement which obligates states to protect trade secrets, perhaps because the WTO is perceived as too weak, or that “everyone does it.”  Still, if the extent of state-sponsored trade secret misappropriation was as great as the Administration alleges, a WTO case may have helped gather multilateral support and air US concerns multilaterally.  In other displays of frustration, both Trump and Obama have pursued with some fanfare cases against state actors in absentia.  This has  led to good media coverage against actors such as the People’s Liberation Army, and pyrrhic ex parte convictions.

The Administration also faces another dilemma: criminal economic espionage cases have proven quite difficult since there needs to be a demonstrated state nexus. DOJ has increasingly appeared to be filing or plea bargaining to settle on  “easier” cases – such as traditional trade secret cases which do not require a state nexus or has filed cases involving government grant conflict of interests, fraud, money laundering, etc.   The Administration has also sought to address this through other means such as the Section 301 investigation and tariffs, trade negotiations, strengthening US export controls and CFIUS regulation, and even placing companies on the Commerce entity list where there have been allegations of overseas trade secret theft benefiting China (Fujian Jinhua/theft of Micron technology).

If an economic espionage matter were really the motivation for this sudden evacuation of the consulate and not election-year politics, a good place to look would be for a contemporaneous motivating event.  The closing of the consulate announcement may be timed with an indictment in Washington State 22 hours earlier – which did have one Texas victim nexus and does allege a comprehensive international state-supported economic espionage and personal data theft scheme, including vaccine-related espionage. Two Chinese hackers who are alleged to have had support from the Ministry of State Security in Guangdong were indicted. The hackers were indicted in absentia, once again leaving the US with very limited recourse except pyrrhic ex part convictions. However, no one individual in the Houston Consulate is mentioned – and I imagine that in the usual course of things if a consular official were identified he would have been “PNG’d”, that is, made persona non grata and asked to leave.

Another, more intriguing alternative is that it could also be related to two cases recently discussed by FBI Director Wray, which do have a clear Texas consulate nexus. As Wray mentioned in his July 7 speech before the Hudson Institute:

“Hongjin Tan, for example, [is] a Chinese national and American lawful permanent resident. He applied to China’s Thousand Talents Program and stole more than $1 billion—that’s with a “b”—worth of trade secrets from his former employer, an Oklahoma-based petroleum company, and got caught. A few months ago, he was convicted and sent to prison.

“Or there’s the case of Shan Shi, a Texas-based scientist, also sentenced to prison earlier this year. Shi stole trade secrets regarding syntactic foam, an important naval technology used in submarines. Shi, too, had applied to China’s Thousand Talents Program, and specifically pledged to “digest” and “absorb” the relevant technology in the United States. He did this on behalf of Chinese state-owned enterprises, which ultimately planned to put the American company out of business and take over the market.

“In one of the more galling and egregious aspects of the scheme, the conspirators actually patented in China the very manufacturing process they’d stolen, and then offered their victim American company a joint venture using its own stolen technology. We’re talking about an American company that spent years and millions of dollars developing that technology, and China couldn’t replicate it—so, instead, it paid to have it stolen.”

Notwithstanding these cases theere may be other factors at play, notably:, election-year politics, a general decline in bilateral relations, and national security issues.  The Administration may also have decided on an aggressive escalation at this time to show support for countries like the UK and India as these countries have become more hawkish towards China, such as by not procuring Huawei equipment (the UK), or limiting the use of Chinese social media platforms (India), or opposition to the National Security Law in Hong Kong (UK and many others), and/or by opposing Chinese maneuvers in the South China Sea (UK and many others).

We have limited information to guess at the involvement of the Houston Consulate in any economic espionage activities, nor do we have any sense of the role of various Chinese intelligence agencies in this recent development, or what are the specific kinds of malfeasance that trigged this reaction by the Administration.  According to the New York Times, David Stilwell at the State Department has called the Houston consulate the “epicenter” of research theft.

In terms of Chinese ministry involvement, the US indictment in Washington State points to a key role of the Ministry of State Security in technology misappropriation.   If scientific research is the key focus, China’s  Ministry of Science and Technology is another important agency, which has knowledgeable officials overseas and is engaged in a range of open, legitimate, and highly important collaborative activities.  MoST is probably the diplomatic presence with the greatest depth in any of these accused technologies.  However,  MoST is rarely mentioned as an espionage actor by the Administration and is not even indexed as an espionage actor in recent books by Roger Faligot and Mattis/Brazil on “Chinese Spies” and “Chinese Communist Espionage”, respectively.  According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, there are 75 such MoST offices overseas, including one in Houston.

It is conceivable that some of MoST’s work may not be consistent with US ethics, expectations or laws despite its overall positive role and could have been some part of the decision to retaliate.  As one intriguing example of a role that could lead to conflict, by operation of Chinese law, Chinese science and technology departments in Chinese missions overseas are also in charge of vetting proposed patent prosecutions of Chinese students and patents derived from Chinese technology projects overseas, potentially placing the confidentiality of the patent disclosure at risk.  Moreover, the vague rule requires in certain circumstances that the Chinese inventor (or, presumably, co-inventor) own or apply for the patent if it is not a “service invention” thereby placing these inventors in potential conflict with their host institutions overseas. See the 1986 rule “Concerning Completion of Invention Patents Overseas by Chinese Students Studying Abroad”  关于我国学者在国外完成的发明创造申请专利的规定, promulgated by the Chinese Patent Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Science and Technology Commission (the predecessor of MoST). This 1986 rule outlines a scenario not altogether different from the facts involved in the Shan Shi conviction – applying for a patent in China for an invention made in the United States – notwithstanding the contribution or expectation of others.  Interestingly, Shan Shi was also convicted of trade secret theft by a Houston, Texas federal court.

Another reason to retalitate may have simply been that since US consulates have been thinly staffed and the Wuhan consulate had been closed, there may be an element of consular placement politics which has occurred in the past with regard to China.  The United States has also been complaining about lack of reciprocity with China in access by our diplomats.  The State Department may have also calculated that even if China retaliates this was a lose-lose scenario, where China will lose more than the United States.  A similar calculation may have occurred with respect to these efforts regarding reciprocity or asking Chinese journalists to leave.

Election-year politics may have been an important part of the choice of how to retaliate, even if these political motivations were not the original factor in deciding that retaliation was necessary. Closing a US consulate in retaliation for IP theft should also lead observers to question whether the Phase 1 Trade Agreement, which was intended to address “IP theft” and lead to “structural changes” had achieved its core, motivating goals.  The Houston consulate closing could thus be seen as a crude acknowledgment that the Administration had failed in the primary motivations for its trade war with China.  The prospects for a Phase 2 Agreement are growing darker by the day.

We may never know all the motivations for the Houston closing.  Two things are clear: closing consulates can greatly damage bilateral relations, and we cannot anticipate when this cycle of accusations and reactions will de-escalate.

Update of July 24, 2020:  Matt Peterson in a July 24 article in Barron’s quotes a former USTR official, Clete Willems, who took issue with this blog:

The administration cited intellectual-property theft in its decision to close the consulate in Houston. Mark Cohen, a law professor who worked for the U.S. Patent and Trademark office in Beijing, wrote about that: “Closing a U.S. consulate in retaliation for IP theft should also lead observers to question whether the phase-one agreement, which was intended to address ‘IP theft’ and lead to ‘structural changes’ had achieved its core, motivating goals. The Houston consulate closing could thus be seen as a crude acknowledgment that the administration had failed in the primary motivations for its trade war with China.” What do you make of that?

My quick reply: Indeed, most of the accomplishments on IP in Phase 1 were in domestic Chinese reform and there was nothing as I recall on diplomats. That would have been highly unusual.  However, most of the significant IP reforms in fact occured before the Phase 1 Agreement, in the spring of 2019 or even in 2017 (on pharma).  One could argue there isn’t that much new IP in the Phase 1 Agreement.  As I have explained elsewhere, it “adds much less than its appearance would suggest.”  The focus of the Phase 1 Agreement had already migrated to other issues, such as market access. 

This does not mean that economic espionage or international issues were not at the core of the stated reasons for the trade war and to suggest otherwise is an exercise in historical revisionism.  The predecessor  301 investigation conducted by USTR and the subsequent Phase 1 Agreement explicitly sought to resolve “cyber-enabled theft” and “global espionage” in USTR’s own words.  See predecessor 301 Report Update at pp. 10-21. The incentives to steal trade secrets – whether due to Made in China 2025 or an array of other industrial policies and subsidies  – were not however discussed in the Phase 1 Agreement. Despite the imposition of punitive tariffs, these programs were not dismantled.  The “groundbreaking provisions in an area of critical importance to the United States: protecting intellectual property” that the President trumpeted in announcing the agreement, hardly addressed these core concerns.   There was also no improvement in transparency or other rule of law imperatives, no demends for cooperation between law enforcement authorities on criminal trade secret matters, etc.  that could have affected China’s handling of state-sponsored trade secret theft.  Some important laws were amended, but no sweeping “structural change” to back the state out of the extensive incentives that exist for IP misappropriation was accomplished. 

The Phase 1 Agreement wasalso not an agreement focused purely on domestic Chinese law.  For example, cross-border counterfeiting and Customs measures were part of the package, not simply “counterfeiting in China.” A perverse example of how much international IP theft, including state sponsored esiponage, was of core importance to the agreement and the messages we imparted to China:  Americans are being sued in China for trade secret infringement pursuant to the harsher laws that the US has encouraged China to implement, and Chinese criminal law is being amended to specifically impose harsher penalties when trade secrets are stolen on behalf of foreign parties, based on provisions that mimic our Economic Espionage Act. 

It is unclear to me if the Houston consulate closing was truly about these same issues or if the closing will have any impact on them.  The stated reason for closing was, indeed, trade secret theft and economic espionage.  This does suggest that the US might have felt that it had exhausted other remedies, and is a further indication of a failure to address key motivating reasons for the trade war in the Phase 1 Agreement.   Why else would we have discussed these IP theft issues at such great length, with such economic pain, and with such high expectations?  I agree that hopefully discussions will continue between our countries on trade – considering the volume of trade and investment, it is harder to dismantle those relationships than packing up a consulate.  Discussions should be conducted, however, via a plurality of engagements – not simply USTR – to ensure resiliency.

Further update of July 24, 2020: Here is an interview with me on KHOU on July 24, 2020 on the Houston consulate closing.


 

Webinars, Comments and An Encomium

The Webinars: There several useful webinars that are scheduled for this month.  On July 23, 2020 the USPTO will be hosting a webinar on using overlapping rights to protect your products (10:30 AM-12:30 EST).  China has many efficient and low cost means for protecting design and other rights, including design patents, 3D trademarks,  applied art (copyright), as well as relevant anti-unfair competition law and civil law provisions.  This is an important and useful topic.  On July 28, the World Intellectual Property Review and Wanhuida law firm are co-hosting a webinar on how to deal with bad faith trademark registrations on (4 PM British Summer Time),  a topic that is also dear to my heart.  Both webinars are free.

Berkeley’s China IP series is over for 2020 and we are now planning on 2021.  Recordings of all sessions will be made available to the public in 90 days.  If you have any suggestions on how to further develop this successful program, please write to me.

The Comments: The post-Phase 1/post-pandemic lockdown flurry in China of legislation has elicited comments from the public.  The copyright law comments in China alone elicited  51,165 comments and 167,196 legislative suggestions.  Prof. Andy Sun’s comments on the copyright law are found through this link (Chinese only).  The ABA has also commented to the USPTO on the judicial interpretations recently released for public comment, which may be found through this link.  Please send us any comments that you have prepared!

The Encomium:  July 1 was the 90th birthday of Prof. Jerome A. Cohen.  Jerry’s fans are legion, and I am also grateful for his support of my own efforts in academia.  Here is a recording of the opening webinar we did on April 22, 2020 at Berkeley on developments in Chinese law with Jerry Cohen,  Susan Finder and Sean Randolph.  I join Jerry’s many admirers in wishing him many more years of health, happiness and helping to make the world a better place.  Here is one encomium that was written by Jim McGregor.

Proposed Amendments to the Criminal Code on Trade Secrets

Amendments to the Criminal Law regarding trade secret theft have been announced by the NPC.   A new provision is proposed to be added to the end of  Article 219 of the Criminal Law:

“Whoever steals, spies, buys, or illegally provides commercial secrets to overseas institutions, organizations, and personnel shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years or detention, in addition to being fined or with a single fine; if the circumstances are serious, the penalty shall be more than five years’ imprisonment with fines.”

This provision complements Article 20 of the Opinions on Increasing the Level of Sanctions for Intellectual Property Infringement (Consultation Draft),  as well as Article 10 of Interpretation on Several Issues Concerning the Specific Application of Law in Handling Criminal Cases of Infringement of Intellectual Property (3) (Draft for Comment)  which provide that “ Serial infringers of IP rights, as well as those who steal commercial secrets for foreign agencies, organizations or individuals, shall be subject to severe penalties according to law and generally no probation shall be applied” (为境外的机构、组织、人员侵犯商业秘密的情形,依法从重处罚,一般不得适用缓刑.  ).  The official explanation of the draft criminal code revision notes that the changes are intended to address “commercial spying”.

These changes have also been discussed in a blog by Aaron Wininger, and a recent article in the South China Morning Post, which called the proposed amendments a “tit for tat” provision in retaliation for US economic espionage cases.  Although this provision may have been drafted to retaliate against the United States, the structure and purpose is different from the Economic Espionage Act of 1996  (EEA)  18 USC Sec. 1831.  The EEA defines  “economic espionage” as the “theft or misappropriation of a trade secret with the intent or knowledge that the offense will benefit any foreign government, foreign instrumentality, or foreign agency.”  A casual reading may suggest that the EEA is similar to proposed amendments to Section 219 in that it covers any trade secret theft that would benefit a foreign “instrumentality” or “agency.” This is an incorrect readingThe definitions of a foreign agent or foreign instrumentality leave no doubt that the individual or entity must be the agent of a foreign government, 18 USC Sec. 1839(1).  In addition, a second provision of the EEA criminalizes the more common commercial theft of trade secrets in foreign or instate commerce regardless of who benefits, 18 U.S.C. § 1832.

Importantly, the US Sentencing Guidelines do provide for an enhanced penalty if “ the offense involved misappropriation of a trade secret and the defendant knew or intended— that the trade secret would be transported or transmitted out of the United States,” or “ the offense would benefit a foreign government, foreign instrumentality, or foreign agent.”  The US Sentencing Commission has stated that enhanced penalties are needed to address “the transmission of stolen trade secrets outside of the United States [which] creates significant obstacles to effective investigation and prosecution and causes both increased harm to victims and more general harms to the nation. With respect to the victim, civil remedies may not be readily available or effective, and the transmission of a stolen trade secret outside of the United States substantially increases the risk that the trade secret will be exploited by a foreign competitor.”

The motivations for China’s enactment of this amendment does not appear to be issues of private international law.  As drafted, the provision retaliates against companies and individuals rather than foreign governments.  It is conceivable, as the SCMP article implies, that Chinese companies that have been targets of EEA actions may desire this tool to exact greater leverage in their US cases.   Nonetheless, it is worth discussing how private international law issues are not very germane to this amendment.  Individuals can be prosecuted overseas with greater ease than the government.  Hence, there is no need to target individuals.  Of course, if the basis of China’s adopting this provision were to address difficulties in bringing cases overseas, more effective judicial and law enforcement cooperation between our countries could help reduce the need for China’s enactment of this provision and strengthen mutual trust.   For example, the United States government has sought on numerous occasions for over a decade to solicit cooperation from Chinese law enforcement to address transborder IP crimes, with limited success through the Joint Liaison Group between law enforcement agencies, as well as through trade-related dialogues. See Tools to Address US-China Economic Challenges, at 98.  Moreover, the need to address judgment-proof defendants in trade secret cases that are located overseas is less pressing for Chinese plaintiffs.  Money judgments for trade secret cases are likely enforceable in the United States. US money judgments for a trade secret theft are not yet similarly enforceable in China.

The greatest risk presented by this provision may be that it could also have a further chilling effect on a range of commercial conduct by foreigners in China.  It may encourage domestic litigants to search for a foreign party in otherwise domestic litigation in order to exert additional leverage on the litigant.   As the crime is also now considered more serious, police and prosecutors may also commit more resources to the investigation and prosecution of foreigners.  Foreign companies investing or collaborating with Chinese counterparts may also now discover that an allegation of trade secret theft is more common in order to exact a commercial advantage in a commercial divorce from a foreign partner, such as when a prospective investment in a Chinese company is rejected, or there is a dispute over ownership of a patent or other technology.   If enacted as drafted, foreign companies may wish to consider adopting defensive measures, including revising their NDA’s and other agreements with Chinese parties, as well as implementing more stringent controls to minimize the risks of such allegations.

The United States has long sought revisions to China’s Criminal IP Laws.  In 2007, it filed a WTO case against China to lower existing criminal thresholds on copyright and trademark crimes.  Additional reforms are also contemplated by Section I of the IP Chapter of the Phase 1 Trade Agreement.

Comments on this provision are due by August 16, 2020.