Towards a Better Understanding of “Forced Technology Transfer” Policies in China and Their Strategic Implications

In August 2017, President Trump issued an executive order setting in motion an investigation of China’s trade policies including IP, technology transfer, and investment policies. The “Section 301” report on this investigation came out earlier this year. The Report itself uses the word “force” or “forced” 47 times and identifies a range of practices that result in “forced technology transfer.” However, there is a significant amount we still do not know regarding how these controversial Chinese policies actually work and the degree to which a technology owner’s behavior has in fact been compelled by state actors. A new paper by Dan Prud’homme, Max von Zedtwitz, Joachim Jan Thraen, and Martin Bader published in Technological Forecasting & Social Change explores this important issue.

The authors evaluate the ability of “forced technology transfer” (FTT) policies – which they define as policies meant to increase foreign-domestic technology transfer that simultaneously weaken appropriability of foreign innovations – to contribute to technology transfer. They draw on a survey of foreign firms, interviews with foreign firms, and case studies of Chinese firms.

The authors identify three categories of FTT policies that have significantly impacted foreign-Sino technology transfer in recent years:

(1) Policies which risk market loss (including market access preconditioned on meeting technology transfer requirements),

(2)  Policies that offer no choice regarding compliance (including unfair court rulings in IP civil litigation), and

(3) Policies that are based on legal obligations (including provisions in the technology import-export regulations; and certain policies related to the intersection of anti-trust and IP, and IP and technical standards).

Several other controversial policies were also identified, including disclosure of confidential business information through regulatory approvals, pharma patent issues, and certain tax schemes and subsidies.

The authors find that, with the exception of no-choice policies, foreign firms are allowed some flexibility to decide whether or not they want to comply with China’s FTT policies. Therefore, even though non-compliance with the policies is always met with consequences, the technology is not actually “forced” against a party’s will. After noting this limitation of the term, the authors explain that they retain the term “FTT policies” in their research for readability and because it is part of well-established lingo, but only use it to the extent that it meets their aforementioned definition.

Much of the research focuses on foreign-Sino transfer of frontier technology, i.e. the most advanced technology emerging from research and development which is generally not at the point of mass commercial adoption. According to the authors, not only the design of FTT policies per se helps determine if they exert substantial leverage over (i.e., force) frontier technology transfer, but the environment in which they are deployed is equally important. The authors find that FTT policies appear to exert the most leverage over frontier technology transfer when accompanied by seven conditions: (1) strong state support for industrial growth; (2) oligopoly competition; (3) other policies closely complementing FTT policies; (4) high technological uncertainty; (5) policy mode of operation offering basic appropriability and tailored to industrial  structure; (6) reform avoidance by the state, and (7) stringent policy compliance mechanisms.

Based on each of these conditions, the authors developed an FTT Strategy & Risk Forecasting Matrix with corresponding strategies the state may adopt to fully exploit, i.e. maximize the leverage of, FTT policies.

The authors’ analysis has several possible implications for technology transfer policymaking. In the authors’ view, Chinese FTT policies may enable domestic acquisition of frontier foreign technology if all seven conditions determining policy leverage are fully exploited by the state. However, if the state does not fully exploit all seven conditions, the FTT policies have less leverage. Moreover, if the state exploits none or only a few of the conditions, the FTT policies may result in a lose-lose game where foreign firms are discouraged from transferring valuable technology and domestic firms’ acquisition of new technology is made more difficult.

With this analysis, the authors provide evidence that can be used to appeal to the Chinese authorities to change some of their FTT policies: some of the policies are actually counterproductive in meeting their aims. The risks of loss of technology acquisition posed by Chinese policies is an important phenomenon which this blog has also identified, particularly as an unintended consequence of China’s Technology Import/Export Regulations (especially for start-ups and litigation-prone technologies, but also for technological collaboration) and which has been mentioned by the US Chamber of Commerce in its IP Index and its report on licensing.

The authors argue that in order to increase the chance that FTT policies will spur sustained transfer of frontier technology, Chinese regulators should not deprive foreign firms of  minimum level of appropriability. The policies should also allow foreign firms to benefit in at least minor ways from technology transfer arrangements.

The research also has important implications for technology strategy formulation and risk management. The authors’ FTT Strategy & Risk Forecasting Matrix can guide foreign firms to anticipate risks associated with FTT policies and serve as a starting point for understanding how to further quantify or mitigate these risks. The risks are of course compounded by potential trade secret theft, cyber intrusions, and less formal pressure points on foreign licensors to assign or transfer their technology in China. And these risks must be considered alongside major rising challenges to doing business in China, which Prud’homme and Zedtwitz have also discussed (in MIT Sloan Management Review), including: problematic areas of regulation in China and rising competition from Chinese rivals in terms of their recruiting and retaining top talent, more large-scale and strategic use of intellectual property, and ever faster time-to-market of products and services. Mitigating these many risks requires carefully integrated intellectual property, innovation, non-market, and human capital strategies, alongside yet other responses.

Edited of June 23, 2018:  An interview with Prof. Liu Chuntian of Renmin U. Law School on this same topic of forced technology transfer is found on page 2 of the People’s Daily (June 22, 2018, 2nd edition) (reporter Wang Yu)   A machine translation by Google is found here.  Liu focuses primarily on market access as a separate discpline from intellectual property under the WTO and as being essentially voluntary; he does not support formal and informal incentives in place (including the Technology Import/Export Regulations as noted in the article by Dan Prud’homme.

March 13 – 19, 2018 Updates

1. China’s export of IP royalties increased 311.5% in 2017  According to the statistics of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the volume of trade of Chinese IP royalties totaled 33.384 billion USD in 2017, a 32.7 percent increase from 2016. The amount of exports of IP royalties totaled 4.786 billion USD, a 311.5 percent increase from 2016, which ranked No.1 in terms of the speed of growth in service trade. The exports and imports of IP royalties for manufacturing industry ranked No. 1, at 3.793 billion USD, a 544 percent increase from 2016.  The import amount totaled 20.753 billion USD, up 16 percent. In terms of category. The amount of exports of replication/distribution computer software ranked No.1. at 3.405 billion USD, up 652 percent from 2016. In terms of region, Guangdong province was the No.1 in amount of export and import of IP royalties in 2017. Its export amount totaled 4.013 billion USD, up 591.9 percent from 2016 and its import amount totaled 7.525 billion USD, up 9.8 percent from 2016.

Despite the significant increase in the amount of exports of IP royalties in 2017, China still has a trade deficit in IP royalties. The amount of the deficit totaled 23.812 billion USD, which increased by 0.978 billion USD. About 60% of the deficit reportedly originated from the United States, Germany, and Japan.

IP commercialization and utilization has been a focus of China’s IP efforts since the third plenum of the Communist Party in 2014. However, foreigners continue to view China as very challenging licensing environment despite China’s claims of a licensing “deficit”. China’s technology import/export regulations had been one of the challenges that foreigners expressed special concern. In the US Chamber’s recently released IP Index, it was noted that IP commercialization in China was hampered by “[s]ubstantial barriers to market access and commercialization of IP, particularly for foreign companies.” China received zero points for “Regulatory and administrative barriers to the commercialization of IP assets.”  Here is a link to the discussion of Chinese licensing practices. The US Chamber’s conclusion is not unlike that of the Global Innovation Index (2016) which, as we previously reported, scored intellectual property payments according to a formula as a percentage of total trade. China came out at 72nd place, while it ranked number 1 in high tech exports. Similar concerns were also voiced by USTR in the recently released Section 301 report.

2.SIPO takes efforts to develop ability and capacity of IP mediation entities.  SIPO recently issued a “Notice on Developing the Ability and Capacity of Intellectual Property Mediation Entities” (“Notice”), as part of its effort to strengthen the role of mediation in IP dispute and the overall IP protection system. According to the Notice, SIPO will select 20 to 30 existing IP mediation entities every year as the target for ability and capacity development and help with such development for two years. After the two-year period, SIPO will release the basic information as well as specialties of entities that made great progress. Selection and review of existing entities will start this year, which is done by SIPO. Entities can apply either through local IP offices or to SIPO directly.

Within the region, Japan is also considering the use of mediation system to resolve IP disputes. The Japan Patent Office (JPO) intended to introduce an ADR system to determine appropriate license fee of SEPs in 2017. However, the ADR SEP system is likely to be deferred, as reported after a JPO committee meeting in November 2017.

3.  Huawei v Samsung patent decision released by Shenzhen IP Court. The recent decision in Huawei v Samsung was released by the Shenzhen IP Court.  The case involves assertion of two SEP’s by Huawei, and the grant of an injunction against further infringement.

January 16 – 29, 2018 Update

Jan 16 – 29, 2018 

Here are some updates on IP developments in China from past two weeks.

  1. China criticizes US moves on intellectual property 商务部:缺少确凿证据无可信度 China on Thursday criticized recent moves by the U.S. targeting the sale of fake goods and Chinese telecoms equipment, saying Washington lacked “objectivity” in its approach to Chinese businesses. Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng told reporters the U.S. Trade Representative lacked direct conclusive evidence and supporting data in listing three Chinese online commerce platforms and six physical bazaars within China as “notorious markets” engaging in commercial-scale copyright piracy and trademark counterfeiting. Meanwhile, Alibaba Group recently released a series of initiatives to strengthen its intellectual property rights protection. The event happened days after Taobao was put listed as notorious market. The ecommerce giant intends to gather as much information as they can and use the expertise of both brands and rights holder to create a much stronger database. It should effectively improve the algorithm that Alibaba uses to counteract the fakes and even gather evidence for offline investigations. Moreover, Preempting the 2017 USTR report’s publication by one day, the company has released the 2017 Alibaba Intellectual Property Protection Annual Report (in Chinese).
  2. Google announces patent agreement with Tencent amid China push Alphabet Inc’s Google has agreed to a patent licensing deal with Tencent Holdings Ltd as it looks for ways to expand in China where many of its products, such as app store, search engine and email service, are blocked by regulators. The agreement with the Chinese social media and gaming firm Tencent covers a broad range of products and paves the way for collaboration on technology in the future, Google said on Friday, without disclosing any financial terms of the deal. Additional articles are available here and here.
  3. China Publishes More Scientific Articles Than the U.S. For the first time, China has overtaken the United States in terms of the total number of science publications, according to statistics compiled by the US National Science Foundation (NSF). According to the report, China published more than 426,000 studies in 2016, or 18.6% of the total documented in Elsevier’s Scopus database. That compares with nearly 409,000 by the United States. India surpassed Japan, and the rest of the developing world continued its upward trend.
  4. SIPO Released Statistics Data on Major Work for 2017国家知识产权局公布2017年主要工作统计数据 SIPO recently released detailed breakdown of statistics on its work for 2017. Government data show that the number of annual applications for invention patents filed in the country topped 1.38 million in 2017, a 14.2 percent rise on the previous year. Beijing, Shanghai and Jiangsu are the top 3 provinces for number of patents per 10,000 people. State Grid Corporation of China, Huawei, and Sinopec are top companies with most patents granted.
  5. China’s trademark applications hit record high in 2017 China’s trademark applications exceeded 5.7 million last year, up 55.7 percent year on year, both setting record highs. At the end of 2017, China had 14.92 million qualified registered trademarks, the most of any country worldwide.
  6. “Jianwang [Swordnet] 2017” closed 2554 Pirated Websites“剑网2017”关闭侵权盗版网站2554个National Copyright Administration, State Internet Information Office, MIIT and Ministry of Public Security jointly held a conference on “Jianwang” special campaign recently. Since this special act being implemented in July 2017, 63,000 websites have been investigated and 2554 infringing websites have been closed. According to officer from National Copyright Administration, this special act had a focus on videos, news, mobile Internet applications (APP) and e-commerce platform.
  7. China Will Take the Lead in Promoting IP Protection Mechanism in Pilot Area我国将在全面创新改革试验区域推进知识产权保护改革率先突破 NDRC recently issued a notice to promote reform on IP protection mechanism in eight pilot areas, including Jing Jin Ji, Shanghai, Guangdong, Anhui, Sichuan, Wuhan, Xi’an, Shenyang. The government intends to promote integrated management of IP rights, explore new mechanism of IP protection, and establish a new mechanism to link administrative and criminal enforcement.
  8. U.S.-China IP Scholar Dialogue was Held中美知识产权学者对话举行 The Fourth U.S.-China IP Scholar Dialogue was held in Shanghai, China from January 17 to 18. Intellectual property is a key issue in the development of U.S.-China economic and trade relations. To increase cooperation and understanding, IP experts from both countries created this dialogue mechanism since 2013. This year’s dialogue emphasized on AI, biomedical innovation, technology licensing, trade secret law reform, IP judiciary protection and dispute settlement mechanism.
  9. US Commerce Secretary Ross says Beijing’s technology strategy is a “direct threat”; China demurs.  US trade authorities are investigating whether there is a case for taking action over China’s infringements of intellectual property, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said. China responds that it did not expect more trade disputes.
  10. China Customs reports seizing infringing goods worth 552 mln yuan in past three years.   China has seized infringing goods worth 552 million yuan (86.06 million U.S. dollars) in the past three years driven by a special act called “Qingfeng” (“Clear Breeze”), according to the General Administration of Customs of China (GACC). The three-year crackdown on intellectual property rights infringement discovered about 120 million infringing items, according to the General Administration of Customs.  Compare prior discussion on previous reports of GACC hereand here.
  11. Beijing to set up IPR center to better serve high-tech firms.  Beijing will establish a center this year dedicated to providing services to high-tech companies on intellectual property rights (IPR), officials said. The center will offer fast-track services for patent applications to companies in information technology and high-end equipment production, two areas with the highest demand.  This is part of an existing SIPO effort to fast track areas of concern to industrial development.  Compare, however, article 27 of TRIPS Agreement – patents shall be available and patent rights enjoyable without discrimination as to the place of invention, the field of technology and whether products are imported or locally produced.
  12. SIPO released a directory of industries that need IP support.  SIPO recently released the 2018 Intellectual Property Supporting Industries Directory (知识产权重点支持产业目录(2018年本)), which identified 10 industries where IP will be key. The government asked for efficient allocation of IP resources within these industries to promote industrial restructuring and upgrading.
  13. China’s Sinovel Convicted in U.S. of Stealing Trade Secrets.  A Chinese wind turbine maker, Sinovel Wind Group Co. was found guilty of orchestrating the theft in a rare trial in Wisconsin that continues to raises doubts over China’s commitment to fighting infringement of intellectual property and corporate espionage.  The case is U.S. v. Sinovel Wind Group Co. Ltd., 13-cr-00084, U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin (Madison). The conviction was against Sinovel Wind Group.  Previously a former employee of the victim had been found guilty of theft of trade secrets in a criminal case in Austria. In addition, there are in total five civil cases in China between Sinovel and AMSC, with one closed and four pending. AMSC filed one separate trade secret case in China plus two copyright cases and an arbitration.
  14.   Five New Guiding Cases (English translation available).  Of the five newly released GCs, four are administrative cases and one centers on a dispute over the infringement of rights related to a new plant variety (Case No. 92). English translation of those guiding cases are made available by the China Guiding Case Project of Stanford Law School. More information about previous guiding cases available here and here.

We hope to be providing more updates in the year ahead from UC Berkeley.  As usual, the information herein does not necessarily represent the opinion of any government agency, company, individual or the University of California.

Updated: February 13, 2018