MofCOM Releases Draft Foreign Investment Complaint Rules: How Good Will It Be For Forced Tech Transfer?

On March 23, 2019 the Ministry of Commerce released its  Rules for Foreign Investment Complaints (Draft for Public Comment (外商投资企业投诉工作办法[征求意见稿]) (the “Rules”).  Comments are due by April 22.  This is one of several recent Phase 1 / trade responsive initiatives that have been announced or are expected in the near term from China.  This blog will focus on the IP aspects of the Rules, notably those provisions that can be used to address forced technology transfer and protecting trade secrets.

The Rules seek to implement Article 26 of the Foreign Investment Law, which provides as follows:

The State establishes working mechanisms for complaints by foreign-invested enterprises, promptly handles the issues raised by foreign-invested enterprises or their investors, and coordinates and improves the relevant policy measures.

Where foreign-invested enterprises and their investors consider the administrative acts of administrative organs and their employees to have infringed upon their lawful rights and interests, they may petition for a resolution through the working mechanisms for complaints by foreign-invested enterprises.

Where foreign-invested enterprises and their investors consider the administrative acts of administrative organs and their employees to have infringed upon their lawful rights and interests, in addition to petitioning for a resolution through the working mechanisms for complaints by foreign-invested enterprises in accordance with the provisions of the previous paragraph, they may also petition for administrative reconsideration or initiate administrative litigation in accordance with law.

A major concern by the Trump Administration had been to prohibit forced technology transfer by China, through making tech transfer a condition of foreign investment approval or other means.   Article 2.1 of the Phase 1 Agreement addresses this concern:

  1. Natural or legal persons (“persons”) of a Party shall have effective access to and be able to operate openly and freely in the jurisdiction of the other Party without any force or pressure from the other Party to transfer their technology to persons of the other Party.
  2. Any transfer or licensing of technology between persons of a Party and those of the other Party must be based on market terms that are voluntary and reflect mutual agreement.

Article 23 of  The Foreign Investment Law, which predates the Phase 1 Agreement addressed this concern as well:

Administrative organs and their employees shall, in accordance with law, maintain the confidentiality of the trade secrets of foreign investors or foreign-invested enterprises that they learn in the course of performing their duties, and must not disclose or unlawfully provide them to others.

The proposed Rules set up a working group (工作机构), coordinated by MofCOM with counterpart agencies down to county levels (Art. 2) to handle foreign investment complaints.  This complaint process is not exclusive of other legal remedies, such as administrative reconsideration or litigation, “letters and visits” (petitioning), etc. (Art. 8).  The Rules afford the possibility of initiating parallel track procedures, provided applicable legal limitations periods are adhered to for legal actions.  However, if these alternative legal procedures are accepted, the MofCOM process will be terminated:

Art. 19.3 During the handling of a complaint, if the complainant initiates administrative reconsideration, administrative litigation and other procedures on the same complaint, or an application is filed with a higher level complaint agency or disciplinary inspection, supervision, letters and visits and has been accepted, the complainant shall be deemed to apply for withdrawal of the complaint.

投诉处理期间,投诉人就同一投诉事项提起行政复议、行政诉讼等程序的,或者向上级投诉工作机构或者纪检、监察、信访等部门提出申请并已被受理的,视同投诉人申请撤回投诉。

The Rules also set up the basic procedural requirements for making a complaint, including types of documentation, representation, response time, and potential remedies (Chapter 2).   Once a completed complaint is filed, the Working Group will have seven days to advise the complainant that the complaint has been accepted. Trade secrets and private information are to be protected in the process (Art. 21).  Final decisions are required within sixty days of acceptance (Art. 18).  The complaint acceptance process does afford MofCOM the possibility of delaying due to incomplete complaints (Art. 14).

The principal remedy of this process appears to be a mediated response with the offending agency (依法公正进行协调处理,推动投诉事项的妥善解决) (Arts. 15, also Arts. 17, 19). Other possible outcomes procedures include recommending that local governments change their procedures or rules (Art. 17).

How effective are such procedures likely to be?

Although this process may afford some individuals a useful alternative channel to resolve forced technology transfer and effect policy changes, I am doubtful it will afford much relief in most licensing/trade secret cases.  An earlier administrative effort to protect trade secrets through the National IPR Leading Group also didn’t deliver much relief as far as I know.   Trade secret matters are very difficult to handle in China’s administrative processes due to concerns about local economic influences, uncertain procedures to maintain confidential information, fears of retaliation, etc.  In general, foreign companies have been reluctant to sue national and local Chinese government agencies, with the significant exception of patent and trademark validity challenges.  Of particular concern is that possibility of retaliation against those who file complaints.  As USTR noted in the Section 301 Report:

As U.S. companies have stated for more than a decade, they fear that they will face retaliation or the loss of business opportunities if they come forward to complain about China’s unfair trade practices. Concerns about Chinese retaliation arose in this investigation as well. Multiple submissions noted the great reluctance of U.S. companies to share information on China’s technology transfer regime, given the importance of the China market to their businesses and the fact that Chinese government officials are “not shy about retaliating against critics.”

Moreover, there are competing channels to trade secrets that are improving. China has made significant advances in civil judicial protection of trade secrets, which should be utilized where appropriate.  Technical trade secrets appeals are now being heard by a new national appellate IP court.   SAMR also has plans to draft an administrative rule on stopping trade secret infringement(禁止侵犯商业秘密若干规定).

Finally, it is difficult for me to conceive of a complaint mechanism that essentially is being made to the same agency or group of agencies that approve the actual investment, rather than the agenc(ies) in charge of protecting trade secrets.  Should complaints fail to materialize, it  may also be interpreted by China as a lack of concern about the issue, rather than concerns about the effectiveness and risks of the process.

My perspectives on this process have been clear.  As I stated in an earlier blog:

[N]ewly amended provisions in the new Foreign Investment Law prohibiting forced technology transfer are likely to have little impact absent effective complaint and legal challenge procedures, such as the creation of a foreign investment ombudsman and/or appeals to the newly established IP court.  The inclusion of a non-discrimination position in administrative licensing procedures is also welcome news, although it may be similarly difficult to monitor and enforce.

While there is nothing harmful in the Rules, I continue to believe that appeals to a competent, specialized court or creation of an independent ombudsman would likely best serve foreign interests.

The Trump Administration and China IP Diplomacy: Old Wine In a New Bottle?

Two major China IP events occurred in late November and December. One of them was the long-awaited first phase of a settlement of the US-China trade war.  The second was the nomination of Wang Binying to replace Francis Gurry as Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations body and US reaction.  A common thread of concern over “IP Theft” unites the US perspective on these issues.  This is the first of a two-part blog, focusing first on the Phase One effort.

The First Phase Agreement

Although a final text of the 86 page agreement is reportedly being “scrubbed” by both sides to the negotiations, and will not be available until January, the Office of the US Trade Representative has called Phase One

an historic and enforceable agreement on a Phase One trade deal that requires structural reforms and other changes to China’s economic and trade regime in the areas of intellectual property, technology transfer, … The Phase One agreement also…establishes a strong dispute resolution system that ensures prompt and effective implementation and enforcement.

USTR’s fact sheet outlines these accomplishments in IP:

Intellectual Property: The Intellectual Property (IP) chapter addresses numerous longstanding concerns in the areas of trade secrets, pharmaceutical-related intellectual property, geographical indications, trademarks, and enforcement against pirated and counterfeit goods.

Technology Transfer: The Technology Transfer chapter sets out binding and enforceable obligations to address several of the unfair technology transfer practices of China that were identified in USTR’s Section 301 investigation. For the first time in any trade agreement, China has agreed to end its long-standing practice of forcing or pressuring foreign companies to transfer their technology to Chinese companies as a condition for obtaining market access, administrative approvals, or receiving advantages from the government. China also commits to provide transparency, fairness, and due process in administrative proceedings and to have technology transfer and licensing take place on market terms. Separately, China further commits to refrain from directing or supporting outbound investments aimed at acquiring foreign technology pursuant to industrial plans that create distortion.

In light of prior bilateral commitments and accomplishments by the Trump Administration to date, the fact sheet adds little that is new.

Let’s pull the IP paragraph apart:

China has already amended its laws regarding trade secrets and trademarks.  The reference to pharmaceutical-related intellectual property is, however, one welcome encouragement of efforts that were recently proposed in the CCP/State Council Opinionsgulation of November 2019.  These changes were in play before the trade war was launched, but had since been delayed.  This welcome recommitment is well supported by a new national appellate IP court, as well as by a recent decision by the new appellate IP Court combining civil and administrative adjudication in a patent dispute, which may also be a harbinger of a possible combined civil/administrative adjudication with third parties in other areas, such as for patent linkage such as with the China’s food and drug authorities or patent authorities.

USTR refers to the Phase One agreement as addressing “long-standing concerns” about trade secrets and “enforcement against pirated and counterfeit goods.”  One of the “long-standing concerns” in trade secrets involved enhancing administrative enforcement of trade secrets.  This commitment was expressed in the 2012 US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and incorporated into plans of the National Leading Group.  Efforts to enhance “enforcement” against pirated and counterfeit goods appear is also redolent of increased administrative enforcement more generally – which downplays the significant changes underway in China’s judicial system, and have been the subject of numerous bilateral commitments under the former Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade.  For unknown reasons, many of the earlier JCCT commitments are no longer easily retrievable online, however, a list of commitments was prepared by GAO for the years 2004-2012, which demonstrates their long history.

Several factors combine to suggest that the US and China may be committing to a renewed focus on administrative enforcement: the role that administrative enforcement has played in the recent CPC-State Council Opinions on IP and other regulations, proposed legislation, and recent campaigns, and the problem of a long trade war without any acknowledged results which is affecting the markets and may drag into a presidential election cycle.  Late-term administrations may also be tempted to condone campaign-style IP enforcement, which can generate impressive enforcement statistics but have limited deterrence or long-term sustainability.    As Prof. Dimitrov has noted, IP campaigns are typically a “rapid resolution of a major problem,” done in response to a crisis or political pressure.  Prof. Mertha, another political scientist, described prior commitments to enforcement campaigns as part of the  “red face test: could the USTR state at a press conference, with a straight face, that the [trade] agreement was a good one.”  After much pain and drama, the Administration may yet be placing old wine in a new bottle, “rounding up the usual” enforcement outcomes —  as it ignores the scholarly literature surrounding campaign-driven outcomes of twenty to thirty years ago.  If these observations on Phase One are correct, then the goal of “structural change” in IP enforcement is illusive.

An administrative campaign focus would also ignore the low hanging fruit of China’s recent improvements and experiments in civil enforcement as well as pushing for further reform in administrative enforcement.  The Phase One Fact Sheet omits such pressing matters as continuing improvements in civil enforcement, long-standing problems with administrative enforcement transparency, promising developments in development of judicial precedent, the experiment of a new national appellate IP court similar to the CAFC,  the recent decline in foreign-related civil enforcement transparency, the dramatic decline in criminal IP enforcement including trade secret enforcement in the last several years, the need for rightsholders to have observable means of monitoring a trade agreement outcome in such areas as forced technology transfer or IP enforcement, or the impact of China’s aggressive antitrust regime on IP protection and commercialization, among other issues.   Enhanced punitive enforcement in enforcement, which both the US and China have also been calling for, may similarly be inconsistent with the primary goal of adequate compensation to victims of infringement. Furthermore, absent adequate procedural and substantive safeguards, this could also result in punishments being handed out to foreigners, as they have in the past.

The focus of an IP regime should instead be on transparency, fairness and adequate compensatory civil damages. Due to the many perceived weaknesses of China’s IP enforcement regime, the 2019 US-China Business Council, for example,  has noted in its 2019 survey that IPR enforcement was rated number 6 among the top 10 business challenges faced by the survey respondents.

The technology transfer language also contains much of the same old wine.  China committed to not conditioning foreign investment on technology transfer long before this trade war when it joined the WTO (2001).  It agreed at that time to provide for the “elimination and cessation of … technology transfer requirements” and that “the terms and conditions of technology transfer, production processes or other proprietary knowledge, particularly in the context of an investment, would only require agreement between the parties to the investment.“  Based on the Phase One fact sheet, it is also hard to see how Phase One agreement will add to the important additional legislative changes on this issue that China enacted earlier this year.

Rather than focus on legislative changes, the nature of the continued subsistence of forced technology transfer (FTT) is probably the more important trade issue at this time.  The 2019 Business Climate Survey of the American Chamber of Commerce in China characterized FTT as an “operational”, rather than a “legal” challenge, and placed technology transfer issues fifth in priority among IP-related concerns, well behind IP enforcement, with only 8 percent of respondents reporting it as the most significant IP issue their company faces.  This also appears to be the perspective of Prof. Prud’homme in his December 2019 presentation to the OECD, which outlines how FTT manifests itself.  Depending on the industrial sector, the Business Climate Survey notes that 41-58% of companies reported no difference in the amount of technology they shared with Chinese companies compared to other markets.  The US-China Business Council survey reached similar conclusions: technology transfer concerns ranked 24 out of 27 top concerns in the market. The Business Council further noted that only 5 percent of survey respondents report being asked to transfer technology in the past three years, yet the issue is an acute concern of affected companies in key sectors.

Has FTT declined as an issue of concern?  Earlier surveys by business chambers, before the trade war, suggested a higher incidence of FTT than is currently being reported.   Scholars and practitioners have also estimated that this issue has been exaggerated by the administration.  US data on sales of technology to China show a continued increase in technology licenses, as well as increases in licenses to unrelated parties, which may suggest greater confidence in the market and legal system.  One may argue about the sufficiency of the data, although the legal reforms and recent changes confirm to me that the principle strategic issue is how to ensure that technology is not lost through extra-legal /“operational” measures.

Another concern is that remedies for FTT  may end up again being another opaque process that may not bring the necessary relief.  As with the continuing emphasis on administrative enforcement of IP, China’s legislative efforts to date suggest that a principal remedy would be administrative remedies, as proposed implementing regulations to China’s Foreign Investment Law already suggest.

Conclusion: Is IP Any Different?

One of the better general overviews of the Phase One agreement had been written by Scott Kennedy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  Scott’s article “A Fragile and Costly US-China Trade Peace” notes that  “ [I]n the short-term China and Xi Jinping are the clear winners. With only limited concessions, China has been able to preserve its mercantilist economic system and continue its discriminatory industrial policies at the expense of China’s trading partners and the global economy. “

The fact sheet for Phase One suggests that further dramatic improvements since the notable accomplishments of earlier this year may not be in the offing.  Perhaps these will be negotiated as part of any “Phase Two” deal.  For the moment, there is certainly nothing in these outcomes which sets forth a “structural change” such as might include a shift to a private property oriented approach to IP, including support of a civil system, a more limited role for the administrative system and less state intervention into IP protection, enforcement, and commercialization.  There is also no reference to the greater transparency necessary to enable rightsholders and governments to understand how China’s enforcement mechanisms operate to protect private rights in China’s socialist market economy.

Now, let’s see what the scrubbed text brings…

Upcoming blog: on the nomination of Wang Binying to WIPO Director-General.

Foreign Investment Law Implementing Regs Open For Public Comment: Administrative and Punitive Enforcement Ascends Again

The Ministry of Justice had published a draft of the Foreign Investment Law Implementing Regulations for public comment.  Chinalawtranslate has prepared an English translation of the proposed regulations and of the law itself.   The due date for submitting comments is December 1.  The US-China Business Council has graciously already made its comments available in English and Chinese to the public.  The Foreign Investment Law was one of several laws enacted earlier in 2019 that appear to be responsive to US concerns and pressure.

The primary provisions addressing IP are Articles 24 and 25, which state:

Article 24: The state is to establish a punitive compensation system for violations of intellectual property rights, promote the establishment of rapid collaborative protection mechanisms for intellectual property rights, complete diversified dispute resolution mechanisms for intellectual property rights disputes and mechanisms for assistance in protecting intellectual property rights, to increase the force of protections for foreign investors’ and foreign-invested enterprises’ intellectual property rights.

The intellectual property rights of foreign investors and foreign-invested enterprises shall be equally protected in the drafting of standards in accordance with law, and where foreign investors’ or foreign-invested enterprises’ patents are involved, it shall be handled in accordance with the relevant management provisions of state standards involving patents.

Article 25: Administrative organs and their staffs must not use the performance of administrative management duties such as handling registration, approvals or filings for investment projects, and administrative permits, as well as implementing oversight inspections, administrative punishments, or administrative compulsion, to compel or covertly compel foreign investors or foreign-invested enterprises to transfer technology.

(chinalawtranslate translation).

The language in the first paragraph of Article 24 appears to track trade war pressures, including demands for punitive compensation.   As I have argued repeatedly, a better focus might be on deterrent civil damages, and/or the basic structure set forth in the WTO of having adequate and effective civil remedies with criminal remedies as an adjunct for willful, commercial-scale harm.  In this scheme, there is little place for administrative remedies, as was noted in DS362 (the IP enforcement case at the WTO).  The WTO panel, in that case, noted that “neither party [the US nor China] to the dispute argues that administrative enforcement may fulfil the obligations on criminal procedures and remedies set out in Article 61 of the TRIPS Agreement. Therefore, the Panel does not consider this issue.”  There have also been numerous academic studies on the challenges of creating a sui generis administrative IP enforcement system in China.  The language in Article 24 is also highly repetitive of the November 21, 2018 special Memorandum of Understanding/campaign mechanisms involving 38 government agencies to address six types of faithless IP conduct, about which I previously blogged.

What is notably absent from these commitments is an obligation to increase transparency, which is especially concerning due to an apparent slowdown in the publication of foreign IP-related court cases since the trade war began.   I will be blogging more about this soon, but here is what the decline in published US cases looks like based on IPHouse data, with a flatlining since January 1, 2018:

iphouse

See also my slides from the recent Berkeley transnational IP litigation conference available here.

The language regarding standards in the second paragraph repeats long-standing concerns about foreigners being excluded from standards-setting processes, as was addressed in the 2015 JCCT.  It does not set forth commitments about fairness or equal treatment which have been raised before in industrial policy drafting (as was addressed in the 26th JCCT on semiconductor policy), antitrust investigations, patent prosecution or litigation (for which there is a wealth of empirical data).

Article 25 also appears trade responsive.  It would be useful at this time to determine the current magnitude of forced technology transfer in foreign direct investment, and to determine how it subsists and whether it has measurably decreased since the trade war began, including whether legitimate licensing transactions have stepped in to provide increased revenue for technology licensors as a result of these and other reforms, including revision of the Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations.