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.

US-China Security Commission – Readout of Hearing on June 8, 2018

On June 8, 2018, I testified before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on “U.S. Tools to Address Chinese Market Distortions.” This was my second time testifying in the past three years.  My written submission is available here.  The written submissions of other speakers, including a video of the proceedings is available through this link.  The presentations of my colleagues were all excellent.

I suggested several non-tariff alternatives for dealing with IP-related concerns with China, and underscored the necessity of developing appropriate domestic government structures to engage China on technology and innovation issues.  For example, the Commission seemed generally supportive of raising the diplomatic rank of USPTO attaches overseas.   I also discussed the importance of data-driven analysis, including use of the case database to look at how foreigners actually fare in the courts.  The Commission seemed skeptical that the data captured some of the more egregious judicial cases of foreign mistreatment, which they viewed as undercutting the credibility of the data that is being generated.  In my written submission, I encouraged the Commission to consider a hearing devoted solely to transparency in the courts.

The President’s recent decision to impose tariffs on Chinese imports in response to Chinese IP practices may render many of suggestions superfluous for now.  Nonetheless, I believe the increasing complexity of China’s IP and innovation environment are issues that cannot be ignored.  As I noted in my written testimony:

“The US experience suggests that innovation flourishes in open ecosystems where there is a free flow of capital, talent and technology. At the same time, the US needs to address mercantilistic practices which not only pose competitive threats to the United States but can also undermine the innovative ecosystems that have driven growth in the US economy, such as exist in Silicon Valley. Any steps taken to reduce collaboration with China or any other country needs to be carefully evaluated about its potential impact on our own technological competitiveness.”

In a separate, but nonetheless related matter, I spoke at the IPBC Global 2018 Conference in San Francisco on June 12 regarding developments in IP monetization in China.  Here’s a good summary of my presentation.  I thought one of the more telling moments in the panel I participated in involved China’s Technology Import/Export Regulations.   One lawyer acknowledged that “the regulations are stupid” and that “what we try to do is have parties to a technology transaction acknowledge that the regulations exist and agree not to enforce them.”  I discussed the regulations as potential “landmines” which could be invoked at a later time by a licensee.  Many licensors appeared to be unaware of these regulations.

What the EU and US WTO IP Disputes Reveal About Trade Diplomacy


Two contrasting approaches to using the WTO for China-related IP issues involving technology licensing and forced technology transfer are now pending at the WTO.

The United States initiated a WTO dispute on China’s licensing practices by filing a  consultation request on March 23, 2018.  Shortly after the filing of that case, Japan, the European Union, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Chinese Taipei requested to join the consultations.  The European Union additionally filed its own parallel WTO consultation request on June 1, 2018, with a broader scope. It is too soon to tell which countries will join the EU request.

Both countries timed their requests in conjunction with other trade actions. The WTO case was filed by the United States one day after the Section 301 report  was released. The European Union simultaneously filed its case against China with a WTO case against the United States regarding US tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

The EU’s approach to this IP case is markedly different from the last time the US filed a WTO dispute involving China’s IP practices (DS/362).   At the time that the US filed a request for IP-related cases from China, the EU declined to make a similar transparency request.  It also did not join the US as a co-complainant in the ensuing WTO case, nor did it file a parallel complaint, but it did participate as a third-party.  By contrast, the EU approach in the current dispute is to both support the US and dig deeper.

The US consultation request was portrayed by USTR as addressing “technology licensing requirements.”  The thrust of the complaint involves China  “denying foreign patent holders, including U.S. companies, basic patent rights to stop a Chinese entity from using the technology after a licensing contract ends.”  The consultation request is therefor somewhat narrow.  The US complaint does not specifically address other technology-oriented rights, such as trade secret protection or undisclosed data, nor does it take on the topics set forth in the Section 301 report involving “IP theft.”   The consultation request is now numbered WT/DS542/1.

The EU complaint (WT/DS549/1), cites several Chinese measures in addition to those identified in the United States’ consultation request, and invokes more expansive WTO principles and procedures. The additionally cited measures include the “Working Measures [sic] for Outbound Transfer of Intellectual Property Rights (For Trial Implementation), (State Council, Guo Ban Fa [2018] No. 19)” (知识产权对外转让有关工作办法(试行)) which was previously discussed here.  The Chinese promulgation of these interim Regulations only five days after the US filed its consultation request, looks to some like another act of synchronized trade diplomacy — in this case as a possible retaliatory act for the 301 report and the WTO case.  My guess is that the EU, by referring to these new largely untested regulations is however seeking to address the legality of controls China has additionally imposed on foreigners’ transferring IP out of China.

The EU has also swept in other measures into its complaint, including China’s trade secret law (the Anti-Unfair Competition Law), the Anti-Monopoly Law, the Regulations [sic] of State Administration for Industry and Commerce Administrations on the Prohibition of Abuse of Dominant Market Position, and the Regulation [sic] on the Prohibition of Conduct Eliminating or Restricting Competition by Abusing Intellectual Property Rights.  The nomenclature the EU uses for these various legal documents appears imprecise.  The March 2018 “measures” may properly be classified as “regulations” 法规 issued by the State Council. The SAIC “regulations” should properly be classified as “rules” 部门规章 issued by an administrative agency. This is the nomenclature China set forth in the Report of the Working Party on the Accession of China (WT/ACC/CHN/49), paragraph 66 ( the “Protocols of Accession“).  The Working Party Report nomenclature establishes clear legislative hierarchies pursuant to China’s Law on Legislation.

The EU also argues that China’s appears to directly or indirectly “nullifying or impairing” the benefits accruing to the European Union and its Member States that were expected by China’s WTO accession, thereby opening the door to broader arguments regarding how China may deprive WTO members of the benefits they legitimately expected while at the same time not violating the literal language of any commitment (See, e.g., Art. 64 of the TRIPS Agreement).  These arguments have been subject to a moratorium and have historically been difficult to assert, but in my estimation have some relevance to the current situation in China.  The EU is also seeking to utilize provisions in the WTO that address the “impartial and reasonable application and administration of its laws, regulations and other measures” (Article X.3(a) of the GATT 1994 and Paragraph 2(A)2 of the Protocol on the Accession of the People’s Republic of China to the WTO).  The “impartial administration” requirement, as found in the Protocols of Accession requires China to “apply and administer in a uniform, impartial and reasonable manner all its laws, regulations and other measures … pertaining to or affecting …  trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (“TRIPS”)” (p. 74).

Contrasting the actions of the US and the EU, the EU complaint urges a legalistic and multilateral resolution of trade disputes, using doctrine that has proven difficult to assert.  The approach also appears to reflect a waning confidence by some that China today in fact has an effective and independent legal and political system which “impartially administers its laws”.   My former colleague at Fordham, Prof. Carl Minzner describes some of these political reversals in his recent book  End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise (2018).

The US approach, by contrast, uses the 301 report to point to perceived technological threats, manifested through industrial plans, vague laws, industrial espionage and unfairly adjudicated cases, to make the point that the WTO might be inappropriate to resolve its concerns. In a sense, the US assumed in the Section 301 report that in the party- and plan-controlled China of today, with a resurgent state sector, there aren’t many “laws, regulations and other measures” to administer impartially.  The United States therefor pays scant attention in the 301 to the numerous legal reforms and civil adjudication in intellectual property that have taken place in recent years.  The United States approach is also more broadly consistent with the perspectives of Prof. Mark Wu at Harvard Law School who prophetically pointed out in his article “The ‘China, Inc.’ Challenge to Global Trade Governance”  that “the WTO faces a challenge: can the institution craft a predictable and fair set of legal rules to address new trade-distortive behavior arising out of China, Inc.? If not, key countries may turn away from the WTO to address these issues.”

While the EU and the US likely have common goals with respect to China’s IP regime, I believe that they likely could also learn something from each other in their strategies and perhaps they will as these cases progress.



Bottom photo by Mark Cohen of Charleston, SC United States Custom House.


Updates for March 27 – April 2, 2018 – China steps up control over technology exports

China steps up scrutiny of IP transfers to foreign firms on national security grounds Under new regulations issued by the State Council on Thursday, technology transfers include IP transfers that are part of acquisitions made by foreign firms involving patents, integrated circuit layout design, computer software copyright and plant varieties. Such transfers will be assessed in terms of their impact on national security and the country’s “key technology innovation capability in key areas,” said the document.

This move is not intended to “upset foreign investors” but rather to formulate “concrete measures to secure a better business environment,” said Zhang Zhicheng, director of the Protection and Coordination Department at SIPO. Zhang also noted the importance for China to strictly review core IP transfers.
Our preliminary observations: Some observers believe the measures are drafted in retaliation to the Section 301 report of the US government which addresses Chinese investment in the United States as well as the US request of China for consultations of China over the Technology Import / Export Regulations, which are also referred to in these regulations. We are also unclear at this point if these regulations were previously “in the works” or otherwise accelerated in response to the Section 301 investigation.
Companies should consider consulting counsel on the impact of these regulations. First, it appears likely that a foreign-invested company’s acquisition of Chinese technology is an IP ‘transfer’ for purposes of these regulations. Under US law, these might be considered a “deemed export if a foreign national obtains technology while in the United States These regulations do not use this terminology. The regulations may impact foreign companies based on their source of capital rather than the presence of foreign nationals. For example, the regulation’s scope appears to include transfers that occur wholly within China, as they refer to transfers “to foreigners” of Chinese IP, and earlier regulations, by contrast, focused on transfers to enterprises overseas. .(本办法所述知识产权对外转让,是指中国单位或者个人将其境内知识产权转让给外国企业、个人或者其他组织.)    Compare with the Provisional Regulations on the Administration of Technology Exports 技术出口管理·暂行办法 (对外经贸部/国家科委) (June 26, 1990) (本办法所称的技术出口是中国境内的 公司, 企业, 研究机构以及其·他组织或者个人(不包括外商投资企业, 外国在中国公司。。。。)向境外的公司。。。。).  Further clarification on this important issue would be helpful.

Another issue requiring clarification is the difference between technology transfer from an assignment or licensing of a patent. This has been a subject of confusion under Chinese law for some time, and these regulations appear to carry that forward. The earlier 1990 regulations also regulated the transfer of patents, as well as registered trademarks (!) as a form of “technology transfer” (Art. 2).  However, in most cases, any “leakage” of technology arising from a patent application occurred at the time of the publication of the patent application or grant. An added complication is that China already has procedures in place for regulating foreign filings of patents for national security purposes. Article 20.1 of the Chinese Patent Law provides for confidentiality examination of these applications. These measures be redundant with these procedures, particularly in regulating the transfer of patent applications to foreigners.
Until further clarity is established by implementing rules, these regulations could therefor have an impact of disrupting existing foreign invested R&D or cooperation across national borders. Two questions come immediately to mind: if, for example, a Chinese national is under contract to conduct R&D for a foreign invested company, or is an employee of that company, is the transfer in ownership of the patent application, from the employee to employer a “transfer of technology” for purposes of these regulations? Another question is what is the standard that applies to determine whether an invention created by individuals in China and overseas was “created in China” and is transfer is subject to these regulations? It is also worth noting that the 1990 regulations specifically exempted bilateral scientific cooperation (Article 2). These do not.
In a separate development, the State Council  released measures this week to strengthen security management of scientific data. The measures, which prioritize data security and focus on data sharing, order strengthening supervision of the use and sharing of scientific data with both domestic and foreign parties.

Finally, this blog, and its preliminary observations, is not a substitute for legal counsel and serious research that is necessary on these and other issues arising under China’s texport control regime.

Please advise of any necessary corrections.

US Files Consultation Request at WTO on Chinese Technology Licensing Practices

Fresh on the heels of the Section 301 announcement, USTR on March 23, 2018 made a  consultation request  of China regarding China’s discriminatory licensing practices.  This is the first step in initiation of  a WTO dispute.  Here is a link to the press announcement.

The consultation request broadly speaking alleges discriminatory treatment in licensing pursuant to China’s joint venture regime as well as the  Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations (“TIER”), as compared to provisions under China’s contract law that may govern purely domestic technology transfers or Chinese exports of technology.  The complaint is based on the National Treatment provisions of the TRIPS agreement as well as Article 28.2, which provides that “Patent owners shall also have the right to assign, or transfer by succession, the patent and to conclude licensing contracts.”  The Section 301 Report of USTR also discusses these issues.

Update of June 2, 2018:  On June 1, the EU filed its own complaint against China at the WTO involving China’s technology licensing practices, including the TIER.  A copy of the request for consultations, which appears somewhat more extensive is available here.




October Offerings on Chinese IP

Here are some upcoming programs that involve China in North American in October:

October 11-12, 2017, I will be speaking on a China IP Panel at the ABA IP West conference in Long Beach, California.  The panel will focus on China’s recent (paradoxical) emergence in IP protection and enforcement.  Mike Mangelson, China IP Attaché in Shanghai will also be speaking at a session focused on the China IP Attaché program at this ABA program.

On October 14, 2017, I will be moderating a session on new trends in Chinese IP litigation, courts and enforcement at the Sixth Annual IP  Summit hosted by Loyola University of Los Angeles.

On October 18, 2017, the University of Indiana/USPTO will be hosting a China “Road Show” in Indianapolis.

On October 20, 2017, the John Marshall Law School will be hosting a China “Road Show” with USPTO in Chicago.

On October 26, 2018, I am scheduled to be commenting (as an academic) at the Fordham IP Institute on a presentation by Dr. David Cole of the Hagley Museum and Library on “A Nation of Inventors: The Politics of American Patent Models.  The Hagley Museum is planning an exhibit in China of its patent models in 2018.

Apart from these events, there are also China IP road shows scheduled for Salt Lake City and Denver in October.   Watch the USPTO website for more information on these and other programs.

An addenda to October offerings, per its Federal Register Notice, on October 10, 2017, USTR will be hosting a hearing on the Section 301 investigation involving China’s Technology Transfer, Intellectual Property and Innovation – Related Rractices.


GAI’s Comments on AUCL

Ahead of schedule, George Mason University’s Global Antitrust Institute (“GAI”) has prepared its comments on the NPC’s proposed revisions to the Anti-Unfair Competition Law, available here. 

GAI commended the National People’s Congress for deleting Article 6 on abuse of superior bargaining position and recommended that any provisions that relate to conduct covered by China’s Anti-Monopoly Law (AML) be omitted entirely. GAI also strongly urged that Article 11 (which provides that “[b]usiness operators selling goods must not bundle the sale of goods against buyers’ wishes, and must not attach other unreasonable conditions”) be omitted in its entirety, as such conduct is already covered by Article 17(5) of the AML or at the very least, Article 11 should be revised to adopt an effects-based approach.

In my opinion, the argument that the AUCL shouldn’t duplicate the AML can also be said of other laws in China, notably the Technology Import / Export Regulations and Article 329 of the Contract Law regarding monopolization of technology.  Other laws, such as the Pricing Law also have a strong overlap with the AML, particularly as administered by NDRC. 

GAI’s comments on a prior State Council Legislative Affairs Office draft, along with the comments of the American Bar Association and American Intellectual Property Law Institute are available through this link.

I hope to post the comments of other organizations on the AUCL on this blog in the future. If you would like your organization’s comments to be considered for distributing here, please send your comments to me at: