The event was the IP in China forum in Chicago last week, and the subject of the debate was Chinese culture and its attitude to intellectual property.
“If they had the political will they could stop piracy and counterfeiting tomorrow. It’s just the same as North Korea – if the Chinese government doesn’t do something about that, it’s going to end with the US nuking them,” said Bruce Lehman, ex-head of the USPTO and someone very familiar with US politics at the highest levels.
“You can’t generalise,” argued a member of the audience. “I work in-house at an engineering company and we’ve had nothing but good experiences in several joint ventures with Chinese companies. My wife is in electronics, on the other hand, and this is a nightmare for her.”
There was some sage nodding of the heads. It looked like the debate, which had already been going for 80 minutes, was closed. But no; Gene Dorris of Proway, an ex-US diplomat who has been working in China for 25 years, leant into his microphone. “Some things are country-wide, like the government’s censoring of the internet. That means there’s no level playing field, it creates a bias towards Chinese companies online,” he said. “The government is very closed to discussion about that or reform on IP rights.”
We’d already had four very broad presentations, analysing Chinese history, east/west cultural differences and government’s environmental policies (did you know China has increased its forestation from 13% to 20% in the past 20 years?). But the question of whether China could become truly innovative had broadened further into internet monitoring and international politics.
Andrew Hirsch of Fuelcor joined Lehman in criticising the Chinese government. Using his experience travelling the world while working for the US Commerce Department, he argued that China was making it deliberately difficult to engage in an open dialogue about IP. Jeff Lindsay of Asia Pulp & Paper, on the other hand, was with fellow speaker Steven Duke from the US Consulate General in Shanghai in using anecdotal evidence to show the positive side of Chinese policies.
As the talk went back and forth (and the conference staff stood in the doorway, looking at their watches), the breadth of the debate made it clear how much of it was guesswork. When nuclear threats, primary schools and fish ponds are all being used as cases in point, it’s clear that the central topic – Chinese policy – is pretty obscure.
The length of the debate last week made it obvious that this is an area people care deeply about, both personally and professionally. But the lack of clarity from China’s government means they will be having this debate for years to come.