On Monday the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) released an opinion piece in the China National Defense News, suggesting that China needs to draft intellectual property (IP) rights laws to protect its recent advances in technology. The piece strikes quite a note of irony given a longstanding contention by the West that China bears little to no regard for IP rights.
The PLA appears to be raising concerns that its advances in more cutting edge fields could fall into foreign hands– this, as Beijing continues to come under fire from the West for forcing firms to hand over their own intellectual property as a condition to conduct business within Chinese borders.
The piece claimed that for several decades China has made breakthroughs in scientific research but those gains could end up in foreign hands and threaten national security if they are not protected. It also contends that China needs to protect high value indigenous developments in areas such as supercomputers, drones, dredgers and rocket launch simulation technology saying “We must work on protecting technology as much as we have on researching and developing it.”
The PLA feels that it is at risk due to a gap in China’s IP protections compared to that of other nations saying “Our intellectual property protection still lags that in countries with strong IP protections, and we must work fast to close the gap.”
The piece’s warning comes as governments and business advocacy groups in the United States and the European Union have accused China of forcing foreign firms to transfer technology in exchange for market access.
Though arguments can be made that much of its progress is borne from illicitly acquired research and development acumen, the PRC has worked hard to develop its domestic tech capabilities. China was the leading filer of international patents in 2016, accounting for 38 per cent of that year’s total.
Some of the fields the Chinese have been making strides in recently are facial recognition, advanced machine learning, dark matter, and quantum physics. Their longstanding efforts –to recruit American-trained Chinese scientists to return home –has also paid off recently.
So many scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, have returned to Chinese universities and research institutes that people have dubbed them the “Los Alamos club”. Some of these scientists have had several breakthroughs in China, not only for military defence, but also other areas of research such as improving the efficiency of nuclear power plants.
China already has rules and security processes covering technology transfer in place, especially for state-sponsored research projects and sensitive developments such as nuclear and missile technology. Traditionally the PRC has claimed incapability as a defense against charges of IP theft — launching public relations campaigns to appear as the victim of bullying by the West–rather than owning up to its extensive illicit research and development acquit ion portfolio.
This PLA opinion piece suggests the PRC is finally feeling emboldened enough in its own tech prowess to feel threatened. There is a Chinese proverb that says “There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.” They may be finding that once you reach the top, you also have to fear being pushed off the edge.