A Deeper Dive into How China Steals the Worlds IP
The Trump administration blames China for stealing Western trade secrets, and it used those allegations as the legal basis for launching the trade war nearly two years ago. Trade talks between the two sides quickly became about broader issues, but the initial trade pact signed on Wednesday includes pledges by China to stop some of the practices that Western businesses have long criticized.
Underpinning these concerns is that China has repeatedly shown that it can acquire technology and, through heavy government subsidies, build competitive rivals to American companies. Businesses worry that it could do the same in other industries, like software and chips.
China has long denied that it forces foreign companies to give up technology. They do it willingly, Beijing asserts, to get access to China’s vast and growing market. Still, Chinese officials say they are taking steps to address the concerns. The American authorities have long accused Chinese companies and individuals of hacking and other outright theft of American corporate secrets. And some in the Trump administration worry that Chinese companies are simply buying it through corporate deals. American companies say Chinese companies also use more subtle tactics to get access to valuable technology.
Sometimes China requires foreign companies to form joint ventures with local firms in order to do business there, as in the case of the auto industry. It also sometimes requires that a certain percentage of a product’s value be manufactured locally, as it once did with wind turbines and solar panels.
The technology companies Apple and Amazon set up ventures with local partners to handle data in China to comply with internal security laws. Companies are loath to accuse Chinese partners of theft for fear of getting punished. Business groups that represent them say Chinese companies use those corporate ties to pressure foreign partners into giving up secrets. They also say Chinese officials have pressured foreign companies to give them access to sensitive technology as part of a review process to make sure those products are safe for Chinese consumers. Foreign business groups point to renewable energy as one area where China used some of these tactics to build homegrown industries.
Gamesa of Spain was the wind turbine market leader in China when Beijing mandated in 2005 that 70 percent of each wind turbine installed in China had to be manufactured inside the country. The company trained more than 500 suppliers in China to manufacture practically every part of its turbines. It set up a plant to assemble them in the city of Tianjin. Other multinational wind turbine manufacturers did the same.
The Obama administration questioned the policy as a violation of World Trade Organization rules and China withdrew it, but by then it was too late. Chinese state-controlled enterprises had begun to assemble turbines using the same suppliers. China is now the world’s biggest market for wind turbines, and they are mostly made by Chinese companies.
A somewhat similar industrial evolution occurred soon after in solar energy. China required that its first big municipal solar project only use solar panels that were at least 80 percent made in China. Companies rushed to produce in China and share technology.
The Chinese government also heavily subsidized the manufacture of solar panels, mostly for export. Chinese companies ended up producing most of the world’s solar panels. Some in the Trump administration fear the same thing is happening in cars.
Shortly after opening China to foreign auto companies, Chinese officials held a competition among global automakers for who would be allowed to enter the market. The competition included a detailed review of each company’s offer to transfer technology to a joint venture to be formed with a Chinese state-owned partner.