Is China really an innovation superpower?
China is also a growing force in the area of patenting and intellectual property: both as a contributor and as a problem to innovation, since it is the country most often accused of stealing IP rights. Because WIPO by definition handles very confidential material such as patent applications, the question has some added relevance. Indeed, when the PRC’s outspoken ambassador to the UK wrote to the FT in defense of China’s candidate, it was to pitch that person’s CV - 30 years with WIPO and a woman at that – but also to defend his country against accusations of "stealing" IP, made in the same newspaper by Peter Navarro, White House adviser and celebrated author of Death by China. The Office of the United States Trade Representative, which led a seven-month investigation into China's intellectual property theft and made recommendations to the Trump administration, estimates that "Chinese theft of American IP currently costs between $225 billion and $600 billion annually."
WIPO raises a different set of issues, which are often overlooked. First, should the organization be run by a national from an IP superpower, as China claims to be? Or should China, precisely for that reason and because it allegedly promotes democracy in international relations, desist and let a candidate from a nation less directly involved in the superpower rivalry take the helm of the organization? From this point of view, the selection of a Singaporean makes sense.
In fact, several East Asian countries are at the forefront of global innovation. What sort of an innovation superpower is China? There is no question that China has reached the first rank by far in terms of patent applications at WIPO. But most of China’s patent applications are for domestic use only – far less are sought for at least one foreign country. China’s rate of co-inventorship has dropped from 40 % to 5 % between the 1970-99 and 2015-2017 periods, with Japan, the US, Germany, Singapore and South Korea surpassing this rate. Nothing could prove better China’s turn towards indigenous innovation, while Western Europe appears as the world’s most active in co-invention. Innovation clusters such as Tokyo, New York, Silicon Valley still overtake Beijing and Shenzhen. Huawei is the only Chinese company that made it into the Thomson-Reuters index for 100 top innovators, that measures influence and revenue and not only the number of patents.